Charting the Mekong's Changes

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Article was reported in TIME Magazine

The nets yield almost no fish today, the same as yesterday and the day
before that. For generations, Bun Neang’s family has depended on the
bounty of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, a vast lake fed by one of the world’s
greatest rivers, the Mekong. Two decades ago, his father could rely on
a daily catch totaling about 65 lbs. (30 kg). When the water gods were
feeling particularly charitable, he would land a Mekong catfish, a
massive bottom-feeder that can weigh as much as a tiger. But today,
when Bun Neang dips his net into the caramel-hued waters near Chong
Koh village, all the 30-year-old can hope for is a few kilos of
sardine-sized fish. Overfishing is partly to blame. But Bun Neang
knows of another reason Tonle Sap’s big game have all but disappeared.
“China,” he says of the country that is now tiny Cambodia’s biggest
foreign investor and economic patron. “Instead of sharing the Mekong,
they dam the river and keep it for themselves.”

For millenniums, China hardly touched the mighty Mekong, content to
let its raging headwaters flow unimpeded from the Tibetan plateau down
through Laos, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But over the past
few years, the emergent superpower has begun turning the world’s 12th-
longest river into a highway for regional commerce and a source of
hydroelectric power. For many Indochinese entrepreneurs, increased
China trade and investment has allowed a backward region to
participate in their upstream neighbor’s remarkable economic
expansion. Southeast Asian governments hope China will share the
electricity it will harness after a series of massive dams on the
upper Mekong are completed in the nation’s western Yunnan province.
Two have already been built. At least six more are planned.

But for tens of millions of residents downstream, China’s efforts to
manage the Mekong also threaten their way of life. An astounding 17%
of all fish caught in inland waters worldwide come from this generous
river, while 90% of the basin’s residents are subsistence farmers who
largely depend on the Mekong’s nutrient-rich waters to feed their
fields. Yet Chinese dams, along with engineering projects to make the
river navigable by larger vessels, have begun to ravage the river’s
ecology by blocking sediment and producing unnatural water flows that
dissuade fish migration and spawning. The nonprofit Southeast Asian
Rivers Network estimates that fish stocks on the Thai-Laos border have
already declined by half because of Chinese activity. Farmers, too,
complain that the once-predictable floods needed to nourish their
paddies have been disrupted by the two existing Chinese dams – and the
cavalcade of future hydropower projects will only make things worse.
“You can’t talk about the Mekong today without talking about China,”
says Carl Middleton, a Bangkok-based consultant for environmental
watchdog International Rivers Network. “So much that’s happening on
the river, whether it’s economic, social or environmental, can be
linked to China’s rise.”

Snaking its way from the icy reaches of Tibet to tropical rice paddies
near the South China Sea, the Mekong serves as the lifeblood for 70
million people in six different countries. The river’s wetlands alone
cover an area the size of Ireland, while its fish diversity is rivaled
only by the Amazon. But even as many of the world’s other majestic
rivers – the Nile, the Yangtze, the Mississippi – were efficiently
exploited for trade or hydropower, the 3,000-mile (4,800-km) Mekong
has until recently largely escaped the imprint of the modern world.
During the colonial era, treacherous rapids stymied expeditions hoping
to uncover its upstream secrets, leaving the waterway for local
fishermen and farmers. By the mid-1900s, when the West was forced to
withdraw from Indochina, the Mekong had become a byword for the
failure of modern military might against dogged resistance forces
nourished by the river’s gifts.

The Mekong is not so unyielding these days. In 2001, Chinese crews,
brought in by Southeast Asian governments eager to increase traffic
and trade, began blasting and dredging a stretch of the river running
from Burma and Laos to Thailand, clearing away islands, reefs and
rapids that once blocked the passage of ships. Since then, sleepy
Southeast Asian river ports have morphed into boomtowns, with boats
from China disgorging cheap electronics, fruits, vegetables and every
kind of plastic gadget imaginable. River traffic runs both ways: in
December 2006, the first shipment of refined oil chugged up the Mekong
bound for energy-hungry China, opening up a potential alternative
shipping route to avoid the pirate-infested Straits of Malacca through
which roughly half of its imported oil now passes. And with China
needing somewhere to park its ballooning foreign-exchange reserves,
the riverfront capitals of Phnom Penh and Vientiane now gleam with
Chinese-built roads, buildings and other infrastructure. The torrent
of investment will likely grow even greater next year when Chinese
construction workers finish building a 1,100-mile (1,800-km) Yunnan-
Bangkok highway that parallels a section of the Mekong. “Chinese are
natural businessmen,” says Liu Jingchun, a Chinese boat captain who
transports goods between Yunnan and northern Thailand. “For so many
years, we shut ourselves off from doing business. Now that we’re
allowed to trade again, it’s like a giant floodgate has opened.”

Few places on the Mekong have changed so dramatically as has the
northern Thai river port of Chiang Saen. Located near the Golden
Triangle, the point on the Mekong where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet,
Chiang Saen was for centuries a drowsy temple town. But when Chinese
engineers opened up the river by blasting nearby reefs, trade
exploded. Laborers from all three Golden Triangle nations converged on
the docks looking for work. A few years ago, only boats carrying less
than 100 tons of goods could navigate this stretch of the Mekong –
hardly worth the trip. Now, ships can handle triple that amount – and
when other reefs are removed in the coming months, they will be able
to transport even more. The knock-on effects of the China trade are
big, too. A giant casino opened last year to cater to the Chinese
tourists pouring from Mekong ferries into northern Thailand, and
Sichuan restaurants crowd the Chiang Saen riverside. At local
institutes, Mandarin classes have become as popular as English ones.
“If you want to be successful in business here, you need to learn
Mandarin,” says Sittichai, a school director. So frenzied is the China
trade that the Chiang Saen government is building a $63 million
container port that’s set to open in a few years’ time, replacing the
current port, which is itself only three years old. “Because of China,
we have been able to breathe life back into Chiang Saen,” says
Ratchaphol Ornnim, the local chief customs inspector.

More than 250 miles (400 km) downriver, China Inc. is also reshaping
Laos’ riverside capital, Vientiane. The landlocked nation has been
shunned by many international investors as one of the world’s last
remaining hard-line socialist regimes. But what others consider a
pariah state, China sees as an ideological soul mate and business
partner. The biggest thoroughfare in Vientiane, as well as the
capital’s main park and the National Cultural Hall, were all built
with money given to the city by the Beijing government. More than
3,000 Chinese laborers are also busy constructing a national stadium,
the centerpiece of Laos’ debut as host of the 2009 Southeast Asian
Games. “Laos is profiting from China’s own development path,” says Sun
Lei, the president of the Lao-China Business Association and owner of
the Mekong Hotel in downtown Vientiane. “Without China’s help and
advice, Laos would be much more backward.”

Private Chinese cash is flowing in as well. More than 20,000 Chinese
now work in Laos, up from a few hundred a decade ago. Some are farmers
who were lured by land so cheap they can grow rubber, corn and fruit
and sell their crops back home at a profit. Others have grander
ambitions. Lin Bo graduated this spring with an accounting degree from
the Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics in Eastern China, and
he has come to make his fortune along the Mekong. “Many students at my
university had never even heard of Laos,” says the 24-year-old, who
with his family has rented a space to sell mainland products at China
Business and Goods City, an $18 million wholesale market and shopping
complex that just opened in Vientiane. “But for traders, it doesn’t
matter where you go. Everywhere in the world, people need to buy and
sell things.”

Not all Southeast Asians are quite as sanguine about the flourishing
trade. Memories of imperial domination still haunt Vietnam, which was
colonized by China and repelled invading Chinese troops as recently as
1979. In Cambodia, many still remember the People’s Republic’s
patronage of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which oversaw the deaths
of an estimated one-quarter of the population. And even in countries
with less complicated historical ties to China, suspicions of an
economic overpowering endure. Farmers in northern Thailand complain
that they cannot compete with the influx of cheap Chinese-grown
garlic, apples and onions. Even Thai customs official Ratchaphol
expresses reservations about the future container port he is helping
oversee. “We don’t get many of the benefits,” he says. “Most of our
own people are not very educated, so the Chinese just bring in their
own employees.”

Such concerns are mystifying for the dirt-streaked farmers who are
loading their produce onto ships in Guanlei, the Yunnan port from
which most Chinese goods set sail down the Mekong. “I’ve heard it’s
hard to grow crops in the countries downriver,” says Wu Zhencha, who
has arrived in Guanlei with boxes of broccoli destined for Thailand
and who is unaware that the Mekong basin is, in fact, one of the most
fertile regions on earth. Because of the trade with Indochina, Wu’s
village now boasts a paved road linking it to the highway. Modern
pleasures like electricity and television have followed. “I live a
day’s journey from the river,” says Wu, “but my life still depends on
it.”

Deep in the verdant mountains of Yunnan province, an army of 10,000
workers, some wearing prison-labor uniforms, are toiling on a
construction site of enormous proportions. In 2010, this remote
section of the Mekong will be transformed into a placid reservoir,
drowning the jagged gorges that now cradle the river. Constructed by
the Huaneng Group, China’s biggest power producer, Xiaowan dam is the
nation’s second-largest power project after the Three Gorges. As the
biggest of the eight dams China plans for its portion of the Mekong,
Xiaowan will dwarf the two hydropower projects that have already been
built in Yunnan. Given that half the Mekong basin’s water comes
directly from China during the dry season, scientists worry that
Xiaowan will act as a spigot that controls the destiny of millions of
people in five countries. Environmental groups estimate that 35% of
the silt that’s needed to fertilize floodplains down south may be
obstructed by the dam – distressing news for a region that depends on
the Mekong for 80% of its protein needs and, in the lower river basin,
rice production.

Yet many Chinese can’t quite fathom the Mekong’s importance to other
countries. “This is our part of the river, so we should be able to do
what we want with it,” says Hu Tao, a geological engineer who has
worked at Xiaowan for two years. “The other countries can do what they
want with their sections of the river.” In some ways, Hu’s
indifference is understandable. Roughly half the Mekong lies in China,
but for most of that length its waters are too swift to support barge
traffic or wide-scale fishing. (The Chinese name for the river,
Lancang, means “turbulent.”) The only real benefit humans can coax out
of this stretch of water is hydroelectric power – and until recently
the river’s remoteness discouraged even that. “In China, the Mekong is
not the same river as it is down in the basin,” notes Eric Baran, a
research scientist based in Phnom Penh for the nonprofit World Fish
Center. “Here in Cambodia, it is a matter of life and death. In China,
it is just another river – and not even a very major one.”

But with China’s energy needs soaring even in underdeveloped provinces
like Yunnan, the Mekong is potent enough to be exploited for
electricity. Some of that power, ironically, will be exported to
countries like Thailand, where hydroelectric projects are
controversial and have been blocked by ecologically minded citizens.
Huaneng doesn’t have to worry about public interference. The state-
owned company is run by the well-connected son of China’s former
Premier, Li Peng. And with no shareholders calling for environmental-
impact surveys or feasibility studies, Huaneng rarely makes public
details of its plans until just months before it breaks ground. (The
company declined requests for an interview.)

Nor does the Chinese government feel the need to consult its southern
neighbors. Beijing has refused to join the Mekong River Commission,
which was formed 12 years ago by four other riparian nations. (Burma
is also not a member.) “I think China doesn’t want to join the
commission because then there will be environmental expectations,”
says the International River Network’s Middleton. “But when the
biggest country at the source of the river isn’t part of the
commission, it makes the group basically toothless.”

That sense of helplessness extends to many in Yunnan as well. The
Xiaowan project has forced 35,000 people from their homes, often with
minimal compensation. Wang Zhengjun was uprooted in 2004 from his
farmland on the banks of the Mekong with only six months’ notice.
Although he was provided a new house by Huaneng, the 42-year-old says
it’s much smaller than his old one – and it doesn’t come with the
fertile soil that supported his family for generations. Villagers were
told the dam would be a financial boon to local residents. But Wang
and others contend that the best jobs have gone to migrant laborers.
Locals, many of whom are members of China’s disenfranchised ethnic
minorities, tend to earn less than half of what even the lowest paid
outside workers get. “They promised us jobs, money, everything,” says
Wang, sitting in the ramshackle village overlooking the dam-
construction site that is now his home. “But they have delivered us
nothing.”

China’s dam building isn’t limited to its sovereign stretch of the
river. In June, the Laotian government gave initial approval for a
$1.7 billion dam on the Mekong that will be built by two Chinese power
companies. Another Chinese firm is conducting a feasibility study for
a Mekong power project in Cambodia, in an area where other foreign
companies have been reluctant to invest because of the adverse
ecological impact. Several other Mekong tributary dams in Southeast
Asia will be financed by China Exim Bank, the nation’s largest credit
agency, which has invested in power projects with the enthusiasm of
the Great Depression-era U.S. government.

These dams may boost economic growth in developing countries facing
severe energy crunches. Vietnam, for example, suffers from chronic
electricity shortages, and compared with coal-fired and oil-burning
plants, hydropower is a relatively clean and inexpensive solution. But
dams also have severe, long-term environmental consequences. Vietnam’s
Mekong Delta, where the river finally meets the sea, is a vast web of
waterways that serves as a giant rice bowl, providing the nation with
half of its total agricultural output. Yet in part because of the
increasing number of dams reducing the flow of the river, salt water
from the South China Sea has begun traveling up the Mekong. The influx
of brackish water over the past few years has ravaged farms and
fisheries. This spring in the delta’s Mo Cay district, Nguyen Thi Hong
and her husband watched helplessly as salt water infiltrated their
fish farms and fields. During the worst 10-day stretch, 100 catfish
died a day, while their entire aquatic-vegetable crop withered. “Our
pigs and cows are still sick from drinking the salty water,” says
Hong, who lives about 30 miles (50 km) inland. “Nothing was spared.”

Even as one way of life begins to fade, another springs into
existence. For so long, the Mekong Delta, despite its riverine
abundance, has been scarred by a grueling cycle of war and poverty.
Today, the area is welcoming Chinese investors, who have flocked to
newly constructed industrial zones where Vietnamese factory workers
churn out motorcycles, shoes and televisions. This year, a $1 billion
industrial park funded by some 40 Chinese businesses is set to open
near the South China Sea, providing jobs for tens of thousands of
Vietnamese. Like the rest of the country, the delta has a booming
young population that is profiting from Vietnam’s economic reforms.
For this striving generation, their homeland’s historic enmity with
China is all ancient stuff. Do Quang Tranh speaks of how magnificent
imported Chinese products are, describing in wonderment the “beauty of
Chinese-made bricks.” If he had his wish, this farmer would trade his
fields for a job in a Chinese-invested factory – even though his
village’s elderly commune chief warns against “that frightening
country up north.” The ebb and flow of the Mekong has both blessed and
cursed the people of the Delta. For Tranh and other Vietnamese, they
can only hope to profit from what the river now brings to Vietnam’s
shores: the energy of China’s economic expansion, and the lure of a
better life.