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Manipulating the Mekong

"This dam is making people rich," said Jiang Yen, 35, as he rode a boat past the Jinghong construction site. "It's giving people jobs. We'll all get cheap electricity."

From Jinghong, the Mekong winds past thick stands of bamboo and soaring hardwoods necklaced by vines. At the port town of Mengla, close to where China, Laos and Burma converge, Chinese cargo vessels load fresh apples, dried fruit and green tea bound for Southeast Asia. Trade has been widened by the blasting of rapids upriver, a project coordinated by multiple governments but paid for almost exclusively by China. Local shippers decry an influx of Chinese competitors, but more significantly complain of volatile fluctuations in the river's depth as China shuts and opens gates on its dams.


Throughout Southeast Asia, farmers and fishermen complain that China's thirst for hydroelectric power is choking the Mekong River, which sustains some 70 million people. (Peter S. Goodman -- The Washington Post)

At the end of the rainy season in late October, the river at Chiang Saen is typically 7 1/2 feet deep, enough to allow the local boats to load as much as 250 tons of cargo. This year, it fell below six feet. At one local shipping firm, ChairatanaMunkong Co., marketing manager Kitchai Taetemwong complained that because of the shallower depth his boat could carry only 150 tons on a recent run to Jinghong from Chiang Saen. That sliced a usual $2,500 profit to a mere $500.

Shifts in the water level and changes in water temperature have wreaked havoc on fish farms near Chiang Khong, Thailand. Production fell nearly one-third over the past two years, said Kasem Jongpaisansin, president of an association of fish farmers.

Farmers say so little water is available during the dry season that planting crops is futile in some places.

"The soil is too dry," complained Pun Yauthani, 55, who plants peanuts on a sandy island between Thailand and Laos. "This year, I'm thinking I won't plant. It's a waste of time."

South of Chiang Khong, erosion ravages terraced plots carved into the sloping banks. With the rocks blasted upriver, water runs swiftly, tearing away chunks of soil. Leafy trees sit shorn of support, their roots snaking into thin air. A gas station has become a pile of broken concrete, its foundation stripped away.

Every morning, Kaen Boonnak, who grows broccoli on a roughly one-acre plot, looks to see how much land the river stole overnight.

"I've already lost the bottom third," he said, estimating that his $1,500 annual income has dropped by one-fifth. "I'm afraid that we're going to lose more."

The worst fears lie downriver in Cambodia, where the Tonle Sap's prodigious fishery depends on a yearly flow of nutrient-rich floodwaters down the Mekong. The worry is that the dams are disrupting the annual cycle, narrowing the area in which fish can breed.

Many of the people who live along the lake are landless and unable to grow rice, making them particularly vulnerable. They catch fish with handheld nets, eating some and selling some to buy rice and other goods. The shore is a riot of boats and sputtering engines and palm-frond squatters' huts, the air laced with the smell of rotting innards and diesel fuel.

Men just in from the lake unload sardine-sized fish from a 50-foot vessel, using straw baskets balanced from poles slung over their shoulders. They drop their loads into the back of a dump truck that will carry the oozing pile to a drying factory. A barefoot girl scans the muddy ground for fish that have landed there, placing her finds into a plastic bag.

These are days of scarcity and alarm. Most people have not heard of the dams in China, and shrug when asked why fish are elusive. But they understand the implications of shortage. Chan Kimoeun and his family live on a floating house that shifts with the changing contours of the shore. He used to earn about $6.50 per day fishing. Now he often fails to break even, tapping loan sharks for the next load of fuel.

He estimates his debt at about $1,000 -- more than his annual income -- with 10 percent monthly interest mounting. Neither Chan nor his wife can read, but their 12-year-old daughter can, a subject that brings a glow to their faces. With school costing them about $50 per year, her future is in jeopardy. "We're worried," Chan said. "We struggle on the Tonle Sap to catch fish. There is no other way."


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