Messing with the Mekong

Messing With the Mekong

The day after arriving at the Laotian river port of Huay Xai, my friend and I left our guesthouse at sunrise and walked down the street to the main pier. The boat landing, a crumbling concrete ramp about 50 feet long, was already bustling. Uniformed dockworkers methodically passed burlap sacks hand over hand from the deck of a wooden rice barge onto a rusted flatbed truck. At the bottom of the ramp, a man slowly backed his puttering three-wheeled taxi into the brown water and began flushing the grit from the cab.

We had bought tickets for the "slow boat" down the Mekong River, a two-day voyage from Huay Xai on the Thai-Lao border to Luang Prabang, Laos's former royal capital. Our guidebook, barely a year old, warned of the discomforts of the journey, which we were to share with the usual river cargo: sacks of grain, chickens in battered wooden cages, crates of beer, and other assorted cargo. Yet we were excited by the prospect.

Our excitement faded fast, however, as more and more travelers like ourselves, bearing dusty backpacks and worn guidebooks, strolled down the ramp. As we settled into our boat-a long wooden barge like the others, but painted a vibrant green and orange-it was clear that things were changing in this remote part of the world. The renovated boat offered rows of numbered blue benches "for the convenience of tourists." Not a chicken crate in sight.

On the river, though, it was easy to ignore any changes to traditional Mekong life. Our captain maneuvered expertly between the steep, thickly forested banks, dodging the frequent rocks and rapids. The landscape seemed almost pre-human but for the fishing traps rigged along the eroding shoreline-bamboo stalks bent under the weight of rocks that, when triggered, would catapult onto unsuspecting fish. A few fishermen tooled around the eddies, checking nets and lines for catfish and other aquatic catch. At a rock jetty, we slowed to let on a young girl in a white blouse and embroidered blue sarong, who settled among our backpacks with her own cargo-a wriggling plastic sack full of frogs destined for markets, and cooking pots, downstream.

It was almost impossible to imagine any other way of life along this rugged river. Yet Laos's Mekong residents are in for a rude awakening-particularly if their powerful upstream neighbor, China, continues to have its way with planned developments in the vast river basin.

Improving Mekong Navigation

More than 130 years ago, a French expedition set off upriver from the Mekong delta in what is now Vietnam with a single mission: find an inland water route to China. But France's commercial ambitions were thwarted. From its source in the Tanggula mountains on the Tibetan plateau, the 4,800-kilometer Mekong River winds southeasterly along a riverbed dotted with jagged rocks, looming sandbars, and deadly whirlpools. In the 1930s, after minor channel improvements, it still took 37 days to sail from the South China Sea to northern Laos-a voyage that British Naval Intelligence reported took longer than sailing to France.

Still today, small ferries and cargo boats of 60 to 100 tons ply the waters of the upper Mekong, sailing by day when the obstacles are more visible. (Like the other boats, for safety reasons our tourist barge pulled over for the night at Pakbeng, a one-road village lined with tottering clapboard houses; on average, 10 shipwrecks occur per year along the Mekong in Laos alone.) During the dry season (November to May) sections above Luang Prabang remain virtually unnavigable, with water levels falling to just half a meter. Downstream along the Lao-Cambodian border, the spectacular Khone Falls, a six-mile stretch of rapids near the legendary "area of 4,000 islands," prevents vessel passage entirely.

These natural impediments have sheltered the largely free-flowing Mekong from the fate of many of the world's large rivers, which have long been exploited for shipping and trade. But not for long. In 1992, China initiated plans for waterway alterations that would open up northern segments of the river to year-round navigation by large cargo ships. The $5 million Upper Mekong Navigation Improvement Project involves dynamiting 21 of the most treacherous shoals, rapids, and reefs along a 331-kilometer stretch of the river, from the Sino-Burmese border to Huay Xai.

China's primary objective is to facilitate the export of raw materials and other trade goods from its land-locked province of Yunnan to ports in Thailand, Laos, and the rest of Southeast Asia. If fully implemented, the dredging and subsequent channelization would more than double the annual shipping capacity of the Mekong-from 4 million tons in 2001 to 10 million tons by 2007-allowing passage of as many as a dozen 500-ton ships daily.

Trade Benefits to Whom?

Laos, Burma, and Thailand formally agreed to the improvements in 2000, when the three countries and China signed a navigation agreement (historically significant as their first formal collaboration since before World War I) that allows ships registered with any of the signatories to trade freely along the Mekong River for 886 kilometers, from the southern Chinese port of Simao to Luang Prabang in Laos. Each country also pledged to develop ports along the river and to facilitate both the passage of vessels and customs procedures.

Like its neighbors, Laos is pinning its hopes on the economic prospects of the Mekong. Mountainous and landlocked, it is the poorest country in Southeast Asia and lags at least 30 years behind its prosperous neighbor Thailand on most economic and social indicators (see table). Over the past century, it has suffered the burdens of French imperialism, a heavy-handed communist regime, and the Vietnam War,  and is now trying desperately to catch up. Although still a communist state, Laos abandoned central planning a decade ago and has aggressively turned to free market economics in an effort to boost development. By opening the Mekong to increased trade, it hopes to benefit indirectly from China's economic boom and to free its population of 5.2 million from a largely subsistence farming economy. (In addition to being an important trade link, the Mekong has tremendous hydropower potential that, if fully harnessed, could position Laos as the "battery" of Southeast Asia.)

Even without a new shipping channel, commerce between China's southern provinces and Southeast Asia has grown rapidly, only accelerating with China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2000. In 2001, limited freight and passenger service opened between Yunnan and the Thai border town of Chiang Saen, transforming the once sleepy port into a bustling commercial zone, where 150-ton cargo ships now compete for dock space with smaller rice barges and fishing boats. Trade between China, Chiang Saen, and the downstream port of Chiang Khong topped $88 million in 2001, double that of the previous year.

But Aviva Imhof of the International Rivers Network warns that, despite its commercial promise, dredging the Mekong may offer "few obvious benefits" for the majority of Laos's Mekong residents. Most of the larger vessels slotted to ply the new shipping channel belong to China, which has more modern piers and facilities than its downstream neighbors. Officials in Thailand's Chiang Rai province reported that of the more than 2,400 cargo ships entering Chiang Saen port in 2001, more than three-quarters originated in China. Villagers in Laos and Thailand fear that the incoming Chinese vessels will flood local markets with inexpensive produce, textiles, and other exports that are up to five times cheaper than domestic goods, undermining local shopkeepers and farmers.

Residents and some government officials also worry that local agriculture could be further undercut by changes to the river current, which could accelerate the already severe erosion of the shores. "Without the reefs, the flow in the Mekong is likely to be much stronger, and big waves caused by huge ships would destroy the country's river banks," warns Thongpho Vongsriprasom of the Lao Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Only 4 percent of Laos's land area is suitable for agriculture (most of this along the shores of the Mekong), and many farmers rely on the fertile, sediment-enriched riverbanks for their annual harvests of lettuce, cabbage, and other crops.

Like its neighbors, however, the Laotian government has downplayed these concerns for fear of rocking the boat. Chinese investments in Laos alone totaled $87 million in 1999. Laos also benefits from some $500 million in Chinese-run development projects, among them television satellite stations and the proposed Luang Prabang hospital.

 In November 2001, Beijing agreed to give Laos and Burma $5 million to finance the blasting, and a Chinese company was appointed to do the work there and in Thailand. Blasting began in December 2002, and by June 2003 all but one of the 11 major rapids identified for destruction under Phase One of the project had been altered. (The Thai Cabinet halted blasting of the remaining rapid because of disagreement with Laos over the location of their shared water boundary.)

Assessing Environmental Impacts

Critics also worry about the potential environmental implications of blasting and channeling the Mekong. A joint environmental assessment, sponsored by China and completed in September of 2001, concluded that the project's impacts would be negligible, affecting only the roughly three kilometers total where the actual detonation would occur. But the Thai watchdog group Terra and other critics have questioned the adequacy of the study. Not only was it largely technical in nature (involving mainly hydroengineers, not fisheries experts or social scientists), but it was completed in under six months and, according to Terra, represented only two days of actual field investigations.

In October 2001, the Mekong River Commission (the five-country body that oversees regional management of the river, of which China is the only basin country that is not a member) sponsored its own expert review of the assessment. Reviewer Brian Finlayson of the University of Melbourne's Centre for Environmental Applied Hydrology noted the "paucity of basic data and information and the sketchy and unsupported nature of the analyses." Critics with Australia's Monash University noted the study's failure to adequately assess long-term effects on Mekong hydrology, ecosystems, and communities, including possible contamination from heightened use and economic activity.

Other reviewers voiced their concerns about the project's consequences for Mekong fisheries, which are already in decline along many stretches of the river. Bob McDowall, with New Zealand's National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research, noted that the study lacked not only published lists of fish species and descriptions of their habitats and life histories, but also any investigation of their biological values.

Laos's trade minister, Soulivong Daravong, told Reuters last April that the blasting would have only a small effect on fisheries, which "can be accepted because it is not big harm." But local fishers and villagers worry more about the longer-term consequences of altering the river. The Mekong supplies about 80 percent of the dietary protein consumed in the Mekong basin, which has a total population of more than 65 million. In Laos, where fish is still the leading source of food, the river is a lifeline.

Fishers already complain that waves from the bigger barges topple their boats and interfere with traditional fishing methods. But the greatest damage, ecologists say, would occur below the surface. The Mekong's treacherous rapids impede shipping, yet they provide critical habitat for hundreds of species of migratory fish that dart from one rock shelter to the next as they move up the river to feed and breed. The turbulent waters also break up leaves, branches, tree trunks, and other vegetable matter on the river, nourishing the aquatic food web.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) estimates that the Mekong is third only to the Amazon and Congo rivers in biological diversity. The rocks and rapids near Thailand's Chiang Khong are the only known spawning grounds of the endangered giant catfish, which can weigh more than 300 kilograms and reach three meters in length. And kai, a high-protein weed that grows on the riverbed, is an important food source for both fish and humans. Scientists estimate that more than 1,200 species of fish live in the Mekong, though the full diversity of fish, plant, mollusk, and other aquatic life is still unknown.

In February 2003, the Southeast Asian Rivers Network (SEARIN), the Laotian government, and IUCN sponsored their own three-day survey of the upper Mekong. It identified 80 distinct fish species and 70 bird species along a 100-kilometer segment in Laos and Thailand. But some fear that this attempt to gather "baseline" ecological data on the region, occurring after the blasting began, may be too late.

Signs of Protest-and Hope?

Despite growing concern, resistance to the navigation project has emerged slowly, particularly in Laos, where the Communist leadership has discouraged public opposition. "People directly affected by the blasting have been excluded from the planning process, with no forum to express their opinions or influence decision-making," notes International River Network's Imhof.

SEARIN, which has also criticized the project, reports that most local residents knew nothing about it until the blasting began in 2002 and people began to notice increased erosion, higher sediment levels, and strange disruptions of the water flow. The "public awareness drive" required by the environmental impact assessment reportedly took only five days and excluded the general public, interest groups, and even local government agencies. (Nor were any of the results from the consultation given for Laos or Burma.) In some affected areas of Laos, the government was forced to boost its military presence following local protests and complaints.

Communities in neighboring countries have been much more vocal. In June 2002, more than 12,000 people in northern Thailand rallied to oppose the blasting plan, primarily on environmental grounds, according to Chirasok Intayos of the Chiang Kong Conservation Group. In Burma, 52 organizations also petitioned the Thai and Lao governments in December, arguing that the project would benefit only business elites and the military, and urging officials to pressure China to drop the project. Most residents would prefer to see new roads or the use of smaller barges as an alternative to the shipping channel.

There are signs that China may be listening. In late 2002, the country ratified its first-ever law requiring comprehensive environmental impact assessments for large infrastructure projects. Last June, China announced that it would scale back the blasting, abandoning the navigation project at the first stage rather than continuing with the more invasive widening that would clear the river for 500-ton vessels. Authorities claimed they were satisfied with the navigation channel gained so far. But they also cited the increased public and international scrutiny, including the growing concerns of downstream countries about livelihood impacts as well as calls from the Mekong River Commission to halt the project until a more comprehensive environmental assessment was available.

But many of the project critics fear that this doesn't necessarily mean an end to the Chinese plan. "If Chinese authorities really want to complete the project, they will be able to press ahead regardless," says Aviva Imhof. She notes that China's longstanding refusal to join the Mekong River Commission continues to bode poorly for regional governance of the river. "It's a question of China trying to extend its influence economically throughout the region," Imhof says. Nevertheless, she agrees that the country's tolerance of the commission's demands for a new impact assessment is a good sign.

Beyond the Blasting

Even if its navigation plans are scaled back, China has plenty more changes in store for its downstream neighbors. China has a long history of grand infrastructure projects, from the Great Wall to the nearly completed Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest. Indeed, regulating the river channel may prove one of the least disruptive of a series of Chinese plans to "improve" the Mekong.

As with the Three Gorges Dam, controversy is  brewing around China's plans for at least eight dams along the Mekong in southern China-which could have even more serious consequences for downstream livelihoods, fisheries, and water levels. During the dry season, the river depends almost entirely on meltwaters from Chinese glaciers. Damming the Mekong would disrupt its natural flooding cycle, blocking the flow of sediment to the fertile floodplains downstream and making it even harder for farmers to regulate the timing of their riverbank planting.

With two of the dams already built and the third due for completion in 2012, villagers already report fluctuations in the water levels. During the dry season last December, Thai villagers saw their vegetable plots destroyed by unexpected flooding-which occurred shortly after China opened the floodgates of one of its upstream dams to raise water levels for  cargo ships. Critics say China doesn't always tell downstream countries when the water releases will occur, and its non-membership in the MRC leaves it still calling the shots.

Moreover, China has readily embraced international cooperation in the so-called Greater Mekong Sub-Region, a $40 billion program initiated by the Asian Development Bank in 1992 to bring superhighways, power transmission grids, large dams, and tourism to the Mekong basin. And last year, China signed an agreement with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to create the world's largest free trade zone. China's clear interest in sustaining its high economic growth rates may not bode well for the people living along the Mekong's banks.


Lisa Mastny is a research associate at the Worldwatch Institute. Photographer Andrea Baldeck recently published Touching the Mekong, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, 2003.

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