‘Last Days of the Mighty Mekong’ and ‘Dead in the Water’

February 5, 2020

BookShelf: ‘Last Days of the Mighty Mekong’ and ‘Dead in the Water’

By Brian Eyler 
Zed Books, $95


Edited by Bruce Shoemaker and William Robichaud
University of Wisconsin Press, $79.95

Reviewed by Melody Kemp

These two vitally important books could be considered epitaphs to dying rivers, as nations struggle with the dual demands of food and energy.

I live along the legendary Mekong River. A brown ribbon of heavily sedimented water, it meanders only 50 meters from my front door.

I walk along its shoreline each morning, passing through Buddhist temples while young monks sweep away the night’s fallen leaves. I nod at familiar fishermen returning empty-handed from their pirogues, buy bread and vegetables from traders on motorbikes. 

I feel a sense of awe and privilege that I am so proximate to the famous old woman, Mah Khong, “Mother Mekong,” as she is sometimes known. 

But that awe is increasingly dominated by a sense of finality. Lately, the Mekong has not been herself. 

Books about rivers have been typically boy’s own tales, the type that Eric Newby could tell.  John Keay’s 2006 book, “Mad About the Mekong: Exploration and Empire in South East Asia,” conveys a rhapsodic account of the history and geography of this river. 

But now the narrative is changing. 


A vital river, much reduced

“Last Days of the Mighty Mekong” and “Dead in the Water: Global Lessons From the World Bank’s Model Hydropower Project in Laos” are symptomatic of the dangerous upheavals that the Mekong region is undergoing. 

The Mekong is not just a river. It’s an international boundary and the source of life for some 60 million people. But the consequences of the structural and geopolitical changes, as outlined in these two books, put the future of the region in jeopardy. 

Institutional arrogance, corruption, repression and the neocolonial entrance of China, with its arrogant lack of concern for socio-cultural issues, make at times for depressing reading. 

It’s perhaps why Eyler is reticent to prescribe solutions as he knows all too well the lack of motivation, skills or capacity of the regional governments. It’s all about money and power. 

Despite the well-documented failings of hydropower structures so far built, many more are on the way.

Until two or three years ago, the river would rise and fall about 10 meters annually as the seasons regulated its height and ferocity.

The many Chinese and local hydroelectricity dams stilled the seasonal variations. Now the changes in height are almost imperceptible.


Recent aerial photographs show 

a pathetic river reduced 

to a slow-moving stream.


In 2019, the annual Ok Phansa boat races that mark the end of Buddhist Lent had to be relocated south, as the water in the river that fringes the capital of Vientiane was deemed too shallow.

Recent aerial photographs show a pathetic river reduced to a slow-moving stream. 

Eyler has a long history in the region. 

He was a frequent visitor to Laos during his tenure at the Yunnan University in Kunming. Now director of the Stimson Center's Southeast Asia Program in Washington, D.C., Eyler is fluent in Mandarin. 

He vividly captures the human side to the Mekong’s developing drama.

Starting in the tiny Tibetan village of Yubeng, in Yunnan province, southwest China, Eyler explores the changing fortunes of high-altitude life near the source of the Lancang, as the Upper Mekong is known in China.


A damaged biodiversity hotspot

Reading these books is like changing lenses on a camera.

“The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong” takes a wide-angle, panoramic view of geopolitics, as well as the history and future of the Mekong region. 

“Dead in the Water” zooms in on one particular project, the infamous Nam Theun 2 hydropower dam in Laos.

“Dead in the Water” is not exactly about the Mekong. Rather, it dissects the assumptions, the pretensions, the disregarded warnings about outcomes resulting from the construction of an iconic dam on a major tributary, the Nam Theun. 


The book shows they have damaged, 

possibly beyond redemption, 

one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots.


The book’s editors, Bruce Shoemaker and Bill Robichaud, have assembled a compelling, and — if one forgives the pun — damning body of evidence to show that the World Bank and managing agencies (Lao, French and Thai, who together formed the Nam Theun Power Company, or NTPC) produced serial disasters that devastated and impoverished the lives of those dispossessed of their land. 

The book shows they have damaged, possibly beyond redemption, one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots by facilitating access by poachers and loggers.

Yos Santasombat’s introduction sets the tone for “Dead in the Water,” when it states that Laos remains one of Southeast Asia’s “least developed and poorest countries” and that the “disparity between urban and rural dwellers is widening.”

The introduction adds: “The majority of rural households remain under or close to the poverty line and natural resources vital to their livelihoods are being threatened by megaprojects designed to exploit natural wealth for corporate profit.”


The ‘wallpaper’ of sustainability

Both books are strong on details.  

Eyler’s informal and, at times, adventurous tone is juxtaposed with stories of enormous cruelty and disregard. His intimate knowledge of China and, therefore, his realistic sense of the hard reality behind soft power should put a sober tone on the West’s flirtations and unquestioning acceptance of the giant’s terms. 

Both written and edited by authors well-versed in the languages and cultures of the region, they are essential and complementary reading for those who still think large-scale hydro is a good idea or those who assure us that neo-liberal growth models should be unassailable development dogma. 


The two books make it plain that 

“sustainability” is mere wallpaper 

concealing cultural and 

environmental destruction.


The two books make it plain that “sustainability” is mere wallpaper concealing cultural and environmental destruction.

Millions of people who live along the Mekong in China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam could be affected by changes to its fishery.

Fish provide them with free protein and micronutrients, but also are a staple of their cultures, their stories and the ancestry that goes with it. 

With more than 1,300 fish species, the Mekong is the world's most productive inland fishery. Fishing provided livelihoods and food to some 60 million people, and accounts for up to 25 percent of the global inland catch, and up to 80 percent of all animal protein to the people of the Mekong River basin.  

The giant catfish (may require subscription) is now thought close to extinction, along with the Irrawaddy dolphin, of which only three remain in the Lao pools. Despite dam builders exhorting the capacity of fish ladders, they are greeted by cynical hoots from fisheries biologists. 

Wolfgang Sachs posited that development or international assistance had its origins in U.S. post-war fear of communism. Harry Truman sought to address the needs of the world's “underdeveloped peoples’”using an economic condom to keep the infection of Marxism at bay. 

China now presents the biggest risk, ironically not as a purveyor of political dogma but as an all-consuming capitalist economic force. 

The case made by these two important books is that it is development, and the promise of economic growth itself, that is destroying precious ecosystems and the lives of those who live in them.

Melody Kemp is a longtime SEJ member and a freelancer based in Laos.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 5. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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