A River of the Heart

by Aviva Imhof
Friday, June 1, 2007

In Thailand they say that once you swim in the Mekong, it remains in your heart forever. It must be true, because my first swim in the Mekong in my early twenties gave me a connection to the river that motivates me to this day. That vast, muddy, beautiful river – with its Thai cities and villages on one side and mysterious Laos across the water captivated my imagination from the start. I knew then that I would be back.
For more than a decade, working to protect the Mekong has consumed my professional life. During my first trip to Thailand for International Rivers in 1997 I visited the Assembly of the Poor’s historic 100-day protest. Twenty thousand villagers were camped outside the Government House demanding justice for their losses as a result of ill-conceived development projects. It was incredibly inspiring.

It was here that I met Pana, a dam-affected person and activist fighting for compensation for communities affected by Pak Mun Dam. Pana told me how the dam had decimated oncethriving Mun River fisheries, and destroyed a way of life that had sustained his community for generations. Five years later, after another epic struggle, Pana and his community were successful in convincing the government to open the gates of Pak Mun Dam for part of the year to allow fish to migrate past the dam.

My travels in Laos have been equally eye-opening. Laos is a land traversed by a thousand rivers teeming with life: people fishing, gardening and washing their clothes; children swimming, laughing and playing; and water buffalo wading through the mud.

On my first visit to Laos in 1997, hydropower companies were everywhere, and it appeared that Laos’ bid to become “Southeast Asia’s Kuwait” would become a reality. Agreements were signed between the government and mostly western private corporations to develop 23 hydropower projects. It seemed that every street in Vientiane was home to the headquarters of some hydropower development consortium.

Then a financial crisis hit the region and Thailand’s energy demand plummeted rapidly. Laos was suddenly left without a buyer for its power, and one by one the foreign consortiums packed their bags and went home. But that’s not the end of the story. Today, Laos is undergoing its second hydropower boom. Thailand says it wants power from Laos in large quantities. The foreign companies are back. But this time, they’re not from Europe and the United States – they’re from Thailand, Malaysia, China and Vietnam. Same story, different names. Or is it? Over the past decade, we’ve seen some significant victories and some equally significant losses. The good news is that the Mekong Basin is still a relatively healthy ecosystem, with a flourishing freshwater fishery. There are no dams on the lower Mekong mainstream, and many of the region’s farmers are able to thrive on rain-fed rice farming and freshwater fish. In Thailand, affected villagers have achieved real victories, such as the permanent opening of the gates at the Rasi Salai Dam on the Mun River, and an opposition movement so effective that the Thai government won’t build another dam in Thai territory. In other parts of the region, civil society movements are expanding, becoming emboldened in their challenges to destructive dams and savvy about promoting energy alternatives.

But as you will read in this issue, the river is under greater threats than ever before and now is a critical time. Collectively, we need to convince the governments and other powerful players in the region that the Mekong is more valuable flowing freely than dammed and diverted.

After a decade of fighting these sometimes frustrating battles to preserve one of the world’s great rivers, what keeps me going is the actions of Mekong activists, fighting day in and day out for the rights of the people and their river. The Thai and Cambodian villagers who have struggled for years to get just compensation for their losses. The courage of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Burmese people who dare to stand up to their governments’ plans. And, always, the children: playing in the river, jumping from the banks, their giggles heard from afar as they wave at the strange foreigners driving past in a boat.

Because in the end, we do this work for the children. Every child deserves to have a healthy river in their lives – not an industrialized series of reservoirs, but a free-flowing, lifegiving, awe-inspiring “river of life.”

The majestic Mekong River has run free for millennia. Our challenge is to keep it flowing freely for millennia more.