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Interview: China’s Mekong Dam-building Mindset ‘Exported Downstream’ to Cambodia and Laos

The Mekong River extends for thousands of miles through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, supporting more than 65 million people who depend on it for food, transportation, and commerce. But development, mostly led by China, threatens to upset the delicate balance between local communities and the river's rich ecosystem.

On Monday, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a platform for regional cooperation among the countries along the key regional waterway, kicked off a two-day forum in Bangkok, Thailand for stakeholders to discuss sustainable transboundary water management amid challenges including a lack of information sharing on upstream dam construction, flooding, decreased fish stocks, and illegal fishing.

Brian Eyler, Southeast Asia program director of the Washington-based Stimson Center, recently sat down with RFA's Khmer Service to discuss his new book, The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, which he wrote based on interviews with policymakers, members of civil society, and residents of riparian communities, conducted along the river from its source to its delta. He cautions against an 'automatic discrimination' by urban, mostly Chinese, developers who he says must better appreciate the needs of communities that rely on the Mekong to ensure sustainable development of the river, and warns that the 'window of opportunity' to do so is running out.

RFA: What inspired you to write this book about the Mekong River and what is your interest in the region?

Eyler: This book was a process that came about over a period of four years and I began to write it when I both saw that there was a short window of opportunity to discuss a sustainable future for the Mekong and to identify some alternative options for development in the Mekong. And at the same time, there are many communities that needed to be identified�individuals working at the community level and at the local level who are struggling, who are being impacted by upstream developments like hydropower projects or high-speed rails or highways or poorly planned agricultural policies. Some of them are, like I said, struggling to cope and adapt with what's happening around them. Others are leading the way and finding sustainable solutions. So as the window is still open for identifying and moving forward smart solutions, I thought it was important to tell the stories of those who are identifying and taking those solutions forward�often at the local level�as well as those who are being negatively impacted.

RFA: What are the key takeaways that you would like your readers to know about the Mekong River?

Eyler: One of the key takeaways is that, despite there being a stack of peer-reviewed studies that show that building lots of upstream dams on the Mekong will be devastating for Cambodia's fisheries, Vietnam's agricultural productivity, and Cambodia's agricultural productivity as well, unfortunately there are very few at the decision-making level who are recognizing this risk and then driving forward for an alternative pathway of development.

The second is that despite the, I would say, uninformed and poorly constructed pathways for development in the region, those that impact communities and natural resource spaces, there are communities that can look at the factors that are impacting them, work together to identify a way forward, whether it's for developing organic agriculture or whether it's for protecting local fisheries so that they can conserve these things, and they can thrive and survive. Often it takes a very wise leader to drive the process forward. I also found that teaming up with international organizations can promote sustainable development.

Chinese development model

RFA: How do you view the whole Chinese development model in the Mekong River system, especially for downstream countries, affecting the environment and cooperation in the region?

Eyler: The first four chapters of this book take place in China and the purpose is to explore how Chinese dam developers, as well as policymakers, think about their own portion of the Mekong and how that isn't so much different than the way that Chinese developers and policymakers think about the downstream countries. And I try to get into the logic of a Chinese dam developer or an accountant that's thinking about resettlement for ethnic upland people and how there's a big mismatch between how the city-dwelling, lowland accountant or engineer thinks about the needs of the ethnic upland people, who have a very different livelihood than the lowland city dwellers. And I talk about the sort of automatic discrimination that's built into that.

Also how engineers view land like the mountains and rivers of Yunnan province in China, and basically see it as a dam builder's dreamscape. It's perfect for building dams in their eyes, regardless of what else happens there in terms of being a homeland for millions of ethnic upland people.

And that's exported downstream. That type of logic and rationale is how these Chinese engineers are talking to Laos' government. 'You can dam your river. You can make a lot of income out of this. It will pay off for you in the future. We'll build those dams for you.' The same messaging is happening in Cambodia It's these biases that are built into the Chinese mind of seeing and using and building out land and space that are exported to Laos and Cambodia. And there are plenty of people in Laos and Cambodia that believe that rationale.

Commercial transport route

RFA: If [the Chinese] try to transform the whole Mekong River into a navigational route for commercial transport from China to Southeast Asia, what will be the impact for the region?

Eyler: This is an ambition that Chinese policymakers have had for almost 20 years, maybe even longer, to turn the river into a navigation pathway for large cargo ships coming out of China, maybe even getting all the way to the mouth of the river in the Mekong Delta [in Vietnam]. There are chokepoints that are physically impossible for these ships to pass. One is in the Golden Triangle, the other is where Laos meets Cambodia. You've got waterfalls and rapids and those have to be blasted if the cargo ships are to pass, or there has to be detours�canals to get the ships around. If those are blasted, or if detours are built, then yes, the Mekong could turn into a transportation superhighway.

And then we'd need to think about the impacts on how towns and cities in Laos are going to develop as the result of this. Certainly they could bring a lot of economic benefit. But having that amount of passenger traffic and cargo traffic and boats on the river are certainly also going to have an impact on pollution, water quality, an impact on one of the most biodiverse river in the world in terms of fish, with 1,000 migratory fish species passing through there. And one last point is that it is not China's decision to do this�it's the local countries' decision to do this.

Copyright (copyright) 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

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