Why is the Mekong river so vital, and what is happening to it?
I’ve been following changes in the Mekong for last fifteen years, much through the lens of China’s slow creep into Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam with plans to open new markets and build highways and dams to harness the Mekong’s resources. Over time I realized these plans could put an end to the Mekong’s unique natural and cultural milieu and wanted to write a book that captures these impacts, dives into the region’s rich history, and illustrates the ecosystem processes that make the Mekong mighty.
The Mekong basin is home to 70 million people, many of whom rely on resources coming directly out of the river’s system. For example the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia produces the largest inland catch of fish anywhere in the world, and most Cambodians get their protein from that annual fish catch. Dams upstream in China, Laos, and Cambodia threaten this important harvest to the extent that an already fragile Cambodia could destabilize once again. It’s also likely that readers of this book consume fish, shrimp, or rice from the basin, regardless of their positions on the globe; if the flow of these goods is to be sustained into the future, then all global consumers should be concerned about the future of the Mekong.
But I also wanted to tell the stories of the people who are fighting for a positive outcome in the Mekong and show that it’s not too late to apply smart and sustainable methods to preserve the Mekong’s abundance. I also wanted to write a book that would appeal to someone traveling through the Mekong region, a decision maker sitting in halls of government, or any reader curious about a part of the world that gets less attention than it should.
Tell us something we don’t know about the catastrophic environmental degradation in the Mekong region.
Vietnam’s Mekong delta, a rich agricultural zone the size of Denmark and home to 18 million people, is disappearing at a rate of about 450 football fields a year. The impacts of upstream dams, some of them more than two thousand kilometres away, along with unchecked sand-mining is causing the delta to lose its geological integrity. The seas around the delta are rising from climate change and the ground sinks when local farmers extract groundwater. By the end of the century, most of the Mekong Delta could be gone. After four decades of failed approaches, Vietnam is now plotting a new course to protect its Delta, but success hinges on upstream cooperation and assistance from the rest of the world.
Are there any myths or legends about the river that play a big role in the local communities to this day?
While conducting interviews in northern Thailand, I learned of the legend of the Bulaheng, a fabled giant whose footprints formed the flat, arable valleys of the Golden Triangle. Bulaheng is the steward of the Mekong, and he showed the communities along it how to conserve forested lands and the resources of the river. The myths of the myriad communities of the Mekong basin are filled with spirits and legends, some good and some evil, that serve to maintain a natural order.
What did you uncover in the process of writing the book, something you weren’t expecting?
I set to explore four major themes: cultural change, management (mostly poor) of the Mekong’s abundant natural resources, rural to urban migration, and climate change. What I didn’t intend to find was troubling evidence of China’s economic and environmental encroachment at nearly every corner of my inquiry. To be sure, the book details dynamism in the Mekong region unrelated to China’s rise, but in a region historically tied to outside influences, I believe I discovered that China’s current influence eclipses any others.
Tell us about your writing habits when writing Last Days of Mighty Mekong.
This book represents under-represented voices of the Mekong basin and tells their stories of change and resistance in their own words. To capture this, I took multiple trips to the region over the course of about four years. I had been researching economic and environmental changes in the Mekong basin for years previous, but the insights of my interviewees wholly changed how I see the Mekong as a historical and cultural space.