Development projects on the Mekong River pose a great threat to the livelihoods of people and ecosystems in the region, a new book by Southeast Asia expert Brian Eyler contends.
In “Last Days of the Mighty Mekong”, published in February, Eyler presents a detailed study of the current state of the Mekong and the severe environmental and social consequences of economic development along the waterway.
The Mekong River is home to more than 70 million people. Its biodiversity and abundant aquatic resources, including fish, minerals, sediments, and water, support the livelihoods of millions of people in Southeast Asia.
“The natural abundance of fish in the Mekong makes it the world’s largest inland freshwater fishery, with a catch of more than 2 million tons per year. No other river basin in the world comes close,” Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program, notes in the book.
Over the past decade, Eyler has traveled across the Mekong region speaking to affected communities, researchers, politicians, and policymakers, to collect data on the changing ecosystem.
“I try to take a full-approach to demonstrate to a general audience, not to specialists, of what is happening to the Mekong today. And that is looking at the impacts of upstream dams, looking at how the communities are responding to these impacts,” Eyler told VOA Khmer.
One of the most concerning problems he encountered is the rapid acceleration of China’s economic growth and development of infrastructure projects throughout the Mekong region, most of which are upstream in China.
In his book, Eyler discusses the cultural threats to the livelihoods of local people in the Mekong region, focusing on upland Southeast Asia, which has been labeled “Zomia”.
Upland Southeast Asians face challenges due to resettlement and environmental effects posed by dam constructions, Eyler says. Economic development projects by China and the West, he adds, will transform the Zomia region from a unique patchwork of humanity to a more globalized space.
Dam construction has forced local inhabitants, including ethnic minorities, to migrate and relocate to new places where they face numerous social and economic challenges to create a new life, he contends.
While the Mekong’s “mighty basin” provides abundant natural resources to sustain tens of millions of lives, he argues that the threat of development, climate change, and overfishing have brought the region to the brink.
“I agree with his [Eyler’s] assessment that the Mekong is seriously under threat and that the challenges of governance between the various countries in the region exacerbate that,” said Sarah Rose-Jensen, a presidential scholar and graduate research assistant at George Mason University, who attended the launch.
“I think that the future is concerning and that there are challenges. I am nervous about the Mekong basin,” she added.
Scholars have noted the numerous negative impacts of large-scale development activities on the Mekong region, especially on the downstream countries, including Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Upstream dams in China control the water flow and block half of the rich sediment from flowing downstream, said Eyler. As a result, the natural migratory flow of fish, food, and flood cycles are disrupted.
In addition, Chinese dam projects in Laos have exacerbated the problem. There are 50 dams being constructed in Laos which have caused environmental destruction to the Mekong, experts say. In “Last Days of the Mighty Mekong”, Eyler also warns of the potential problems of the proposed dam building in the Don Sahong channel in Laos.
As one of the downstream countries, Cambodia faces tremendous ecological and environmental threats from the upstream dams in China and Laos, which consequently affect the Tonle Sap Lake — the most important source of protein for Cambodians.
The lake produces 500,000 tons of fish per year providing 75 percent of protein consumed by Cambodians, according to Eyler.
“Upstream dams ... and climate change will utterly redefine the livelihoods on the Tonle Sap and Cambodia at large because what happens on the Mekong happens to Cambodia. That’s important to know. What happens to Cambodia happens to the Mekong. The Tonle Sap is the beating heart of the river system. Fish comes into the Tonle Sap and they go out of the Tonle Sap. And this yearly rhythm, this annual rhythm needs to be preserved, not just for Cambodia but all of the Mekong,” he said.
The Vietnam delta region, he adds, has been transformed from a stable region into an increasingly-subsiding area because of the impacts of dams, climate change, infrastructure development, and groundwater extraction.
Eyler also highlights what the Mekong nations, especially downstream governments, can do to minimize the risks and cope with future crises caused by the development of the Mekong.
“And this is looking at how the communities are responding to these impacts as well as to think about how states, like Cambodia, could promote a sustainable program of development for other forms of energy that can conserve the Tonle Sap Lake because the Tonle Sap Lake is so important for Cambodia’s future,” he said.
So far relocation has not been able to help individuals who have been displaced by climate change and environmental impacts of the dams, he adds.
“One of the major issues is that in all cases the resettlement and relocation plans have been inadequate. They’ve been inadequate in terms of infrastructure, they’ve been inadequate in terms of economic opportunities for those who’ve been resettled,” said Rose-Jensen of George Mason University.
Carlos Rodriguez, a senior research scientist at STEM, who also attended the event, said nations in the Mekong region should balance development and preservation.
“I think the whole challenge for the world right now is figuring out how to balance energy sourcing and mitigating as much as we can any environmental or human catastrophe,” he said.
Rose Jensen added that equality of energy distribution was also a factor of concern.
“We just saw from this presentation that Chinese dams are producing excess power while countries, like Cambodia and Laos, are still needing power. And so perhaps the answer is not more dams, but the better infrastructure to export electrical energy throughout the region,” she said.
According to Eyler, the Vietnamese government recognizes the problems and is building resilience mechanisms to cope. They have been taking vigorous action, he says, such as seeking alternative energy sources and restricting groundwater extraction to prevent further environmental degradation and protect the population on the delta.
But China, Laos, and Cambodia have not shown their commitment to halting dam construction and mitigating environmental impacts, said Eyler.
The Mekong River Commission has been heavily criticized for its failure to effectively intervene and prevent ambitious Mekong states, like China and Laos, from building further hydropower dams and other infrastructure in the Mekong region, he says.
Development plans by China and other investment actors are the main contributor to wrecking the gigantic Mekong system, and this is having immense environmental, cultural, and economic impacts which threaten the livelihoods of millions of people on the Mekong River.