Theresa Griffin Kennedy – The Mighty Mekong River…

Theresa Kennedy LEP&W Sept-Oct V2 2022

Download PDF Here Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Two Sept-October 2022. 

The Romance, Legend and Troubles of the Mighty Mekong River by Theresa Griffin Kennedy.


The Mighty Mekong Photograph by Mark Ulyseas
The Mighty Mekong Photograph by Mark Ulyseas

I first fell in love with the idea of the Mekong River when I read the short novel The Lover, by legendary French novelist, Marguerite Duras. The protagonist mentions passing over a stretch of the Mekong with reverence, wonder and even fear. That section of the book pulls the reader into an unlikely fever-dream, a play between fantasy and reality in which the river becomes personified and almost human-like. I don’t know why but when I read that passage of The Lover, nothing seemed more foreign, alluring and unattainable than the mysterious Mekong River.

The girl is on a ferry that shuttles between Vinh Long and Sa Đéc in southern Cochinchina, in an area called the Plain of Birds, a vast expanse of mud, rice paddies and water. It is on the ferry that she meets the man who will become her lover. The role of the Mekong River in this scenario becomes symbolic of a rite of passage. As the girl steps out of childhood and into her future as a woman and a writer, the Mekong acts as a buoy of support and enticement beneath her feet.

The silent evenness of the currents of the Mekong steadily moving forward, and the river’s mystery is deepened by the quiet and erotic prose of Duras. Many believe the novel is a simple recounting of her lived experience as a fifteen-year-old girl. It was then that Duras embarked on a sexual affair with a handsome young Chinese man, Huynh Thuy Le, a forbidden lover in every way for a French white girl in late 1920s Indochina.

When I read this passage of the book, I too, wanted to know about the Mekong. I wanted to experience its beauty, its mystery and understand on some level why the millions of lives that depend on the river are so reliant upon its continued existence. What is contained within the Mighty Mekong and why is she so beloved?

“I get off the bus and go to the railing. I watch the river. My mother tells me that never in my entire life will I see rivers as beautiful as these, as wide, as wild as the Mekong and its branches ebbing toward the sea, its waters rushing into oblivion, into the vacuum of the ocean, from the foreground to the vanishing point, pouring, gushing, as if the earth was tipped vertical. 

I always get off the bus once we’re on the ferry, once night comes, because I am always afraid. I am afraid that the cables will break, that we will be carried out to sea. In the terrible current, I see the last moment of my life. The current is strong enough to carry away anything. Stones, a cathedral, a city. A storm brews under the water, in the battering wind.”

What the Mighty Mekong, also called the “dragon river” represents is the very identity and survival of most of mainland Southeast Asia. It signifies custom, tradition and a time-honored way of life due to the river’s ever-present cycles, its rich abundance of aquatic life and of the lush natural world surrounding it, which includes 54 million hectares of forestland. As such, the Mekong is one of the most biodiverse rivers on the planet, coming in second only to the Amazon River. As one of the world’s most productive natural fisheries, the Mekong produces 20 percent of the world’s inland and freshwater fish, providing food for millions of people.

The name Mekong is from the original name Mae Nam Kong, which is a contracted form of Thai, and in Thai and Lao, Mae Nam is used when describing large rivers. In time the name was shortened to Mae Khong, and the shortened and modern version for the Mae Nam Kong River has now become Mekong. It is an elegant sounding name which means Mother of Waters. The meaning seems most appropriate considering the length of the meandering river, the force of the currents and the countries it sustains with its rich turbid waters.

Catch of the day pic by Mark Ulyseas1
Catch of the day photograph by Mark Ulyseas1

With an estimated length of more than 2,700 miles, the Mekong River is the seventh longest river in Asia and the 12th longest river in the world, traveling through six countries and sustaining more than 60 million human lives.

In Southeast Asia, the Mekong is worshiped, prayed to, and sometimes even cursed during a particularly bad season. As the giver of all things, the river is as beloved as a precious family member or prideful deity who sustains all life. Conversely, the Mekong can be as feared as a demon or angry ghost when its cycles change or become in any way unpredictable. Most villagers’ who live along its shores have some sort of story to tell of something they’ve experienced. It could be a legend, or a myth they were raised to believe, or even a frightening mystical experience they personally survived while traveling the river or fishing for the larger, more dangerous Mekong fish.

But the truest reality is that in the fate of the Mighty Mekong looms the fate of all of Southeast Asia. But what is that fate? And what are the river’s current troubles?

The Allure of the Mighty Mekong

In a physical sense, the Mekong speaks to the beauty of its jade colored, muddy waters. It speaks to the wildflowers and abundant species of colorful butterflies that flourish along its shores. The Mekong also speaks to the inherent dangers of culling the river for food sources, primarily fish, and the survival of the people who live upstream and downstream of its sandy or rocky banks—people who accept those dangers as normal and what is expected.

The Mekong in mythology represents a home for the spirit world, for the departed ancestors who have taken from the river what they need to survive, including those who have died along its banks during times of war and political upheaval. For example, during the Vietnam War, the Mekong was the scene of gruesome deadly fighting with Vietnamese and American soldiers dying within its shallow and deeper waters. The river and its numerous tributaries and channels were used regularly to transport supplies and soldiers during conflicts. In a true sense, the river banks of the Mekong have become the foundational support on which kingdoms and cultures have intersected for millennia, becoming both past and future simultaneously.

Bamboo photograph by Mark UlyseasKnown also as Southeast Asia’s “Big Muddy ” the Mekong carries the memories of a million dramas, a multitude of forgotten histories, of disappeared kingdoms and brutal ancient warlords. To the peasant farmers and fisherman of today, subsisting on its huge numbers of fish, some say more than 1,200 species while others say 1,700 species, the Mekong River is simply indispensable.

Species of fish include the Giant River Carp, which can grow to 4. 92 feet and weigh close to 155 pounds. Then there is the Giant Mekong Catfish, and the Mekong Freshwater Stingray, which can develop a wingspan of up to 13 feet. Because of the incredible richness of fish species, the Mekong has become both the sun and the moon to those people whose survival depends on the river’s health and its natural rhythms.

Other forms of aquatic life in the Mekong include Hairy-nosed otters, which are currently threatened due to poaching, and may be extinct in parts of India and Myanmar. The Siamese crocodile is also a resident of the Mekong, along with the “smiling” Irrawaddy Dolphin, whose numbers are dwindling but can still be seen in Kratié province, Cambodia. The vast numbers of fish that live and breed in the Mekong are the most important source of protein for the millions of people living in the lower Basin. This includes what are called Monster Fish, some species of which, amazingly, have not yet been identified or named. Many Monster Fish, however, include the Mekong Giant Barb, Mekong Giant Catfish, and the Mekong Giant Stingray.

The Upper Mekong; China, and Myanmar

The upper Mekong begins in China and travels to Myanmar. Below the Khone Falls, (around Kratie) is where the Mekong floodplains start. Typically, the upper and lower areas of the Mekong are divided by the length of the mainstream. Half of the mainstream’s length is in China, and the other half are in the South East Asian countries.

Banana Blossom photograph by Mark Ulyseas
Banana Blossom photograph by Mark Ulyseas

The northern portion of the Upper Mekong, near mountainous regions and verdant jungles is thought to be more attractive and scenic for tourism. This portion of the Upper Mekong is regularly traveled by a select number of exclusive luxury cruises that occur throughout the year. In these areas of the Upper Mekong the water is relatively clear during the dry season, and flows quickly as it is fed by snowmelt from the mountains. The snowmelt assures a uniform circum-annual flow in the river from the upper to the lower basins. During the wet season, however, the water is the typical muddy brown color due to the particulate matter within it.

The falls sit near the border of Cambodia and are for the most part non-navigable because of large boulders and rocks which form tiny islands within the river and make navigation difficult if not impossible. The lush vegetation of the Upper Mekong is pristine, and some travelers describe it as timeless in a prehistoric kind of way, as if it has never been impacted by human occupation or modernization, despite the several medium-sized cities that dot the shoreline, like Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Nakhon Phanom, Savannakhet/Mukdahan, and Pakse.

Animals graze undisturbed along the banks of these Upper Mekong areas and there are isolated stretches where travelers may not come across another boat or person for several hours, despite the cargo boats and local fishermen that travel there regularly. Some people say in these sections of the Mekong, the traveler feels as if they are “going back in time” to an era in which the land was untouched and the trappings of modern civilization, unseen, particularly for the favored stretch between the Golden Triangle and Luang Prabang, which is so popular among tourists.

Upper Mekong Highlights:

– The Upper Mekong River begins and ends in Laos
– The Upper Mekong offers fewer numbers of luxury cruise boats or lodges to stay in
– The Upper Mekong has a landscape which is pristine, untouched & less explored

The Lower Mekong; Cambodia and Vietnam

Pink buffalo photograph by Mark Ulyseas
Pink buffalo photograph by Mark Ulyseas

The Lower Mekong is the opposite of the Upper Mekong and acts as its counterpart and it is for this reason that the Upper and Lower Mekong Basins are as different ecologically as night and day. The Lower Mekong Basin is also recognizable for its muddy, turbid and often heavy water, which is thick with suspended particulate matter.

For this reason, the water of the Lower Mekong is rich with nutrients that replenish farmland soil each year with effective irrigation methods and natural flooding. However the muddy water is seen throughout the entire length of the Mekong during the wet season, even far upstream in China, with typically 60 percent of the sediment in the river coming directly from China. Now, eleven major dams block that precious sediment flow and have slowed down its natural movements.

Where the Upper Mekong is more isolated, and tranquil, with the mountains, the snowmelt and a landscape which appears prehistoric, the Lower Mekong Basin is where humankind interacts more directly with the river. The Lower floodplain tends to be livelier because of the number of people living nearby and the bustling human activity. There are floating markets, best visited in the early morning which clutter the shorelines in harmonious riverside communities. There residents and tourists can purchase rice, exotic spices, vegetables, local herbs and fruit like papaya, mango, pineapple, bananas and even smuggled goods such as cigarettes, chewing tobacco and other novelties. Taxi Boats escort people to their destinations, whizzing by in all directions in a whirl of activity in the lower Mekong basin.

Lower Mekong Highlights:

– The Lower Mekong is populated with floating markets selling food, spices & other goods
– The Lower Mekong is popular with tourists due to the riverside communities
– The Lower Mekong offers travel by water with Taxi Boats

It is not an easy task to fully understand the struggles of the people who live in the Lower Mekong Basin. In fact it is extremely difficult if you’re American or European with no connection to those regions. To adequately understand the impact the river plays on the lives of the people who depend on it requires careful thought, study and consideration. And to truly understand the cultures of Cambodia and Vietnam, there is no better place to get an authentic glimpse of those cultures, traditions, customs and values than by visiting the floating markets of the Lower Mekong Delta.

The Troubles of the Mighty Mekong

When human activity and industrialization begins the inevitable strangulation of dynamic river systems, and the complex biodiversity that depend on those systems, all rivers are at risk, not just the Mekong. But what happens when relentless dam construction, channelization, overfishing, sand mining, poaching, and vital agricultural irrigation begin to choke the naturally occurring life that depends on a river as vast and as long as the Mekong?

In an online article called The Great Mekong River, the situation is made clear. “It’s virtually impossible for foreigners to appreciate the role of the river in the lives of those who live in the Mekong Basin. It influences every aspect of their daily existence, shaping not only the land, but also the people themselves.”

There are approximately 70 million people in the Mekong basin, and 55 million inhabit the watershed areas lying within Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. They all depend on the Mekong River and its tributaries for travel, water to drink and bathe in and of course for food to live on.

Nam Ou photograph by Mark Ulyseas
Nam Ou is one of the 12 principal tributaries of the Mekong River. Photograph by Mark Ulyseas

Approximately nine-tenths of the people who live in the Lower Mekong Basin work in agriculture, primarily in growing rice, but they also grow other crops such as sugarcane, sweet potatoes, other vegetables  and various nuts. These farmers depend on water from the Mekong to do that, with the success of crops dependent upon that constant source of direct irrigation.

Furthermore, much of the rice crops are exported to markets in Southeast Asia and around the world, which provides food for a larger number of people than only those living in the Mekong Basin. Those exported rice stores then become an important part of the successful economies of multiple communities in the lower Mekong Basin and beyond.

When considering the resources of the Mekong, it is the colossal length of the river, which snakes through six countries that is directly tied to concerns for its continued health and ability to sustain the millions of lives dependent upon it.

The river runs from its source deep in China’s Qinghai Province through the eastern part of Tibet. From Yunnan province, it becomes the border between Myanmar and Laos, and between Laos and Thailand. From there it surges across Cambodia to Phnom Penh, where the Bassac River branches off. The two rivers continue to divide into nine outlets, the Cuu Long or (Nine Dragons) of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, and finally discharge into the East Sea. The river is navigable from the delta to Southern Laos, where massive waterfalls near the Cambodian border prevent boats from traveling farther.

The entire Mekong Basin is an extremely delicate ecosystem. Surprisingly, it is its colossal size and length that has made the Mekong River somewhat impervious over the centuries to interference by humankind. Things are changing rapidly though, and the inevitable threat of human interference in the naturally occurring fluctuations of the river is becoming more evident.

The Khone Falls and the rapids at the Golden Triangle have staved off major river cargo traffic, while the mountainous terrain in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China can make accessing those portions of the river difficult.

The health of the river is dependent on many things, such as the high flows during the wet season and the low flows during the dry season, as well as what sediment flows during those times of the year. But inland fisheries and the continued development of dams block fish migration paths between the rivers downstream floodplains and its upstream tributaries. These changes in the natural flows of the river can have catastrophic impacts on fish biomass, productivity and biodiversity.

There are 440 dams of all sizes and uses in the Mekong, with irrigation systems and reservoirs built within the Mekong system as well, since the 1950s. There are now several more dams that span the Mekong mainstream in Yunnan Province in China. This new reality has had a cumulative effect on the upstream health of the river, which impacts how the river functions in other countries, from the headwaters to the mouth.

The dams have reduced peak floods, which occurred naturally for millennia, and have interfered with aquatic habitat, which has, “…blocked fish spawning and nursery areas to migratory species. For example, Vietnam is concerned about the danger of increased seawater in the fertile Mekong Delta if the dry season water level drops. River transport, vital for Cambodia but also important for the other riparian countries, is badly affected by falling water levels.”

As many Mekong fish species migrate for feeding and spawning, traveling vast distances, things like water quality and upstream and downstream water flow, including water temperature, can seriously and negatively impact those species’ survival.

When dams affect water levels because of upstream use, downstream agriculture can be adversely impacted. Moreover, upstream pollution does not defy the laws of gravity. Polluted waters will continue to flow with the river, and impact all those communities of subsistence farmers and fishermen who cannot control what drifts into their water sources or farmland.

Butterflies on the banks of the Mekong. Photograph by Mark Ulyseas
Butterflies on the banks of the Mekong. Photograph by Mark Ulyseas

The Mekong Basin is continuing to experience rapid development and this may alter the actual landscape permanently, because both the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin are being impacted by the complex realities of climate change in conjunction with the relentless dam building.

This continued change to the natural structure of the river represents dangerous uncharted territory, not only for the integrity of its bio-diverse ecosystems’ but also for the quality of life of the people who live within the Mekong Basin.

While many argue that the Mekong and its ecosystems are still healthy and remain unchanged, others dispute that and warn against irreparable harm that continued damming, brought on mostly by China and Laos, will bring to the Mekong River. Where the changes are becoming most obvious is in the drying up of the river banks along the lower basin areas, where the naturally occurring flood waters creep lower and lower each year.

With the present rate of deforestation near the river’s edge, depletion of soil quality, and even lower numbers of fish species, it is probable that the Mekong Basin systems may decline to such a point that recovery for those areas becomes impossible.

*The primary concern is the water drying up along the shores of the Lower Mekong Basin and the lack of flooding and sediment depositing along the river’s banks. Flooding sends sediment far across the floodplain making the soil rich and fertilized for robust agriculture production. Floods bring freshwater and drive out salinity intrusion. More sediment keeps the land strong and intact and helps defend against sea level rise. The sediment also forms the basis of the food web for hungry fish. When fish can spread out into the floodplain they grow plentiful and large, sustaining those human populations that live nearby.

The Mekong River Commission

Fortunately, there is a Mekong River Commission, dedicated to: “Promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the mutual benefits of the lower Mekong countries and the people’s well-being.”

The Mekong River Commission was formed April 5 of 1995 by agreement of the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The creation of the commission is dedicated to manage the shared water resources of all the countries the Mekong travels through and to develop the economic potential of the river that is fair and equitable to all concerned.

In 1996 China and Myanmar became Dialogue Partners of the Mekong River Commission. These countries now try to cooperate within a framework of attempting to do what is best for the sustainable development of water and related resources in the Mekong Basins. But 70 large dams have been built in the last 15 years and they are delivering a death of a thousand cuts to the Mekong in various ways.

Environmental Concerns for the Mighty Mekong

The primary environmental concerns impacting the Mekong River are the continuous building of additional dams. China, rumor has it won’t be building anymore dams, but Laos plans to build 200 more dams within the next few years, with 70 completed and 44 currently under construction.

Then there is the blasting of rapids and the number of dams that have already been built on the river’s numerous tributaries. Cambodia has expressed concern over the risks of building more dams and they have postponed several of their projects.

For decades China has been involved in extensive dam-building with no end in sight, but other countries have also been building dams. There is the Pak Mun Dam, in Thailand, built by Thai construction companies, which has long been criticized for its destruction to the environment and the livelihoods of nearby affected villagers.

The two largest dams in the Mekong remain in China. They hold about half of the water stored in all the dams of the Mekong. In all, some 400 dams have been built in the Mekong over the last four decades and with the building of so many dams, since the 1950s, not only has the water been impacted but wildlife as well. Many species have become endangered, such as the aforementioned Hairy-nosed Otters, and Irrawaddy “smiling” dolphins.

Because of the thousands of dams, water levels are dropping each year in the Lower Basin. This causes all kinds of problems for fishermen and rice farmers, but also causes ferries to get stuck and makes travel by ferry much longer and more difficult. Fishing for species of fish previously plentiful in the Mekong has been cut in half in the Lower Basin areas.

Residents of the Lower Mekong Basin also complain of ever increasing pesticide pollution. This is caused from runoff and exacerbated by the potentially disastrous water level drops and weaker flows caused by so many dams. The pollution is caused by pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals used in farming, which mostly occurs in Vietnam. The pollution is also caused by intensified rice and shrimp farming, mostly occurring in Vietnam. And booming cities like Phnom Penh actually dump their waste water directly into the river, which doesn’t help matters.

But the reality is that whole stretches of the Mekong River are simply drying up.

There are other unforeseen concerns which have created increased water flow in some parts of China due to the excessive dams. This occurs when the Chinese governments clear rocks, sandbars, and blast gorges. The water slows down as more Chinese dams are built, which then floods other sections of China in unexpected ways.

But countries like Laos, Vietnam and especially Cambodia, with its high level of poverty, are the most vulnerable to these environmental changes, spurred on by China’s dam operations.

Villagers living in Cambodia and Vietnam regularly complain that they catch less fish, and have water that is heavy with pollution and cannot be consumed without making them physically ill if they drink it. However, the other issue is that Cambodians and Vietnamese are actually poisoning themselves with unregulated agricultural practices.

Also problematic is that with low water flows, the seasonal riverbank crops, usually vegetables and various greens, do not flourish. Rice is planted in flat paddy-land near floodplains, and riverbanks tend to be steep, so it’s difficult to grow rice there, as that requires standing water. But riverbank crops can be adversely impacted with low water flows and often they simply wither away and die.

The Mekong Reveals a New and Alarming Tipping Point

Recently, the world was shown how unforgiving Mother Nature can be when strange things began happening in the Mighty Mekong River. The Mekong which has sustained civilizations for centuries with an almost indefatigable abundance of natural riches has begun demonstrating how decades of human interference is now strangling the river. 

In 2019 critical monsoon rains failed to begin at their usual time in the latter part of May. Drought began to assert its destructive tentacles and water levels in the Mekong dropped to ranges not seen in over 100 years. When the late May rains finally arrived they were short lived and sporadic.

The wet season drought persisted for three years straight, from 2019 to 2021.

In other areas of the Mekong the waters began to transform into something ugly and unfamiliar. In areas in the north, the once powerful Mekong slowed to a weak stream, becoming nearly unrecognizable, with large rocks becoming visible in the middle of the wide scenic waterways. The water’s color also changed, becoming strangely clouded with “globs of algae” dotting the surface. Fish from some of the inland fisheries have dwindled and the fish that are caught are so “emaciated” they can only be used to feed other fish.

The Mekong River is literally being strangled due to these forces with the regular damming all along the river which has gone on unabated for over fifty years. With the 2019 to 2021 wet season droughts which were caused by an abnormal climate pattern, essentially an enormous lack of rain, coupled with the impact of the dams, these forces working together created the worst recorded drought in a century.

The situation currently affecting the Mekong River has further created a tremendous amount of hardship for the tens of millions of people who rely on the Mekong’s waters and has possibly pitched the river’s ecology past a dangerous tipping point.

The great inland lake, called the Tonle Sap, and described as “the beating heart of the Mekong” has experienced unprecedented shallow areas during times when the lake levels should be high. One floating village has nearly completely dried up, but this did not occur in the natural dry season but rather two months into the wet season.

Youk Sengleng, who works as an NGO fisheries expert near the Tonle Sap has shared his thoughts on the matter: “Many fish died because of the shallow water, hot temperature, and toxic water resulting from lack of oxygen. Around 2.5 million people who depend on the lake’s once abundant fisheries have been directly affected.”

When countries like China and Laos selfishly take too much water from the Mighty Mekong, they remove the dynamic life force from the river. They suck out its natural essence, pollutants concentrate, and the water flows weaken and dwindle. This results in the inevitable build-up of sludgey sediment that lines the riverbed and clogs it, leading to the development of dangerous forms of Algae and other toxins which pollute the water and kill fish and other aquatic life.

The Rivers Decline Impacts Rare Wildlife

In early 2020, it was reported that a single and endangered Irrawaddy dolphin had become entangled in fishing nets, and became disoriented. This lonesome dolphin was seen wandering the Mekong River, trying to find its way home to its normal habitat in northern Cambodia. Conservationists came together, hoping to capture it so it could be jettisoned back to its original habitat. They were desperate to save the dolphin considering there are only 92 individual Irrawaddy dolphins left in the wild, compared to over 200 some twenty years ago.

Dolphins represent an important role in Cambodian myth and folklore and the fate of this small dolphin became daily news in many communities. This lost and confused mammal, unsure how to find its way back home, is thought to be symbolic of how the Mekong River has also become lost and endangered.

The lost Irrawaddy dolphin is presumed to have died.

*The role of the Irrawaddy dolphins in helping Burmese fishermen is legendary and goes back some 300 years. This symbiotic relationship could fill a book in itself and warrants continued study if only for its historical significance and whimsy.

For decades experts have warned that an environmental crisis is waiting and will impact the 2,700 mile long river. The Mekong can no longer survive under the constant manipulation of decades of dam building and overfishing. For so many years the river just continued, despite all odds, to adapt and provide for the millions of people who depend on it. Now, the health of the Mekong is being strangled on a basin-wide level. This is due to the changes caused by the numerous dams that dot the Mekong, but also the rivers inability to sustain diverse ecosystems due to what is called “hungry water.”

“Everywhere you look there are indications that this river, which has provided for so many, for so long, is at a breaking point,” says Zeb Hogan, a fish biologist at the University of Nevada, Reno. Hogan is also a National Geographic Explorer and is concerned with the river’s ability to survive and adapt.

Hibiscus. Photograph by Mark Ulyseas
Hibiscus. Photograph by Mark Ulyseas

The unfortunate reality is that the problems facing the Mekong River in the Lower Basin areas are the result of China, which operates eleven massive dams. During times of serious drought, China’s dams hold back more than 12 trillion gallons of water impacting all the countries in the lower basin areas.

This reality has devastated the natural flows downstream, diverse fish reproduction and other forms of wildlife. “When drought sets in, China effectively controls the flow of the river,” says Brian Eyler. He acts as director of the Southeast Asia program at The Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. and is justifiably concerned about the role China has played in the slow drying up of the Mekong in the Lower Basin during the wet seasons.

With a river as long, complex and interconnected as the Mekong, with its numerous tributaries, changes in one place can have serious and immediate consequences elsewhere. All of these changes are controlled by China and it is China who holds the cards on the future of the Mighty Mekong River.

China is the power player in this scenario and has been for decades as they hold the most power over the natural flow of the Mekong. But Cambodia and Vietnam do the most sand mining, which they do for domestic development, so there is plenty of blame to go around in how all of these dynamics affect the Mekong River.

The “Hungry Water” of the Lower Mekong Basin Begs the Question, what is hungry water?

In northern Thailand, farmers and fishermen have had to contend with wildly unstable fluctuations in river flows as China stores and then unexpectedly releases water from their dams. Such irregular water releases, sometimes without any direct telephone or email warning, can have disastrous impacts on livestock and equipment, and fish migration. Sudden increases in water levels wash away crops, and destroy them. This disrupts the rural riparian communities in the lower Basin and sets them back months, literally taking food out of their mouths.

Laos, in an effort to protect its own resources, has vowed to build hundreds of additional hydro-plants in the next few years. Laos is currently operating more than 60 dams on Mekong tributaries. “The larger of those two, the Xayaburi dam, had long been stuck in a legal battle over concerns that it would hurt fish migration and communities downstream. The dam’s developer, a Thai company called CK Power, claims it has spent more than $600 million to mitigate negative impacts, including installing fish ladders and special gates for sediment to pass, though many environmentalists remain unconvinced.”

Not long after this dam began operation, the typical chocolate-colored Mekong River water began to transform to a brilliant blue in areas farther south. This change in color indicates the river has been stripped of the rich brown sediment it has transported for centuries. This changes the waters from turbid and rich in nutrients and particulate matter, which enriches farmland soils and sustains fish to something else entirely.

This kind of water, though pretty to look at, is called “hungry water” and it is a foreboding of bad things to come. Hungry water can be destructive to the delicate ecosystems of the Mekong, by causing erosion, as it eats away the delicate river banks.

Ecologists believe sediment is being blocked by the new Northern Laos 2019 Xayaburi dam which is a run-of-river, hydroelectric dam. And it’s well-known that China already holds back a whopping 60 percent of the precious sediment that normally flows the length of the river. Another theory is that the weak river flow causes the sediment to drift to the floor of the river. Whatever the cause, it stems from the change in the natural flows of the river, before dam construction altered those natural rhythms.

The blue water coming in from tributaries alters the structure of the rich brown waters that are the lifeblood of the Mekong and this impact is insidious and destructive. It is supposed that the Xayaburi dam is being operated in ways that shock the downstream of the river through irregular releases which cause specific injury to the river.

This hungry water has moved to Cambodia as well and ecologists worry that it will continue to spread, like a virus, with the low water flows. One of the dangers of this slow-flowing water is that algae then grows on the sand and the bedrock bottom of the river. In normal conditions, with the violent and vigorous flows of the river, those algae would be washed away by the violent currents, which would also energetically oxygenate the water, thereby killing any potential algae growth. But with the low water levels algae is freely growing with sections of the river in Thailand and Laos turning an alarming green with brightly colored algae blooms dotting the surface of the water.

More Troubles for the Tonle Sap Lake

Southeast Asia’s largest lake, the Tonle Sap, located in Cambodia, which is affectionately called “the beating heart of the Mekong” has become a serious concern for conservationists and the fisherman who depend on the lake. The Tonle Sap has been a huge source of food for centuries and has always had an abundance of fish to support Cambodians.

Floating Village Tonle Sap Photography by Mark Ulyseas
Floating Village Tonle Sap. Photography by Mark Ulyseas

Each year, after the start of the rains, the Tonle Sap, which connects to the Mekong, swells to many times its original size and provides important habitat for fish to feed, grow in and reproduce. This yearly process has enormous importance on the commercial sales of fish. In recent years over 500,000 tons of fish is taken from the Tonle Sap, which is more fish than can be caught in all of North America’s Rivers and lakes combined.

In 2019, the water from the Mekong to the Tonle Sap arrived so late and receded so early that large sections of the lake never fully filled up. What happened next was alarming when mass deaths of fish occurred because of the shallow water levels and the toxic oxygen-poor water. Authorities were forced to collect millions of dead fish and dispose of them, warning nearby residents not to eat them, as they were toxica and rotten.

According to some estimates fish catch in the Tonle Sap may have declined by up to 70 percent. This puts fishermen out of work and families go hungry. Many fishermen are not catching fish for human consumption from the Tonle Sap Lake, but only fish larvae to provide for fish farms, which can be expensive and time consuming to operate. As fish larvae are the future of fish, this is killing the fish population even more in the Tonle Sap.

Poor fishing conditions have continued in the Tonle Sap Lake, which has impacted the critically endangered Mekong Giant Catfish, when they try to make their way back to the Mekong River. Many of the fish are so emaciated that Cambodians cannot make Prahok, which is a fish paste that is a Cambodian food staple. Because the fish yields are so low, many fishermen have decided to leave, hoping that they can support their families better if they move elsewhere.

Though nature and even fish can be remarkably resilient to change, the danger currently is that the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap are both changing in ways that are outside the limitations of natural variability. Because of shortages, the price of fish is jumping in fish markets, and in the long run there could be a serious food shortage in Cambodia, and all along the Mekong, particularly after contending with the global Covid-19 Pandemic and its still occurring economic repercussions.

In Vietnam, concerns continue to multiply over the current condition of the Delta. Vast erosion is taking place because of sand mining and hungry water. This has led to homes and even roads collapsing with several states of emergency being declared in six provinces, alone.

Brian Eyler is troubled, stating: “Mekong governments are not reacting fast enough to understand the oncoming crisis and work together to mitigate risk and improve resilience.”

Zeb Hogan believes that human values and priorities must change for the Mekong to survive. “The river has been changed to benefit people who see it as a source of power. That must change, so that the food, fertility, and ecosystem services provided by a healthy, connected, and free flowing river are valued higher.”

Part of what needs to happen is that there must be a cease to the constant dam creation all along the Mekong, but that doesn’t seem to be occurring. Another change that must take place is that the Mekong River Commision must take on a more aggressive role.

The MRC appears to have no real political clout when it includes only four of the basin countries, but not China, which has the most power and the most obligation to help the other countries overcome and survive these changes. The Mekong is even said to have become a “new front in U.S.-China rivalry, environmentalists and officials say…” with the countries downstream of the river being at the “mercy” of China’s control.

Most conservationists agree there is still time to save the Mekong and that it is not too late for the river. They agree that the river can be restored to its original rhythms if some of the Dams are altered or even dismantled. Pianporn Deetes, an activist with International Rivers has hope: “We’ve seen the Mekong getting injured, and more and more devastation happening here and there. But it’s not dying. The Mekong’s incalculable ecological value can be restored and brought back to function to sustain the region’s future.”

One area of study that should be investigated further is that hydropower dams are slowly being regarded as an older technology that is becoming obsolete. The reality is that renewable energy from solar and wind power is gaining more popularity in the regions near the Mekong River. Even Mekong energy analyst, Brian Eyler, believes that MRC states are beginning to rally around the idea and practise of renewable energy, and will in time shift away from presuming hydropower is the only way to operate.

Nam Ou at twilight. Photograph by Mark Ulyseas
Nam Ou at twilight. Photograph by Mark Ulyseas

Facing a Grim Reality – Having Accountability

In an April 2020 article by Brian Eyler, Science Shows Chinese Dams are Devastating the Mekong, Eyler successfully argues that it is due to China that these humanitarian issues are arising, wherein millions of people’s lives are being impacted due to the Chinese Dams. Eyler is also the author of an outstanding book called Last Days of the Mighty Mekong which provides a greater understanding of all of the issues facing the Mekong and the lower basin countries which straddle it and what the future may bring.

In the excellent article by Eyler, mentioned above, he makes no bones about what is really going on and provides a serious warning. Eleven enormous dams that front the great Mekong River, before the river flows out of China, and into Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and then into Vietnam, are impacted directly and depend entirely on the “…monsoonal ebb and flow of the Mekong” in order to survive. If these dams interfere with that natural process, it is inevitable that the landscape will be altered irrevocably and the ‘last days’ of the Mekong really will be in our midst.

Hard Questions Remain Unanswered

The power player in all this is of course, China. How many cultures must be devastated, how many people held hostage and how many millions of lives along the lower delta, destroyed before China sees how their water greed is undermining not only millions of innocent lives but also their own global reputation?

Eyler explains a great deal of the reality of China’s obsession with hoarding Mekong water in his essay, writing “China considers water management data to be a state secret, and, barring new evidence, it has always been difficult to reach defensible conclusions about China’s management water levels in the Mekong River.”

When the Tonle Sap has historically provided up to 70 percent of Cambodians their needed daily protein, which comes out to approximately 500, 000 tons of food, those who will suffer the most in this situation are Cambodians. The yields of fish in the Tonle Sap have been cut in half and the fertility of the lake has been devastated. The changes in the Mekong River, because of the Chinese dams have impacted Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, which has resulted in depriving millions of people the access they need to fresh water, which they had previously had for millenia.

References

1. “The Mighty Mekong River.” Haivenu. 2005.
2. “The Mekong River: Southeast Asia’s Past and Future.” GOGLOBALTODAY.
3. “The Upper Mekong: Laos, China, Myanmar and Thailand. Rainforest Cruises.” 2019.
4. Lovgren, Stefen. “Southeast Asia’s Most Critical River is Entering Uncharted Waters.”
National Geographic. 2020.  5. Fathrop, Tom. “Something is Very Wrong on the Mekong River.” The Diplomat. 2019.
6. “Mekong Flood and Drought Forecast.” Mekong River Commission. 2019.
7. Eyler, Brian. “Science Shows Chinese Dams are Devastating the Mekong.” FP Insider Access. 2020.’
8. Eyler, Brian. The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong. ZED Books Ltd. 2019.
9. “Tonnes of Fish Die in Tonle Sap.” Cambodia News English. 2019.

The author wishes to thank Mr. Brian Eyler, celebrated author of The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, for his gracious help in providing feedback and suggestions for this essay, detailing in layman’s terms, the current troubles of the Mekong River. I am most grateful to him for his invaluable assistance.


Text © Theresa Griffin Kennedy / Photographs © Mark Ulyseas

Theresa Griffin Kennedy is a Portland, Oregon native with a strong connection to her Pacific Northwest heritage, rooted in the blue collar, working class experience. She was educated at Portland State University, and completed a double major, double minor and later a masters degree in 2013. She has been a daily writer since the age of eighteen, when her father, author and poet, Dorsey Edwin Griffin, began encouraging her to write. Kennedy has been published with The Rumpus, Pathos Literary Review, Live Encounters Magazine, Portland Monthly Magazine, the Portland Alliance Newspaper, Street Roots Newspaper, with letters to the editor published with the Portland Tribune, Willamette Week and in Vanity Fair Magazine. Her first book of fiction, Burnside Field Lizard and Selected Stories was selected as a finalist for the 2019 Next Generation Indie Book Award for the regional fiction division. Her first novel, Talionic Night in Portland: A Love Story, was published in 2021 through Oregon Greystone Press. Her second book with the History Press, Lost Restaurants of Portland, premiers in September 2022. She lives in Portland Oregon with her writer/author husband, former PPB homicide detective, Don DuPay, where they both continue to write and be published

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