Contact Us Become a Supporter About Manna Gum
Home » Resources » Saving the Mekong, by Jonathan Cornford (Harambee, January 2010)
Bookmark and Share

Saving the Mekong

Photo by Glenn Daniels

(Published in Harambee Change Maker’s Journal, TEAR Australia, January 2010)

Jonathan Cornford

A couple of years ago I travelled along the Se San River (a tributary of the Mekong River) into Cambodia’s remote north-eastern frontier. This part of the country is inhabited primarily by a host of ethnic minority groups, where the country’s official language, Khmer, is only spoken in the large towns. For longer than anyone can trace back, these groups have developed a way of life and rich cultures based on the three pillars of river, field and forest, in a region characterised by a cornucopia of natural abundance.

However, when I visited I found broken and dispirited communities. ‘We are scared of the river now’, they explained. For these villagers, the river has always been an economic and spiritual life-blood. For them it is their drinking water, their key source of protein (fish supplies 90% of their protein intake), their drinking water, their bathing water, their main transport route connecting them to others, and a key site for growing food (especially in the dry season when the river is low).

In 1996 the Se San River stopped flowing and their lives turned upside down. Unbeknownst to them, fifty kilometres upstream, across the border in Vietnam, the Vietnamese Government had begun constructing a hydropower dam – the Yali Falls Dam - to supply electricity to its rapidly growing urban centres. The next year the river started flowing again, but like a loved one who has suffered a major stroke, it was suddenly a stranger to them. Due to the operation of the dam the river levels now had volatile fluctuations, sometimes daily. Suddenly the river, which no longer carried sediment from upstream, became highly erosive, hungrily eating away all the highly fertile river banks. The water quality changed also, with people, especially children becoming sick and developing rashes; livestock began dying. What they couldn’t see was that the water temperature and oxygenation levels had also changed, making the river inhospitable to the literally thousands of species of fish, plant life and other aquatic organisms who had adapted to that particular environment.

In short, the river underwent an ecological collapse and so did the livelihoods of 55,000 people living along the Se San. Since 1998, thirty-nine people and countless livestock have drowned due the unpredictable water fluctuations; there has been a 76% decline in fish catch. Human and animal sickness has risen dramatically; seventeen villages along the river have been abandoned due to unnatural flooding; average household incomes along the Se San have more than halved from $US109 per month to $US43 . Despite struggling valiantly for a decade, aided by a number of Cambodian and international groups, Se San villagers have not received even a hint of a cent of compensation. And since then, the Vietnamese Government has built four more dams on its stretch of the Se San, and another four on its sister tributary, the Sre Pok.

The Mekong Region, characterised by the six countries who share the Mekong River (China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), is undergoing a dam building boom. Vietnam and Laos have been rapidly damming tributaries of the Mekong for a decade now, and China has already built, or is building, six dams on the upper stretches of the Mekong itself. Although Laos and Cambodia are the two countries most dependent on the river, the poorest, and the most impacted by damming, the dams are all being built to feed the energy hungry economies of Thailand, Vietnam and China.

Now plans for hydropower development in the Mekong have taken a new and even more worrying turn. Now there are eleven proposals to dam the mainstream of the Mekong in its lower stretches in Laos and Cambodia (see map). Ecologically speaking, this is the most significant part of the river, and significant ecological damage of the sort experienced along the Se San would affect tens of millions of people.

The social and ecological impacts of constructing large-scale dams across the mainstream of the Mekong are many and complex, ranging from displacement of villages to river bank erosion. But the most serious and far reaching impact will be upon fisheries. The Mekong is the world’s most productive inland fishery, populated by over 1000 species of fish in mind-boggling volumes. At the peak migration time, more than 2 million fish pass through one point of the river (at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap river) every hour! Around 20 million people in Laos and Cambodia depend directly on fish caught in this river for the bulk of their protein intake. Many of the most critical of these fish species (for eating purposes) are migratory fish – every year they travel hundreds of kilometres up and downstream for seasonal feeding and breeding. But a dam will stop all of that migration, and the world’s experts are agreed that there is no technology, no fish passes or fish ladders, that can adequately mitigate its impact.

In July this year I visited the site of perhaps the worst of the proposed mainstream dams, the Sambor Hydropower Project in Cambodia (see map). Sambor is a low-lying district on the Mekong plains in north-central Cambodia. Because there is little contour to the land, constructing a dam at this point of the river will require a dam wall fourteen kilometres long and fifty metres high. This is right in the middle of the Mekong’s fish migration super-highway, located between the confluences of the two most important tributary systems, the Tonle Sap and the Se San (with its sister tributaries the Sre Pok and Sekong). If the dam is built, in the words of Monty Python’s Black Knight, ‘None shall pass!’.

The localised impacts of the Sambor Dam will be catastrophic too. Over 20,000 people, all fisher/farmers, will have to be relocated. But where will they go? Every province in Cambodia is already in the grips of expanding land conflict.

I went to have a look at one of the proposed relocation sites. The only way to get there was two hours thumping around on the back of a logging truck. What I found was a bit of scrub with no permanent water, very poor soils, a red-hot malarial zone, and remote from any schools, health clinics or markets. All in all, there was 1000 hectares of scrub ‘available’ for relocation (it would have to be cleared). The 20,000 people who would have to move, currently farm around 40,000 hectares of good land.

Back at the river, I talked to a number of locals about what this would mean for them. Rot Set, a father of eight, is a farmer who, by the sweat of his brow and with assistance from organisations like Oxfam, has over the last decade raised his family out of poverty. What would relocation mean for him, I ask, what about compensation? He shakes his head. He can see no way around it: ‘If we have to move, we will be poor again.’

So who is behind all of this? At the superficial layer, all of the proposed mainstream projects are being backed by private capital from within Asia - companies from Thailand, China, Vietnam and Malaysia – who are largely immune from public pressure and free of any public accountability. But go a little deeper, and we will find that the real scandal is that this situation has been created by Western aid money. In particular, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (to whom Australia gave around 20% of its aid budget in 07/08), supported by a bunch of other donors, have spent the last decade and a half and tens of millions of dollars, creating the ‘enabling conditions’ for a regional energy trading system based on massive hydro development. It is they who have funded and supplied the technical knowledge and the policy settings to make it all possible. But now they have no control or direct responsibility over the individual schemes as the go ahead. It is the worst of both worlds.

But go deeper, and there is another, bigger layer of responsibility. Why do China, Thailand and Vietnam demand such massive growth in energy supply at such a high human and ecological cost? It is not because they are heartless nations; it is because they are pursuing their right (many would say their obligation) to develop. What does development mean? It means to live like us. All they are trying to do is to attain to the lifestyle that we have evangelically proclaimed as the apex of human destiny. And the price being paid now in the Mekong for their development is the same price that others elsewhere have already paid for ours. Jesus addressed a deep and disturbing truth when he remonstrated, ‘Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?’.

What can be done? At the immediate level, there is a desperate need to support the village groups, NGOs, academics and journalists who are struggling for some responsibility and accountability in the political decision-making around hydro development. However, their voice is weak; the governments of Laos and Cambodia, where these dams are being built, are both authoritarian and repressive, and voicing civil dissent is a dangerous business.

Late last year a coalition of international organisations, from North America, Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia and Australia (including my organisation, Manna Gum) formed a coalition – the Save the Mekong Campaign – to support local efforts by adding international focus and pressure to the decision-making of Mekong Governments. In October we delivered a petition of 23,000 signatures from around the world to the leaders of Mekong Governments gathered in Thailand for ASEAN. You can find out more about this campaign by visiting

In Australia, Save the Mekong members Manna Gum, Oxfam Australia, and University of Sydney, will be hosting a photo exhibition and speaker’s tour that visits Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney in February next year. You can find out more about this at the websites of Manna Gum ( or Oxfam Australia ( This will be combined with a roundtable meeting with AusAID, the Australian Government’s aid agency, to discuss Australia’s role as an important donor in the region.

At a more fundamental level, we all need to re-think how we live and what we live for. Our world simply cannot sustain our current way of life. This challenge is both economic  and spiritual (they cannot be divorced). More than anything, we need to realise that this is actually the foundational calling of Christian discipleship – to enter into a new way of living that is good news for our neighbours, for creation and for ourselves.

^ back to top