A Walk Along the Mekong, River of Life

A young boy poses with fish from the Mekong River in Si Phan Don, Chapasak, Southern Laos. Photo by Dorn Bouttasing. This image was presented as part of the “Mekong, River of Life” exhibit in Chiang Mai, Thailand, July 23–27 2017.

What would happen if the Mekong river stopped flowing tomorrow? This was the question I considered as I tried to communicate the crisis facing the Mekong to 1,500 scholars, researchers and activists who had gathered for the recent 13th Thai Studies Conference (ICTS13) and the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The two events, hosted by Chiang Mai University, brought together people from around the world who were interested in reviewing and evaluating the existing landscape of knowledge in Thai studies and Asian studies. The Mekong River, which flows from the Tibetan plateau to the southern part of China to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, is central to the lives and livelihoods of millions in the region.

In recent years, the Mekong has been subject to a massive infusion of investments by public and private international development financiers to build so-called development projects such as large hydropower dams. The projects are likely cause irreversible impacts to fisheries and biodiversity. So far, decision-makers have largely failed to ensure transparency, accountability and public participation in the design and implementation of projects. If we do not act soon to support Mekong communities, millions may very well lose their rights to food, livelihood and a healthy environment.

Visitors walk through the exhibition. Image credit: Tom Weerachat

To shed a light on this urgent problem, IAP, together with the Mekong Youth Assembly, EarthRights International and Toward Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, organized an exhibition titled “Mekong, River of Life.” We contacted our friends, community leaders and fellow activists and asked them to share images they had taken in different parts of the Mekong, including important tributaries. The exhibition was designed to spotlight the stories of those fighting to protect livelihoods and uphold community rights along the Mekong. We received more than 200 submissions and eventually selected 22 images, organized under three main themes:

  1. The River — presenting stories of lives, cultures and ecosystems of the Mekong people from upstream to downstream.
  2. The Devastation — reflecting problems and human rights impacts of regional large-scale development trends such as hydropower dams and rapids blasting.
  3. The Movement — recognizing grassroots struggles to protect the Mekong river and the local and regional social movements seeking justice for the Mekong and those impacted.
A resident of Pra Klang Thung village inThat Phanom, Thailand rushes to rescue vegetables from her river bank garden after irregular flooding in December 2013. Photo by Montree Chantawong

The images traced the course of the Mekong, from its source in the Tibetan plateau to the mouth of the river in Vietnam. Over the course of a week, we welcomed visitors from a diversity of backgrounds and countries. Many had never seen the Mekong before and were alarmed to learn about the current situation. People reacted differently to different parts of the exhibit. Many visitors were glad to see a representation of Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia, which is also the largest lake in Southeast Asia. They shared their their memories of trips they had taken to the lake. Another group of young children asked to take home paper cutouts of fish found in the Mekong. Fish populations have depleted so drastically in recent years, that it is difficult to encounter them in person. In fact, we had to rely on images shared by local communities to create an accurate representation. Other visitors expressed concerns over plans to construct dams and make the Mekong passable to large, commercial cargo ships traveling from China to Laos. The plans would demolish rocks and islets occurring naturally along the river and permanently alter its course.

Fish nets trap the Mekong River Commission and flags of nations bordering the Mekong. Image Credit: Tom Weerachat

One visit in particular stood out from the rest. “Can I walk in?” asked a woman who stood hesitantly at the entrance of the exhibit. Once inside, she asked if it would be okay to touch the images. Her questions made me think about the concept of ownership and who has the rights to use and access common resources like a river. For those of us who organized the exhibit, we strongly believe the Mekong should belong to everyone and anyone should be able to interact with it as long as they don’t cause any harm.

Mueda Nawanat, Coordinator of the Mekong Youth Assembly, explained why this exhibition was important for the public to experience: “Governments and companies are trying to extract profit from the Mekong. They want to build large hydropower projects, regardless of the number of people who will be impacted. The Mekong River is a life-source for millions. Destroying livelihoods, food security and environment means killing Mekong citizens. The Mekong’s people are trying to speak out and are demanding that all stakeholders respect child rights, human rights and the rights to a healthy environment.”

What do you want to say to the Mekong? Image Credit: Tom Weerachat

At the end of the exhibit, an interactive space was set up for visitors to post their comments. The space was quickly filled up with handwritten notes and messages — “People’s faith, beliefs, and everyday practices flows with this river”, “Nobody is an outsider! Keep the river flow. It is our lives.” Many comments just said “Stop the dams!.” To quote one visitor’s reflections “The Mekong is everyone’s river and needs to be protected.”

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.