NPR’s Mekong Series


Recently NPR’s Michael Sullivan and photographer Christopher Brown traveled from the source of the Mekong River in China to its outlet in the South China Sea.
They split up the journey based on the countries the river passes through, going from China, to Myanmar, to Laos & Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
The five articles are an excellent overview of the Mekong River and cultures, history, and economic transitions that it passes through.  There are also many interesting themes that I have pulled out.
It is clear that China is expanding its regional hold through modern economic colonialism in new Tibetan towns, vice-industries (prostitution, casinos, drugs) in Myanmar, Laotian construction contracts, and acquisition of Thai rice crops.
Some parts of the Mekong are welcoming this expansion of influence, while others are more wary.  The economic benefits of Chinese wealth spreading out positively effect the expansion of tourism, gambling, and demand for resources such as timber and food (both from farm and fish).  However, the externalities of these activities, including untreated sewage and trash dumped into the river from expanding cities, and the loss of resource wealth carried north on barges to China.
These issues will inevitably influence the stance of the Mekong River Commission which I suggest is a useful organization for uniting the downstream riparians to have a dialogue with China.


The message of population pressure is clear throughout this article, from the expansion of Han Chinese towns into the Mekong headwaters of the Tibetan Plateau, to Cambodian Tonle Sap fisherman who are overfishing juvenile fish before they spawn.
The consequences of population pressure are also clearly evident: rapidly depleting fisheries, disease burden from HIV/AIDS, inadequate water resources for farming, and pollution of the river.
These issues are only likely to expand as all of these nations are growing, and China has even begun to export its own population, both officially and unofficially, to satellite cities throughout the downstream Riparians

It seems evident that throughout the basin, food security is currently, and will grow to be, a major basin-wide issue.  China is currently the biggest, and richest, game in town.  And it is a large purchaser of food and fish from many of the downstream countries.

As the section on improvements in river transport infrastructure suggest, there is a strong likelihood that China’s appetite (literally) will cause the Mekong’s water resources to flow upstream back to China, in the form of fish, rice, and other food crops.
It remains to be seen whether these dynamics will be sustainable in the long-run, with downstream farmers and fisherman increasingly exporting crops to China, rather than selling to local, domestic markets.
It should be noted that although this article does not discuss the current drought, the 2010 drought has been covered in many articles, including this recent piece on the Mekong River running dry, and my recent post.  With the increased climate variability induced by climate change, the historical range of variability may not necessarily be relied upon into the future.
This is an excellent snap shot of the current economic, cultural, and resource situation throughout the basin.  What it lacks in facts and figures, it makes up for in useful anecdotes that add necessary detail and texture to a complex basin.

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