Another week, another episode of Anakut!
This week, Meng and I took a trip down the Mekong River without leaving the comfort of Serey Studios in Phnom Penh, home of the Globe and just one of the cities that hug the banks of the mighty river as it winds its way through about 4,350 kilometres of Asia.
We wanted to learn more about the Mekong and the slew of issues now reshaping the river as generations have known it. To help guide this journey on the big water, we invited environmental researcher and consultant Ham Oudom and Pich Charadine, the deputy executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
This episode is a little special in the Anakut series in that it deals with a subject that is absolutely transnational. While Cambodia in many ways relies on the Mekong, its borders do not contain the headwaters – those are far north, in Tibet – and it is just one of six countries that host the river as it makes its way to the South China Sea.
So even though Cambodia can decide what happens to the river as it passes through, the Kingdom often finds itself in an observer role. But that doesn’t mean it’s passive. Actors like Oudom are left fighting to help locals weather the tide, while those like Charadine lobby for better odds in conversations between nations.
Right now, the river is changing faster than perhaps ever before. The water of the mainstream has run at record-low levels this past year, which most hydrologists say is largely thanks to the effects of climate change and damming in China and Laos. With that lifeblood at an ebb, anglers have witnessed the shriveling of Cambodia’s Great Lake, the Tonle Sap, one of Asia’s largest inland fisheries and a pillar for national food security.
At the start of this year, in Thailand and elsewhere, water in the typically sediment-rich Mekong turned a shade of blue reminiscent of the tropical sea. While beautiful, the colour actually represented death for aquatic species that depended on the river’s natural, muddy makeup now degraded by silt-trapping dams. That clear blue water also foretold severe hardship for the humans who ply the waters for their livelihood.
Back in the studio, our guests brought two major and overlapping views to the mic. Charadine has followed a path of international relations and diplomacy, representing Cambodia in discussions with major powers such as the US and China as both pivot around the Mekong in their global dance for influence. And as a researcher, Oudom has gone into communities facing the brunt of development projects that threaten their ecological balance.
After a non-stop flow of media coverage announcing the sickness of the Mekong, we wanted to get to the heart of the issues that brought us to this point. We opened discussion with some conversation of the big-picture ideas here, making our way through the explanations for what we’re seeing today. But it wasn’t enough to know the basics of what’s happening on the river – we needed to hear what it meant for the millions of people who live within its basin and may be forced to accept a ‘new normal’.
It’s a huge conversation, one larger than any studio can hold. But every river journey starts somewhere – tap the play button up top to continue yours.