Spanning about 4,900 kilometres and slicing through six countries, the Mekong River is the lifeblood for more than 60 million people living on its banks. Editor Marissa Carruthers explores its murky waters. Photography by Luc Forsyth and Gareth Bright.
Sou Thy bows his head as he reels off the names of five men from his hometown, a fishing community in Kratie province, who have in recent months been forced to abandon the traditional trade of their ancestors and find work in Phnom Penh. Others, he says, have moved to Thailand and Vietnam in the hope of making money to send home.
Like the majority of his peers for generations, Sou has been providing for his family by netting catches in the Mekong. But recent years have seen a dramatic decline in fish, with those he does land paling in comparison in size to those of his forefathers. “It is difficult,” the weathered 43-year-old says.
His story is echoed up and down the banks of the river. With its headwaters in the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong cuts through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia – taking in the Tonle Sap – and Vietnam, before emptying into the South China Sea, making the river one of the world’s most important waterways.
As the 12th longest river, home to an estimated 60 million people and a wealth of rare wildlife, it is rich, both ecologically and culturally. It is also an essential lifeline for the communities whose fate depends on it.
However, modern day living and the regional race for development, coupled with climate change, a swelling population, the construction of a string of dams and a swathe of other factors, threaten the river and the network it supports. With huge changes on the cards, is time running out for the once prosperous Mekong?
Source of Life
As home to fish that feed the people – about 2.6 million tonnes are harvested from the mekong annually – the water that fuels farming and other trades, and a wealth of rare and almost-extinct wildlife, the Mekong is the source of life for 80 percent of those living there.
The Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam is home to 17 million, and, dubbed the country’s ‘Rice Bowl’, has produced almost half the country’s rice since 1997. It is also the source for 60 percent of fish production, and fuels the country’s shrimp trade, making it the world’s second largest exporter after India. Additionally, the Mekong Basin – Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – accounts for 25 percent of the global freshwater catch, making it the largest inland fishery in the world.
In Cambodia, where more than six million work as fishermen, 70 percent of the country’s protein comes from fish in the Mekong-fed Tonle Sap. And, in a country where fishing forms 15 percent of the GDP, the trade is vital. “The Mekong plays a hugely important role,” says Simon Mahood, senior technical advisor at Wildlife Conservation Society, adding that per capita, Cambodia’s annual consumption of fish is the highest in the world.
Chakrey Un, of WWF Cambodia, which works in the area, says the livelihoods of the vast majority depend on it. “People along the Mekong River from Kratie to Stung Treng are basically making their living by fishing, farming, animal husbandry, vegetable cultivation along the river bank, multi-crop farming and boat driving,” she says. The waterway also provides additional income from eco-tourism activities in areas, such as the Mekong’s largest island, Koh Phdao, which is a popular viewing sight for the elusive Irrawaddy dolphin.
Taking in landscapes as diverse as the countries it crosses, from frozen rock beds to heavy mangroves, thick rain forest and dusty savannahs, and the flora and fauna that call it home, the river is a feast for the eyes.
In Cambodia alone, the Mekong is home to unique species, from the critically-endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, Cantor’s giant soft-shell turtle, Siamese crocodile and Mekong giant catfish to the plethora of birds – pied, kingfisher, Brahminy Kite, storks, white-shouldered ibis – and migrating and non-migrating fish.
The magic ingredient, according to Un, is “the abundance of intact habitats, including diverse and rich seasonally flooded riverine vegetation, deep pools, sandbars, rocky rapids, numerous islands that get flooded during the wet season and river bank forests”.
WWF studies show that since 1997, more than 1,500 species have been discovered in the jungles, waterways and villages of the Mekong. The Greater Mekong also contains the largest combined tiger habitat in the world – roughly the size of France. Although in the last decade, the animal welfare organisation reports a staggering 70 percent decrease in the number of the felines.
It is also the perfect habitat for a flurry of fish, and provides welcoming waters for an estimated 1,100 freshwater fish. Sitting second in terms of biodiversity to the Amazon, the river is also the sole location for several species, including the giant freshwater stingray. Its geography also makes it the perfect corridor for fish migration. “The Mekong has the most diverse fish species than anywhere in the world,” says Mahood.
“We saw it as the magical Mekong,” says photographer Luc Forsyth, who is documenting the river in its entirety with fellow photographer Gareth Bright and videographer Pablo Chavariel on year-long project, A River’s Tail. “Maybe naively, we expected people to have strong emotional and spiritual connections with these incredibly important waterways.”
Having bought an eight-metre, wooden fishing boat during a trip to Pursat in October 2014, five months later, the trio embarked on their exploration of the river, with funding from international clean water organisation, Lien AID. Starting at the river’s mouth in Vietnam, they made their way in segments towards the source, stopping at villages to get a glimpse of modern day life on the Mekong.
On the hunt for “beautiful stories of people still living in harmony alongside nature”, the team came face-to-face with the antithesis. “Instead of having a spiritual connection, it’s very practical connection,” states Bright. “The river serves a purpose; they rely on it simply to survive.”
However, survival on the modern Mekong is proving disastrous for many, as depleting fish and other wildlife stocks, longer dry seasons and lower water levels, illegal logging, pollution, and the development of infrastructure, such as the hydropower dams in Laos and Cambodia, jointly take their toll on resources.
In Laos, they spoke to people from northern mountain villages that had been relocated to build one of a string of up to 70 proposed hydrodams across the country – a move the government hopes will propel Laos to becoming “the battery of Southeast Asia”.
Now living in shoddy cement houses in a relocation village – which Bright likens to an “internment camp with no fence” – daily life is tough for the majority. “They never needed money before they arrived there,” he says. “They lived off the land, they don’t know any other way of life. Now they need money for everything, and it’s hard to make.”
For the first time in recorded history, last year villagers were unable to mark New Year with the traditional feast. “They simply couldn’t afford the food,” he adds, predicting the same fate for ethnic minority bunong tribes living in rural northern Cambodia once the controversial Sesan II dam reaches completion, which is expected next year.
“Historically, the Mekong has been a very life-giving river,” says Bright. “For centuries, people’s lives have relied on it. In a very short time, it has changed, and it’s not as easy for people to evolve as quickly with no resources to continue living the lives of their ancestors.”
For those dependent on the Mekong today, life looks bleak. Many are now paying the price for the El Niño drought that saw little rain hit during monsoon season. Reduced rainfall in the upper Mekong areas of Laos and Cambodia led to salt water from the sea penetrating further into the Delta by about 50 to 80 kilometres, leaving many communities with crippled irrigation systems, dead fish and lack of fresh water.
Last year, the Tonle Sap ran at its lowest level in 30 years, which strained resources and had a knock-on effect on fish migration, bird nesting and other species, as well as hitting farmers and fishermen financially. The lack of fish, has led to a rise in illegal fishing, says Mahood, or many families migrating to urban areas to find work. “With the vast majority of people living on the Tonle Sap relying on fishing, it really affects them,” he says.
Others are resorting to building inland fishing farms. “The Mekong just isn’t viable enough anymore,” says Forsyth, who came across many fishermen who had taken this course of action. “They are abandoning the river.”
Experts say the current and proposed hydroelectric dams in Laos and Cambodia will fuel the problem further, with forest and farmland mowed down, communities evicted and fish stocks destroyed. “Sediment and silt is unable to get through,” says Mahood. “Nor are some fish, and this has a huge impact.”
Communities, culture and heritage is also dealt a devastating blow, as witnessed by A River’s Tail crew in Laos, and during a trip to Kbal Romeas, a village of 136 bunong families, who have lived in the area northeast of Stung Treng, Cambodia, for about 2,000 years. Once the $800 million Sesan II dam is completed the Se San River, their homeland will plunge under 10 metres of water. “With all the proposed dams, that’s thousands and thousands of displaced families,” says Bright. “It’s devastating.”
Other factors, such as illegal logging, wildlife hunting, slash and burn farming on riverbeds and over-fishing are taking their toll on resources.
The Mekong’s misery was further stirred when in January Thailand’s National Water Resources Committee approved in principle two $1.8 billion projects to divert water from the Mekong to 480,000 hectares of drought-hit farmland, mainly in the northeast of the country.
This would lead to lower water levels in countries below, further exasperating a critical situation. “If this continues, it would have a huge impact on millions of people and the wildlife would be massively affected, particularly the fish,” Mahood says.
However, a small part in the rocky road towards a solution lies in one of the situation’s core problems: co-operation and collaboration between the six countries. “This river is trans-boundaries,” says Bright. “Each country is thinking for itself and that makes it difficult in the long-term. It’s all about self-preservation; they’re not thinking about the consequences of other countries below.”
For now, fisherman Sou returns to his boat, the future of the Mekong is too far for him to even consider; his only hopes lie in the next few hours and netting a hearty catch during his shift on the water.
Follow A River’s Tail’s journey at ariverstail.com.