The Journey Begins in Yunnan

In seven short years, the Mekong River has been irrevocably reengineered.

Location: China

After an absence of seven years, I rejoin the Mekong in Yunnan Province, where it’s named the Lancang Jiang. Yunnan, China’s most ethnically diverse province, is a mountainous wrinkle in the surface of the earth. In one of its deep ravines, carved by Himalayan meltwater, I begin my southward journey toward the South China Sea.

Over the past decade or so, China has built a cascade of dams on the Mekong to help power the nation’s economic rise. Now as the climate changes, Tibet’s distant ice pack is melting faster than predicted. The source of the Lancang is beginning to disappear and with it up 40 percent of the dry-season water that reaches Thailand and Laos.

Some 125 miles north from Jinghong I reach Nuo Zha Du, the second-largest dam on the river. An old fisherman in a relocated village on a treeless slope descending to the dam explains how a small fishing industry has sprung up. Businesspeople from far away are attracted by the introduction of new species of fish into the dam’s reservoir. Most of the native fish are gone now, the fisherman says.

“Most of the native fish are gone now.”

- Mekong Fisherman

He also tells me that earlier this year the water level dropped rapidly for more than a week. He gives me a firsthand account of a turning point in the history of the Mekong River.

In 2016, the region was gripped by its worst drought in 90 years, with water levels falling to record lows, causing devastating losses to Cambodia’s fisheries. Farther south, lower water levels combined with rising sea levels caused catastrophic salt intrusions into Vietnam’s rice bowl, the Mekong Delta. In response to urgent Vietnamese requests, China released 2.3 billion cubic meters of water from its dams in Yunnan.

In China the release was seen as the action of a big brother listening to the needs of the “little brothers.” But for downstream nations the release demonstrated the true meaning of hydropower. China now controls the source waters of the Mekong, the river that feeds Southeast Asia.

One thing is clear: China didn’t think much about the downstream countries when it was planning its mega-dams.

China didn’t think much about the downstream countries when it was planning its mega-dams.

The dams have blocked vital sediment flows to farms in the south and are partly the cause for a decline in fish stocks in the northern Mekong.

Meanwhile, farmers and fishermen downstream have faced other challenges due to reduced water and changed flow regimes. This is most obvious in the Mekong Delta, where millions of vulnerable people are dealing with El Nino-induced drought, poor rice farming practices, rising sea levels, and the intrusion of salt water from the South China Sea.

Members of nongovernmental organizations in China told me that the Chinese government understood the consequences but is more interested in the benefits derived from the electricity generated by the dams.

At the Nuo Zha Du dam, an old man told me that he misses his home, now located hundreds of meters below the dark waters. His people are from the Lahu ethnic group, known as the Tiger Eaters of the Mekong. The old men’s bodies were scarred with wounds from hunting tigers.

“In the old days, we fitted into nature,” he says. Each flood season the river would water and fertilize their farms. Now they must clear the land and use fertilizer to make the crops grow. But people have to make a living somehow. The dam has broken the balance between the traditional people and nature. The Chinese government now considers these indigenous minorities to be a threat to the environment.

“In the old days, we fitted into nature.”

-Ethnic Lahu Man

Leaving the dam, I hear that it may be possible for me to catch a Chinese freighter to the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar come together. I drive south from Jinghong through the dramatic mountains of Yunnan, almost uniformly encircled by rubber plantations. It’s a world of rubber, battered motorbikes with sap-stained buckets, backpacks jammed with pesticide spray, and endless green cathedrals of identical trees.

An ethnic leader in Yunnan tells me, “I hate rubber. It’s destroyed all the forests, bringing only a little money and leaving nothing.” He says that “in the old days, before building a village, we searched for a water spirit where water flows from the ground. Only then could we build the village. Now the sacred springs are drying up as rubber trees suck the groundwater dry.”

The work of some of China’s preeminent scientists supports his observations. When rubber is planted at a high elevation, rubber becomes deciduous and retains water, draining the acquifers. As rubber plantations spread through the Mekong basin, this will affect water levels in the river.

Reaching the port of Gang Lei, I secure a berth on an 800-ton freighter carrying potatoes to Thailand. We cast off, and the long hull swings into the irresistible current.

In the 19th century, 150 years ago, French explorers imagined turning the Mekong River into a road to China. But their imperial dreams were dashed on countless rapids long before the dawn of the 20th century. Now in this new century, China has achieved what the French could not.

When we first traveled down the river seven years ago there was a chance that the Mekong might avoid becoming a cascade of dams.

But now, less than a decade later, new dams are being built at a speed that earlier generations couldn’t have imagined. No one alive today will see the Mekong as it was before human hands turned it into a series of long lakes.

In this year’s drought, climate change seems to have tolled the first bell. Regional politics and the water in the river are now part of the same nervous system.

And today, I catch a Chinese freighter carrying goods through the secretive and violent world of Myanmar’s Shan State to markets in Thailand and beyond.

Beijing’s influence is rising, creating a Chinese-friendly trade zone throughout Southeast Asia.

Written by RFA's Anonymous Cameraman
Edited by Dan Southerland