The Mighty Mekong
What an eye-opening and life-changing experience I’ve had visiting Mekong River communities in Thailand and Laos with my Rotary Peace Fellows Class of 28 and on my own! I feel very blessed to have gotten to experience the deep wisdom connected to tradition, culture, land and water that the local communities we visited in Chiang Khong and surrounding areas possessed. While villagers hosted us with picnics in the forest, home-made meals and cultural dances, and beautiful traditional crafts, we saw the concern on their faces and heard the emotion in their voices when they talked about their dear Mekong River and its ecosystem dying before their eyes. We experienced their courage and dedication seeking ways to save their river against great odds and powers (the intersection between man-made damns upstream in China and Laos and impacts of climate change). We heard about their use of community education, consciousness-raising, grassroots organizing, and advocacy to impact and reach key decision makers.
Save the Mekong River School, co-founded by an amazing grassroots leader, Mr. Niwat Roikeaw, better known as Kru Tee, trains local community members, builds capacity of local researchers, and partners with international scholars to work together to gather data and research for evidence-based solutions and strategies. I was honored to meet him on a panel and spend additional time discussing and exchanging views at the site of the Mekong community school. Other community members are mobilizing people in women’s village cooperatives, local forest coalitions, school children, local fisherman and farmers groups, business alliances, and local village officials to fight for Saving the Mekong. We know based on research and studies in the field of nonviolent people power that numbers matter (Why Civil Resistance Works). Mobilizing and community education and consciousness raising to gain those members is key to movement success. The Save the Mekong movement clearly understands this and its grassroots members across the region are working hard to build their grassroots power.
While we were in Chiang Khong with them, we celebrated the exciting news of a major win for People Power! The Thai Parliament passed unexpected legislation blocking a major river rock blasting project that had looked all but certain to move ahead. Local organizers, partnered with national and international allies such as International Rivers, the National Thai Human Rights Commission, and even Thai military officials worried about the impact on national security unified for a common objective to win.
I used my three free days after our Chiang Khong trip to travel on to Laos and view more communities connected to the Mekong River system. First, I visited the historical and lovely city of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that is built on a peninsula where two mighty rivers–the Mekong and Nam Khan–meet. The cityhas numerous glittering Buddhist temples and monasteries and its name literally means Royal Buddha Image. According to archaeologists, Luang Prabang has been inhabited since 8,000 BC and was the center of the first Lao kingdom, Lane Xang, in the 14th century. It was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos, until the Pathet Lao takeover in 1975. There is also a strong French influence from the colonial past in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was able to sit and eat quiche and French baguettes at a French Bistro while watching the Buddhist monks meditate across the street at Wat Sensoukaram—what a remarkable and peaceful place.
However, even in the peacefulness of this historic city, the struggle for the survival of the Mekong River and communities continues. Luang Prabang is the site of the next planned dam in Laos and I could see yellow markers and evidence of beginning dam construction. Many people question the negative impact on environment and local livelihoods the dam will bring, but there is fear that the dam’s developers are discounting citizens groups arguing for a delay to the 1,400-megawatt hydropower project and that construction could begin as early as April. Unfortunately, although downstream countries and communities will be severely affected, based on the 1995 Mekong Agreement signed by Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, no country can veto the other’s project. (China and Myanmar were not even signatories).
After leaving Luang Prabang, I flew to Pakse, the most populous city in southern Laos. Once again, I was struck by the centrality of this river system to the lives of the people. In Pakse, the powerful Mekong River meets another–the Xe Don River. We drove three hours from Pakse to Si Phan Don, or 4,000 Islands, a massive river archipelago in the Mekong River Delta on the border with Cambodia where many rivers converge. I was traveling with a Laotian family and we took a river boat across the huge river delta scattered with many tiny islands to one of the larger populated islands—Don Det. We viewed the fishermen and women loading fish into their boats to sell at the local markets. We toured several impressive waterfalls nearby and walked beneath large bamboo groves. But once again, the whispers and concerns of local people for the river’s future stood out. They talked about fewer fish in the rivers, lower water levels than in any local memory during the dry season, and serious concerns about what the interaction of man-made dams and climate change would do to the ecosystem and livelihoods of local communities in Laos and across the border in Cambodia. Due to undemocratic systems and repressive governments, it is much harder to speak out and organize there than in Thailand. To mitigate this, activists and organizers are seeking to link with and support each other through formal and informal coalitions across the various countries that are part of the Mekong River system.
Upon my return to Thailand, going overland through a border crossing between Laos and Thailand and flying out of Upon Ratchathani to Bangkok, I have continued to stay engaged with the Save the Mekong River initiative. I’m learning about the many people, organizations, and governments around the world who are seeking to Save the Mekong, including through panels and films at the Foreign Correspondents Club and our own local expert—Rotary Peace Fellow Class of 28, Andy Stone. The Mekong is the first major river system in the world to be close to destruction due to negative interaction between human unsustainable development and climate change. I think of other major river systems such as the Amazon, the Nile, the Brahmaputra and their vast communities that are also at-risk and the terrible impact on human, animal, and environmental ecosystems around the world that their ends would entail.
And just when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I think of the grassroots people power that I’ve experienced in every region of the world growing and challenging the status quo of “power over”. And the possibility of people uniting and mobilizing in the millions across borders and regions and countries to struggle for the common objective of Saving Our Rivers and countering abuses of power and poor decision making in the interest of a few for the interest of the many. And that vision is what gives me hope and keeps me going.
Katherine Hughes-Fraitekh – USA
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 28