Mekong at a crossroads (A photo essay)

Having flown freely from the Tibetan Plateau for millennia, the Mighty Mekong is now under serious threat.

Upstream, China has planned to build a cascade of at least eight dams on the Mekong. Downstream, at least twelve hydropower projects have been planned. The Xayaburi dam located inside Laos is the most advanced, with some preliminary work being carried out on the ground.

For centuries, the Mighty Mekong has fed millions. So, any threat to the river is also a threat to the lives of millions which depend on it.

Several studies have suggested that the Xayaburi dam project, though contributing to the economic growth of the one of the world’s least developed countries, could at the same time create irreversible impact on both the ecosystem and livelihoods of the people.

In the year 2012, the Mighty Mekong is truly at a crossroads. Once a path is chosen, what follows would be nothing, but the point of no return. (With Sayan Chuenudomsavad)

Laotian boys play in the Mekong River, the world’s 12th longest river, with the length of about 4,300 kilometers measured from the Tibetan Plateau to the mouth of the river in Vietnam.
Laotian boys play in the Mekong River, the world’s 12th longest river, with the length of about 4,300 kilometers measured from the Tibetan Plateau to the mouth of the river in Vietnam.
Laotian villagers generally occupy outcrops to fish when the rainy season arrives and the river is swollen to the point that they cannot go fish in the river. According to the World Fish Center, about 780 fish species have been identified in the Mekong - the second most diverse after the Amazon, which has about 1, 200.
Laotian villagers generally occupy outcrops to fish when the rainy season arrives and the river is swollen to the point that they cannot go fish in the river. According to the World Fish Center, about 780 fish species have been identified in the Mekong - the second most diverse after the Amazon, which has about 1, 200.
A man catches big fishes in the Mekong by using a traditional fishing net called "mong" which is usually spread out over the water when the river is not too swollen. The same organization has estimated that Mekong fishermen catch about 2.1 million tonnes a year, accounting for one sixth of the world’s freshwater catch.
A man catches big fishes in the Mekong by using a traditional fishing net called "mong" which is usually spread out over the water when the river is not too swollen. The same organization has estimated that Mekong fishermen catch about 2.1 million tonnes a year, accounting for one sixth of the world’s freshwater catch.
Laotian villagers catch one of the common fishes found in the river, Pla Wa, which can be sold in the market worth up to 60,000 kip (about 7.7 USD) per kilogramme of its flesh. Average monthly income of Laotian is about 500,000 to 600,000 kip (about 65 to 77 USD).
Laotian villagers catch one of the common fishes found in the river, Pla Wa, which can be sold in the market worth up to 60,000 kip (about 7.7 USD) per kilogramme of its flesh. Average monthly income of Laotian is about 500,000 to 600,000 kip (about 65 to 77 USD).
 
A Laotian villager occupies an outcrop to catch fish by using a fishing gear called "son", or a fish scoop. The World Fish Center notes even with such a small scale activities, communities in Lao's mountainous areas, Thailand's Northeast, Vietnam's south and all of Cambodia depend the most on fishing for their livelihoods.
A Laotian villager occupies an outcrop to catch fish by using a fishing gear called "son", or a fish scoop. The World Fish Center notes even with such a small scale activities, communities in Lao's mountainous areas, Thailand's Northeast, Vietnam's south and all of Cambodia depend the most on fishing for their livelihoods.
A Laotian villager checks his fishing gear called sai lan, which is normally placed by the river sides to trap a fish when the river is swollen to the point that fishermen can not go and fish in it. Fishing gears are developed to suit different conditions in the river, reflecting the diversity and complexity of the river system itself.
A Laotian villager checks his fishing gear called sai lan, which is normally placed by the river sides to trap a fish when the river is swollen to the point that fishermen can not go and fish in it. Fishing gears are developed to suit different conditions in the river, reflecting the diversity and complexity of the river system itself.
Small fishes are on sale in a local market in Laos. The World Fish Center studies show more than one third of the 2.1 million tonnes harvested each year are migratory fish that need to travel to feed and breed. Dams will therefore potentially block that migration. An  environmental assessment of the Mekong River Commission shows that if all 88 dams are built, by 2030 up to 81% of the Mekong Basin will not be accessible to migratory fish.
Small fishes are on sale in a local market in Laos. The World Fish Center studies show more than one third of the 2.1 million tonnes harvested each year are migratory fish that need to travel to feed and breed. Dams will therefore potentially block that migration. An environmental assessment of the Mekong River Commission shows that if all 88 dams are built, by 2030 up to 81% of the Mekong Basin will not be accessible to migratory fish.
Laotian villagers dry mong after using it. The fishing gear is modest, so is the villagers’ way of life. They fish and they garden by the riverbanks.
Laotian villagers dry mong after using it. The fishing gear is modest, so is the villagers’ way of life. They fish and they garden by the riverbanks.
 
Children play on the sandy bank of the Mekong in Laos. Some sandy banks and bars have become spiritual spheres where rituals are held, like Don Chai sand bar in front of Luang Prabang, where locals hold sand stupa making during auspicious days of Song Kran, the traditional new year in most countries along the Mekong.
Children play on the sandy bank of the Mekong in Laos. Some sandy banks and bars have become spiritual spheres where rituals are held, like Don Chai sand bar in front of Luang Prabang, where locals hold sand stupa making during auspicious days of Song Kran, the traditional new year in most countries along the Mekong.
Children play with a fish caught by their parents from the Mekong. Many of them will spend the rest of their lives by the river, and become dependent on it like their ancestors.
Children play with a fish caught by their parents from the Mekong. Many of them will spend the rest of their lives by the river, and become dependent on it like their ancestors.
A boat runs through diverse flows of the river, comprising swirl pools, rapids, outcrops, sandy bars, and gravel banks among others. Such diverse systems mean diverse habitats of freshwater species.
A boat runs through diverse flows of the river, comprising swirl pools, rapids, outcrops, sandy bars, and gravel banks among others. Such diverse systems mean diverse habitats of freshwater species.
A Laotian woman pans for gold in the river. Aside from fishing the Mekong is also the source of various occupations.
A Laotian woman pans for gold in the river. Aside from fishing the Mekong is also the source of various occupations.
 
A pontoon takes vehicles to cross the Mekong in Xayaburi. In several parts of Laos, the river is a major means of local transportation.
A pontoon takes vehicles to cross the Mekong in Xayaburi. In several parts of Laos, the river is a major means of local transportation.
Laotian villagers take boats as one of the major modes of transportation.
Laotian villagers take boats as one of the major modes of transportation.
Some heavy machinery and trucks work at the construction site of the Xayaburi dam project. The Xayaburi dam project is the most advanced among twelve hydropower projects planned on the main river stream. Up until now, construction work has not been suspended, being claimed to be at “a preliminary stage” only.
Some heavy machinery and trucks work at the construction site of the Xayaburi dam project. The Xayaburi dam project is the most advanced among twelve hydropower projects planned on the main river stream. Up until now, construction work has not been suspended, being claimed to be at “a preliminary stage” only.
As part of the “preliminary work” of the Xayaburi dam construction site,  a one-meter- wide gravel dyke has been built across the river, leaving only a small channel for a single boat to pass.
As part of the “preliminary work” of the Xayaburi dam construction site, a one-meter- wide gravel dyke has been built across the river, leaving only a small channel for a single boat to pass.
 
This new village is where former residents Houay Souy village were moved to when “preliminary work” on the dam expanded early this year. Now, their former village has been flattened, and is now without any trace left of their over-100-year community. With their new houses, Houay Souy villagers complained they are having difficulties in making a living.
This new village is where former residents Houay Souy village were moved to when “preliminary work” on the dam expanded early this year. Now, their former village has been flattened, and is now without any trace left of their over-100-year community. With their new houses, Houay Souy villagers complained they are having difficulties in making a living.
The only sign left from their former village is a a school sign that reads, "Ban Houay Souy Primary School."
The only sign left from their former village is a a school sign that reads, "Ban Houay Souy Primary School."
This old monk had to leave his old temple at Houay Souy into a newly built temple, which already appears shabby because of reckless construction.
This old monk had to leave his old temple at Houay Souy into a newly built temple, which already appears shabby because of reckless construction.
This woman's gold earring is an outcome of her labour spent in the Mekong River. She was able to collect enough gold fror this piece of jewelry after innumerable days of panning the sand and looking of small tints of the precious metal. It is among a few items left to help remind her past connection with the river.
This woman's gold earring is an outcome of her labour spent in the Mekong River. She was able to collect enough gold fror this piece of jewelry after innumerable days of panning the sand and looking of small tints of the precious metal. It is among a few items left to help remind her past connection with the river.