The Debate

Are We Seeing the Mekong River’s ‘Last Days’?

A book review of Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, Brian Eyler, Zed 2019.

By Benjamin Zawacki for
Are We Seeing the Mekong River’s ‘Last Days’?
Credit: Flickr/ WIL

In the introduction to his new book, Brian Eyler cautions that “the reader should not get the impression from the book’s title that the Mekong River is in its death throes.” Yet 320 pages later, he signs off with a warning: “Unless we begin today to see the river and the landscape around it as a connected system and act jointly for its conservation, the Mighty Mekong’s last days are here and now.” Regardless of the impressions Eyler wishes to convey — of the river itself, of China, of the other five riparian nations, of the peoples and cultures within its basin — his final words are the far more convincing. To his credit, Eyler offers an unbiased, balanced, and nuanced sitrep of the challenges facing the Mekong, and one cannot begrudge him a hopeful, if not optimistic, perspective. But his facts, expertly marshaled and managed, ultimately betray him: at every level of elevation, latitude, organization, and politics, Eyler’s “connected system” is being pulled apart.

The problem, like the river itself, begins in China. Eyler starts there too, on a “journey down the Mekong from the edge of the Himalaya in China’s Yunnan province to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.” China hosts more than half of the river’s length, but less than 20 percent of the water and just 10 percent of its basin’s population. While water volume is set to rise over the next three decades as climate change melts a third of the Himalayan glaciers, irreversible shortages will follow. China’s energy demand is also set to increase by 90 percent over the next 20 years. In both response and anticipation, China has already constructed 10 dams on the Mekong’s mainstream, and aims to complete nine more by 2030. It is financing nine mainstream dams in Laos as well, with plans to buy back most of the resultant hydropower.

In the book’s first three chapters, Eyler duly acknowledges China’s need for water and energy security, but also examines what Chinese policymakers do not: the dams’ adverse effects on farms, forests, and fish, and the displaced people who depend on them. Even more importantly, he sets the scene for what plays out over the remainder of the journey south, as China’s designs on the Mekong River emerge as clearly geopolitical. With water fast surpassing fossil fuels as a currency of political power the world over, China is leveraging its “national development” to cultivate dependency and dictate terms among its neighbors. As the only Mekong country completely upstream, it has the upper hand over the other five — that is, over mainland Southeast Asia.

Eyler’s credibility as both an analyst and a practitioner with mud on his boots is also established in these early chapters; now at Washington’s Stimson Center, he spent 15 years in China and speaks its language fluently. Moreover, the reader’s “journey” down the Mekong is the author’s as well, as he weaves first-hand observations, experiences, and conversations into his analysis. This all proves central to the book, for Eyler’s conception of the Mekong is expansive and holistic. In describing China’s Erhai Valley, he introduces the river’s rich history, culminating in an opportune account of the Mekong Delta’s decades of colonization, canalization, and war. In noting the astonishing 149 ethnic groups that reside in Laos’s portion of the basin, he adds another layer to the river’s well-known biodiversity. Chapter Four’s “The Ahka as Modern Zomians” is a deep-dive into how one such “hill tribe” has negotiated cultural compromises with authorities it has historically kept at arm’s length. And in detailing the rapid growth of tourism in Tibet’s Yubeng, Eyler reminds the reader that the Mekong’s “local people” also includes those who capitalize on top-down policies and help drive market forces.

Indeed, as the river flows south through Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, this tension between victim and participant cascades. Even as China infringes upon those nations’ riparian rights by manipulating the upper Mekong, each continues the cycle vis-a-vis its downstream neighbor(s) in the same or similar ways. Laos in particular, if once the “contested space” of its chapter name, is today a Chinese appendage. While it thus has little choice in becoming the “battery of Southeast Asia,” it also exploits its position against all but the most collective and convincing protests from the three Mekong countries further down.

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For them, however, geopolitics is not the central issue, but rather their political economies. As Eyler points out and bemoans, hydropower fits perfectly (and abundantly) into “the development model that China has appropriated from the West.” Like nuclear power, it was also once (and rightly) seen as a desirable alternative to coal. Damming was thus written into multiyear national development and economic plans, which are politically and practically difficult to alter once underway. Add to this the uncoordinated “project by project” approach taken by the lower Mekong countries, and that the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) remit only covers mainstream dams, and it is hard to envisage effective policy pushback.

The book discusses the MRC’s weaknesses — at least 160 more dams are planned for the Mekong’s tributaries — with characteristic balance. Its coverage of the 13 other pieces of related regional architecture is notably lacking, however, particularly the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) framework. Established by China in 2015 and including the five lower Mekong nations, it has surged to the fore with funding and projects linked to Beijing’s geostrategic Belt and Road Initiative.

In contrast, Eyler spotlights and rightly champions the efforts of committed individuals, small groups, and NGOs that too often go unrecognized. These fellow travelers offer a grassroots alternative to the official “G-to-G” narrative, and inject new meaning into “riparian rights.” The inclusion of their experiences, knowledge, and viewpoints in the book’s pages also stands in contrast to the deficiency (or total lack) of public consultations and assessments by governments and companies. Yet, despite certain victories, such inspired resistance does not inspire equal confidence that the march of “progress” can be halted. After all, not a single nation among the six that host the Mekong is governed by democratic principles.

Finally, of Vietnam, the most downstream country, Eyler writes that it “could strike a balance in its energy mix planning by helping its neighbors develop their solar, wind, and biomass assets.” He makes a convincing case for such a transition on environmental and economic grounds, but far less so in suggesting that it might occur soon enough. For as with climate change, whose time-sensitive and terminal effects he adeptly describes, Eyler concedes that “How countries in the region respond to … power demand shifts over the course of the next 5 years will determine the fate of the Mekong River’s ecology.”

Contrasting with its distracting number of typos, Last Days of the Mighty Mekong is also full of stimulating facts and figures that grab and hold the reader’s attention. The Mekong is the world’s largest inland freshwater fishery, yielding 13 times more fish each year than all of North America’s rivers and lakes combined. Cambodia’s Tonle Sap section alone contains more fish than North America, despite overfishing by big players and locals alike. In 2005, Thai fishers caught the largest freshwater fish ever recorded, a Mekong Giant Catfish weighing 293 kilograms (646 pounds) and measuring 2.7 meters (8 feet, 10 inches) long. Ten years later, a zoo in the Golden Triangle Economic Zone was found to contain 26 (trafficked) live tigers. More than a quarter of Cambodia’s population of 16 million lives within sight of the Mekong’s mainstream. Lao hydropower is used by Bangkok’s Paragon shopping complex to cool its exterior walls.

For millions of years, millions of people regarded the Mekong River as their heartland’s most vital artery. For less than 60 years, the six nations claiming sovereignty over the territory it both links and divides, have seen the river very differently. Eyler’s journey explores how and why this disconnect has come about, and what it means for the “connected system” he advocates. His eye-opening book is intended as a warning, but its title anticipates the elegy it seems destined to become.

Benjamin Zawacki (@benjaminzawacki) is a lawyer and analyst based in Bangkok, and author of Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China.