Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Mekong Cruising – For how much longer?

Floating traders in the delta (R Eime)
by Roderick Eime

Just as cruising along the famous Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia is hitting its straps, news is that dams being built further up the river in Laos in a joint project with Thailand seem likely to change the nature of the Mekong forever.

Anyone who has cruised the Yangtze in recent years will know firsthand how comprehensively dams can alter the character of a river. Instead of little traditional villages and subsistence farming and fishing, we have concrete and steel replacing authentic materials as the water rises and the population is relocated to high-rise developments.

Will this happen to the Mekong? The truth is no-one knows. But what is fairly certain is that the river dependent communities in Cambodia and Vietnam who the river cruising tourists visit on a daily basis will face food security threats. Fish migration patterns and the life-giving flood cycles will be seriously impacted.

Worldwide, the Mekong River ranks second in fish diversity after the Amazon, with more than 1000 new plant and fish species discovered in the past decade, according to the World Fish Center. About 60 million people in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are dependent on the Mekong for their livelihoods, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Mekong fisherman throws his net (R Eime)
"The Don Sahong ... will block migratory fish, which is 70 percent of Mekong fish, from swimming upstream and down on the only channel that allows the fish to reach the upper part of the Mekong," said Ame Trandem, the Southeast Asia programme director at advocacy group International Rivers.

She said the (Don Sahong) dam, which will require 95,000 truckloads of riverbed to be removed, will devastate the region's fish and dolphins, the tourism industry, and the hundreds of thousands of fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the Mekong.

Further north in Laos, the Xayaburi Dam is creating equal if not greater concern. The Mekong Basin Community Council Network (MBCC) has called on the Thai government to step in and help block the construction of both dams on the mainstream Mekong River.

Critics and environmentalists are angry with Laos and Thailand for failing to uphold their pledge to consult neighbouring countries under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which requires thorough consultation on every project proposed for the mainstream Mekong River. Others are less coy in their objections accusing stakeholders in both Laos and Thailand of putting massive profits before the livelihood and security of the residents all along the Mekong.

Threatened: traditional Mekong fish harvesting (Int Rivers)
One cruise operator spoke to CW on condition of anonymity.

"We just don't know what will happen. All around the world the effects of dams on rivers can be seen and Mekong cruise lines have made massive investments in ships, staff and infrastructure. This uncertainty is not good for anyone's business and clearly the people who stand to suffer the most are those who live along the river. Our guests develop an emotional bond with the families and townsfolk who welcome and host us. Many are distressed that the river communities who have already suffered so much face new and completely avoidable threats."

British-born journalist and filmmaker, Tom Fawthrop, has worked in Southeast Asia for more than 25 years and studied the dam project. "Yes, of course the rural people in Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have the right to electricity, but they also have the right to fish. You can't eat electricity."