Southeast Asia’s greatest river has nourished the people of this region since their very beginnings, inspiring all kinds of ancient and present-day myths. Now, with so many dams holding back its natural flow, the river is under immense stress like never before.
With i-phone torches we inch our way towards Cha Na Dai Cliff top. The horizon begins to glow, then glisten, then erupt with Thailand’s very first rays of sunlight striking its eastern most face. Higher the sun gravitates, warming the mist, washing the valley, touching our souls before illuminating the nation beyond. This mythical metamorphosis was our first experience of the great Mekong River basin, Mother Nature’s 4,350 km liquid lifeline nurturing much of Southeast Asia with its agriculture, food and water.
The Mekong is born of melting ice in the Himalayan Plateau, draining through the deep gorges of China, known as the upper basin, and then through the lower basin countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, before emptying into the South China Sea. The physical origins of the river are fascinating - a serpentine tapestry of mountains, gorges, valleys and deltas manipulated over millions of years by the forces of plate tectonics, sea level fluctuations, ice age and water erosion.
Spiritually, the origins of the Mekong are intertwined with religious beliefs and mythology throughout the greater Asian region. In some Buddhist narratives, Lord Buddha uses a sword to slice the mountain and release the sacred waters that carved the Mekong we know today. Many believe the river was the place to which Lord Buddha journeyed to drink and bathe before reaching Nirvana.
Other myths describe two friendly but quarrelling Nagas commanded by “the Great Sky God” to dig a channel to the sea. A giant golden catfish would be gifted to the winner. Throughout these spiritual legends the origins, water, wildlife, places and objects of the Mekong are considered sacred.
Yet, despite the cultural and life sustaining significance of the Mekong, the “Dam” word haunts the entire basin. Maxmilian Weschler’s article Dispute over Troubled Water, published in the December 2020 issue of The BigChilli, sheds light on the information war, political motivations and inter-country finger pointing surrounding Mekong dam building, and its massive negative impact on people, water and food resources.
On that first magical morning I soon realized the most significant story of the Mekong lies in what you don’t see - water. Even in dry season, looking at the sheer scale of the Mekong valley, one must wonder where is the water?
My wife and I continue our three-day journey around Khong Chiam, Pha Taem and Sampan Bok. Between Pha Taem and Kaeng Tana National Parks the river carves an abrupt u-shaped valley pushing a tongue of Laos into Thailand and defining the national border. From November to April the water occupies only a very small proportion of the ½ km wide basin leaving much of its eroded riverbed exposed.
With its snaking canyon and three millennium time warp of cave rock paintings, Pha Taem is a geological theme park of tectonic thrusts, glacial scrapes and sedimentary folds. There are bizarre mushroom rock pedestals and hectares of fractured rock surfaces. Not to mention the site of Oliver Stone’s 2004 blockbuster film Alexander the Great, where Angelina Jolie and Colin Farrell bring Macedonian affairs, battles, and conquests to the Mekong.
On Day 2 we drive 120 km north to Sampan Bok, Thailand’s 3,000 Hole canyon extraordinaire. Here the legendary Naga’s carved a water channel of somewhat extra- terrestrial character. Ten square kilometers of sandstone have been scooped and sculpted by water over thousands and millions of years.
"A misguided myth today is that hydroelectricity is a preferred, clean, sustainable energy source. Large scale damming brings widespread impact on local communities, unsafe flood areas, negative impacts on river ecosystems, flora and fauna, geologic hazards, and regional water disputes."
"Dams and reservoirs are now known to be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions including methane gases, which are substantially more impactful than carbon dioxide."
A group of local campers arrive - “This place is secret” they exclaim” as a couple of bottles of the rice whisky Mekong appear. We navigate homewards towards a golden whisky sunset and reflect on our experience, a kind of 19th century Nile adventure, worshipping deserted temples and mystical sun gods. We ponder the future of the river, droughts, and dams.
There is a boom in the building of new hydroelectric dams over the next 15 years that could double the current cover of reservoirs globally. Eleven Chinese Dams on the upper Mekong, and Laos’s Xayaburi dam are certainly under scrutiny. During the 2019 El Nino induced drought, China was estimated to control almost half of the Mekong’s water flow, with dams holding back more than 12 trillion gallons. Laos operates more than 60 dams on Mekong tributaries. In dry season the operators will retain as much water as they can.
These upstream dams disrupt fish and wildlife habitats and restrict life sustaining sediment from nourishing downstream eco-systems. The giant catfish and Irrawaddy River Dolphin are only some of many species endangered or under threat. The nearby Pak Mun Dam provides a home-grown Thai example, where almost three decades after construction government and communities are still reeling from negative impacts and environmental disputes.
A misguided myth today is that hydroelectricity is a preferred, clean, sustainable energy source. Large scale damming brings widespread impact on local communities, unsafe flood areas, negative impacts on river ecosystems, flora and fauna, geologic hazards, and regional water disputes. Dams and reservoirs are now known to be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions including methane gases, which are substantially more impactful than carbon dioxide.
Another myth is that these dams are reliable. Changes in rainfall and the increasingly unpredictable occurrence of droughts impact lives on an international scale, through these massive projects. Mekong country governments still claim dams are essential for economic development, and construction continues.
"The most significant story of the Mekong lies in what you don’t see - water. Even in dry season, looking at the sheer scale of the Mekong valley, one must wonder where is the water?"
In Thailand, one of the world’s largest floating solar farms is under way at Sirindhorn Dam, only 40 km from the Mekong River. With 144,417 solar panels it will be one of the world's largest hybrid hydro-solar power achievements. Thailand promises eight more similar floating solar farms over 16 years.
Other fascinating alternatives are under development around the globe including ocean wave power, tidal power, drone suspended wind farms and more. The future of alternative energies is bright as technologies rapidly develop amid growing public and government awareness.