Tag Archives: Mekong River

Meet the Salween

salween

I heard the name “Salween” before. I didn’t know exactly where it is. I knew it was somewhere close.

Somehow its name portrays a feeling of fearless turbulence. Perhaps, it’s the sound of “S” and the rhyme between “ween” and a Thai word “wian” from the word “wonwian” meaning lingering and wandering which makes me think of the word “namwon” meaning whirlpool.

There is a legend about the two great sister rivers of Southeast Asia: the Salween and the Mekong.

And this is how the story goes:

One day, the two rivers decided to go to sea. They agreed to travel through the mountains together and stopped whenever they wanted to. The Mekong slowly spanned its waterline through the landscape while the Salween hurried its way to claim the frontline.

After rushing ahead, the Salween decided to stop for a quick nap to wait for the Mekong. Days passed and the Mekong was still absent. The Salween thought the Mekong took a chance when it was sleeping to get ahead—to be the first to see the ocean. Angry and feeling betrayed, the Salween rushed through the channels and aimed to destroy any rock that stood in its way. Its wild speed was felt by those living nearby. The Mekong, on the other end, finally arrived at where the Salween was napping. Not seeing its younger sibling did not push it to move any faster. The Mekong continued to crawl and collect waters along the way; it even went off-route to carry fish and water into Tonle Sap before it finally reached the sea.

It is said that many communities believe in this story, though I have only heard it from two people. The anecdote may vary. Though it does resemble the turtle and the hare tale, but stories and legends are much better tools to narrate and describe the difference between the two.

Perhaps, it is the Salween’s anger that makes it the last free flowing river in China and Southeast Asia until 2015.

The Salween is originated from the marshland in the Himalayan Plateau—the same glacial area where the Mekong and the Brahmaputra start their mightiness. It travels over 2,200 kilometres through southwest China, Thailand, and Myanmar. Most of the areas it nourishes are occupied by ethnic indigenous communities. In Yunnan alone, the Nu River  (as the Chinese called the upper Salween) feeds at least 22 ethnic groups. The same reality applies to downstream communities at the border between Thailand and Myanmar and major ethnic states in Myanmar (where Burmese names it “Thanlwin”). I remember someone told me that the Salween’s turbulence is reflected by perpetual ethnic tension in the most recent open country of ASEAN.

The plan to dam the free flowing Salween is not new. 13 cascade dams for the Nu River were proposed in 2003 as part of China’s 10th Five Year Plan. Chinese environmentalists immediately called the government to halt the project. Their voices were listened, but the hiatus is now over and the proposed 13 hydropower projects are back on the table.

Thailand’s eyes on damming Myanmar’s Thanlwin/Salween is also not new. Nearly ten years ago, Thai environmentalists became aware of 7,110 MW Ta Sang Hydropower Project, a Thai national dam at the cost of Burmese environment. The news of Ta Sang Dam has been silent but a recent loosely done EIA report and signed MOA for the 1,360 MW Hat Gyi Dam prove that the intention isn’t going away.

7 is the number of proposed dams on the Thanlwin/Salween. Over 20,700 MW will be generated to Thailand and China. The newly built transmission lines that would come with the new dams would gracefully pass over the electricity and wealth to Myanmar’s neighboring countries. Its people would have to look up to the electricity they are not entitled to use while watching their houses and livelihoods inundated by the reservoir.

But the real battle has only started. In June, 2014 Myanmar government switched on the green light for Chinese Hanergy Holding Group Company to tackle its hydropower project in Shan State. Kunlong Dam will stand tall to hold back the Salween while producing 1,400 MW of electricity to be sent back to China.

Large-scale hydropower projects—along with many other environmentally and socially detrimental projects—never prove beneficial to local communities. “The few should sacrifice for the many” is the excuse project proponents always use to dignify their grand prize. However, in this case, “the few” we’re talking here isn’t small in number but their political voice and power to decide how and who would control the river they rely on.

“We call the Thanlwin, ‘the River of Peace’” said Ko Ye, an activist from Dawei who has been fighting against Thailand-proposed mega development project in his hometown. “Because if this river is dammed or falls under one group’s control, the ethnic war in Myanmar will never stop.

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Filed under China, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Environment and sustainability, ethnic policy, Mekong River, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Thailand, water, Yunnan Province

Letter to the Mekong River Commission on the Don Sahong Dam

The following is a letter written by Mekong river expert and conservationist Alan Potkin submitted today to the Mekong River Commission’s online stakeholder consultation concerning the Don Sahong dam.  The construction of the Don Sahong dam on the Mekong’s Hou Sahong channel in Siphandon, Laos is a project sparking extreme controversy in the Mekong region.  Despite Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s condemnation of the dam along with a massively successful petition campaign gaining more than 250,000 signatures and increasing local and international coverage of the controversial project, construction for the dam is likely to begin by the end of the year.

Indeed “now is the time to separate fact from fiction”…

Notwithstanding his Googleable scientific publications being exclusively in quantitative algology, rather than in any aspect of ichthyology (not  least fish taxonomy, physiology, and reproductive or migratory behaviors), I had consistently argued that we should accept that Dr Peter Hawkins, Don Sahong’s Environmental Manager, was speaking and acting in good faith until proven otherwise…

Until this latest announcement by him that the altered dry season hydrology above and below Siphandone, following the new release regime
from the Lançang Jiang cascade of hydropower dams in Yunnan PRC, will now make it “easier for fish to migrate” through alternate channels other than Hou Sahong during the dry season.

Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

According to years of fieldwork conducted there by Dr Tyson Roberts and Profs. Ian Baird and Water Rainboth, amongst others,
no less than 150 species of fish transit through, or are resident, in Siphandone. Other than their basic taxonomy, almost nothing is known in
sufficient empirical detail about any ofthem to understand exactly what ecological and behavioral cues initiate bi-directional migration and successful reproduction: Water temperature? Current velocity and/or stream stage? Phases of the moon? Subtle chemical alterations? Angle of the sun in the sky/polarization of insolation?

How much change in elevation per unit of lineal distance could be encompassed within a particular species’ genetically-determined
metabolic parameters and swimming musculature to still be a manageable pathway?

All essentially unknown!

The planet’s best understood migratory fishes are the salmonidae of the northern hemisphere, which in any given inland waterway probably never exceed four or five different species having themselves much in common. Yet even now ichthyologists are far from certain over exactly how salmonids are capable of navigating to, and infallibly identifying, precisely that reach of river/tributary wherein they were originally spawned, perhaps even a decade earlier, with most of those intervening years as adults spent offshore in the oceans.

And if any or all of that that were known in exact and correct detail about one or two or three of the most economically and nutritionally
important Mekong species, there would yet be another 140 species, at least, which might be responding to completely different sets of stimulae and environmental cues.

I would be delighted to have these assertions proven false by aquatic ecologists holding credible expertise far greater than my own.

Once again, I would note that available to whomever might successfully navigate far upstream into several of our interactive eBooks, notably
“Mekong-Orwell” —mostly about the Pak Mun debate Xayaboury and Don Sahong— there are linked online videos showing the
rather underdeveloped state-of-the-art of “fish friendly” turbines, and showing the general impassibility of even a 70cm artificial obstruction erected across the migratory pathways of one of the most robust and powerful N. American fish species, but one which lacks any evolutionary history of jumping.

Thanks as always, for all due consideration.

Access the interactive media links below to learn more about Alan Potkin’s work on Mekong issues.
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_actual_outcomes1.final_cfp.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/nam_phit/digital_mekong_planning.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_orwell_eBook/pak_mun_homepages.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_fish_atlas_4.1/welcome.pdf
http://sethathirath.com/EFDNW_UNESCO_1.4.1/nongchanh%20interactive/EFDNW_poster/nongchanh_poster_homepage.pdf
http://vimeo.com/86935784

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Seismicity & Sediment Flow in the Mekong River Basin

Understanding the geologic history of the upper Mekong basin is increasingly important for examining the effects of dam construction, both in terms of seismicity and sediment trapping.  The sediment regime of the river has been altered by the construction of dams, which have captured large quantities of sediment.  However, the degree to which it has changed the river is uncertain due to the small number of studies done so far.  Additionally, agriculture and development have their own effects on the sediment load of the Mekong, which further complicates sediment analysis.  More alarmingly, a large magnitude earthquake could cause dam damage or failure, which in turn could cause catastrophic damage downstream.  While such an event is unlikely, it is important to properly regulate dam construction as well as encourage the construction of earthquake resistant infrastructure, especially in Yunnan, Northern Thailand, and Laos.  The underlying geologic structure of the Mekong River Basin is highly complicated and should be studied in greater detail so that dams are constructed as safely as possible, both to protect downstream communities and to ensure that the sediment load is not being disturbed at the expense of aquatic ecosystems and downstream agricultural communities.

 

Tectonic setting

The origin of the Mekong River lies 5,000 meters above sea level, high on the Tibetan plateau.  From there the river runs through China’s Qinghai and Yunnan provinces, where it is called the Lancang River.  Its name changes to the Mekong as it flows through the five mainland Southeast Asian nations: Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia, and finally Vietnam.  The River runs a total of 4,350 km before it spreads out over the Mekong delta and into the South China Sea.  The Mekong drains an area of 795,000 square kilometers, with an annual discharge of 475 cubic kilometers, making it the longest and largest river by volume in Southeast Asia, and the 12th longest and 8th largest by volume in the world.  At 16,000 cubic meters per second, the Mekong has an average discharge comparable to the Mississippi river, despite the Mekong being over 1,000 miles shorter. (Fig 1)  Its importance in the region as a source of livelihood and culture cannot be understated; it is the connecting tie between the nations of mainland Southeast Asia.  While river ‘capture’, or the seismically induced alteration of river pathways, makes pinpointing the origin of the Mekong River difficult, there is some indication of its modern derivation.  According to one study, which took sediment cores from the South China Sea, “The oldest sediments, which are linked to the modern delta body, accumulated in the early mid-Holocene, at about 8000 calibrated years before present preceding the mid-Holocene sea-level highstand in the South China Sea.” (See figure 1, core MD01-2393)  Primarily because of sea level rise the Mekong River has changed since then into the basin recognizable today.

The Mekong River Basin is situated off the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, which as an active converging plate boundary has a strong influence on the tectonics of the Mekong basin.  The collision of the Eurasian plate and the Indian Plate are the source of the uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, and the Mekong River basin lies between this convergent plate boundary and the Sumatran Subduction Trench further south along the southern coast of Sumatra.  This intraplate zone is a ‘basin and range’ province, much like the Nevada-Utah basin and range of the United States, and is scattered with faults with different slip-rates, especially in the area in and around northern Thailand.  Considering this somewhat unique geologic position which has created different fault zones pulling and pushing in different directions, the basin’s geology is both heterogeneous and, particularly in the northern part, seismically active.  To the north of the Mekong River Basin, the Longmenshan fault zone is highly active; responsible for the devastating earthquake in Chengdu in 2008, which claimed the lives of over 68,000 people.   The upper Mekong basin is not range of the Longmenshan fault zone, but its basin and range typology is strongly influenced by this fault zone.  The most notable fault systems that influence the basin are the “right-lateral, strike-slip Red River and the left-lateral strike-slip Xianshuihe-Xiaojiang fault systems.”  These fault systems as a portion of the typical ‘basin and range’ geological province create series of exactly that: similarly trending valleys and mountains that are a direct result of fault blocks falling and rising with respect to each other.  This allows different geologic layers to be exposed within relative short distances, meaning that as the Mekong River flows downstream, it quickly gathers different types of sediments.

 

Sediment regime

The sediment regime in the Mekong is a result of its drainage pattern and the variety of rock types in the river basin.  The Mekong River basin itself is atypical of continent draining rivers in its drainage pattern is not dendritic.  Rather, the river has a parallel drainage pattern which is much more linear with more direct tributary angles.  This pattern is a combined result of the underlying geologic structure and the slope of the topography.  The upper basin is particularly narrow which indicates strong, or steep, slope control.  Often, underlying structures such as joint systems control the geometry of tributary angles, which are generally narrow.  In these steep and narrow gorges, the rapid flowing water of the Mekong quickly erodes the hillsides, making the river a muddy-silt brown.  Considering the heterogeneity of the underlying structure, the swift moving water gathers many different minerals, creating a rich sediment regime with lots of chemical elements needed for agriculture and aquatic ecosystems.  The upper part of the basin, especially in China, is the primary source for this sediment.  Researchers have suggested that “the existing estimate of the mean annual suspended sediment load of the Mekong reported in the literature is ~160 Mt y^-1, and (Roberts) has estimated that about 50% of this load is contributed by the upper part of the basin in China.”

The northern part of the basin “accounts for about 24% of the total area of the basin and about 18% of its total discharge, and sediment yields in these mountainous headwaters, which have steep, unstable slopes, are clearly substantially higher than those from the remainder of the basin.”  As it flows the Lancang River quickly becomes a muddy-silt brown, reducing the River’s ability to erode the rock further downstream.  Dams allow sediment to settle out, in fact “Kummu and Varis cited estimates that suggest that the Manwan Dam could trap as much as ~50-60 Mt of sediment per year, and this would clearly cause a major reduction in the sediment load of the Lancang River.”  What the overall effect this entrapment will be is not yet known.  What is known is the exiting water, devoid of sediment, will erode rock more quickly than it did before, possibly replacing the sediment lost but at the cost of downstream slope stability.  The increased erosion of stream beds could pose ‘major threats’ to places such as Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Nongkhai.

Figure 2: Mekong Sediment load, values from 1961 compared with recent years (between 1997 and 2002).

Figure 3: Mekong river discharge, values form 1961 compared with recent years (between 1997 and 2003).

Unfortunately, there have not been a lot of studies done in Southeast Asia on this subject, and research needs to be continued in order to examine how the sediment regime has been and is being altered.  So far, research done has shown that variations in sediment discharge are more closely linked with the total water discharge of the Mekong, rather than the construction of new dams. Figures two and three illustrate this problem as there are hardly enough data points, due to a lack of continuous research, to come to a conclusion about the sediment regime and the way dams have affected it. In this way, it is important that these parameters be monitored annually so that a meaningful conclusion can be drawn as to whether or not dams have a negative impact on sediment transport.

 

Seismicity: Predicting earthquakes in the northern Mekong Basin

Accurately predicting the timing of an earthquake, as seismologists know, is close to impossible. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying, because properly understanding seismic activity can be effective in protecting human lives.  While exceedingly challenging, seismologists use a variety of techniques to predict the likelihood of earthquakes occurring, and what the magnitude of the earthquake might be.  These techniques generally involve measuring average slip rates and estimating the likelihood within a given period of time of the fault ‘slipping’ which causes earthquakes.  In the Mekong River basin, this is extremely important with regard to the dams that have been built along the river as well as for dams in the planning phases.

Figure 4. Dams along the Mekong River and its tributaries. Courtesy of the WWF

Seismic activity in the Mekong River basin is primarily limited to areas in Yunnan, northern Thailand, and Laos.  Some areas in northern Thailand in recent history have been described as seismically inactive, as despite there being several fault zones there are few historical records of destructive earthquakes.  There is some mention in different literature that northern Thailand is seismically ‘highly stable’, which happens to be true for recent history, but that does not suggest earthquakes cannot or will not happen.  As Fenton says in his 2003 study, “Due to a lack of large, damaging earth-quakes during historical time, Thailand has not been considered to be a seismically active country.  Although there are a number of accounts of historical earthquake damage (Nutalaya et al. 1985), the locations and sizes of most of these events are not well constrained.”  While earthquakes are generally below 6.5 in magnitude, there are notable exceptions.  For example, “[The Red River] fault has produced several earthquakes >M 6.0 including the 4 January 1970, M 7.5 earthquake in Tonghai which killed over 10,000 people.”  While this was further north, there are concerns that earthquakes could cause substantial damage to developing infrastructure.  One USGS study of a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in the Golden Triangle region of Myanmar in March of 2011 highlights that “Overall, the population in this region resides in structures that are highly vulnerable to earthquake shaking, though some resistant structures exist. The predominant building types are wood and unreinforced brick masonry construction.” This suggests that if a larger magnitude earthquake of were to strike, the damage would be enhanced by the collapse of structures which are not equipped to handle such shaking.  These faults are considered capable of generating maximum earthquakes of up to 7.5 in magnitude, which while unlikely on an annual basis, (see figure 6) increase in likelihood over time.

Figure 6. Faults in Northern Thailand.  Note the proximity of faults 3, 11, and 18 to the Mekong and proposed dam site. Note annual probability of fault movement in Fig. 7   Courtesy of the USGS

 

Figure 7. Annual probability of fault movement among studied active faults in northern Thailand. See fig 6. and key for location of faults. Data courtesy of the USGS

The Xayaburi dam in Laos is controversial for several reasons, but fears of damage from earthquakes are rising.  One Thai geologist, Dr Punya of Chulalongkorn University, has estimated there is a “30 per cent chance of a medium-sized earthquake hitting the dam site in the next 30 years, and a 10 per cent chance of a powerful earthquake of up to magnitude 7.” He was reported as saying: “If the fault at the dam site becomes active … there is no chance for seismic engineering to take care of that.”  Dr Punya also stated that construction on the dam should “never have started” at such a site without further research into its seismic risk.   Dr. Punya’s concerns do not seem unwarranted, as there have been substantial earthquakes in recent years.  In 2011, two earthquakes occurred 48 kilometers from the site of the Xayaburi dam, one 5.4 and one 4.6 magnitude.  One month later a magnitude 3.9 earthquake occurred 60 kilometers from the dam site.  In 2007, a 6.3-magnitude quake hit the Xayaburi area.  Further away, in northern Myanmar, a 6.9 magnitude quake on March 24, 2011 killed 151 people.

Apparently, the earthquakes near Xayaburi occurred on what were thought to have been inactive faults, “an unusual development and one that causes additional concern.”  It is possible this may be related to dam-induced seismicity, another substantial concern many geologists bring up with regard to dam construction and seismicity.  This phenomenon has been documented as far back as 1932, and the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 has been suggested as being a result of this effect.  Tectonic movement isn’t a process that changes within the lifetimes of humans, and a trend of increasing seismicity is only likely to continue.  In fact, “some studies suggest that due to the high slip rate on this fault, future large earthquakes arehighly possible.”  While total dam failure is extremely unlikely, earthquakes will nonetheless be able to cause a lot of damage to dams, costing the dam companies millions.  Moving forward, it is imperative that more geologic and seismic studies are done of the northern Mekong basin.  This is especially true for dam construction companies as they construct dams; to do so in as safe and secure a way as possible.

 

Conclusion

Unfortunately, most of the scientific literature on the subjects of seismicity and sediment transport in the Mekong River point to the lack of research done thus far as a limiting factor for their own research.   While there has been a fair amount of research done, it is not sufficient to completely assess whether dams are safe to construct or not.  Based on preliminary findings, it seems that most earth scientists that have studied this region agree that they feel uneasy about the construction of dams and that more research needs to be done.  The construction of dams might ultimately be important for the development of Southeast Asian nations, but proper research needs to be done to ensure they are not irreparably damaging the river.  A worst-case scenario would consist of catastrophic dam failure due to an earthquake, which would in turn likely cause downstream dams to fail, and destroying any communities along the river.  The economic loss, not to mention the loss of life, would be disastrous.  Because of this risk, however small, research and engineering techniques should be paid for ahead of time by dam construction companies rather than afterwards with human lives and livelihoods.

 

References:

Ai, M., and M. Hong. 2011. Earthquake Shaking: 2011.

Clark, M. K., L. M. Schoenbohm, L. H. Royden, K. X. Whipple, B. C. Burchfiel, X. Zhang, W. Tang, E. Wang, and L. Chen. 2004. Surface uplift , tectonics , and erosion of eastern Tibet from large-scale drainage patterns. Tectonics 23:1–21.

Fawthrop, T. 2014, November 19. Experts renew quake fears over Xayaburi dam Mekong River in Laos. South China Morning Post. Xayaburi.

Fenton, C. H., P. Charusiri, and S. H. Wood. 2003. Recent paleoseismic investigations in Northern and Western Thailand 46(October).

Turner, B., J. Jenkins, R. Turner, A. L. Parker, A. Sinclair, S. Davies, G. P. Hayes, A. Villaseñor, R. L. Dart, A. C. Tarr, K. P. Furlong, and H. M. Benz. 2014. Seismicity of the Earth 1900 – 2010 Himalaya and Vicinity PA IN HA NA FA ST ARC 80225(303):80225.

Walling, D. E. 2008. The Changing Sediment Load of the Mekong River. A Journal of the Human Environment 37(3):150–157.

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Bottlenecks to Development: Challenges in the Mekong Delta

Last week, ExSE took a hard look at the environmental challenges facing the Mekong Delta region and found that the prospects are not good. Due to unenviable geography and global warming, rising sea levels, higher average temperatures and irregular precipitation patterns will all converge in the next 50 years to change the face of the Mekong Delta (MKD). That’s to say nothing of salinity intrusion, flooding and tropical storms. However, the MKD’s problems are not only environmental in nature; the region’s economy also faces a host of challenges, many of them tied to the Delta’s environmental changes.

Issues in the Mekong Delta are of course significant for its residents, but they also carry great importance for those outside the region because of the MKD’s role in national and regional food security. The statistics on the Delta are incredible. In an area taking up just 36,000 square kilometers (12 % of Vietnam’s total area), the Delta’s 22 million inhabitants plant 2.6 rice crops per year totaling 25 million tons of rice. The MKD’s rice production accounts for over half of Vietnam’s total and the seven million tons rice that the Delta exports has helped Vietnam become the world’s second largest rice exporter after Thailand. In addition, the Delta accounts for 70% of Vietnam’s fruit production and three-quarters of its fish catch.

The Delta’s massive agricultural output is no accident. The region is perfectly situated to receive large amounts of water and sediment from the three main stems of the Mekong Delta and the many thousands of canals that intersect them and a tropical temperature allows for farming year-round. What’s more, concerted efforts in the past 30 years to improve the region’s water infrastructure have doubled arable land in the MKD. Combined with advances in genetically modified rice strains, yields in the Delta have increased by 30% and total production has doubled, all within the past 20 years.

Incomes have also increased. According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO), the average income of Delta residents has gone from 50 cents USD/day in 1999 to $2/day in 2010 and the region reached it Millennium Development Goals in 2006. However, despite impressive improvements in agricultural output and per capita income, the Delta has lost ground to other regions of Vietnam and now lags behind in important measurements of human and economic development.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam.

In the late 1990’s, the Delta was actually 20% above the national average in per capita income. However more than 10 years later, the number stands at a little more than 80%. In the first decade of the new millennium, Vietnam underwent a period of intense economic growth through industrialization and people all over the country got richer as a result. The benefits of economic growth were not felt equally by everyone, however. Due to development bottlenecks, some regions, including the Mekong Delta, did not industrialize like others

One of these bottlenecks is a lack of infrastructure. The proportion of waterways, intra-provincial roads and inter-provincial roads per thousand people are all behind the national average. Of these three measures, the proportion of inter-provincial roads stands out. For one, there are only 0.34km of them per 1000 people in the Delta, standing at only half of the national average. This is especially important because of the nature of the Delta’s economy. The MKD, because its economy is so heavily concentrated in agriculture, lacks many necessary products and thus has a long history of importing and exporting nearly everything. While this may be good for enterprising middlemen, it is not good for the region’s economic development. With so few avenues for importing and exporting goods, the logisitical cost rises and because the MKD lacks so many raw materials, industrial development becomes disadvantageous. In fact, unless an investor is interested in agricultural processing, building a factory closer to Ho Chi Minh City is probably a better business plan in many cases.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

Measure of waterway, inter-provincial roads and intra-provincial roads in the Delta. Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

A second bottleneck, and another reason a potential investor might not consider the Delta, is a lack of skilled labor. Like the region’s road density, the MKD’s percentage of trained labor lags behind the national average; according to data collected by GSO (General Statistics Office of Vietnam) the Delta’s percentage of trained labor stood at just over half of the national average. In addition, the proportion of Delta residents with some sort of higher education stood at less than 1%, or in other words, just a fifth of the national average. With a workforce that is so poorly trained and educated, the Delta becomes an even less attractive region for investment, especially when compared to the populations near the Red River Delta (Hanoi and its environs) or Ho Chi Minh City.

What’s more, those Delta residents that have some technical training and/or higher education do not stay in the Delta for long. As the region’s economy falls farther behind the rest of Vietnam, more and more Delta residents are moving to urban centers to look for work. One of the main destinations for these people is Ho Chi Minh City, where over half of the city’s migrant workers come from the Mekong Delta. What trained labor the MKD might have ends up leaving the region for greener pastures, thus widening the gap between the Delta and places like Ho Chi Minh City.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

One reason that the MKD has such a low percentages of trained labor and educated inhabitants is that in the past there was no need for supplementary education of any form. In an environment where the annual rice yields are stable and prices are good enough, investing time and money for a new career is an unnecessary risk and one that Delta residents have not taken. Paddy rice cultivation requires little technical skill yet provides a modest, usually stable income. However, the income provided from rice is rarely enough to invest in the expansion of other industries and in the Delta’s case, the lack of infrastructure makes such an investment an even more expensive proposition.Unfortunately for the farmers of the Mekong Delta, rice cultivation is becoming a less and less stable enterprise. For one, the price of rice has dropped in the past decade. As more and more rice is produced worldwide, the seven tons of rice the Delta exports annually decreases in value and farmers lose out.

However, shifts in the world rice market are nothing compared to problems farmers face due to global warming. As detailed here, rising temperatures, sea level rise, an erratic precipitation and flood schedule and more frequent tropical storms all threaten to radically alter the Mekong Delta in the next century. The region already has enough impediments to development with its lack of infrastructure and trained labor; its environmental issues only add to the severity of the situation. The Delta, now more than ever, is in acute need of solutions. However, who’s coming up with these solutions, if there are any to begin with, is another question unto itself and one that needs to be answered before any future for the Mekong Delta can be imagined.

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A Flood of Challenges: Climate Change and the Mekong Delta

As loyal readers of ExSE have probably noticed by now, this site, at its core, is dedicated to Mekong River and the people who are connected to it. Thus it seems odd that so little attention has been given to the Mekong Delta on ExSE. As is the case with most international coverage of the Mekong, the upper and lower reaches of the river are largely ignored in favor of stories about hydropower projects and the livelihoods they will affect. However, the challenges that the Mekong Delta (MKD) is currently facing and will face in the future are also serious. These challenges are directly related to global warming and are shared with other deltas, though the unique geography and ecology of the Mekong makes the consequences of climate change here even graver. Continue reading

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Laos Agrees to Discuss Dam Project with Neighbors

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Laos has agreed to open a discussion with neighboring countries on the Don Sahong dam, but stopped short of saying it would delay construction on the controversial project.

In agreeing to the prior consultation, Laos is allowing input from the farmers and fishermen who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihood. It would also provide time for neighboring countries and opponents of the project to conduct a more comprehensive environmental impact study.

The announcement was made on Thursday during a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Bangkok. Representatives from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia — all members of the commission — participated in the meeting. The agreement provided no provision for delaying the project before an adequate environmental study could be completed.

“Prior consultation does not stipulate any condition on continuing or not continuing” construction of the dam, Hans Guttman, the commission’s chief executive officer, told reporters. Guttman said the prior consultation should begin in July, with the process expected to take about six months. He said Laos did not offer to delay construction on the dam, nor did neighboring countries ask for a delay during the consultation period.

The Laos delegation did not release a statement or meet with reporters following the daylong meeting. Laos has begun preliminary construction on infrastructure at the dam site, despite strong opposition from Vietnam and Cambodia, who requested a 10-year moratorium on dam construction on the Mekong mainstream until further studies could be completed.

Earlier, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand stated that the dam must undergo prior consultation, as required under the 1995 Mekong agreement, to which Laos is a signatory. The Don Sahong dam is being constructed in the mainstream part of the Mekong River in the southern province of Champasak, nearly two kilometers upstream from the Laos-Cambodia border.

Opponents of the project fear the dam will block the migration of fish and cause a steep drop in the flow of water to those living downstream. Nonn Panitvong, an adviser to the Green World Foundation, said plans to build several dams along the Mekong, would transform the river, the world’s second-most biodiverse river after the Amazon, “into a giant freshwater pond”.

“That would be the end of the Mekong River,” he said.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, called on neighboring countries to pressure Laos to delay construction until prior consultation is completed. “Neighboring countries must articulate to Laos their own intentions in what this process means, otherwise, the prior consultation process is likely to have missed the point entirely,” Trandem told ucanews.com.

Trandem said she hopes Laos proceeds with good faith rather than issue an “empty political statement”. “All construction should stop on the Don Sahong dam until a transboundary impact assessment is carried out and meaningful consultation takes place,” she said.

This article by Stephen Steele was originally posted here on June 27, 2014 on the UCA News website.

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Laos extradites drug suspects to Yunnan

Editors note: This article was originally written by Cissy Yu and published on Go Kunming. It is reprinted on Exse in its entirety. 

Yunnan has long been the country’s main entry point for illegal drugs. Despite increased interdiction efforts, international law enforcement cooperation and recent large-scale busts, it appears the province’s ‘Drug War‘ is becoming more costly and having only a small effect on the overall flow of narcotics across the border.

Last week, Lao police transferred five suspected members of a drug ring to Kunming in a display of cooperation between the two countries. Authorities originally detained the suspects in a joint police raid conducted on March 19, 2013, when a naval patrol seized more than 500 million yuan (US$82.3 million) worth of methamphetamines on the Mekong River.

China has been conducting patrols such as this with the help of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar since the “Mekong River Massacre” of October 2011. The attack, which killed 13 Chinese sailors, spurred Beijing to begin interdiction patrols along the river. Institution of the policy, although sanctioned by neighboring Southeast Asian countries, was the first time in three decades that Chinese forces have operated outside the nation’s borders without a United Nations mandate.

Although the drug lord responsible for the killings, Naw Kham, was sentenced and publicly executed in Kunming last year, illegal drug trafficking continues to run rampant in the border regions between Yunnan, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. Known as the Golden Triangle, the area supplies an estimated 60 to 70 percent of all drugs consumed in China. A United Nations surveyconducted last year reported that opium cultivation in the Triangle rose by 22 percent in 2013, largely driven by mounting demand from the mainland.

Yunnan’s 4,060-kilometer border with Golden Triangle nations presents a grim challenge for anti-drug personnel. According to Yunnan Net, 70 percent of methamphetamines confiscated in China last year were seized in Yunnan. Currently, there are 1.7 million registered drug addicts in the province, although the government acknowledges the actual numbers are much higher.

While heroin remains the most commonly smuggled drug on the border, methamphetamines — also known as ‘ice’ — are a fast-growing second. In Ruili, a border town infamous in the past for its heroin trade, methamphetamines now dominate the market. One dose of the crystals — known as bingdu (冰毒) in Chinese — reportedly costs as little as five yuan.

Yunnan’s narcotics officials, meanwhile, claim they have redoubled efforts to combat the drug trade. Provincial courts sentenced more than 5,020 suspects for drug crimes in 2013. Yet some officials have complained that the record numbers on trial have led to more lenient judgments. “A suspect who would get the death penalty elsewhere [in China] only gets several years of jail in Yunnan,” said a National People’s Congress deputy. “The judicial system should be punishing these people with an iron hand.”

Image: China Radio International

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Monsters in the Mekong

Construction of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

Construction of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

It will be a giant, stretching across the mighty Mekong River. Standing 32.6 metres tall and 820m wide, the $3.8 billion Xayaburi dam in Laos could supply electricity to more than three quarters of a million homes in Thailand. And when it’s completed in 2019, it will be the most controversial power project in the region.

Since the plan was released in 2010 to construct the hydroelectric plant, geologists and environmentalists have voiced concerns about safety and the effects the mega-dam will have on neighbours Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. They have highlighted the risks of seismic activity in the area and the threat to the fishing industry on the 3,100-mile long (4,900 kilometres) Mekong River, which flows from the Tibetan steppes into southern China on its way to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Continue reading

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A Casino at the Khone Falls in Laos?

Khone Falls in Siphandone, Laos.  Image: Corbis

Khone Falls in Siphandone, Laos. Image: Corbis

At the end of March 2014 the Lao PDR government will consider a proposal to build a special economic zone slated for tourism development and other unspecified commercial uses in Siphandone, one of the world’s most pristine and biodiverse areas.  The SEZ will showcase a casino located less than one kilometer from the famed Khone Falls, the largest in Southeast Asia.

“The Siphandone area is set to become a more sought after tourism destination with many more activities to experience,” remarked Buasone Vongsongkhone, Deputy Governor of Laos’ southern Champassak province on Monday, March 17 after a meeting to discuss the proposal.

Vongsongkhone said the plans for the SEZ will include a casino and other facilities in keeping up with developing tourism trends in the Siphandone and Khone Falls area while protecting the environment.

“At the meeting we discussed how to regulate the casino to ensure the zone has proper security.”

What Vongsongkhone did not discuss was the impact of the new SEZ on the relatively untouched ecosystem of the Siphandone area.  Siphandone, translated as “four thousand islands” is where the Mekong River fans out into a waterfall and islet ridden expanse more than 15 kilometers wide.  The sparsely populated area has been described as an environmental oasis and is home to numerous native fish and bird species.  The Khone falls area is the perhaps the last habitat where endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin can be found in the wild.

Satellite image of Siphandone.  Khone falls is the on left side of the image.  Google Earth

Satellite image of Siphandone. Khone falls is the on left side of the image. Google Earth

Laos’ growing reputation of holding some of our world’s last untouched natural areas and idyllic vacation spots has brought increases in international tourists to Siphandone area.  With the increase in tourism, the need for regulation and protection is obvious, but is marking a zone for economic development first and environmental protection second a sustainable approach or is it just another way for local Lao officials and outside investors to gain quick wealth through the exploitation of Laos’ abundance of resources?

Last week in an article in the Vientiane Times, the official English language outlet for Laos’ state controlled media reported “the government attaches great importance to developing SEZs to boost the country’s growth, which is crucial to lifting people out of poverty and enabling Laos to graduate from the list of least developed countries by 2020.”

Mock-up of the That Luang Marsh SEZ in Vientiane.

Mock-up of the That Luang Marsh SEZ in Vientiane.

The track record for SEZs in Laos, often dominated by Chinese and Vietnamese investment, is sketchy at best.  In Vientiane, construction of the That Luang Marsh SEZ (yet to begin commercial activities) has negatively impacted the local urban environment.  The natural wetland filters and holds the capital city’s waste water acting as a terminus of the city’s century-old waste canal system; many of these canals are now blocked by construction.  Much of the That Luang wetland areas has been filled in and long-time residents have noticed an average rise in temperatures as water is removed from the ecosystem. 

In Laos’ northern Bokeo province, the Golden Triangle SEZ dominated by the Chinese owned King Roman Casino complex has a seedy reputation as a conduit for money laundering from China and zone of human trafficking. The SEZ has scarred the scenic views of the Golden Triangle area, also known for its tourism, with open quarry mining and industrial development.

King Roman Casino along the Mekong in Bokeo Province, Laos

King Roman Casino along the Mekong in Bokeo Province, Laos

To make matters worse, the Siphandone area is slated for the construction of the 260 megawatt Don Sahong dam located  on the only of Siphandone’s Mekong channels that allows for the passage of hundreds of species of migratory fish.  In September 2013, the Lao PDR government notified the Mekong River Commission that the Don Sahong dam project would begin construction in 2014 despite years of protest and opposition by local and international environmental NGOs.

Eco-tourism opportunities such as river cruises, dolphin sighting tours, village homestays, and fishing demonstrations have brought sustainable sources of income to local communities in the Siphandone area for years.  Investors interested in building large resorts and casino complexes will likely be majority Chinese and Vietnamese taking more than they provide while leaving a stained and irreversible mark on one of the Earth’s most scenic spots.

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Book: The Mekong – Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future

The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future

Milton Osborne (Grove Press, 2000)

 

The Mekong, Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne is a critical introduction to the history, geography, and a slate of current issues facing the Mekong River basin.  Despite being written in 1999, the book is a must read for those looking for a primer to the myriad issues challenging the region.  Those more familiar with the Mekong region will find interest in the anecdotal observations of locations like Luang Prabang and Phnom Penh by locals and outsiders through the centuries as well as the personal perspectives of the Milton Osborne himself, a seminal authority on the Mekong and Southeast Asia.  PLUS, any book that begins with a description of drinking Beer Lao along the Mekong must be a good one.

Weaving the 2000 year history of a river and those living in its watershed into a 300 page narrative is no small task.  As a basic approach, Osborne selects contemporary themes prevalent to the region such as violent exploitation by outside groups, biodiversity losses, the protection of local and indigenous cultures, and the establishment of independent state and regionalism.  He then searches for the roots of these themes in both the historical record and contemporary experience.  The composite product is a rich chronology that begins with the rise and fall of classic empires like Angkor Wat, transitions to the exploits of the European Colonials up the river as they search for a river road to China, and finally pits emerging Mekong states in a battle with a contemporary rising China over the Mekong’s abundant endowment of resources.  The book by no means is a local history, but rather one of an outsider looking in, a familiar and recurrent theme utilized by Osborne to connect with his English speaking audience.

Part I of the book begins with the 13th century reflections of Chou Ta-kuan who made the only written documentation of the great Khmer kingdom at Angkor.  Chou’s observations, calling the Khmer “a coarse people, ugly and deeply sunburnt,” reveal prejudices of the hegemonic Chinese empire toward lesser and classic rice cultivating states to the south.  This reminds the reader at once of similar prejudices European colonials held toward Asians as well as the prevalent chauvinism that modern day Chinese often show toward their southern neighbors.  Osborne’s description of the Khmer empire highlights the critical linkage of the seasonal ebb and flow of the Mekong watershed’s Tonle Sap lake to sustaining the life of a historically unprecedented empire.  He accurately portrays that this natural phenomena of yearly flooding along the Mekong and its tributaries serves as lifeline to the abundance of fish species that nearly 60 million people rely on for sustenance in contemporary times.

The book excels as a historical narrative as Osborne introduces the steady stream of European influence over the region starting with exploits of the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th century and then, across a few of the books chapters, giving a detailed account of a 19th century failed French exploratory mission to find a way to navigate the river from its delta at the sea to upstream into China.  At the time of the book’s writing in 1999, Chinese engineers were blasting rapids in the upper reaches of the Mekong near the Golden Triangle to open trade river trade between China and Thailand, so the river exploration theme may have seemed more relevant then than now.  Yet even today local communities struggle to cope with the costs of foreign investment and imposed development practices.  The story of the not-so-successful Lagree-Garnier mission of the late 1850s reveals hubris of the French who discovered, at great cost of human life, that the river could not be used as a trade route to China.  Yet their meticulously recorded 15-month expedition produced the region’s first accurate topographic map, and picturesque illustrations by the expeditions’ engraver, Louis DelaPorte detail the dynamic cornucopia of human culture that was found then (and still exists) along the course of the Mekong.

In Part II, Osborne tells of the political and social upheaval of the Mekong region of the 20th century through his own experiences and those of his friends and colleagues, some of whom met a violent end in the decades of Cold War conflicts that plagued Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.  Arriving in Phnom Penh in 1959 on assignment by the Australian government, Osborn tells how he once (like many Southeast Asian leaders today) was excited about the prospects of the US’s plans to dam the Mekong.   Through first-hand, detailed accounts he portrays how the Vietnam War and the Cambodian conflict put an end to American sponsored hydropower cascades on the river.  This portion of the book also introduces readers not so familiar with the Vietnam War, the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the US’s Secret War with Laos to key events, political leaders, and suggests literature for further reading.

The irony of Part III, an exposition on future concerns toward the Mekong, is although it was written 14 years ago, so little has changed of the rhetoric and concern towards the future of the Mekong.  Much of this portion is spent discussing the details and impacts of China’s dams on the Mekong on downstream fisheries and communities – a theme that still pervades the current literature on Mekong issues.  This suggests little progress has been made on issues that were not only apparent in the mid-1990s, but in retrospect, apparent in the 1950s when the US planned to dam the Mekong.  Osborne discusses the lack of political gravitas displayed by the Mekong River Commission, the coordinating body responsible for the river’s maintenance and development made up of the four lower basin member states of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.   He introduces salinization of the Mekong Delta and the potential costs that will be burdened by local communities through increases of regional transportation infrastructure such as highways and bridges built across the Mekong for the purpose of trade facilitation.  Most Mekong scholars would agree that the circumstances surrounding these key contemporary issues have only worsened since the time of the book’s writing.

The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Troubled Future is a must read and good starting point for all students of the Mekong and its narrative is as significant now as it was in 2000 at the time of its publishing.  More importantly, the book leads the reader to more exhaustive texts like the Cambridge History of Southeast Asia and sets the reader to explore a widening pathway of issues developing in the Mekong basin.  The book also serves as an excellent travel companion for those backpacking through the region.  Travelers will be surprised to see how much the urban spaces, like Phnom Penh, Jinghong, and Dali described in the book by its various characters throughout the centers have changed and enticed by how much cultural cores, like sleepy Luang Prabang, have not.

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