“Last Days of the Mighty Mekong” by Brian Eyler

Water Mekong Mountains River Misty Mist Boat

Brian Eyler isn’t a fan of dams, perhaps any of them, but at least not those that are, or may be, on the Mekong.

His opposition is far from unjustified: whatever their (sometimes overestimated) merits, dams’ deleterious consequences range from from those, such as displacement of populations, that are at least predictable and can be planned for, to others, such as changes in water flow and sedimentation which are the result of complex systems, for which even the best attempts at mitigation may end up mistargeted. In the case of the Mekong, where the interests of upstream and downstream players diverge, and some countries are simultaneously both upstream and downstream, there is a tendency to see water resources as zero-sum.

 

Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, Brian Eyler (Zed Books, February 2019)
Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, Brian Eyler (Zed Books, February 2019)

Eyler’s dramatically titled The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong is two books threaded together. One is travel-writing, albeit collected from several trips to China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam over more than a decade. The other is a treatise, mostly environmental, but also social, on the effects of dam-driven economic development with some detours into Southeast Asian politics in general.

The former covers everything from the effects of tourism in Tibetan Yunnan and the penetration of Christianity in the Mekong’s upper reaches to an extensive section on the Akha, which might have formed the basis for a book of its own. Intermingled are observations of people whose lives have been overturned by relocation due to damming and the often cavalier attitude of governments and dam-builders toward resettlement: inadequate compensation, infertile land, torn-up communities, déjà vu, perhaps, to anyone who following the building of the Three Gorges dam.

Passages, some quite long, on fish breeding, sedimentation, salinization, flooding, agricultural economics, shrimp farming, regional electricity markets, Cambodian politics, etc. enter as sidebars to the travelogue, or perhaps the other way around. The dams tend to silt up. If overfishing doesn’t do the giant Mekong catfish in, the changes wrought by the dams might. The various dams are likely to change the particular hydrology of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake with untold effects on fisheries and agriculture. Eyler explains these well. Few are uplifting.

 

The reportage and travel-writing provide color, a sense of place and personal contact, as well as a narrative structure—we travel down the Mekong with Eyler, despite the fact that the “trip” is a collage of multiple visits—to the analysis; or perhaps the analysis provides depth to the narrative. Neither however feels quite complete: a travel-writer would have had travel as the main objective while a book focusing on the science of the river would have including analyses from other dams and rivers elsewhere. The Three Gorges are not mentioned, nor are the Chinese dams on the Brahmaputra; while each river is unique, the problems encountered by and along the Mekong parallel these others and are part of a larger issue.

This is not deny that Eyler has have a point, or indeed several, or that he expresses them well and with evident feeling, but the structural difficulty is that Eyler has selected which interviews to conduct and include: missing are the families whose houses are lit from the hydro-electricity from the dams, the factory workers who now have air-conditioning, the farmers who may now have better irrigation, the students in the schools funded by the taxes. And some of the problems he details, such as overfishing or poor urban planning in Phnom Penh, are not directly, if at all, the result of manipulating the river: some are just due to development, some greed (and not always by the elite).

There are trade-offs; I do not myself know how hydropower compares in the environmental balance sheet with fossil fuels, but at least the marginal kWh is largely carbon-neutral. Perhaps wind and solar (which have their own environmental drawbacks) will overtake hydro in overall cost, but perhaps not.

 

It is unclear what can be done about this. The status quo ante, even if there were such a thing, isn’t an option. Eyler’s concludes with philosophy rather than practicality:

 

I hope that the concept of connectivity has the most sticking power with readers. Connectivity is a way to think about the river as a system linked from its tributaries to its mainstream to the land surrounding it and to the ocean. With connectivity as a starting point for thinking about how to manage and conserve a river system, environmental flows come to the forefront of any discussion. Connectivity is not just a way to think about the Mekong but also a highly effective paradigm for thinking about conserving the world’s rivers regardless of their size.

 

The point is hardly disputable, but upstream countries have every incentive to treat the water in their part of the river as their own. Dams, furthermore, are a classical case of economic externalities, even more intractably when the benefits accrue to one country, while the damages accrue downstream in another. Laos suffers the effects of Chinese dams while proceeding to have dams built on its stretches of the river.

Calls for multilateral cooperation ring a bit hollow when they hail from countries who haven’t been able to make meaningful progress on the even worse problem of climate change. China may want to manipulate its part of the Mekong for domestic development; whatever one may say about that, it is more excusable than prior (largely unsuccessful) attempts to manipulate the river in furtherance of colonial control.

The brightest spot in a rather gloomy book is probably the increased involvement of regional experts and leaders. If these really are the last days of the mighty Mekong, that would be sad, but it is ultimately up to the people of the countries involved to deal with it.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.