11 February 2016 (The Economist) – Guo, the driver, pulls his car to a merciful halt high above a crevasse: time for a cigarette, and after seven hours of shuddering along narrow, twisting roads, time for his passengers to check that their fillings remain in place. Lighting up, he steps out of the car and dons a cloth cap and jacket: sunny, early-summer days are still brisk 3,500 metres above sea level. Mr Guo is an impish little dumpling of a man, bald, brown-toothed and jolly. He is also an anomaly: a Shanghainese in northern Yunnan who opted to stay with his local bride rather than return to his booming hometown.
The ribbon of brown water cutting swiftly through the gorge below is rich with snowmelt. With few cars passing, its echoing sound fills the air. In the distance, the Hengduan mountains slump under their snowpack as if crumpled beneath its weight. Mr Guo recalls the drivers who have taken a switchback too quickly and fallen to their deaths in the valley below. He tells of workers who lost their footing or whose harnesses failed while building a bridge near his home town of Cizhong, 20 or 30 kilometres south. He pulls hard on his cigarette. “This river”, he says, “has taken so many lives.”
It has sustained many more. From trickles of meltwater in arid Qinghai, the river grows quickly as it passes through Tibet and Yunnan. Leaving China, and in doing so changing its name from the Lancang to the Mekong, it descends through a landscape ripening into jungle. Swollen by rainforest tributaries, it defines the Myanmar-Laos border and most of the Laos-Thailand border. It cuts Cambodia in two, and then splits into distributaries in south-western Vietnam, the lush, claustral delta landscape opposite in every way to the craggy austerity where it began.
The Mekong region is Asia’s rice bowl: in 2014 lower Mekong countries (Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam) produced more than 100m tonnes of rice, around 15% of the world’s total. The region’s fertile soil depends on nutrient-rich sediment that the Mekong carries downriver, mainly during the rainy season from June to October; more than half the sediment in central Cambodia comes from China. The river and the nutrients it brings also support the world’s biggest inland fishery, accounting for a quarter of the global freshwater catch, feeding tens of millions of people.
The region boasts remarkable biodiversity; only the vast basins of the Congo and the Amazon compare to or surpass it. There are more than 20,000 types of plant and nearly 2,500 animal species; freshwater dolphins and giant catfish; spiders 30 centimetres across and, in a limestone cavern in Thailand, a day-glo pink, cyanide-secreting millipede. The human diversity is striking, too: Tibetan monks pray; Burmese traders buy and sell; Cambodian fishermen cast nets; Thai farmers reap; Vietnamese markets float. The history is as rich as the soil. The Buddha smiled while resting at the northern Lao city of Luang Prabang. Angkor Wat on the Mekong-fed Tonle Sap lake was among the biggest cities of the preindustrial world. The Khmer empire that built it dominated South-East Asia for longer than there have been Europeans in the Americas. […]
According to International Rivers, an environmental NGO, the full cascade of dams planned for the Lancang would trap nearly all of the sediment coming from China, cutting the water’s sediment load in half. That will be bad for soils and bad for fish; the sediments provide the river’s nutrients. And the dams lower down could worsen the problem; the clear, “hungry” water that flows from them in spates will carry away existing sediment in riverbanks and riverbeds. Some of that will be deposited farther still downstream; some will wash uselessly out to sea.
Those lower dams will also make things yet harder for the nutrient-deprived fish. The 11 proposed in Laos and Cambodia could block the migration of around 70% of the Mekong’s commercial fish catch. Interfering with the fish’s feeding and reproduction to that extent would imperil the food security of populations across the lower Mekong basin, where the average person eats some 60kg of freshwater fish per year, more than 18 times what is on the menu in Europe or America. Considering how poor many of the people here are, replacing fish as a primary protein source is virtually impossible.
Dams restrict the movement of fish; they force movement on people. Along the road leading out of Cizhong, past the dormitories housing the construction workers for the Wunonglong dam, He Zhenghai, a friend of Mr Guo, points to a denuded spot where a village used to be. A few kilometres farther on he points out the resettlement: rows of squat, charmless concrete structures plonked down along the side of the road, near nothing.
Estimates by NGOs of the total number of Chinese people resettled because of dam projects exceed 20m. Dams on the Lancang have already added thousands more, mostly poor rural farmers, to the total. In 2013 the compensation received on relocation was about 80,000 yuan ($12,500). Some farmers complain that they have been resettled on sheer hillsides ill-suited to farming and, to add insult to injury, chronically short of water.
The Wunonglong dam will inundate Yanmen, a nearby village whose residents will be resettled on Cizhong’s rice paddies. And this means that, in a way, Cizhong, too, will vanish. Brian Eyler, deputy director of the South-East Asia programme at the Stimson Centre, an American think-tank, says Yanmen sits above Cizhong in China’s administrative league tables, meaning that after resettlement Cizhong will be renamed Yanmen, losing its name along with much of its charm. [more]