“The boat moves off, the river banks remain.” — Old Khmer proverb

This is how great rivers are meant to be: timeless, immutable and self-governing, disdainful of the blueprints that would bring them under the control of governments and the populations that depend for their livelihood on their generosity or parsimony. The Mekong, the world’s 12th-largest river, has just such an aura of grandeur. The focus of ambitious but largely unfulfilled development schemes for over a century, it remains essentially unchanged, a massive but untapped resource whose potential has both beguiled and infuriated the leaders of the six nations that cluster around its banks.

Barges moored on a stretch of the relatively traffic-free Mekong
Watching sunsets over the river is a time-honored activity that continues to this day.

Veteran Indochina reporter Jon Swain recently wrote in his tribute to the Mekong, “River of Time,” that great waterways “have a special magic. There is something about the Mekong which, even years later, makes me want to sit down beside it and watch my whole life go by.” Now, however, plans to utilize the Mekong’s waters on a large scale are being revived, and the days when it was possible to indulge in such romantic musings on long, serenely quiet and unpolluted stretches of the river may soon be over.

The Mekong begins its life as an unpromising glacial spring high up on the Tibetan Plateau. Gaining volume and speed as it tumbles through steep gorges in southwestern China, it passes the jungle-smothered hills of north Laos and descends through a series of high rapids in the south before passing into Cambodia. Flowing at a more leisurely pace through Vietnam, it finally empties into the South China Sea just below Ho Chi Minh City.

A lone fisherman during the dry season when the Mekong sinks to a narrow trickle in places

As the economic development of areas in these countries bordering the Mekong has increased, so too has the demand for its water and control of its flow. Despite the potentially detrimental effects on the river of large-scale dams and other water-diversion projects, it is easy to make a strong case for their implementation. The river disgorges an impressive 475 billion cu. meters of water into the South China Sea each year, but its flow fluctuates dramatically, almost at whim, with most areas in the lower-basin region facing serious droughts between March and April. The livelihood of over 50 million people inhabiting the area, over 80 percent of whom are farmers, hangs entirely on the hope of sufficient monsoon rains, which feed the lower Mekong, falling between the months of May and October. Should these fail, so too will the bulk of that year’s crops.

A woman lowers her butterfly net into a rice field that has been inundated by the river’s waters.

The four nations that jostle for the waters of the lower Mekong face both collective and individual problems as well as opportunities. Mountainous Laos is blessed with an immense supply of water but its absorption capacity, with under 1 million hectares of arable land at its disposal, is limited. With approximately 50 percent of the Mekong’s hydroelectric potential located within its borders, the country does possess a fabulous asset that is only just beginning to be tapped. Its tiny population, however, means that the lion’s share of water entrapped and the potential uses to which it can be put will have to be exported if it is to serve any purpose.

A barge is led to its moorings on a southern stretch of the Chinese sector of the moorings on a southern stretch of the Chinese sector of the river.

Thailand is already Laos’s biggest customer for hydroelectric power, but also has an urgent need for water itself. Northeastern Thailand contains almost half the country’s arable land but suffers from a severe shortage of water, particularly the area known as Isarn. This is the single most important factor impeding the region’s economic development and keeping it by far the country’s poorest area. Repeated droughts have also driven large numbers of farmers to migrate to Bangkok in search of work. This has increased the number of abandoned farms and fallow land, which has added to the dust-bowl appearance of much of Isarn.

In Cambodia, war and continued internal strife have reduced the amount of arable land cultivated by over 80 percent. During the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, Cambodia opted out of its membership in the Bangkok-based Mekong Committee, a body established by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in 1957 to promote cooperative development of the river, and was subsequently excluded during the period of Vietnamese occupation. But even in areas not affected by guerrilla activity, bad drainage, flooding, inadequate monsoons and dry spells throughout the year have also restricted agricultural production. Most of the country still depends on fuel-driven generators despite its enormous hydroelectric potential.

The promotion of food self-sufficiency remains the country’s priority. In order to achieve this, projects like the Prek Thnok Dam, initiated by the Mekong Committee back in the 1960s and halted by the Khmer Rouge in 1973, are deemed essential to achieve a good irrigation system. Less than 7 percent of Cambodia’s rice fields are irrigated, forcing the country to depend heavily on foreign aid for much of its food. More water would mean that farmers could grow two crops a year instead of a risky one. It would also mean that more draught animals like water buffalo would produce more soil-improving fertilizer.

In Vietnam, agricultural reforms have led to the construction of small-scale irrigation projects that have helped to increase the country’s rice production and turn it into the world’s third-largest rice exporter. But officials say that if the fertile delta is to continue producing at its current rate, it needs a staggering 2,000-3,000 cu. meters of water per second to counter saline intrusion, wash out acidic water and irrigate the fields during the dry season. This would require the building of upstream reservoirs in neighboring countries. Cooperation is therefore essential, and an awareness among former enemies and allies is growing that an agenda must be agreed on to share and promote this common resource.

Although C. Jan Kamp, former head of the U.N.-sponsored Mekong Committee, has said that “It is inconceivable that we would start projects without worrying about the local ecology,” the environmental lobby has grown increasingly wary about the prospect of large-scale dams and other water projects involving the Mekong. The massive Pa Mong Dam, scheduled to be built 40 km upstream from the Laotian capital of Vientiane, for example, is likely to inundate huge tracts of land, causing as many as 60,000 people (a conservative estimate) to be resettled. Some cautious Laotian officials also worry that associated development of overland routes would lead to increased commercial logging of areas around dams.

It is also feared that the possible salinization of water in the reservoirs required by dams may have a detrimental effect on agriculture, causing, among other things, the widespread contamination of rice fields, rivers and tributaries. Other proposals that the Mekong countries agree to on principal but which could, quite literally, change the face of the river include a Chinese suggestion to make the Mekong more navigable for heavy commercial traffic, such as oil tankers, by dynamiting a stretch of rapids along the Laotian-Myanmar borders. Such a prospect would have been unthinkable a few years ago, before the current era of economic rationalism. One recalls a similar suggestion by members of Francis Garnier’s Mekong Expedition in the 1860s that unnavigable sections of the river could be dynamited, a proposal that was scrapped after a local “bonze” (monk) pointed out that the resident water spirits would be made homeless. Such days of cultural sensitivity are apparently over.

According to longtime observers of the region, there is another important dimension to the push to open the Mekong area to economic development that is often played down and little reported on. This is what one magazine described as “Asia’s biggest long-term political game” : the role of the Mekong nations, particularly those of Indochina, in determining the balance of power between China and its neighbors. A resurgent and confident China is seen as a threat to the future security of the Mekong region, and fears are growing among strategists in Southeast Asia and Japan that it will come to dominate the region not only economically but also politically.

Warning signs have included China’s attempts to set up naval bases in the disputed Spratly Islands, the influence it has exerted on the border areas of a virtually defenseless Laos and its morally questionable rapport with the military figures who rule Myanmar, a country Beijing continues to supply with arms and aid in return for Chinese naval access to the country’s India Ocean ports, through which it exports cheap goods to a growing regional market.

So far the Mekong nations have responded to the real or imagined threat of Chinese military expansionism by following a policy of economic engagement and opening up their markets to China, rather than erecting defenses. This strategy is also favored by Japan, which is the largest shareholder in the Asian Development Bank (an organization involved in much of the development of the Mekong region) and which also has a high stake in securing its own economic interests in Southeast Asia.

Whether or not economic development of the Mekong nations can act as an effective counterbalance to China’s growing influence is not clear, but what is certain is that with so much vested interest in the region the Mekong projects, for better or worse, have gained a momentum that is unlikely to stall. From the factories of Xiaguan in China, with their increasing amounts of industrial waste, to the talk of giant hydroelectric plants, troubled waters most certainly lie ahead for what at present is one of the world’s least-spoiled rivers, beside which it is still just possible to sit down and watch life go by.

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