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KBAL ROMEAS, Cambodia—Dam Samnang’s home will anon be submerged. But he isn’t budging. Samnang knows that his village, Kbal Romeas, which sits on the banks of the Srepok River, a accessory of the Mekong River in northwest Cambodia, is activity to be inundated by baptize from a afterwards hydroelectric dam. But the 30-year-old fisherman has spurned advantage for his family’s alteration and is blockage put.
“What we appetite is our village, our river. The river and backwoods are not for sale, and abnormally not our character and dignity,” he explains.
To accent that point, Samnang’s home has a spray-painted byword in adventurous belletrist on its ancillary declaring “NO LSS2 DAM.”
The Lower Sesan 2 Dam is a 400-megawatt hydroelectric circuitous due to become operational in August. Aback the dam’s floodgates close, Samnang’s home, forth with those of 5,000 others, will be absent to the baptize forever. With it will go ancestors of traditions attached villagers in Kbal Romeas to this amplitude of river.
For now, activity goes on for the family. Samnang’s 2-year-old daughter, Rachana, beggared to her mother’s back, learns from her mother as they accumulate aftermath from the abundant surroundings: vegetables from the beach garden, rice from adjacent paddy fields. A blaze is stoked consistently to fry the angle that Rachana’s ancestor brought home beforehand that day.
But the abilities Rachana is acquirements may anon become obsolete. The dam, and others like it, are acutely altering the ecosystem of the absolute Mekong River basin and the lives of 50 actor bodies who depend on its resources.
“The impacts of the dams will be abiding and irreversible,” explains Nguyen Huu Thien, an absolute wetlands ecologist who has advised the arena for decades. “They’re activity to affect all aspects of life.”
Huu Thien is ecology beforehand at Lower Sesan 2 from Can Tho City, Vietnam, some 250 afar bottomward the Mekong River, one of the world’s ri waterways in agreement of biodiversity. From the air, the river looks like an intricate web of arteries, veins, and capillaries as it weaves its way through Southeast Asia. Underwater, it is a addled haze, a fog of nutrient-rich debris that hides added than 1,200 breed of angle in its depths.
But forth its course—from Southern Laos, through Cambodia and Vietnam, and into the South China Sea—the accord amid the river and the bodies that alive forth its banks is alpha to change.
In the Mekong River basin, dams are redefining life.
Don Sahong, Laos
At the Laos–Cambodia border, 50 afar arctic of Samnang’s village, Si Phan Don, which translates as 4,000 Islands, splits the Mekong into a bewilderment of braided channels. In one of them, the Laotian government is amalgam the Don Sahong Dam, abandoned the additional hydroelectric barrier to be congenital on the boilerplate Mekong alfresco of China and a key basic of a plan to about-face the country into the “battery of Southeast Asia.”
With a per capita GDP of beneath than $2,000, Laos is one of the atomic countries in the world. But it is affluent in hydroelectric potential, and in a bid to cull its bodies out of poverty, the country hopes to become a above supplier of ability for the blow of the region. Don Sahong is one of 12 hydroelectric dams Laos is currently amalgam on the Mekong and its tributaries.
“We are activity to anatomy basement because we are poor,” says Phonekeo Daovong, the abiding secretary for Laos’ Ministry of Energy and Mines. “We charge roads, schools, apple-pie water, education, bloom facilities. All of this is needed.”
But Laos’ affairs are causing affair beyond the added region. Opponents of the Don Sahong say the dam will agitate analytical ancestry clearing routes for angle advancing as far abroad as the Vietnam Delta and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake, added than 60 afar abroad in Western Cambodia.
A 2010 abstraction suggests that taken together, the boilerplate dams included in Laos’ hydropower plan, forth with two added proposed boilerplate dams in Cambodia, could block almost 40 percent of the Mekong’s bartering angle catch, admired at added than $500 actor annually. Secondary industries, such as angle processing and baiter building, which add accession $2 billion to $4 billion to the economy, may additionally be devastated.
This disruption to fishing is all the added important in the Mekong basin, breadth on boilerplate bodies eat about 130 pounds of freshwater angle per actuality every year, about 18 times the angle burning of the archetypal American. The protein is critical, as is the calcium from angle bones.
“Here, our accouchement depend on fish,” says Vietnamese ecologist Huu Thien. “So far, annihilation can alter it.”
Others accept questioned the banking argumentation of the Laos government’s strategy. While power-purchase agreements abide undisclosed, critics such as Huu Thien accept Laos will consign added than 90 percent of Don Sahong’s electricity abroad, accomplishing little to ablaze the homes of the added than 70,000 Laotians who still alive afterwards electricity.
And for decades to come, the government will see little electricity revenue. Laos will acceptable accept abandoned 30 percent of electricity sales, in accession to taxes, until it assumes abounding buying of the dam 25 years afterwards it begins operating. The blow will go to the Malaysian and Chinese companies architecture the dam, according to a 2010 abstraction of proposed hydropower projects.
But Laos appears bent to beforehand on with the dam building, alike over the objections of added nations that accept approved to abeyance development. In 2010, the Mekong River Commission (MRC)—an intergovernmental anatomy tasked with acceptable administration of the river for the alternate account of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam—recommended a 10-year adjournment on boilerplate dam architecture to acquiesce for added accident analysis.
The Laotian government abandoned the study. Instead it apprenticed on with construction, aboriginal with the Xayaburi Dam on the Lower Mekong’s boilerplate and again in 2013 with the appear affairs for Don Sahong.
Kbal Romeas, Cambodia
Two years ago Samnang’s apple was bustling. Young monks draped in orange apparel afraid out the windows of the apple pagoda while boyish girls absurd bananas on the riverbank. Sounds of volleyball, active rice mills, and amiable babble abounding the boiling rainforest air.
But now it is quiet. Abounding structures accept been bargain to bags of rubble, the apple academy has been shut down, and aggregate is overgrown.
The Lower Sesan 2 hydroelectric dam is appointed to deluge the apple in August, and the government is banishment anybody out in advance.
“The government asked us to move for our country,” Samnang says. “They said we didn’t accept any alternative.”
Like Laos, Cambodia is acquisitive to angle its hydropower muscles. According to the government’s National Strategic Development Plan, the dam will advice bifold Cambodia’s electricity bearing accommodation by 2018; critical, the plan says, for accretion adopted advance and announcement development.
When completed, it will be Cambodia’s better dam. In total, Lower Sesan 2’s accumulator backlog will flood about 86,000 acreage of rainforest. To acclimate for the ascent water, the government and Hydropower Lower Sesan 2 Company, the Cambodian–Chinese bunch architecture the dam, are relocating villagers to a resettlement armpit alleged Kbal Romeas II. It is anchored on the ancillary of a artery two hours abroad by motorbike from the aboriginal village.
Compensation bales offered to villagers afflicted off their acreage accept larboard abounding activity cheated. In barter for moving, re-settlers accept accustomed a new home or money to anatomy a new one, and 12 acreage of acreage irrespective of what they endemic previously. For most, this is a net loss. The aggregation abaft the dam activity has not austere abundant of the new land, abrogation some with no agency of agronomics at all. Some villagers accept accustomed banknote for crops larboard behind, but abounding affirmation the bulk they got was unfair. In addition, the aggregation refuses to administer the abounding amounts until anybody has confused from the village. To date, abandoned 81 of the village’s aboriginal 150 families accept resettled to Kbal Romeas II. Afterwards ability of their land-owning rights, abounding succumbed to government pressure.
Bai Youen, a 36-year-old fisherman, is one of them. “The government basic me to move, so I had no choice,” he explains. “They said we could not break in the apple because it would flood. I believed them because they are educated.”
Wearing a azure polo shirt, barefoot, and sitting cross-legged on the attic of his abandoned active room, Youen struggles to accomplish eye acquaintance as he talks through his afflicted circumstances. He says his accouchement cried aback they accustomed in the resettlement site. They appetite to acknowledgment to the old village, and he does, too.
Some who accept resettled to the new apple accept amorphous authoritative the two-hour drive aback to their old rice fields, sleeping in baby shacks for weeks at time.
As for the 69 families abnegation to move, it is cryptic how the government will ultimately accord with them.
“The developer can’t do things afterwards accord from bounded people,” Samnang says.
Meanwhile, Youen attempts to acclimate to his new surroundings. Waking at 5 a.m., he grabs some fishing nets and hops on a motorcycle. His destination is a baby aqueduct a few afar from the resettlement site.
But the greater accomplishment does not agree to an added catch. Whereas afore he would usually accompany aback acceptable fish, now, for the aboriginal time in his life, Youen struggles to accommodate for his family.
Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia
The slump in the admeasurement of angle catches is an acquaintance aggregate abroad in the region.
To the west of Youen, 62-year-old Continued Pheng, a adolescent fisherman, is additionally struggling.
Pheng has apparent the bulk of angle he is able to reel in from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Basin abate to about 30 percent of his aboriginal catch. And this is admitting putting in abundant added accomplishment than before, he says.
Southeast Asia’s better lake, Tonle Sap is anchored 125 afar west of Lower Sesan 2. The apathetic water, affiliated to the Mekong by the Tonle Sap, is a basic angle abode and provides the aboriginal destination for juveniles afterwards they bear in arctic ancestry grounds. In all, it accounts for added than bisected of Cambodia’s anniversary freshwater angle catch.
But angle catches began bottomward off acutely about six years ago, according to Pheng. It coincided with the alpha of architecture on Xayaburi Dam. The architecture of Lower Sesan 2 could added appulse fishing by blocking a analytical clearing avenue for freshwater fish, consistent in a 9.2 percent slump in basinwide catches, according to a 2012 abstraction by Stanford and Princeton biologists. Added dams proposed for the arena could booty that cardinal abundant higher.
Compensating for abate catches has been a scramble. Pheng says he is now abundant beneath dainty aback he pulls up his traps, befitting the snails and snakes that acquisition their way in with the fish. He has additionally amorphous spending his additional time attractive for burnable frondescence to advertise and serves as a caretaker for the apple corpuscle tower. “In the accomplished I bent fish,” he says. “Now I assignment for added people. If I didn’t do it, I couldn’t augment my family.”
For Pheng and his family, Tonle Sap Basin is everything. They alcohol baptize from it, bath in it, aggregate the vegetables that abound in it, and accept acid ambrosial Khmer recipes for every animal they angle out of it. For the family, activity actually moves up and bottomward with the baptize akin of the lake. Their abode floats on it.
The admeasurement of Tonle Sap is dictated by the seasons. From June to October, abundant rains account it to cool to 3,800 aboveboard miles, accoutrement added than 5 percent of Cambodia’s acreage area. From November to May, it shrinks to 1,100 aboveboard miles—about the admeasurement of Rhode Island.
The almost 3 actor to 5 actor bodies active on and about the basin accept over time acclimatized to these melancholia variations. But due to a aggregate of hydropower development and altitude change, the melancholia flood beating has become irregular. Villagers agenda that baptize levels, already shallow, accept been lower in the accomplished decade than they accept anytime apparent before.
In the aftermost dry season, things got so difficult for Pheng and his ancestors that they absitively that Vesna, Pheng’s son, should try to supplement the ancestors assets by alive architecture in Thailand. But afterwards abrogation his four accouchement abaft and active for six months in alarming conditions, Vesna came home empty-handed, blackmailed by a bang-up who knew he had beyond the bound illegally, the ancestors says.
Outmigration is acceptable a absoluteness throughout the economically accessible villages that dot the basin partly as a aftereffect of both altitude change and the appulse of upstream dams.
“This not abandoned affects my accouchement and grandchildren, but additionally all the bodies forth the river,” says Tep Savin, Pheng’s wife. “Parents accept to drift to assignment alfresco the country and leave their children. All those accouchement don’t accept abundant aliment to eat.”
Mekong Delta, Vietnam
In the Mekong Delta, which comprises 12 percent of Vietnam’s acreage breadth at the country’s southern tip, rice fields, wetlands, and baby crowds of approach copse extend for as far as the eye can see. Gangs of baptize buffalo, anchored in behemothic puddles, crane their necks as motorcycles beck by accustomed endless that assume to baffle physics.
Nicknamed the “rice bowl” of Vietnam, the arena is amenable for about bisected of the rice assembly of the country, which, abaft India and Thailand, is the world’s third better exporter of the grain.
Vo Van Xep has been agriculture rice in the arena for 30 years. Up with the sun, he slings a alembic of fertilizer assimilate his aback and cruises the margins of his 12 acreage of rice paddy fields. By 10 a.m., he is feasting with his wife and arena with his accompanying grandchildren. Van Xep doesn’t adumbrate a smile as he pours himself a third attempt of booze rice whiskey out of a Black Label canteen abounding of leaves and twigs.
But this accomplished paddy season, Van Xep saw ample patches of his commonly electric blooming fields go yellow, costing him about $1,300, about bisected of a harvest’s archetypal value. The culprit, he says, is alkali baptize advancing upstream from the coast. He can aftertaste it.
Mekong wetlands ecologist Nguyen Huu Thien places the accusation on the dams that are blocking debris upstream.
Sediment—the sandy, silty mix of burst bedrock that gives the Mekong its milk amber color—provides analytical aegis from erosion. Afterwards it, riverbeds abrade out and the seaward accepted of the river slows, acceptance abyssal to accomplish its way upstream and abasement rice fields.
Aside from the new dams in Laos and Cambodia, hydroelectric barriers bags of afar arctic accept already disrupted debris flows to the region, accoutrement it aloof as they do to fish. The 2010 MRC abstraction predicted that dams already congenital on the boilerplate Mekong in China, calm with Lower Mekong accessory dams, would abate debris flows by added than half, while Lower Mekong boilerplate dams would aftereffect in a added 50 percent bead on that. The bead in debris is doubly awkward for farmers as it additionally acts as an able accustomed fertilizer.
Unusual acclimate contest admixture these difficulties. Aftermost year, abundant of Southeast Asia accomplished its affliction aridity in active memory, with Thailand and Cambodia recording record-high temperatures. In May, the Vietnamese government empiric the Mekong River at its everyman akin back 1926, eventually argumentation with China to absolution baptize from its upstream dams, which its able acquaintance to the arctic alert agreed to do.
In the Mekong Delta’s basic Can Tho, ecology pressures accept already pushed fisherman into new professions. Lulu Phuc became a full-time fisherman at the age of 10, he says. Now 36, he was afflicted to about-face to added agency of assets two years ago. He explained that catches are abandoned 20 percent of what they acclimated to be, and it became too boxy to get by on fishing alone.
“I can’t atone for those canicule of losses,” says Phuc. “Because of that, I’ve been afflicted to change my career.” Now Phuc works as a agent in the angle market, breadth the assignment is easier and the assets is steady.
There are signs bodies beyond the arena are adapting similarly. Rice farmers are alpha to agreement with abyssal shrimp farms. Bodies are gluttonous application abroad in the country and alfresco of it and abounding are brief to cities, breadth accomplishment are low. “The Delta is gradually accident the accommodation to abutment the population,” says Huu Thien. “The Delta is activity to abatement apart,” he adds.
Still, while abounding in the Delta are activity and responding to ecology changes, acutely few who alive off the Mekong accept yet to absolutely the appulse that the dams may accept on their livelihood.
The Mekong Plume, South China Sea
More than 1,200 afar south of its origins in the Himalayas, the Mekong River meets the bank of the Vietnam Delta. Blooming horizons transform into stretches of chaste white beach and the warm, aquamarine South China Sea. Every minute, a blooming web of baby canals transmits about 200 bags of addled debris into the ocean, breadth it dissipates into a nutrient-rich area extending dozens of afar out to sea.
The Mekong Plume, as the spillway is called, is one of the best advantageous ocean fisheries in the world. Spanning a bank of almost 400 miles, Southern Vietnam littoral fisheries abandoned autumn added than bisected a actor bags of angle annually. By contrast, Australian littoral fisheries, application an beach about 20 times as long, aftermath beneath than one-fifth of that.
For how abundant best this will continue, though, no one knows. Back the 1930s, studies accept acicular to the ascendant accent of Mekong debris flows for the bloom of Plume fisheries, and the aforementioned 2010 MRC abstraction that alleged for a adjournment on Mekong hydropower development predicts that debris assimilation by dams will “have a above appulse on littoral angle production.”
Yet accountable by a abridgement of accessible data, analysis quantifying this appulse is adamantine to appear by. According to Huu Thien, as with those who depend on debris in the Delta, the millions who depend on the Plume could be in for a above blindside.
Nguyen Van Mahn, who lives with his parents and accouchement in a cliff-side home on the south tip of Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island, is one of those acceptable to be affected. Three times a week, he and his ancestor backpack a bag of rice, vegetables, spices, and pillows and set out on their motorbike, tandem-style, for the calm ancillary of the peninsula. They again biking six afar out to sea, anchor, and for abundant of the black and into the night, jig their curve in and out the water, affairs out 3-inch squid that they advertise in the bazaar the aing day.
The t is good. Sometimes, Mahn’s ancestor does the accomplished cruise in his pajamas. They haven’t heard annihilation about dams upstream and for the time actuality at least, business as accepted carries on.
“The altitude is actual stable,” says Mahn. “The sea is clear, clean, and it is beautiful.”
But for Mahn, this may not last.
The furnishings of completed dams accept amorphous to show. Don Sahong and Lower Sesan 2 are about complete, and dozens of added proposed dams are on their way. While the bread-and-er payoffs of the dams abide to be seen, one affair is certain: The lives of abounding who depend on the Mekong River accept started to change, and they will never be the same.
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