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Mekong: Dam, Sand and Blast: Confluence of Calamities

Tonle Sap Bottleneck comparison - Sept 2019 vs 2020
Forward by Brian Eyler Published on Sep 18, 2020

Prior to 2020, the 2019 wet season was one of the driest on record. The annual reversal of the Tonle Sap in Cambodia was severely delayed in 2019 but low rainfall plus upstream dam regulation (mostly from China's 11 mainstream Mekong dams) have totally erased the annual reversal of the Tonle Sap for 2020. This comparative image compares two extremely dry late September images. Remember September 25, 2019 was comparatively very year, so the flooding you see in the 2019 image is at a very low level compared to normal conditions. The September 16, 2020 image shows the Tonle Sap bottleneck at much lower levels - in fact, this is what the Tonle Sap bottleneck looks like for much of the Mekong's dry season which runs from December to May annually.

Click here for my website entry of the same name

Geography was always my favourite subject at school. I didn't like other subjects so was delighted with my Grade A at “A” level, the university-entrance examinations in the UK. Human and physical geography have remained of great interest and relevance throughout my overseas career.

For one year on St Helena I even taught the subject to high school students. In one small island you have one of the most impressive of planet Earth's creations – a massive volcanic outcrop thrown up in the middle of the vast Atlantic Ocean.  My geographical students there weren't so worldly.  Some thought that milk was a product from a tin can, not produced by cows and farmers.*

Geography lesson: “Rivers in early, middle, and late life” – as see here the River Aln in old age meandering before it enters the North Sea at Alnmouth Northumberland.

Geography features much more in my Foreign Aid career, in almost every development project. The over-riding aim is to address poverty and hunger, to meet basic human needs. The ghastly Foreign Aid jargon calls it “Food Security”.  You can still hear today a most over-used proverb: “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”

Is that common-sense?   A self-evident truth?  You would think so, wouldn't you?  Actually if the words are interpreted literally the logic no longer holds.  They can be opposite to best practice or in need of considerable qualification.

Now I could be talking again about “Don't teach a man to fish, just give him the Goddam fish!“ as Dylan Matthews – a fellow frustrated Foreign Aid worker - put it well, but I'm not.  Mind you what he says, endorsed by equally-suffering Nate Rabe, are always worth re-visiting.

Sundowners overlooking the Tonle Bassac Takhmau Cambodia 
No, this time, I'm talking about one man-made calamity in-the-making over my 20 years in Cambodia. I have personally observed it at close quarters, usually over a beer or two. Not having the creativity of the Stimson Center Team I have borrowed their title for the phenomenon I have witnessed first-hand “A Confluence of Calamities”. The calamities are not just confined to the Mekong confluence with its Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac tributaries at Phnom Penh.** They extend along its entire length. One of the world's greatest rivers and its most unique natural wonder is being damaged:

  • Plastic waste greets you at Takhmau jetty.
    In its early life from mountainous origins in China and Mynamar, due to dams built for hydro-electric power, water/sediment-flows and fish-migration patterns have all been altered.
  • In its middle life, more dams built, as it descends through Laos, Thailand and Cambodia where vast sand-extraction takes place for urban construction while untreated sewage and waste pours-in.
  • In its late life in to Vietnam, with salt-water intrusion due to reduced flow and accumulation of pollution harming centuries-old rich agriculture.

The exceptionally-rare natural phenomenon of the Mekong is also at serious risk –– the reversal of the flow of its tributary the Tonle Sap and the massive expansion of its lake of the same name. Indeed this was greatly diminished in the wet season 2019-20. Drought affected growing of the staple product rice. Fish-catches were depleted. The annual bounty of the Mekong - food security and nutrition for millions - has been mercilessly sacrificed

That disaster is not the only one from man's attempts to harness the mighty Mekong. One of the dams under construction collapsed. Torrents of water suddenly cascaded downstream from Laos to Cambodia, with death and destruction in its wake.

I moved to Takhmau in 2000 on the banks of the Tonle Bassac just outside of Phnom Penh. Today you find many restaurants – they come and go with monotonous regularity. There is one that survives, only just, from early days along with newcomers, with fine river views, cooling breezes, and suitable facilities to enjoy a cold beer or two. Some have canned or live music but mostly the only noises came from small motorised boats. Not any more. 
 Relentless sand-pumping?

All that changed when Phnom Penh's building frenzy began and took off spectacularly. For over a decade, we have sand-pumping rigs and barges operating round-the-clock. Occasionally authorities have banned them. River-banks have collapsed, houses lost.  The bans have never held. The images are photogenic but that is the only good thing to be said.

Over the years I have taken many images of the constant sand-pumping operations.  However my colleague Nick Axelrod must be credited with one of the best. He captured sand being pumped from the confluence to fill in Boueng Kak Lake. This land dispute and terrible effect on local people has featured in many of my writings.

One of my earliest pictures is of Takhmau's oldest sand-pumping operation.  It is just opposite the riverside "sundowner" bar, close to the new Takhmau bridge and 1km from Prime Minister Hun Sen's fortress on his flight-path home.  Although pumping has moved a few hundred metres up-stream, laden barges are still off-loaded nearby on to waiting lorries.  I once counted 8 barges lined-up.  The sand is then taken to cement-works or construction sites.

One operation took place throughout my four-month stay in Takhmau from the end of 2019 into 2020. It was literally straight in front of the "Three Barges Inn" (my name) balcony overlooking the river, giving us all a close-up view of the astonishing speed of filling these massive barges. Click on this link for a short video. A compendium of images can be viewed on my website story: "Mekong: Dam, Sand and Blast: Confluence of Calamities."

*    Plug for my Geography teachers, “Yogi” Johnson; Lenny Rainbow and “Killer Kirby”.
**  Greatest calamity at the Phnom Penh confluence on Koh Pich island was a stampede over one of the bridges that caused 347 deaths. We had been there earlier in the day. As with the water Festival I was concerned again about the crowds - millions descend uncontrolled on such venues.

                                    The confluence of the Mekong with Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac at Phnom Penh

Early warnings more reading 

Please go to this 2005 paper from Mak Sithirith: 

"Many issues occurred in relation to upstream mentality's projects not necessary unintended, but impacts extend downstream. The case of Yali Dam and its impacts is a clear example of how regional agreement has failed to provide protection to its members from impacts made by another member. Despite the clear case of failure of regional agreement over the Yali dam, the Se San 3, Se San 4 dams are being built on the same river leading to increases international concern about the legitimacy and the accountability of MRC for the Mekong Region. Communities along the Se San continue to suffer from the impacts of these dams. There is inadequate mechanism to address these problems from local, national, regional and bilateral efforts. Local communities bear all the cost and problems while the benefits from these projects go to some where else.  

The issues of lack of scientific information about the impacts are continued to be lacked. Downstream countries are always constrained by the lack of evidence to prove the intensity of the impacts, but the mouth of downstream community speaks out that they have impacts. When the information of these impacts is available? Who accountability is this to the people that are affected?"

No debate about the Mekong can take place without China dominating the discourse, both as the largest exploiter of its upper-reaches and its support of major infrastructure projects downstream. This is not just of hydro-power dams but also construction projects built using riversediment sand extracted for concrete and for land-filling.  That debate is not helped by rival "research" bodies and vested interests.

Update August 2022

Now that the rainy season is well-underway, the Mekong is at last rising and the reverse flow of the Tonle Sap is underway.  It is still too early to assess if the eco-system is anything like normal or still affected by dams, sand-mining, etc.  However there is clear evidence of permanent damage as illustrated in this exhibition by Andy Ball. Please also access his Twitter thread.

Also please access the Royal Geographic Society link here, also thanks to Dr Chris Hackney for his Tweet.

Update November 2023

Excellent BBC documentary with vivid photography and personal stories.  However, as I have posted after previous similarly powerful reporting and research studies "not one so far has led to any real change in policies."

Update May 2022

In just the last couple of days, there has been some excellent reporting on the state of the Mekong with concern about its natural sedimentation being disturbed so much that it is having dire effects downstream where rising sea-levels and other factors are coming in to play.  Please see articles no 45 and 46 below.  To go with those is this excellent study by Jana R. Cox et al  on river deltas generally.

They make good reading alongside other worthy titles this year led by Abbie Sieff's discourse on the Tonle Sap Lake, No 34.

There are also some excellent images but I personally still credit Nick Axelrod's above as the most iconic. Roun Ry's images provide vivid documented evidence of the scale of the problem. Note the size of these barges, the amount of sand extracted, when viewed from within the hulls.

Selection of more recent articles and earlier works

1. Tfipost: After unleashing coronavirus in the world, China is preparing to starve Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia
2.  Melissa Marshke et al: How the global appetite for sand is fuelling a crisis
3. Tyler RoneyDamming the Mekong: China, Laos, Cambodia and the fate of Tonle Sap Lake
4.  Skylar Lindsay: How sand mining puts Southeast Asia’s farmers at risk
5. Oliver Hensengerth: Regionalism, Identity and Hydro-power Dams; The Chinese-built Lower Sesan Dam in Cambodia.
6.  CCHR - Human Rights impacts of sand-dredging Cambodia.
7.  Cuu Long - Mekong River offshoot erodes like a drill.
8.  Jens Sjorsley Social Assessment of impacts on fisheries by hydropower development in the Lower Mekong River Basin.
9.   Kimberley Ogonda - Starving the Mekong: Report on Impacts of Cambodia’s Lower Sesan 2 Dam.
10. Shankar Ganesh - Cambodia, Thailand alarmed by Laos Project
11.  Luke Hunt Praying for Rain by the Mekong as Monsoon Season Begins
12.  LICADHO - Smoke on the water.
13.  Corryn Wetzell - quoting Dr Chris Hackney's study of Mekong.  
14.  Stefan Lovgen - Cambodia's biggest lake is running dry taking forests and fish with it.
15.  Mak Sithirith - Tonle Sap Lake, its management, the diversity of perspectives and institutions. Also excellent hydrology study on Tonle Sap by the Water and Development Group, Keo Sophanadra et al.
16. Andrew Nachemson - In Cambodia a sweeping new environment codes languishes in legal limbo.
17.  Tom Fawthrop - Last Farewell to the Mighty Mekong.
18.  Global Times - Hyping China's dam threat in Mekong riddled with loopholes. 
19.  Andrew Haffner - Environmental fears as new Mekong island carved out in Phnom Penh.
20. Gerald Flynn and Phoung Vantha  Reckless Development: Loss of Phnom Penh's Wetlands puts it at risk. (See also 39 below)
  •  Nary Khorn And Phoung Vantha
  • Takeo Lobster and Shrimp Catches Down due to Environmental Degradation.
    22. Kay Johnson and Matthew Tostevin  Chinese dams under U.S. scrutiny in Mekong rivalry.
    23. RFA video showing wholesale filling-in and re-fashioning of the Mekong near Phnom Penh.
    24. Andrew Haffner In Cambodia this village shows even the wealthy are vulnerable to landgrabbing.
    25. Wanpen PajaiAs wetlands are filled, Phnom Penh ignores Bangkok’s flooding lessons.
    26. David Hutt and Sam Jam  One of the more unusual consequences of sand extraction on the  Mekong: "My cemetery, my home".
    27Marta Kasztelan "Resilient Rivers - helping to protect Mekong".
    28. Abbie Seiff "Tonle Sap is dying". (See also 34 below.)
    29  Glen Althor Rebecca Colvin et al "Tonle Sap - impoverished floating communities environmental degradation and inequitable impacts ".
    30. Sangeetha Amarthalingam + Say Tola May 2021 Update on the effects of the Lower Sesan dam. "Cambodians displaced by dam struggle to retain their identity."
    31. Alistair McCready: Politics of Conservation in Cambodia.
    32Marta Kasztelan with Thomas Cristofoletti: "The livelihoods and homes of a thousand farming and fishing families are threatened by Cambodia’s largest land reclamation project".
    33.  Human Rights Watch "Human Rights Impacts of a China Belt and Road Project in Cambodia". 
    34.  Abbie Sieff "Troubling the water". (See also 28 above.)
    35.  Sophkea Young and Sophal Ear "Explaining transnational environmental movements against dams in the Lower Mekong region."
    36.  Andy Ball - "City of Sand" story and great images around Phnom Penh - one below this list:
    37.  Andrew Haffner and Mech Dara Island of the Rich (follow-up to 23).
    38.  Frauke Urban, Giuseppina Siciliano & Johan Nordensvard China’s dam-builders: their role in transboundary river management in South-East Asia.
    39.  Gerald Flynn and Phoung Vantha "New Dams endanger Survival of the Mekong".
    40 Sarah Milne Thomas Cristofoletti: et al "Ruptured Worlds - a Photo Essay on the Lower Sesan 2 Dam Cambodia.
    44. Kanokwan Manorom Ian G Baird "The World Bank, Hydropower-based Poverty Alleviation and Indigenous Peoples: On-the- Ground Realities in the Xe Bang Fai River Basin of Laos."
    46. Andrew Haffner and Rean Ry "Roar on the River - A Torrent of Sand".
    47. Andreas Von Bubnoff  "Small Cuts Bleeding Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake." Comprehensive round-up with an array of Mekong international river experts. just one important potential further harm not covered - the proposed canal to connect the Tonle Bassac to the Sea Coast, so Cambodian river-freight does not have to navigate through Vietnam. What harm will this saltwater intrusion cause coming on top of rising sea-levels?
    48 Another gem from Gerry Flynn this time with Vutha Srey focusing on the sand-extraction and effects on the Mekong and riverbank communities. "Mining the Mekong: Land and Livelihoods Lost to Cambodia's Thirst for Sand." More too here from them on the same theme.
    49 Andy Ball (No 36) again, with Dr Chris Hackney et al and Royal Geographical Exhibition, See August 2022 update.
    50 Nicholas Muller a very comprehensive and thoughtful article: "The precarious state of the Mekong"
    51  How dams starve the Mekong of vital sediment. Reuters team. Excellent graphics. Suggests that the natural annual sediment discharged by the Mekong will reduce from 143 million tonnes to just 5 when all dams are on-stream.

    Sand, reportedly from the Mekong and Bassac rivers, is pumped into the wetlands as part of the ongoing development projects. The megadevelopment at Boeung Choeung Ek is expected to require more sand than any other in Cambodia’s history.

    More personal associations with rivers, lakes and waterfalls.

    Northumberland is well served by rivers. We have two of the most famous as our boundaries – the Tweed that markers the border with Scotland and the Tyne that marks where the true South starts. Although the Aln was our nearest river, the Coquet is my favourite as it flows through Rothbury and Warkworth on to Amble, three places with obvious other attractions. The River Wansbeck has similar appeal.

    The next time I lived near an iconic river it was of course the Thames, with Kingston, Richmond, Twickenham (Eel Pie Island) and Thames Ditton excellent riverside resting-stops with more fine obvious other attractions.

    Abroad I've visited some great rivers and waterfalls – Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls and my favourite Howick Falls. Called after our nearby Northumbrian village but they are found in South Africa. The prettiest waterfall must be Heart-Shaped Waterfall on St Helena Island that I managed to reach after cutting through dense undergrowth. How did Maidenhair Fern get there?

    My first community development project in Malawi back in 1993-5 was with fishing communities all around Lake Malawi where even then there was a crisis due to over-fishing. It was exacerbated by unnatural environmental hazards such as deadly water hyacinth that was clogging up lake-shore waters, affecting fish-breeding. Our project there, based in Khata Bay, was mainly to teach people not to fish, to find other ways of making a living and to alternative sources of protein. Today in 2020 I see that that work is still going on.
    Nkhata Bay – m.y home for over two years, the base for our Likoma Chizumulu Fisheries development Project, called after the two islands in Lake Malawi
    Finally back to Cambodia. Since 2010 the waterfall that has pre-occupied me more than any other has been Bousra in Mondulkiri. This was the preserve of the Bunong ethnic minority but since the opening up of the province, outsiders have taken it over because it is the province's top visitor site. Sadly the area around it, that should be protected indigenous community lands, have also been grabbed and exploited. We are fighting a hopeless battle to save it for indigenous children.

    More pictures of the Mekong and its tributaries can be seen on my website story with the same name as this blog. "Mekong: Dam, Sand and Blast: Confluence of Calamities."

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