For many years, when the GoKunming editorial staff has needed a better understanding of Yunnan's relationship with Southeast Asia or how the region deals with water issues, we've spoken to Brian Eyler. He spent more than a decade living and working in Kunming, and is now based in the United States at The Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy research institute in Washington DC.
Today, Eyler is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Stimson's Southeast Asia program. He is an expert on transboundary issues in the Mekong region and specializes in China's economic cooperation with Southeast Asia. His treatise Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, released in February, 2019, has been reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The Diplomat, The Asian Review of Books and many others.
We spoke with Eyler recently over email as he prepares for the China leg of his book tour. He'll be appearing in Kunming at Salvador's Loft on Monday, July 1, to speak about the book and the future of the Mekong River. We caught up with him to discuss the myriad things that make the Mekong so enormously special, as well as China's role in managing the waterway and what the next few decades may hold.
GoKunming: What experiences in China specifically, and Asia generally, led you to write the book?
Brian Eyler: In the fall of 2013, I was leading a group of American undergrads enrolled in my academic program at Yunnan University on a study tour of the Mekong region. I remember our boat pushing back from the riverbank on a grey morning in the Golden Triangle in Thailand en route to Luang Prabang in Laos.
A Chinese construction company had just completed a bridge across the Mekong connecting Laos to Thailand. It was created to increase commercial trade, and another Chinese construction company was about to begin building the Don Sahong Dam in southern Laos near its border with Cambodia. These infrastructure projects and what was planned to come in the future all constrict and disconnect the power of the Mekong River, which provides countless natural resources like freshwater fish catches and loads of sediment to drive agricultural production to millions downstream.
On that boat ride, I had an ominous feeling that we were entering the mighty Mekong's last days. I felt compelled to write about the river, what was happening to it and communities who rely on its resources, and ways forward to avoid catastrophe. So I began to translate some of my observations and opinions onto my website — eastbysoutheast. About a year later Zed Books called me up with a proposition to write a book on the present and future of the Mekong.
GK: The book has been described as part travelogue, part policy analysis. Why did you choose this format?
Eyler: Only a few good books have been written about the Mekong for a general audience, and nothing had come out in the last ten years. So I wanted to provide an update to those interested in the region and also drive new interest in the Mekong to show that the clock is ticking on its future.
My book is one that a traveler, curious about nature and the environment, as well as culture and history, can take along as a kind of guide to the region. But I think it's also very useful for scientists and decision makers. While the book is filled with some analysis — my own and that of many others — I use storytelling to transport the reader to the Mekong to meet over a hundred individuals and make the region come to life.
GK: For those who haven't read it, what is the elevator summary of Last Days, and what do you hope people take away from the book when they finish it?
Eyler: A unique patchwork of humanity — hundreds of unique ethnic groups — lives in the upland areas and secluded wetland regions of the Mekong Basin, which stretches from Tibet and Yunnan all the way to Vietnam's delta. The Mekong's abundant provisions and relative isolation laid the foundation for this ethnic patchwork, and the river's natural processes have produced one of world's most biodiverse ecosystems. Nearly one thousand species of migratory fish and huge land-based fauna like elephants and tigers call the region home.
The Mekong's mightiness drives this diversity and abundance, and now its mightiness is being threatened by rapid economic development and social change. My book captures the voices of those in the Mekong who are adapting to, or, in many cases, not able to adapt to, this rapid change. The book takes a deep dive into the historical and natural processes that make the Mekong mighty.
GK: Of all the travel you did collecting the research necessary for the book, what was your favorite experience or most amusing anecdote?
Eyler: I travelled to most of the communities and areas profiled in the book several times over the years in order to be confident that I was passing real local knowledge and an accurate narrative on to the reader. Some of the anecdotes in the book — like the ones from Dali — actually date back to the late 1990s when I first visited Yunnan. Very few people know Dali and Erhai Lake are part of the Mekong Basin. I enjoyed incorporating stories of my American students exploring the Mekong, especially of our many visits to an Akha village on a mountaintop in Xishuangbanna.
A personal favorite experience was a first visit to a floating village on the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia with a friend who runs the International Union for Conservation of Nature's national office in Phnom Penh. Villagers there took great pride in showing off a fish conservation zone, one of the deepest and most important pools in the lake for fish production.
I learned how the pool was once nearly entirely depleted of fish, but with strong leadership and community action, the fishery is now thriving once again. They also showed me how to make prahok, a fermented fish paste that millions of Cambodian's rely on for protein, especially during months when fresh fish aren't available. Villagers there could cope with threats of overfishing but were very anxious about dealing with impacts that are harder to see such as those from upstream dams and climate change.
GK: Many people may think of the Mekong as a Southeast Asian river, but half of it lies in China. With so many international players influencing its future, where does the best hope for the Mekong lie?
Eyler: China has always labelled its portion of the Mekong river the 'Lancang Jiang'. China's 11 mainstream dams on the Lancang have removed half of the sediment from the Mekong system — over 60 million tons. We often don't think much about sediment, but this stuff is really important for underpinning the food web that makes the Mekong the world's largest inland fishery as well as providing for agricultural yields in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Investment-led growth in China, and all of the lower Mekong countries, is chipping away at the river's ecosystem one dam, high-speed rail, or casino at a time, and delivering a death by a thousand cuts. China's Belt and Road Initiative is deeply invested in all of the Mekong countries, for better or for worse.
Laos wants to be the 'Battery of Southeast Asia' by building more than 400 dams to export power to the rest of the region. Thailand steals water from the Mekong for irrigation and is the biggest dam-builder in the Lower Mekong. Cambodians are going at development a bit more slowly to try to protect its rivers, lakes, and forests, but they still are depleting these resources at a rapid rate.
In Vietnam's Mekong Delta, the river's floods no longer deliver freshwater and nutrients across the landscape as a result of two centuries of building canals and levees there and over-engineering the landscape. Of all the Mekong countries, only Vietnam is signaling a major change to restore its portion of the delta to a more natural state and let nature do its work, recognizing that nature can provide a lot for free.
Lower Mekong governments lack the ability to coordinate policy for sustainable development across ministries, let alone at the regional level. Thus, it's really important to build platforms within countries to promote inter-agency coordination and involve outside development partners — like China, the US, Australia, Japan and the EU. At the regional level, it's really important to promote the functionality and the effectiveness of the Mekong River Commission, the only transboundary organization that is set by treaty to promote the sustainable development of the Mekong Basin.
China has never agreed to join this organization, and the region is worse off for it. China's new Lancang Mekong Cooperation Mechanism [LMC] is driving some regional cooperation, but the LMC leadership is mostly informed by the ways China has managed its rivers in the past and thus comes to the region with much bias.
Outside of government action, Mekong countries can promote civil society participation, transparency and higher environmental and social governance standards to keep the Mekong mighty. In fact, in the book I show the reader plenty of examples where local grassroots organizations and empowered individuals are making their communities better off by preserving natural resources and local culture. I also shine a light on places where the lack of community participation is driving poverty and the ruination of resources.
Another ray of light for the Mekong is how the renewable energy revolution can replace some of the most damaging dams yet to be built with solar, wind and biomass alternatives. This book isn't only about dams and their impacts. In it, I highlight some of my team's present efforts and the efforts of other like-minded groups to promote a renewable energy transition in the Mekong and Southeast Asia at large.
GK: Are there direct parallels between the Mekong's current situation and some of the world's other great rivers?
Eyler: Yes. Much of the world is connected by transboundary rivers like the Danube, Nile, Niger, Indus, and Ganges to name a few. Also, major rivers which fall wholly inside of individual countries, like the Mississippi, the Yangtze and Murray-Darling need much coordination across provinces and states to conserve and regulate water flows and environmental resources that flow through them.
Much of the world's population lives on coastal river deltas like the Mekong's in Vietnam and Cambodia. The integrity and viability of these deltas are threatened by upstream damming, floodplain reduction, sand extraction and poorly thought-out local policies for land and water use. Now and into the future, climate change impacts like sea level rise, salinity intrusion, and extreme weather will make living in these productive delta regions more and more difficult.
GK: So are there examples of ways countries are working together to preserve rivers that might be instructive for those 'managing' the Mekong?
Eyler: The world offers plenty of examples of useful transboundary cooperation and delta protection from Holland to the US to Australia. The Danube River Commission gives its most downstream countries more say than upstream countries in developing the river's resources. Unfortunately, the 1995 Mekong Agreement doesn't give such power to downstream countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, which stand to lose the most. Also the WWF has recently launched its 'Resilient Deltas' program, which seeks to link the needs of deltas across the globe so that those that are less vulnerable can share best practices with stakeholders in high-risk places.
GK: What can those of us living in Yunnan expect in the coming years in terms of Chinese policy and damming for the Lancang/Mekong?
Eyler: China's mega-dams on the Lancang already total a whopping 21 gigawatts of power — that's more than double hydropower generation installed in all downstream countries combined! And Huaneng Hydrolancang will continue to build out seven more mega-dams, adding at least another six gigawatts of capacity on the Upper Mekong regardless of if that power is needed or not. This will further impact downstream river regulation and environmental flows like sediment transport.
China's messaging about dams in the Lower Mekong has evolved over the years, and now the LMC promotes a more balanced approach to building dams in countries downstream. Previously China's dam builders just wanted to build hydropower projects downstream, but now they are looking at irrigation projects and dams that promote flood control and drought relief, particularly as the region continues to experience severe annual droughts.
This is a welcomed change, but the Mekong is a very unique ecosystem where floods annually deliver benefits of more than US$60 billion, while doing damage at a level ten times smaller. Floods are necessary to keep the Mekong mighty, and deepened river regulation from China's projects downstream — those which reduce floods during the monsoon season such as the potential Sambor Dam in Cambodia — will lay ruin to the Mekong's fisheries and significantly increase the cost of agricultural production. Chinese investors or any outside investors really need to see how the Mekong is different from any other river system in the world.
GK: Last Days of the Mighty Mekong outlines a bleak future for Asia's largest waterway and the people and ecosystems dependent on it. Where do you find reasons for optimism regarding the river?
Eyler: I work day to day to promote the sustainable development of this impressive river system and I'm not giving up. However, the pace of development and de-populating of the Mekong's upland areas is a force that is unlikely to be reversed. I've found that lowland urban areas offer too much in terms of an attractive lifestyle compared to the uplands especially as resources there continue to be depleted.
Also, high-speed rails, paved roads, and telecommunication advances are connecting parts of the region that once were mostly isolated. This all means that the ethnic patchwork of upland Southeast Asia is becoming much more homogenous and integrated into the national identities of all the countries of the Mekong. We're not going to get this diversity back ever again unless the nation-state system totally breaks down, and few people in the region want that.
However, when it comes to the Mekong's natural resources — it's waters, fish, and sediment and all that comes from it — these resources can certainly be conserved with proper planning and conservation efforts. I really don't have much hope for regional coordination, but I do think if state-of-the-art methods for planning and application of big data analysis were applied to the Mekong, then the Mekong countries can avoid major losses and externalities related to poor decision making. The question remains, though, how long will it take for Mekong countries to bring these big data analytics to the decision making level?
Also, the renewable energy revolution can deliver a huge transition away from hydropower dams in the region. Sooner or later the market will adjust toward renewable energy as the most competitive form of power generation and building new dams will be a thing of the past — just like it is a thing of the past in most developed parts of the world. But Mekong countries can make efforts now to pave the way to that future and avoid the pending crisis that the business-as-usual case of building out lots of dams presents.
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