Shaking up the modern myths in the Mekong

Book review published in The Nation, 13 March 2008.

By Rajesh Daniel, Unit for Social and Environmental Research (USER), Chiang Mai University.

“Modern Myths of the Mekong – A Critical Review of Water and Development Concepts, Principles and Policies”. Water & Development Publications, Helsinki University of Technology, Finland, 2008.

Do Chinese dams upstream cause decreased water levels in the Lower Mekong? Why are ecological paradigms that integrate terrestrial and aquatic processes not used in environmental impact assessments (EIAs)? Did traditional Khmer societies in Angkor live in harmony with their natural environment? Are fish catches declining in the Mekong River Basin?

While research and scientific understanding of the Mekong River Basin continues to grow, much misunderstanding and uncertainty also co-exists arising from misperceptions or flawed scientific practices, the so-called modern myths of the Mekong.

The modern myths of the Mekong referred to here are not the cosmic worldviews or sacred legends – like Naga the water serpent or the rain god Taen – that have comforted and captivated humans since antiquity.

They are packages of views, perceptions and practices that are used for a rough and ready understanding of the Mekong region’s complexities but often distort or simplify complex ecological and political processes.

These end up serving different political purposes or justify certain policy decisions that affects local livelihoods.

They may re-imagine an earlier historical past or culture as having lived in harmony with nature.

They can favor traditional ways of assessing and studying ecological processes while ignoring new ecological paradigms that could help to better understand ecosystems, leading decision-makers to believe that they are adequately informed.

Critically questioning and unpacking these beliefs and practices through good science and diverse sources of information becomes continually important, an effort taken up by the recently published Modern Myths of the Mekong.

Bringing together scholars, scientists and social activists to present the latest scientific and social research in a highly readable volume, the book focuses on a wide range of issues including contemporary EIA practice, gender mainstreaming in community fisheries, causes of river bank erosion, perceptions of declines in Mekong fish catch, upstream and downstream tensions around dams, population and development questions, and viability of community resource-use organizations.

For instance, the chapter showing how present-day EIAs are flawed is instructive in light of the recent surge in large infrastructure plans for the region.

The traditional EIA approach for large projects in the Mekong is to assess direct and indirect impacts on discrete components of the environment such as air quality, surface and groundwater, soils, vegetation and wildlife. But they fail to assess integrative, cross-sectoral processes such as the “flood pulse” ecological paradigm.

The flood pulse ecosystem is a lateral exchange of water, nutrients and organisms within the “flood pulse” or succession of periodic flooding or drought that determines ecosystem productivity of the rivers and lakes (a well-known example is the Tonle Sap Lake) in the Mekong region.

As an example, the assessments for the Nam Theun 2 dam in Laos PDR, that claim to be one of the most comprehensive assessments of the impact of any project on the Mekong basin, studied downstream impacts and stated a dry season water level rise of 28-70 cm at Chaktomuk, the junction of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap Rivers.

It then concluded minimal impacts based on the “ill-informed belief that fisheries are favored by the high wet season water levels”.

However, a rise in dry season water levels at the Tonle Sap-Mekong junctions will lead to a rise in the permanent water level of the Tonle Sap Lake, which would result in a massive die-off of all the terrestrial vegetation in the new permanently aquatic area. This would seriously affect ecosystem productivity and subsequently the resource-based livelihoods of huge numbers of people.

In a region that is rapidly going through development changes while science and knowledge as well as environmental governance struggle to keep up, the book is a valuable effort to keep the practice of science and natural resources governance in the region honest and democratic.

For more information: 

Published by: Water & Development Publications, Helsinki University of Technology, January 2008. You can download the book and summary volumes from here.

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