Tag Archives: water

The Packaging of Culture: Dai on the Lancang

A road repair worker in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The village is home to the Jinuo ethnic minority.

A road repair worker in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The village is home to the Jinuo ethnic minority.

A thick mist settled over the highway as we drove out of Jinghong, and only through short patches in the haze could we see the extent of the vast scenery we were passing. We were headed to the southeastern edge of Xishuangbanna prefecture, just 30km from the Burmese border to visit several communities of Dai people.

An ethnic minority, the Dai people were part of an ancient culture that inhabited what is now China’s Yunnan province until political chaos and wars forced them to disperse south. Now spread across China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand, the roughly 60 million Dai are divided by modern international borders.

As we wound our way along the mountain road that would take us to the Dai villages we passed through dozens of small villages, catching fleeting glimpses of people walking through the blanketing fog, heading to their farms or leading their livestock to feed. It wasn’t until we arrived at Olive Dam – so named for it’s resemblance of an olive from the air, and the word dam meaning “basin” in Mandarin – situated at the bottom of a deep valley, that the sun fully rose to burn off the mist.

A Jinuo man watches over his buffalo in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The Jinuo are an ehtnic minority found in western China.

A Jinuo man watches over his buffalo in Basa village.

Packaged Culture

Though we knew the area was advertised heavily as a tourist attraction, the extent of the commercialization of the culture was seemed excessive. Gift shops and souvenir stalls lined a large parking lot where tour busses had already gathered, despite the early hour. An information pamphlet welcomed us to the “Dai Minority Park”, and we began to suspect that the day’s cultural experience might be something less than authentic.

Through our Mandarin speaking friend and travel companion, Yan, we learned that in fact the park was owned by a private real estate developer that had consolidated several Dai villages into a single tourist destination. In exchange, a portion of the income was given back to the Dais in the form of jobs, infrastructure, and possibly cash. While we decided to reserve judgement until we had seen more of what lay inside, we immediately began referring to the area as “the theme park”, and the immaculately paved roads and manicured gardens further increased our skepticism.

As we walked through the community, it was clear that the residents of the minority park were far better off financially than those in the less developed villages we had passed earlier that morning. Most of the houses were new looking and well built with concrete and finished wood, and newish looking cars and motorcycles were parked in front of the majority. Living in the theme park was apparently not without benefits.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival, Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival, Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival.

In the distance the thumping bass of loud music drew us deeper into the village until we reached a large open area, packed with people. In the centre Dais, dressed in brightly coloured silks, splashed in a shallow pool of water encircling a fountain and tourists ringed the outer edges, cameras at the ready. The event was a reenactment of the annual water festival celebrated in April of each year, held twice a day for the enjoyment of visitors. And while the whole affair was a rehearsed performance, the Dai actors were clearly enjoying themselves as they hurled buckets of water at each other, and occasionally those tourists who ventured too near the water’s edge.

After half an hour of the playful display, the crowd migrated towards a nearby stadium, stopping to buy snacks of fried vegetables or spicy papaya salad. A solitary caged elephant stood by, and some visitors opted to climb a metal staircase onto its back to have their photos taken. Since spending a great deal of time earlier in the journey learning about the precarious relationship between humans and elephants in Laos, we were especially sensitive to the plight of the animals and the sight somewhat dampened our spirits. However we knew there was nothing to be done about it, save staging an ill-advised prison break, so we resigned ourselves to muttering an impotent apology to the animal as we joined the flow of people entering the stadium.

An elephant waits to be ridden by tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

An elephant waits to be ridden by tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

For the next hour the audience was treated to a variety of Dai traditional dances and calligraphy displays. While the dances were impressively choreographed with dozens of young women in beautiful silken dresses and the calligrapher mesmerizing to watch as he smoothly painted characters onto large parchments, we knew we were learning about as much about the realities of modern day Dai life as a trip to Disneyland could teach us about film production.

Dancers perform for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Dancers perform for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village  in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the Dai Minority Village, and obviously it had brought security and prosperity to the communities. Dancing was surely a nicer way to make a living than toiling in the fields, but we wanted to get away from the canned performances to see what normal Dai people did in their everyday lives.

The Opposite Bank

After waiting for the arrival of a small ferry boat to shuttle us across the Lancang to the Dai village of Manhenuan, the difference was immediately obvious. Unlike in the Minority Park with its expansive paved roads, there was a stone beach with a rutted motorcycle path that lead inland. Locals sat along the water’s edge, casting fishing rods into the river and waiting patiently for bites that did not seem to come.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Residents fish in the Lancang.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river.

“Here we grow many things like bananas, corn, rubber, and beans,” Yu Yinghan said. A young woman in her late 20’s, we found Yu fishing with her husband on the river’s edge and had stopped to ask her about the differences between Manhenuan and the nearby cultural park. “We have what we need here, so we don’t want to work full time for a big company. We would rather work for ourselves.”

Bean farmer Yan Wenxiang, stands next to his crops in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Bean farmer Yan Wenxiang, stands next to his crops in Manhenuan village.

Further inland, the rockiness of the Lancang’s banks gave way to bright green expanses of farmland, set against the backdrop of the rolling mountains on the horizon. Moving between neat rows of string beans, we met Yan Wenxiang and decided to switch gears to ask about the role of the Lancang in the daily lives of Manhenuan residents.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” he said. “I water my crops from the river, though it’s too dirty to drink. Usually there is enough [for the crops], but sometimes because of the nearby dams there is not. Yesterday there was enough, but not today.”

A woman walks past the farmland of Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A woman walks past the farmland of Manhenuan village.

A farmer drives his tractor near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A farmer drives his tractor near Manhenuan village.

Unlike those across the river, the Dais of Manhenuan lived a more traditional lifestyle and relied on the land and its natural resources as their primary source of income, instead of the tourist dollars that supported the Minority Park.

While we watched labourers heft 60kg sacks of picked beans onto tractors to be sold for 2-3 Yuan (roughly $0.50) per kilogram, we chatted with them and reflected on the strange paradox of development. As outside observers, the rural lifestyle of Manhenuan’s farming Dais conjured words like “idyllic” and “natural” in our minds. Friendly and laughing the whole time they worked, it would have been easy to assume that this way of living was inherently better than allowing a real estate company to turn their village into a theme park.

Farmers pick peas and beans in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Farmers pick peas and beans in Manhenuan village.

Farmers pack freshly picked beans and peas into sacks for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village, Xishunagbanna, China.

Farmers pack freshly picked beans and peas into sacks for transport to local markets.

Farmers load freshly picked beans and peas onto a motorcycle cart for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village, Xishunagbanna, China.

Farmers load freshly picked beans and peas onto a motorcycle cart for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village.

But at the same time, as we watched the workers sweat under the weight of the beans, it was obvious that this was not easy work – either physically or financially. As always, we had to remind ourselves not to judge the quality of the lives of others based on romanticized notions of simpler times.

Following a dirt road for a few kilometres, we reached the centre of Manhenuan town and immediately realized that the community was already on its way to following in the footsteps of the Minority Park. Multiple construction crews and 70 tonne excavators were busily tearing up the small roads and preparing them for paving. Building sites were everywhere, and the extent of the bamboo scaffolding indicated that the new structures would almost certainly dwarf the existing ones.

“Soon a new bridge will be built and it will allow tourists to come here more easily,” Yan Ying said. 52 years old and sporting a magnificent Soviet-style winter hat, Yan explained that Manhenuan was preparing to follow the example of the Dai across the Lancang and convert itself into a tourist attraction. “Many things are changing.”

Yan Ying, 52, stands in front of his home in Manhenuan, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

Yan Ying, 52, stands in front of his home in Manhenuan.

A woman walks past her home in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.  With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A woman walks past her home in Manhenuan village.

Currently living in a small makeshift shack with his wife and daughters, Yan had torn down his house in order to build a more modern structure in its place. “I thought about building a traditional style house, but I decided to use bricks so I could rent out the rooms to tourists,” he said.

When we asked him several loaded questions, trying to gauge if he felt any anger about the immanent commercialization of his village, he didn’t express any personal misgivings. “I don’t own any land, and since there is none available to buy, tourists will be the best way for me to earn money to give to my children.”

“Some people are arguing with the company,” he admitted after continued probing, “They think we aren’t being paid enough. But for me it’s good.”

A construction crew builds a new road in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A construction crew builds a new road in Manhenuan village.

As we left Manhenuan, we couldn’t help but feel saddened by the knowledge that the little village would probably be unrecognizable if we returned in five years. But at the same time, it was more than understandable that Yan preferred the thought of his daughters working in an air-conditioned hotel instead of labouring in a sweltering bean field.

For better or for worse, the modern world would march on. We could only hope that in the process Dai traditions would not become just another packaged culture for the convenient consumption of those who could afford the price of admission.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , |

Entering China: Where the Mekong Ends

Evening in the city of Jinghong Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Evening in the city of Jinghong.

A cold grey drizzle greeted us as we stepped off the plane at Jinghong international airport, the capital city of the Xishuangbanna autonomous prefecture and the gateway to southwestern China. Despite a temperature of around 15 degrees Celsius, after months of tracing the Mekong river through the tropical heat of Southeast Asia, the chill bit through to our bones and we scrambled to pull jackets and scarves out of our luggage.

Our Mandarin speaking friend and travel companion, Yan, was waiting in the arrival hall. Possessing undergraduate and masters degrees in journalism, she was also a skilled photographer and her spoken English rivalled our own. We were in good hands.

A cold rain falls on downtown Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A cold rain falls on downtown Jinghong.

Before long we were bundled into a car and speeding along immaculate highways into the heart of the city. Having never worked in China before, we were simultaneously exhilarated and anxious about the prospect of what was to come.

The End of the Mekong

When we got our first glimpse of the river in Jinghong, it took a moment to process the fact that we were no longer looking at the Mekong. The Lancang river, as it is called in China, was physically the same body of water we had been following for nearly a year, but the change in name signalled that we had entered into a different (and the final) phase of the journey. And as we would learn over the course of our time in China, in many important ways this was a very different river to the sluggish waterway we had come to know so well.

A woman crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A woman crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang.

From atop an impressive cable-stayed bridge that spanned the Lancang to connect the two halves of Jinghong, we stopped to watch the river pass beneath. Cargo vessels pulled in and out of a nearby port, transporting trade goods to and from Laos to the south, while huge leisure ships drifted on the currents. These floating restaurants were some of the largest ships we had yet seen on our travels, further reinforcing that China’s relationship with the river was unique.

The swarms of water taxis that plied the floating markets in Vietnam were absent, and the omnipresent wooden fishing boats that dotted the river throughout Cambodia and Laos were nowhere to be seen. Even the water’s colour had changed perceptibly from the murky brown of the lower Mekong basin to a more pronounced blue that flowed with surprising speed.

A floating restaurant and leisure ship floats down the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A floating restaurant and leisure ship floats down the Lancang.

Traffic crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Traffic crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang.

For the roughly 2000 km we had still to travel before reaching the river’s source on the Tibetan plateau, we would not see the Mekong again as we knew it.

A People’s River

As we walked along the banks of the Lancang, one thing felt familiar; the river served as a public gathering space; a place to socialize, exercise, and enjoy.

Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops overlooked a well maintained stone pathway, which in turn overlooked small communal farm plots that locals used, rent free, to grow vegetables and bananas. Joggers made use of the long, straight track, and more than a few times we noticed people walking backwards at full speed – a practice said to have originated in ancient China – which while supposedly being very effective at targeting seldom used muscles, was nearly impossible to watch with a straight face.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang.

Further along we left the water’s edge, lured to a small park by the sound of birdsong. Dozens of small cages hung from the trees that lined the public space and were inhabited each by a solitary huamei – a small Chinese thrush-sized bird most similar to a North American robin, but made distinctive by its spectacle-shaped eye markings. Groups of men stood in clusters, appreciating the birds according to some criteria that we did not understand, smoking furiously as they listened to their song. While the birds were certainly beautiful and the cages perfectly crafted from painted wood, seeing the jittery imprisoned animals gave us little joy.

Caged songbirds in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

Caged songbirds in a public park.

Singing birds hand from trees in their cages in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

Singing birds hand from trees in their cages in a public park.

It wasn’t long before we started to attract considerable attention. Though Xishuangbanna was a popular destination for Chinese tourists, we hadn’t yet seen another foreign visitor, and the locals seemed excited to chat. Before we knew what was happening we were drawn into a group of men who asked us standard questions – where did we come from? How did we like China? – before thrusting large bamboo water pipes into our hands.

A cigarette was wedged into a small spout at the base of the pipe, and with much effort and a massive amount of lung power we were encouraged to haul repeatedly on the tube until we were coughing out great clouds of smoke. Though not unbearable, the experience was by no means pleasant, and made all the more difficult by the fact that our unshaven faces made it impossible to form a tight seal around the mouth of the pipe. After we each finished and entire cigarette in this fashion, lightheaded and dizzy, the men immediately tried to restart the process. Only by distracting them with our cameras did we manage to escape additional rounds.

A man smokes tobacco from a water pipe in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

A man smokes tobacco from a water pipe in a public park.

Fleeing to a nearby stone pier that extended a hundred meters into the Lancang, we noticed a pair of men emerging from the river. Though the air temperature was chilly by our standards, the water was nearly freezing, and we approached the men to compliment them on their toughness. “This isn’t cold,” one of them said proudly. “Where I come from [north of Beijing], it is much colder than this.” Wearing nothing but a skimpy bathing suit, he rolled a cigarette from loose tobacco he said he’d brought from his home province. Bundled as we were in thick fleece and thermal under layers, we felt decidedly un-tough.

A man lights a cigarette after swimming in the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

A man lights a cigarette after swimming in the Lancang (Mekong) river.

As the sun set we made our way to a stony beach where people were gathering to enjoy the evening light. Some waded into the water to take selfies, while others played with their children or talked on the phone.

One particularly friendly group of tourists who were skipping stones across the Lancang shouted an enthusiastic ni hao (hello) and beckoned us over. Once again we were reminded that temperature was relative: “We’ve been here for more than one month. We come here for the warmth and to get away from winter!”

Tourists gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Tourists gather along the Lancang.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong.

While we had left the Mekong behind to start our journey up the Lancang, in one way at least China was consistent with the other countries we had traveled through – be it known as the Mekong or Lancang, fast flowing or slow, blue or brown, the river attracted people. Regardless of name or geography, people were drawn to its banks.

A River’s Tail is a multi-year collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , |

Damming the Nam Khan

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

We had been driving for an hour on the dusty mountain road when we hit the military checkpoint. As the lone passengers in the back of the songthaew (a flatbed truck fitted with benches) we figured it would be impossible to avoid scrutiny and we certain that this would be turned back at any moment. With the media’s widespread – and overwhelmingly negative – coverage of Laos’ Thai-financed Xayaburi dam, we thought that we, as camera toting foreigners, would be less than welcome at the dam construction sites along the Nam Khan river.

To our surprise, however, the soldiers on duty barely gave us a second glance, and looked more bored than suspicious as they waved us through.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

We had come to the Nam Khan to further investigate the human impacts of Laos’ hydropower dams after visiting the nation’s first ever damming project on the Nam Ngum river. The people we’d spoken to there had mixed opinions about the dam’s enormous reservoir (known locally as the Laos Sea) that had flooded much of the area when it was finished in the 1980’s. But it had been more than 30 years since the project had been completed and people had had decades to adjust to the change. We wanted to speak to people who were on the front lines of the nation’s current damming rush.

Voices of the Displaced

A day before our drive into the mountainous valley surrounding the Nam Khan, we had visited one of the main relocation camps for those displaced by the series of dams on the river. Before we saw the dams themselves and spoke to those who were facing eviction from there homes because of them, we wanted to have a clear idea of where these people were being asked to go.

The Samaky Sai, or "United Village", relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

The Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams.

The Samaky Sai camp, located just outside the village of Pak Hanh, looked artificial in every way. The houses were carbon copies of each other, and clearly built as cheaply as possible; cracks sliced through many of the concrete walls and the roads were uneven and dusty.

“The old place was better,” a 28-year-old mother of 5 named Pich told us when we stopped to speak to her on the front steps of the cookie cutter home she had been issued by Sinohydro, the Chinese state-owned firm overseeing the dams construction.  “But we didn’t have a choice.”

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Pich, like many of the other occupants of Samaky Sai, had come from a small and remote mountain village further up the Nam Khan where her family had farmed rice. While life in the village was far from easy, Pich told us, and lacked access to modern amenities like electricity and plumbing, essential items such as food and firewood had been abundant and cheap. A barter economy allowed her to trade rice for whatever her family couldn’t grow on their own, and a walk into the jungle would usually provide fresh coconuts or bananas. Cash was used rarely, and typically only for speciality items that had to be brought in from the city.

That all changed when her family moved to Samaky Sai, Pich said: “Over there [in the village] we didn’t need money. But now we need it for everything.” When her family was compelled to leave the village it never occurred to them that they would need cash for nearly everything, and they had no way to earn it. Samaky Sai was too small to provide each family enough space to farm commercially, and virtually nothing would have grown in the hard shale anyways.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.  The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.

Each person we spoke to throughout the day shared similar stories. Their transition into a cash-based economy meant that their traditional communal farming practices were no longer able to meet their basic needs. They needed jobs. And around Samaky Sai, there was only one real employer.

“I work as a construction worker on the dam, earning 60 000 kip ($7.25 US) per day,” a young man named Muoi told us. Dressed in a set of blue coveralls and a hardhat, Muoi, like the majority of men in the camp, was preparing to head to work where he would help build the dam that would eventually destroy his childhood home.

As outsiders the idea seemed perverse, but Muoi was quick to point out that he actually preferred life in Samaky Sai in some ways. “It is more comfortable here because we have a big house and electricity,” he said, but then continued “but it is different. We have to work every day and food is very expensive. Either way I can’t go back because the authorities say that we have to stay here.”

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village - a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village – a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Chanh, a 35-year-old resident of Samaky Sai also employed as a labourer on the dam site, shared Muoi’s preference for the modern conveniences their new home provided, but lamented the loss of free time: “The Chinese never stop working, sometimes we start at 7 a.m. and don’t stop until 7 p.m.”

While working a 12 hour shift was by no means uncommon in the world, Chanh explained that the disappearance of their cultural traditions was more damaging than the loss of leisure time. “Every year in the village we used to have a feast to celebrate the new year,” Chanh remembered, “but we had to cancel it last year [after we moved to the camp] because no one could afford the cost of the food. That’s the first time we have ever done this since I was a boy.”

Residents of Samaky Sai, or "United Village", walk along on e of the camp's main roads. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, walk along on e of the camp’s main roads.

After walking through the camp and talking with Samaky Sai residents for several hours, the stories were essentially all the same. 62-year-old broom maker Chan Souk told us how her initial excitement at the prospect of living in a modern house quickly gave way to the realization that their life was forever altered. “When they first showed us the new houses, we all said ‘wow’, but after a few months we realized there was no food. Here we need money for everything, but in the village we could get whatever we needed from the jungle. It is easier here in some ways because of the electricity, but if we could get power in the village, I would go back.”

But with the Nam Khan dam nearly completed, Chan Souk knew she would never go back.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Just a few hundred metres behind Samaky Sai was the village of Don Mo, and before leaving the relocation site we wandered over to ask villagers how they felt about the camp. In contrast to Samaky Sai, Don Mo was not a planned camp but a village that had grown organically over generations. There we met 60-year-old pig farmer Phanh Boun Na Phon, and asked if he would be willing to leave his 50-odd piglets for one of the newer houses. He answered with a laugh, but also with decisiveness: “The space there is not enough. The houses are so close together I wouldn’t even have space to park my bike, never mind my pigs,” he said. “I don’t want to live like those people. I have everything I need here.”

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 50, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.  While just a few hundred metres away from the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp, Don Mo has abundant farmland and the quality of life is vastly superior to that in the camp. Samaky Sai is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 60, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.

 

Only the Goats Remain

Back in the mountains, our songthaew bounced along the mountain road as we passed the build sites for the Nam Kham 1 and 2 dams. The scale of the projects was immense, and it was hard not be impressed by the feat of engineering such massive structures in so remote a location despite knowing the human costs involved.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam.

 

 

 

Workers scurried along scaffolding, looking more like insects than people from so far away, and concussions thudded into our chests as pieces of the mountains were blown away with explosives. Trucks full of workers, presumably being shuttled between their base camp and the construction zones for a shift change, passed us periodically and waved enthusiastically as they called out in greeting. Visitors were not common, we supposed.

After nearly two hours, we arrived at the third and final dam on the Nam Khan river. Still unsure of whether or not we were allowed to be in the area, we jumped out of the truck and made our way towards the top of the structure. A lone security post overlooked the area, and the guard watched us carefully as we approached. With each step closer to the top, we were sure he would start shouting for us to leave, but as soon as we set foot on the expanse of concrete stretching across the valley he stepped out of his hut and yelled “Hello!” in cheerful if heavily accented English.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we only loitered for a few minutes to take in the sheer scope of the project before heading back towards Pak Hanh. On the way we stopped at the tiny village of Khone Wai after catching a glimpse of movement in what looked to be an otherwise abandoned community.

Perched on a small mountain side shelf, Khone Wai was situated between dams 2 and 3 on the Nam Khan – placing it squarely in the path of the future reservoir. The majority of houses were empty and looked long-since abandoned, apart from a few that still had laundry hanging from the front porches. At first we seemed alone apart from a few small herds of goats, but eventually a middle-aged man appeared to greet us.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam's resevoir. Once completed, the area will be submerged in water. Most of the villagers have already abandoned their homes, with a few returning each day to tend to the livestock left behind.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam’s resevoir.

“Everyone is gone,” he told us, “they have all been moved for when the dam is finished [in a few months]. Only the animals are left, and we come to look after them.” 50-years-old and weathered from decades of farming, he politely declined to tell us his name but explained that he would soon be selling the goats and moving permanently to Samaky Sai.

“Yes we are sad to leave, but we have no choice,” he said. “But I am excited to have a new house.”

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam's resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam’s resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Blocking the Flow: The Sesan II Dam

Thon Min, 65, fishes in the early morning on the Mekong River near the island of Koh Sralay. His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Thon Min, 65, fishes in the early morning on the Mekong River near the island of Koh Sralay. His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

We heard the phone ring in the darkness (Nokia’s ubiquitous descending cadence adapted from Francisco Tárrega’s 1902 classical guitar composition) well before we could see the boat driver who answered it.

Allo?” came the groggy voice. Though most Cambodians are notorious early risers, clearly 4 a.m. was not a time the man enjoyed.

We had met him the previous afternoon while walking along Steung Treng’s riverfront promenade and chartered his boat on the spot to take us to the nearby island of Koh Sralay, where we hoped to gain insight into how the human-river interactions in sparsely populated northern Cambodia differed from those further south along the Mekong and Tonle Sap.

After we were settled onto the boat’s wooden benches, the driver stood in the shallow water along the river’s edge and spun the bow towards open water, clucking his concern about the lack of visibility around the high powered flashlight clenched between his teeth.

Residents of Koh Sralay island fish in the early morning on the Mekong river. Residents of Koh Sralay are entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Residents of Koh Sralay island fish in the early morning on the Mekong river. 

An hour later, the sun still not yet risen, the tip of the island appeared out of the gloom. The outlines of numerous fishing boats visible only for being slightly blacker than the water they floated upon. We were searching for one fisherman in particular, whose wife we had spoken to the day before as she sold catfish in Steung Treng’s market, but in the grey darkness it was nearly impossible to distinguish individual faces – let alone identify a man we had been told to seek out based solely on a name and a loose physical description that could have applied to nearly every fisherman on the river.

“Thon Min?” As our translator called out the man’s name to each boat we passed, invariably they waved us further downriver while offering few specifics. When we eventually found him it was nearly 6 a.m. and his morning’s fishing was all but finished. Not long after, he headed for home.

Thon Min, 65, hangs his fishing nets from trees along the banks of the Mekong river. When he catches enough fish, the surplus will be sold at a nearby market, while the remainder are kept alive until they are eaten. The Chinese owned Sesan II dam will heavily affect Thon's ability to fish from the Mekong.

Thon Min, 65, hangs his fishing nets from trees along the banks of the Mekong river. When he catches enough fish, the surplus will be sold at a nearby market, while the remainder are kept alive until they are eaten. 

“Only one fish today,” Thon told us as he tied his boat up to a thicket of mangrove trees. “People from upriver came last night and used electric fishing nets. Whenever they do this we catch nothing the next day. But this is still enough.”

The Last Bastions of Sustainability

“Here we can feed the whole family without buying anything, other than spices and oil.” Thon told us as we sat cross legged on the floor of his large stilted home. “When we catch more fish than we can eat, we sell them at the market, and we produce enough rice and vegetables to feed our family.” Considering that Thon’s family counted 10 members, this was no small feat.

Thon Min, 65, sits in his home on the island of Koh Sralay.  His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Thon Min, 65, sits in his home on the island of Koh Sralay. 

From crop watering to protein intake to drinking water, virtually every aspect of Thon’s life was connected to the health of the Mekong and it’s nearby tributaries – and it was the first time in the 3 months since we began the project that we had talked to someone who didn’t report a drastic decrease in water quality. Compared to the dwindling resources and environmental degradation we had witnessed on the Tonle Sap Lake, or the extreme poverty we encountered in Phnom Penh’s Cham village, Koh Sralay seemed like a positive example of how the river had supported life in Southeast Asia for millennia.

“On the Tonle Sap there are too many people and too many fishermen,” Thon explained when we asked him why Koh Sralay was flourishing in comparison to the Tonle Sap. “This is bringing down the quality of the water and the numbers of fish. There they fish every day of the year, but here we follow the seasons.”

Kuch Hen, 45, recieves a morning prayer from her daughter on the island of Koh Sralay. Her family is completely self sustaining, and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt Mekong fish populations and sediment flow.

Thon Min’s wife Kuch Hen, 45, receives a morning prayer from her daughter on the island of Koh Sralay. Her family is completely self sustaining, and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese owned Sesan II dam.

Following the seasons, Thon explained, meant that they fished only when the river was in the process of rising or falling with the coming and going of the monsoon rains – the times when fish were moving to or from their spawning grounds. During the rest of the year, they hung up their nets and turned to inland farming instead, giving fish stocks a period of respite. By contrast, fishermen on the Tonle Sap often set their nets multiple times a day, every day of the year.

Though there were almost certainly examples of irresponsible river stewardship taking place (the clandestine raiding by upstream fishermen toting electrified nets Thon had mentioned, for example), in general this was a prosperous symbiotic relationship between civilization and the environment. But a threat loomed on the horizon, one with the potential to completely and irrevocably derail the lives of people like Thon.

Thon Min, 65, drives his fishing boat along the Mekong river near the island of Koh Sralay. Thon and his family are self sustaining, supporting themselves entirely from river fishing and agriculture. The Sesan II dam, when completed, will heavily impact fish populations and river sediment, heavily affecting families like Thon's.

Thon Min, 65, drives his fishing boat along the Mekong river near the island of Koh Sralay. 

A woman washes clothes in the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

A woman washes clothes in the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia. The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Children jump from the pilings of a bridge over the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Children jump from the pilings of a bridge over the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng. 

 

Stopping the Flow

“We worry about the dam,” Thon told us before we left Koh Sralay. “If it breaks, a big wave will come and destroy this island, and I don’t know how it will affect our fishing.”

The Sesan II hydropower dam is arguably Cambodia’s most controversial environmental issue. When completed, the Chinese-owned dam will block two of the nation’s most important Mekong tributaries – the Sesan and Sekong rivers. The ensuing damages would be varied and devastating. Migrating fish would be unable to reach their breeding grounds; reduced sediment flow would disrupt the fertility of downriver farmland as well as increase erosion; a vast reservoir would displace thousands and inundate huge swaths of forest. An entire way of life could be lost, very possibly forever.

“The river is for life, for Cambodia, and for community identity,” Meach Mean told us over a bowl of fish soup. An independent environmental activist and the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network (a grassroots organization that mobilizes disparate villages to rally against the project), Meach is one of the most outspoken opponents of the dam. “Rivers create a lot of our culture [in Cambodia], including our annual boat festivals, the ancient belief in water spirits, Buddhist water blessings, and the national diet. If the dam is built it will stop our culture, not just fish.”

Each Mean, the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, indicates the approach of the Sesan II dam.

Each Mean, the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, indicates the approach of the Sesan II dam.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam appears on the horizon.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam appears on the horizon.

Wanting to see the physical manifestation of the controversy, we asked Meach to take us the to the dam. With security checkpoints stationed along the roads leading to the construction site, we had to hire two small wooden fishing boats to circumvent the road blocks. It was more than an hour’s journey against the river’s current, during which time we saw little evidence of development, save a few small fishing hamlets scattered amongst the tree lined banks. It was hard to imagine that something so destructive could be lurking in such an idyllic and remote place.

“There,” Meach said as we rounded a bend. At first I couldn’t see what he was pointing at, but gradually the shapes of industrial cranes emerged on the skyline, towering over a wall of concrete. Initially it seemed like the river was completely blocked, but as we drew nearer we could see that a small channel remained open. As our boats made for this gap, I asked Meach what would happen if we were confronted by security: “What do you think? We leave very quickly,” was his simple response.

Mean Meach points to a pipe discharging chemical byproducts of the dam building process into the Sesan river. Mean is an environmental activist and founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, an organization that works to mobilize affected communities against the construction of the Chinese-owned dam that will displace thousands, innundate 36 000 hectares of land, and heavily impact local fishing and farming practices.

Mean Meach points to a pipe discharging chemical byproducts of the dam building process into the Sesan river. 

The boats dropped us behind the dam in order to minimize the chances of being spotted by construction personnel before we had a chance to see the site. After a sweaty scramble up a loose stone slope, we found ourselves standing on a gravel road, the entire building site in front of us. The immensity of the project was hard to process, stretching beyond what our peripheral vision could take in. For a moment we just stood and stared, but Meach quietly urged us to get our pictures as quickly as possible as a security patrol could be along any minute. Not wanting a confrontation we heeded his advice, snapping pictures furiously. When a dump truck rumbled past a few minutes later and the driver immediately began speaking into his radio, we knew it was time to leave.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. 

We skidded back down the rocky embankment and boarded our boats for the drive back. “How did that make you feel?” Meach asked. Overwhelmed, intimidated, and worried were all words that entered our minds. Having read a great deal about the ecological dangers of damming the Mekong and its tributaries had prepared us intellectually, but the reality of seeing such a massive structure nearly blocking an entire waterway was another matter.

We were mostly quiet and reflective on the hour long boat back towards Steung Treng. The following day we were headed to a village of indigenous Bunong people, whose homes sat directly in the path of the dam’s proposed reservoir and we wondered if we had just seen the future destroyer of people we hadn’t yet met.

Monks walk along a pier extending into the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Monks walk along a pier extending into the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

And Upon You Peace

Roughly 250 families inhabit the Cham village.

Roughly 250 families inhabit the Cham village at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 

Even after seven months of regular contact, it was hard to know how Yu Sos felt about us. A short, swarthy man with a wiry neck beard, he was not prone to outbursts of cheer; I could count the number of times I had seen him smile using my fingers alone, and I had never seen him laugh. When Gareth and I first met him we initially assumed he didn’t like us, but over the course of our relationship he had repeatedly demonstrated exceptional generosity and patience, furthering our confusion about the paradox between his actions and his outward mood. For more than half a year we had looked forward to our visits to his family’s house boat at the confluence of the Mekong and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap rivers in Phnom Penh, while simultaneously fearing that he secretly hated us. It wasn’t until A River’s Tail gave us a budget to employ a dedicated translator that we were able to finally penetrate his mask of stoicism and fully understand the precarious situation of the river-dwelling Cham community that he oversaw.

Chams, as the ethnic group who inhabit parts of Cambodia and southern Vietnam are known, represent the last vestiges of a defeated empire. A major power in what is now south and central Vietnam for more than a thousand years, the Kingdom of Champa was fully annexed by the Vietnamese in the 1800’s. At odds with the predominantly Buddhist states of Southeast Asia, Champa was heavily influenced by both Hinduism and Islam, and the modern day Chams remain divided between the two faiths to this day. The majority of Vietnamese Chams practice Hinduism, while those in Cambodia are overwhelmingly Muslim.

Cham men wash their hands and feet before entering their community mosque.

Cham men wash their hands and feet before entering their community mosque.

Cham men pray in their community's makeshift mosque.

Cham men pray in their community’s makeshift mosque.

A Cham man touches his head to the floor in prayer.

A Cham man touches his head to the floor in prayer.

As we entered the Cham community on the southern tip of Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar peninsula and made our way to Yu Sos’s home, we were greeted with assalamu alaikum rather than the normal sues-dei used by Khmers – reminding us that while the residents might look no different than the rest of Cambodians, we were entering into a distinctly different culture.

Though fact that the vast majority of the community lived on houseboats rather than on land, over the following days that we spent with the Chams we learned that their relationship to water was far from harmonious.

Formation By Conflict

When Phnom Penh fell to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1975, Yu Sos decided to swim for freedom. Jumping into the Tonle Sap river at 3 a.m., he clutched a banana tree to stay afloat as he drifted with the current. “Some soldiers saw me and tried to shoot me,” Yu told us as we sat cross-legged in his floating home, miming the automatic firing of an AK-47 to illustrate his story, “but I dove under the water and [the bullets] missed.”

For nearly two days he floated towards Vietnam until nearly drowning when the banana tree got caught in the net of a fishing trawler. The ship’s crew hauled the exhausted Yu on board and turned him over to the Vietnamese military. After an intense interrogation session he as conscripted into the Vietnamese army and sent back to his home country to fight the regime he had been so intent on escaping.

A Cham man winds line around an empty aerosol can which is used as a floatation device for fishing nets.

A Cham man winds line around an empty aerosol can which is used as a floatation device for fishing nets.

A fish vendor places a Beoung Laos fish into a bag for a customer. Fillets of the fish can sell for up to 7$, but Cham fishermen report a dramatic drop in the numbers of fish they are catching in recent years.

A fish vendor places a Beoung Laos fish into a bag for a customer. Fillets of the fish can sell for up to 7$, but Cham fishermen report a dramatic drop in the numbers of fish they are catching in recent years.

A Cham woman carries firewood to their small shack in one of Phnom Penh's Muslim communities.

A Cham woman carries firewood to their small shack in one of Phnom Penh’s Muslim communities.

After four years of gritty guerrilla warfare the Khmer Rouge were defeated and Yu was reunited with the family he had left behind. “When I found my parents we cried together,” he remembered. In the aftermath of the 4 year conflict that left millions of Cambodians dead and a society in ruins, Yu and his family began the process of looking for a new home. The Khmer Rouge had stripped most Cambodians of their property titles as they redistributed land in their ruthless mission of creating their idealized vision of a communal agrarian society, and many, including Yu, did not know where they were and were not allowed to settle. After attempting to establish a life in the city of Prey Veng, their post-war poverty forced them to move on yet again. “We didn’t have any money to buy a house, so we got a boat and drove it to Phnom Penh,” Yu told us. “When we arrived we found other families [on boats] in the same situation as us, so we got permission to from the authorities to form a community together.”

Though Yu told us this story with a characteristic lack of emotion, both Gareth and I were stunned into silence for several minutes. The wooden fishing boat we had used for the 3 week trip into Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake that gave rise to the A River’s Tail project was docked in the Cham community and looked after by Yu’s oldest son, and we had visited nearly a dozen times in the last year. Yet despite our numerous interactions (Yu and his son had painstakingly taught us to drive our vessel, never losing their calm despite our ineptitude), we had never learned this aspect of the community’s formation because of the language barrier between us. Had A River’s Tail not given us the means to return to the community with a translator we likely would have remained ignorant of the traumatic history.

In an hour of conversation our perceptions of Yu and the Chams had been forever altered; suddenly his gruff demeanour didn’t seem so hard to understand.

Cham children use pieces of fabric as makeshift parachutes as they jump off a mud embankment in their Phnom Penh community.

Cham children use pieces of fabric as makeshift parachutes as they jump off a mud embankment in their Phnom Penh community.

The Realities of the Voiceless

“No one wants to live on these boats,” Yu said matter-of-factly, shattering the last of our illusions about Phnom Penh’s Chams. Upon entering the village, which sat under the shadow of the newly completed Sokha Hotel, it was clear that the residents were not wealthy. Those who lived on the shore did so in hodgepodge shacks made of wood, thatch, plastic, and bits of tin, while the boats of those living offshore were aged and in varying stages of disrepair. Yet despite the obvious poverty, we hadn’t fully let go of the thought that perhaps the Chams didn’t need money to be happy, or that somehow their floating community derived its self identity from the river and didn’t require the modern affectation of material possessions. Maybe, we thought, these people lived a quaint and simple life that the rest of the smart-phone obsessed world needed to learn from. Yu’s to-the-point synopsis quickly dispelled our naivety.

“I don’t really like the river much, but I have no choice.” Yu stated plainly. “When it storms we worry about our kids drowning, and they can’t go to school because we need them to help us fish. Many of us can’t afford to buy water, and so we drink it from the river, which makes us sick – I have problems with my kidneys because of it. We are trying to get a piece of land from the government so it is easier to manage these problems.”

A Cham girl stands on the shoreline, overlooking the floating community where she lives.

A Cham girl stands on the shoreline, overlooking the floating community where she lives.

A Cham man checks his fishing net for damage as his daughter swims in the river below in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A Cham man checks his fishing net for damage as his daughter swims in the river below.

A man steps over a creek of waste water in a Cham village. The Sokha hotel, which looms in the background, drains its untreated grey water directly into the Mekong through the village.

A man steps over a creek of waste water in a Cham village. The Sokha hotel, which looms in the background, drains its untreated grey water directly into the Mekong through the village.

Yu went on to tell us that, if given the option, he would gladly accept an even less pay than he earns as an artisanal fisherman (a meagre sum to begin with) for the chance to move his family off the river and onto land. His connection to the river is one of necessity, not choice: “I depend on fish from the river for my living just like a shopkeeper does his shop. But every year the amount of fish I can catch is going down.”

As if these varied hardships weren’t enough, the community is in peril of losing what little they have – the narrow strip of land onto which they anchor their boats. Corporate developers, particularly the Sokimex Group which owns the $100 million Sokha Hotel that dominates the skyline above the Cham village, apply constant pressure in their mission to have the community removed from their property. “We had to move to this place after the hotel asked us to move from where we were before. They work with the authorities and the police came and told us they would sink our boats if we didn’t move,” Yu remembered. And while a tentative agreement was reached, allowing the Chams to stay in their current location, Yu fears that the agreement will be broken. “If that happens,” Yu said, “I don’t know where we can go.”

Cham children play on a stack of pallates in a Cham community in Phnom Penh.

Cham children play on a stack of pallates in a Cham community in Phnom Penh.

After several days in the Cham community, our schedule dictated that we had to continue up the Tonle Sap to the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang and its surrounding villages. As we shook hands and wished Yu luck in securing a future for his village, a rare smile twitched at the corners of his mouth: “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” he said in farewell.

And upon you peace.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

When the Land Slid Away

A fisherman starts his boat's engine in the early morning off the coast of the Mekong island of Peam Reang, Cambodia.

A fisherman starts his boat’s engine in the early morning off the coast of the Mekong island of Peam Reang, Cambodia.

“I used to swim across the river when I was a kid,” Yea Bunthea told us in the small cafe his family operated out of their home. “I probably still could, but I think I’d be exhausted.” Though he meant it as a joke, there was an underlying sad truth to his words: in the community of Khpob Ateav, the Mekong’s banks were washing away at an alarming rate. “10 years ago the river was only 700 meters across. Now it is more than a kilometre.”

From where we sat the truth of Bunthea’s statement was apparent. Instead of a naturally sloping river bank, there was a hard, uneven precipice that dropped abruptly to the water five metres below. As we watched two of his children throw stones into the river, it looked as though an earthquake had ripped the land away by force and left a jagged scar in its place. Whenever they got too near the edge, he shouted at them to move back, apparently worried that the sandy lip could give way at any time.

Children sit in a small cafe in the village of Khpob Ateav.

Children sit in a small cafe in the village of Khpob Ateav.

Children sit in a small cafe in the village of Khpob Ateav.

Yea Buthea, 50, (foreground) and his brother Yen Bunsong, 35, (background), stand on the edge of their family property. The Mekong’s banks are eroding at the rate of roughly 4-5 metres per year in the area, and the brothers will have to dismantle their home and move within months or else it will collapse into the water below.

Looking around, it was easy to see why he was worried. To the left of his home was an empty lot where his neighbours house had been; a lonely staircase was the only remaining evidence that it had ever existed. Where it should have stood there was no land, only empty space over the water. “Our neighbour took his house down and moved inland a few years ago,” Bunthea explained. “We are also planning to move in a few months because our house will also collapse into the river soon.”

Bunthea’s brother Bunsong took us on a tour of the family property, showing us the narrow patch of sandy earth that lay between their home and the Mekong’s currents. Bunsong said the banks were eroding at the rate of 4-5 metres per year, and had been doing so for the last decade. If the trend continued, as it almost certainly would, the family had very little time left.

A boys sits on a staircase on the edge of the Mekong near the island of Peam Reang, Cambodia. The stairs are the only remains of a house whose owners were forced to relocate as river erosion wshed away their land.

A boys sits on a staircase on the edge of the Mekong near the island of Peam Reang, Cambodia. The stairs are the only remains of a house whose owners were forced to relocate as river erosion wshed away their land.

An Insatiable Skyline

River banks are shifting entities, not static structures. They collapse and expand according to water flow, rain patterns, and sediment replenishment. But what we were seeing in Khpob Ateav was too fast and extreme to be part of any natural cycle. Only human activity had the power to affect the environment in such a drastic way, and from our preliminary research, we knew what was responsible.

Sand is a commodity that is generally taken for granted. It lacks the glamour of substances such as gold or diamonds, and is worth far less by volume than coal or oil. It is a substance that most of us think of as abundant and virtually worthless, and yet it is neither. Wherever concrete is required – which is in nearly every building project anywhere in the world – sand is needed in great quantities. In Singapore alone, which has expanded in size by more than 20% since the 1960’s, over 14 million tonnes of sand have been used for land reclamation and construction – much of it coming from Cambodia.

That sand has to come from somewhere, and in Cambodia that often means dredging it from the Mekong.

Children stand along the jagged river bank in Khpob Ateav. 4-5 metres of land are being lost to river erosion in the community, displacing those who live along the banks.

Children stand along the jagged river bank in Khpob Ateav.

The international natural resource and human rights watchdog Global Witness has released a far more comprehensive report on the impacts of sand dredging than we could possibly hope to match, so we will keep it simple: sand dredging changes the course, flow, and sediment distribution levels of rivers. For the residents of Khpob Ateav, that means the their land is being washed away much faster than it is replaced.

Talking with Bunthea and Bunsong, it was clear that they didn’t fully understand the cause of their dilemma. They knew that something was wrong, but not why. When a family is struggling to keep above the poverty line, how can you explain that their backyard is vanishing so that a new condo can go up in a country 1300 km away?

Winners and Losers

To board the ferry from Khpob Anteav to the nearby island of Peam Reang we slid down a slick slope of red-brown mud with a distinct lack of grace that delighted the locals who had gathered to watch. In a cruel twist of irony, Bunthea told us that as his land was washed away, portions of it drifted across the river and settled around the periphery of Peam Reang, creating a boon for island residents in the form of new farming land where before there was only water.

The driver of a ferry that shuttles locals between the village of Khpob Ateav and the island of Peam Reang docks his vessel as darkness approaches.

The driver of a ferry that shuttles locals between the village of Khpob Ateav and the island of Peam Reang docks his vessel as darkness approaches.

Sunlight shines through rainclouds over the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

Sunlight shines through rainclouds over the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

As the ferry drew closer to the diamond-shaped island we were able to take in the scope of the land transfer. A vast expanse of fine sand extended from the coastline in a crescent that was at least 2km wide at its base. It might have seemed like a natural beach had it not contrasted so glaringly with the island’s existing jungle topography.

“I’ve been farming here my whole life,” said Chheng Tre, a 59-year-old farmer we met while exploring the sand flat, “and the land never changed. But in the last 3 years an extra 60 metres have been added.”

Not without empathy, Tre admitted that while the increase in farmable land has been a blessing to Peam Reang residents, it has come at the expense of those living on the mainland. For an island on which every square metre of arable land had been claimed for generations, the sudden availability of open ground must have seemed like a miraculous gift – one that they were rapidly moving to exploit. Vibrant green watermelon patches blanketed the edges of the newly emerged ground, and young men were busy ploughing the remaining area, eager to make sure they didn’t miss out on their share of the bonanza.

A construction crew rebuilds the Mekong's banks in the village of Khpob Ateav. The river banks are eroding at the rate of 4-5 metres per year in the area, largely due to sand dredging upriver, threatening the families who live there.

A construction crew rebuilds the Mekong’s banks in the village of Khpob Ateav. The river banks are eroding at the rate of 4-5 metres per year in the area, largely due to sand dredging upriver, threatening the families who live there.

Workers harvest watermelons on the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

Workers harvest watermelons on the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

Workers carry baskets of watermelons to a nearby tractor on the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

Workers carry baskets of watermelons to a nearby tractor on the island of Peam Reang. As erosion strips land from the banks of the Mekong, some of the sand washes up on the coast of the island, creating new farmland ideal for watermelon growing.

Though the people on Peam Reang hadn’t meant to steal the land from the families of Khpob Anteav, the situation still seemed like an injustice of the highest order. Powerful Cambodian oligarchs were reaping immense profits from selling the Mekong’s sand to foreign countries with little, if any, concern for the people who were being displaced. While it needs to be noted that a construction crew was working to put up makeshift erosion barricades, the extent and rate of the disappearance of the river banks made it doubtful that the repair efforts would ever keep pace with the destruction.

As we made our way back towards Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, what we had seen reinforced a fact we already knew to be true after our time in Vietnam: when people interfere with the river, those who live downstream are at risk. It is impossible to know what will happen to the people of Khpob Ateav, but if more consideration is not given to how the Mekong is treated, they are in peril of being washed away.

Storm clouds gather over the island of Peam Reang.

Storm clouds gather over the island of Peam Reang.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , , |

Entering the Kingdom

Passengers disembark from a speed boat on the banks of the Mekong, near the border crossing to Vietnam.

Passengers disembark from a speed boat on the banks of the Mekong, near the border crossing to Vietnam.

“Ok, you can take pictures, but don’t put me on Facebook,” the man decided after a few minutes of consideration. Judging by the way the rest of the dock workers had looked to him for instructions when we arrived, he was the boss. With his approval secured, the air of apprehension over the presence of two foreigners dissipated and the crew returned to the task at hand: loading a rickety wooden barge with 50kg sacks of sugar and thousands of cartons of cigarettes.

We were back on Cambodian soil after completing the Vietnam leg of the A River’s Tail project and the economic disparity between the two countries was immediately apparent in the dusty border town. Whereas the majority of buildings on the Vietnamese side of the border were made of modern materials, just a few hundred metres into Cambodia, wood had replaced concrete.

As we watched the men slide cargo down a metal ramp into the hold of a small transport vessel, the varying scale of the extent of the respective countries’ activities on the Mekong were also apparent. A sporadic line of yellow buoys stretched across the Mekong marked where Vietnamese waters ended and the purview of Cambodia began, but they were hardly necessary. A line of immense cargo ships dotted the horizon on the Vietnamese side while, only a few small craft drifted in the Cambodian currents.

Though Gareth, Pablo, and myself all called Cambodia home, after three weeks of exploring the Mekong in Vietnam it was easy to forget just how different the two countries were.

Workers throw bags of rice along a ramp into the cargo hold of a river boat.

Workers throw bags of rice along a ramp into the cargo hold of a river boat.

A Time For Corn

Moving away from the border and following the river north along highway 101 towards Phnom Penh, corn was everywhere: heaped in great piles in front of thatched houses, growing in expansive brown fields to the west of the road, and spread across the asphalt, the orange kernels drying in the sun on swaths of tarpaulin that forced our Toyota Camry to slow to a crawl as we veered around them. Knowing Cambodia to be a nation of rice farming, the overwhelming dominance of corn was not what we had expected to see.

“Here we grow different crops depending on the season,” 59-year-old Chheng Tre explained. “During the dry season [in April and May] it is corn, then I will switch to growing beans, and then back to rice when the rains come.” Clad in camouflage military fatigues with a blue checked traditional Khmer scarf known as a krama, Tre looked more like a retired revolutionary than a farmer but spoke with a calm authority that was difficult to question.

A man in Khpob Ateav loads ears of corn into a de-husking machine. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A man in Khpob Ateav loads ears of corn into a de-husking machine. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A machine separates the husks from ears of corn in the village of Khpob Ateav. Corn is the primary crop grown in the dry season when there is not enough water to support rice.

A machine separates the husks from ears of corn in the village of Khpob Ateav.

According to Tre, a kilogram of fresh corn could be sold to a broker for 720 riel (around 17 cents US), with dried kernels fetching slightly more. By comparison, even the lowest grade rice sold for between 25 and 30 cents, with more premium strains – such as long grain jasmine – fetching more than 40 cents. The fact that farmers like Tre would bother to grow a crop with such a lower potential for profit was indicative of the pronounced infrastructural differences between Cambodia and Vietnam.

It seemed obvious that, if given the choice, farming rice was the more profitable option. But as Yong Yang, a 35-year-old farmer and friend of Tre’s told us, “Rice needs a lot of water, so we have to wait for the rains.” In contrast, the farmers in Vietnam – among the largest rice exporting nations, both regionally and globally – were growing three harvests of rice per year, regardless of the season.

A family in Khpob Ateav loads dried corn into a machine which separates the kernels from the cob. Most of the corn is sold to wholesalers which distribute it in Vietnam and Thailand as animal feed.

A family in Khpob Ateav loads dried corn into a machine which separates the kernels from the cob. Most of the corn is sold to wholesalers which distribute it in Vietnam and Thailand as animal feed.

ART CAM 0001-2

How Vietnamese farmers, less than 50km away and geographically separated only by an artificially imposed land border, were able to circumvent the realities of nature owed to the complex network of irrigation canals that crisscrossed the Mekong Delta. On the Cambodian side of the border, though there was little difference in the size and flow of the river, there was no such system.

And so, reliant as they were on small gasoline powered pumps to divert the Mekong onto their fields, Cambodians grew corn – which needed far less water to survive than the temperamental rice.

For the Cows

What first struck us as odd about this method of corn production was that we had rarely, if ever, seen Cambodians cook with corn. While grilled corn on the cob was a popular street food snack, the farmers we visited near the border were not keeping the ears in tact. Rather they fed them into a series of grinding machines separated the kernels from the cob which they dried in the sun until they were far too hardened to be enjoyable for human consumption.

Just to be sure our ignorance of Cambodian cuisine wasn’t causing us to jump to conclusions, I called a friend in Phnom Penh to ask if her family ever used the small pieces of corn for cooking. “No, never,” she replied, her bewilderment at my strange question apparent.

“No, it’s for animals,” Chheng Tre said when we asked him to resolve the mystery for us, greatly amused by our confusion. “It is sold Vietnam [or Thailand] where they feed it to cows.”

A man with his cows on the Mekong island of Peam Reang.

A man with his cows on the Mekong island of Peam Reang.

With a new found understanding of interconnectedness of the riparian economies, we spent the rest of the day photographing the corn refining process and speaking to the people who relied on the crop to financially weather the harsh agricultural conditions of the dry season. A Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) eaten on the streets of Saigon, we had learned, might owe its existence to Cambodian corn, fed from the waters of the Mekong.

We left Tre and his fellow corn farmers once the sun had dipped below the horizon and returned to our hotel to get as much sleep as possible. The next day promised yet another pre-dawn wake up so that we could explore the effects of river erosion on the communities who lived along its banks.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , |

The End of Mekong Delta Fishing

A fisherman carries supplies from his boat in the early morning near the island of Long Binh. Throughout the Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

A fisherman carries supplies from his boat in the early morning near the island of Long Binh. Throughout the Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

“I’ve been fishing here for more than ten years, and the plastic has always been like this,” Giau told us as she sorted though the pile of fish, which was pathetically small considering the enormous size of the net she had emptied them from. With deft fingers she sorted through the catch, picking out the most valuable shrimp and fish first before working her way through the less prized species until only a few minuscule creatures remained, flopping amongst an assortment of plastic bags and food wrappers. I counted two Nescafe packets, three shopping bags, an empty package of instant noodles, and a cigarette butt. In total she had kept around ten fish.

We had come to the island community of Long Binh early that morning with the goal of finding at least one person who was deriving their entire income from fishing the Mekong. After nearly three weeks following the Mekong through southern Vietnam, we were running out of time to disprove what we had heard over and over again throughout our trip: that the river no longer supported a large enough wild fish population to sustain the people who lived on its banks. With just a few days remaining until we had to cross the border into Cambodia, we had agreed to give Giau and her husband Bich the equivalent of $10 to pay for the morning’s fuel in exchange for passage.

As we motored into deeper waters, the sun barely above the horizon, it was clear that the couple was not exactly thrilled at the prospect of having us on board. Bich, who was perhaps not the most talkative of men to begin with, seemed reluctant to answer any of our questions and instead silently smoked cigarettes as he worked the small boat’s engine and tended to the nets. Giau was more obliging and did nearly all of the talking, but only, I suspect, because we were seated around the hatch of the fish hold which she needed to access. If it had been possible to get her job done without interacting with us at all, I imagine she would have been all the more happy.

Bich, a professional fisherman, repairs wires in his boat's engine before heading onto the river to fish. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Bich, a professional fisherman, repairs wires in his boat’s engine before heading onto the river to fish. numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich feed line into the river, dragging a large net behind. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich feed line into the river, dragging a large net behind.

Water is pumped from the bilges of Bich's wooden fishing boat. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Water is pumped from the bilges of Bich’s wooden fishing boat.

That isn’t to say that Giau and Bich were inherently rude or unfriendly. They had a difficult and tiring job to do, and judging by the meagre catches they had pulled in, times were not overly profitable. The presence of two bulky foreigners on their cramped boat was likely not helping.

After two hours on the river, Bich steered the vessel back towards land, the effective window for morning fishing apparently closed. Though we couldn’t tell exactly how many fish they had caught, it was obvious that they would not be earning much from their efforts. The largest fish of the day was less than ten centimetres long. Clearly the river’s most bountiful days were over.

Giau and Bich pull up their nets, which are mostly empty. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich pull up their nets, which are mostly empty.

Plastic is mixed in with each net of fish. In some cases, the ammount of plastic debris outnumber the fish. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Plastic is mixed in with each net of fish. In some cases, the ammount of plastic debris outnumber the fish.

Giau releases a fish back into the river, as it's low market price will not make it worth the effort of cleaning. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau releases a fish back into the river, as it’s low market price will not make it worth the effort of cleaning.

The End of Plenty

“Seven or eight years ago I noticed a dramatic drop in the number of fish I was catching in the river,” Ngo Than Thai told us. A fifty-year-old man with a welcoming smile, we met Thai almost immediately after getting off Giau’s boat. Spotting us walking away from the cluster of fishing boats, Thai had beckoned for us to follow him further inland. After a few minutes of uncertain walking (he had not yet told us why we should follow him), we approached a series of massive ponds. After visiting several shrimp farms earlier in our trip, we knew that the pools most likely had something to do with seafood, but nothing more certain than that.

“I started fishing when I was fifteen years old but it became impossible to make enough money fishing in the river. So three years ago I built these,” Thai continued, gesturing to the ponds. After he shouted something that we didn’t understand, two young men scrambled onto a wooden dock that extended over the surface of the nearest pond, carrying fifty kilogram sacks of fish food over their shoulders. No sooner had they set the bags down then the water exploded into life, roiling and bubbling furiously.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish teem on the surface of a fish farm on the island of Long Binh. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Fish teem on the surface of a fish farm on the island of Long Binh.

Initially it was hard to tell what we were looking at, so frenzied was the burst of movement just below the water’s surface. As the fish started leaping a metre into the air in anticipation of the feast to come, Thai explained more fully. After nearly thirty years of fishing in the river, the catches had dwindled so low as to make it impossible to support his family. Turning away from the water that had supported him for most of his life, Thai borrowed $5000 to build his first fish farm. Three years and two more ponds later, his fortunes have soared.

“I am making much more money than I ever did before. Each of these ponds has around 45 000 fish in them, and they are much bigger than those left in the river,” Thai told us. And it was hard to dispute his claims after what we had seen on Giau and Bich’s boat earlier that morning. Thai’s fish were huge by comparison – at least a foot long, shimmering and fat.

His transition from river fisherman to inland farmer has been so profitable that his neighbours are emulating his success and everywhere around us new ponds were being excavated. Like Thai, the other residents of Long Binh were rushing away from the river to fish inland, where the money was.

“I haven’t fished from the river in years,” Thai said. “Since I started these ponds, I haven’t been back.”

A new fish farm under counstruction on the island of Long Binh. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

A new fish farm under construction on the island of Long Binh.

Parting Thoughts

After three weeks of exploring the relationship between the Mekong and the millions of Vietnamese who depend on its flow, this was perhaps not the most uplifting end to our time in the delta. Though over the course of our trip we had seen many ways in which people lived from the river, the overall picture was not of a healthy waterway.

From tourist ferries to brick factories to shipyards, the people who seemed to be profiting most from the river were those who didn’t rely on its natural gifts. For people who counted on an ecologically thriving Mekong to survive, the future seemed grim. The abundant use of agrochemicals had made most of the water unfit for bathing, let along drinking or cooking; eroding banks were threatening farmers near the coast; fish stocks had been decimated by the use of electrified nets. After millennia of sustaining life, it seemed as though the river was breaking under the ever growing demands of humanity.

Though the future is not set in stone and there is always hope for a less destructive relationship between society and nature, as we drove towards the border station at Chau Doc, both Gareth and I were shaken by our experience in Vietnam. While the people we had met were nearly all warm and their culture welcoming, the overriding narrative was of a waterway under siege.

With four more countries to visit and roughly four thousand more kilometres of river to travel, there was a lot more river ahead. Would we find a similarly embattled ecosystem as we headed towards the Mekong’s source on the Tibetan plateau? Was Vietnam doing something wrong in its stewardship of the delta, or was it simply at the mercy of geography – destined to bear the brunt of four rapidly developing economies upriver? Only time would tell.

———-

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , |

How A River Builds Houses

A girl rides her bicylce past one of Sa Dec's brick kilns. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A girl rides her bicylce past one of Sa Dec’s brick kilns. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

With less than a week left on the Vietnam leg of the A River’s Tail project, we left the Mekong delta’s urban heart of Can Tho for the much smaller town of Sa Dec to the northwest. We had no real idea of what we would find there, but decided that its reputation as an industrial and agricultural trading centre made it an ideal choice for further exploring the relationship between the river and its people. We were on the lookout for unexpected ways that people were able to support themselves from water, and Sa Dec did not disappoint.

As we drove into the city, brick factories defined the landscape. Stretching one after the other along the river banks, their orange kilns perpetually venting smoke, they were impossible to miss. Both Gareth and I had photographed brick factories in the past and we knew them to be highly visual places to shoot, but what we found in Sa Dec was an industry more deeply connected to the river than we could have imagined.

Houses Made from Water

Walking into the factory grounds just after sunrise, it was clear that we were too early. This had been a constant problem throughout our travels in Vietnam. Our photo-centric world view caused us to constantly chase the best light (early morning and late afternoon), but it meant that we often arrived in locations before the majority of locals were out of bed. The brick factory was no exception; other than a family of dogs who barked suspiciously at our presence, sensing that we were somehow strange or different than the people they were accustomed to seeing, there was no sign of movement.

We walked slowly among the neatly stacked rows of drying clay bricks, moving with exaggerated quietness as one might do when sneaking around a creaky house, all the while listening for the angry shout of a security guard or wary factory owner. When we did manage to find people inside the gloomy structure, however, we were met with kindly smiles and warm handshakes from an elderly man and his wife. Sa Dec’s brick making techniques, it seemed, were not top secret.

Locals socialize outside one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Locals socialize outside one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

A family of dogs stretch in the early morning before workers arrive at the brick factory. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A family of dogs stretch in the early morning before workers arrive at the brick factory.

The man, who did not volunteer his name, confirmed our suspicions that we were were in fact too early by over an hour. He and his wife, who slept on a bare wooden bed frame inside the factory, were preparing to stoke the kilns – but we would have to wait if we wanted to see the actual manufacturing process. As we watched him pour basket after basket of rice husks into an elevated hopper that fed the kiln fires, we took the opportunity to glean some background information from him. What we discovered was a manufacturing process that quite literally turned the Mekong’s water into houses.

It all began with water and rice, he said, hoisting a 25kg basket onto his shoulder with a strength that belied his age and slight frame. First came the rice, grown throughout the delta in some of the highest quantities in the world, all of which owed its survival to diverted river water that was diverted to farmland via Vietnam’s staggeringly complex network of manmade canals.

Once the crops were harvested, the rice grains were separated from their nutritionally useless husks before being transported to large wholesalers, who then sold it throughout the country and to the world beyond. The discarded husks were then loaded onto transport ships and delivered to Sa Dec’s brick factories which burned up to six tonnes of the material every day. With each kiln roughly 30 000 square metres in size and holding roughly 150 000 bricks each, it was easy to see how fuel was needed on such a large scale.

A worker carries a 50kg load of rice husks from a delivery boat to the factory. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a 50kg load of rice husks from a delivery boat to the factory.

Workers carry 50kg loads of rice husks to one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The husks will be used to fuel kilns that will harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers carry 50kg loads of rice husks to one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

A worker carries a 50kg loads of rice husks to a storage room in one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The husks will be used to fuel kilns that will harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a 50kg loads of rice husks to a storage room in one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

Workers fill baskets with rice husks which she will use to fuel the factory's birkc kilns. The kilns can harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time and consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers fill baskets with rice husks which she will use to fuel the factory’s birkc kilns.

Once the husks had given all their remaining energy to the hungry flames of the massive kilns, the charred remnants were shovelled into wooden carts and dumped in great black mounds behind the factory. I had already noticed the piles earlier that morning, but had wrongly assumed (perhaps because I hailed from a western country with where materialism and disposability reigned supreme, everything discarded once it ceased to be bright and shiny) that the material was useless. As it turned out, the burnt husks were destined for gardens and farmland throughout the delta where they were used enrich the soil that would give birth to the next crop of rice.

As ingenious as this organic recycling process seemed, the kiln’s fires would have been meaningless without bricks to fill them. Though there are many complex methods for creating bricks, the simplest and most economical process requires just two ingredients – water and clay, both of which were sourced from the Mekong. The soft mixture was hydraulically pressed and cut into the appropriate shape and length before being sent to the furnaces.

After a month of hardening inside the immense kilns, the fired bricks were stacked into interlocking towers before once more returning to the river in the holds of transport ships that carried them to regional construction sites. From raw materials to fuel to transportation, everything in the brick factories of Sa Dec was tied to water. In an alchemically roundabout way, we learned, it was possible to build a house out of water.

A brick factory worker pulls a cart full of burnt rice husks to be piled behind the factory. The burnt husks will be resold to local farmers to enrich their farmlands. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A brick factory worker pulls a cart full of burnt rice husks to be piled behind the factory. The burnt husks will be resold to local farmers to enrich their farmlands.

A worker carries a load of rice husks to a hopper which feeds into one of the factory's brick kilns. A single kiln can hold up to 150 000 bricks and the facility will consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a load of rice husks to a hopper which feeds into one of the factory’s brick kilns. A single kiln can hold up to 150 000 bricks and the facility will consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day.

Workers move freshly cut bricks onto a cart before moving them into the sun to dry. Once dried, the bricks will be moved into kilns where up to 150 000 bricks will be hardened by fire at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers move freshly cut bricks onto a cart before moving them into the sun to dry. Once dried, the bricks will be moved into kilns where up to 150 000 bricks will be hardened by fire at a time.

 

A brick factory worker stands in front of rows of drying clay bricks. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A brick factory worker stands in front of rows of drying clay bricks.

Workers load finished bricks onto waiting trucks so they can be transported to local construction sites. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers load finished bricks onto waiting trucks so they can be transported to local construction sites.

 

 

 

 

Rice Pockets

An hour later, our foundational knowledge of brick making greatly expanded, the rice arrived. Predictably, it came by boat. Two sagging barges, their holds impossibly full of rice husks, pulled up to the factory’s concrete pier and extended wooden gangplanks to the shore. Teams of men then set about the Atlas-like task of offloading three tonnes of rice husks using nothing but woven baskets and a yoke stick. From their boats to the factory’s cavernous room that served as the fuel storage area was less than 200 metres, but within a few minutes they were all sweating profusely.

With a touch of hubris, Gareth and I decided to try and impress upon the labourers that, photographers though we were, we could still do a hard day’s work. Almost immediately after hefting the 50kg load onto my shoulder I knew that I had dramatically overestimated my physical abilities. The suspended baskets swung wildly as I took the first few steps causing me to stagger drunkenly, much to the satisfaction of the watching workers. Determined to save as much face as possible under the circumstances I tried (badly) to affect a look of relaxed confidence, when in reality my shoulder was screaming for respite and I was powerless to stop my own forward momentum. Pride, however, proved to be a powerful motivator and somehow I made it to the top of the husk pile where I gratefully dropped my load.

Vietnam - Brick Factories on the Mekong

Pretending not to notice the smirks from rest of the workers, whose faces showed none of the signs of extreme strain I was sure mine had, I walked back towards the dock to retrieve my camera. Gareth had just hefted his own baskets for the first and looked to have realized, as I had, how weak we were compared to these men despite our substantial height and weight advantages. “Did you carry yours all the way?” he asked. As I nodded my head I empathized with the look of dread that settled over his face.

By the end of the morning, the rice husks had worked there way into every possible area of our clothing. Had there been actual rice grains rather than the empty husks, I would have been able to feed a very hungry man from the quantity gathered in my shoes alone.

Though the day may have deflated our manly egos, we left the factory with a newfound respect for the ingenious ways delta residents were able to harness the Mekong’s resources.

Smoke billows from the brick kilns at one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The kilns can harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Smoke billows from the brick kilns at one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

———-

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , |

Fisherman’s Village

Residents of Fisherman's Village fly kites in the afternoon in the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. The once thriving fishing community has declined with the loss of wild fish stocks in the Mekong river.

Residents of Fisherman’s Village fly kites in the afternoon in the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. The once thriving fishing community has declined with the loss of wild fish stocks in the Mekong river.

“Sure, you get to play the hero,” Gareth said as he watched me try to persuade a group of passing children to accept the rainbow coloured ice cream cone. The afternoon sun had been sapping our energy for the last few hours and the ice cream had seemed like a wonderful idea until the moment we discovered it was durian flavoured. Gareth, who loathed the spiky fruit with all his heart after having it regurgitated unceremoniously into his lap by an intoxicated man on a Thai train several years ago, looked crestfallen at the discovery and had handed it off to me to with the resigned sadness of a child forced to give away a favourite toy.

We were in Can Tho, Vietnam’s fourth largest city and the de facto capital of the Mekong delta. We had based ourselves out of Can Tho for nearly a week, driving into the surrounding countryside each morning and afternoon, but had spent very little time exploring the city. With a population of nearly 1.5 million people straddling the Song Hau river (one of the main Mekong distributaries running through the delta), Can Tho was a logical place to investigate the stories of the river in an urban context.

Locals board water taxis in the neighbourhood of Fisherman's Village in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Locals board water taxis in the neighbourhood of Fisherman’s Village in the city of Can Tho.

The most obvious place to start had been the Cai Rang floating market, a fixture of the city and one of the main tourist draws. We had chartered a small boat to drive us through the floating maze of fruit and vegetable wholesalers, hoping to hear some first hand stories about the role the river played in daily life, but after an hour on the water we were thoroughly exasperated. In contrast to the friendly openness of nearly everyone we had encountered on our journey thus far, the vendors in Cai Rang seemed weary of foreign cameras – and for good reason.

There were more tourists in the market than legitimate customers, it seemed, and everywhere extendable selfie sticks thrust Go Pro cameras into the faces of the marketeers. Ranging from single-passenger boats no bigger than a canoe to ten metre barges packed to the limit with zoom-lens toting photography enthusiasts, the tourists seemed like digital vultures picking over an exotic animal. Since most of these people had not been interested in buying any of the proffered produce, an antipathetical mask was settled over the faces of the majority of vendors: Take your pictures and leave so there is room for real shoppers. 

Considering that the entire purpose of our trip was to visually document the lives of people living along the Mekong, we were in no position to criticize anyone over a passion for photography. But in terms of a place to tell authentic stories about the interaction between people and waterway, Cai Rang was a disaster. We cut the tour short, much to the delight of the boat driver who had been guaranteed a fixed price, and made for the opposite bank of the river to a community known as Fisherman’s Village.

When the ferry dropped us off an hour later, Gareth had pointed excitedly to a small cart near the jetty: “Some ice cream would be amazing right now.”

Passengers disembark from a water taxi in the city of Can Tho, the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Passengers disembark from a water taxi in the city of Can Tho, the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta.

Fisherman Without Fish

“When the electric nets arrived, the whole village went down together,” a 70-year-old man (whose name has been lost to a wet notebook) told us. Fisherman’s village had been named (somewhat ironically as it would turn out) because of its location next to a prime fishing ground, but the introduction of electrified fishing nets in the 1990’s had ravaged stocks to their breaking point. Though the government had long since made the nets illegal, the retired fisherman told us, more than twenty years later the wild fish population still hadn’t come close to rebounding.

“We used to be able to catch fish with our bare hands,” he continued, “but now they have to be farmed. [Though] wild fish are worth more and taste better, there are not enough of them to make a living from.”

Later we met Phuong, a 52-year-old former businessman who had left his job for the simpler lifestyle of fish farming, and he reiterated much the same thing; there were no fish left to catch. By contrast, under the damp floor planks of the wooden structure that floated above his fish pens were around 20 000 silver pompanos. To keep them healthy in such large numbers (he said there were roughly 200 of the fish for each cubic metre of space), Phuong had to regularly dose them with antibiotics. But as the prospects of river fishing were all but non-existent, this was a small price for him to pay for a dependable source of income.

Phuong, 52, is a former businessman who left city life behind to farm fish on the Mekong in Can Tho.

Phuong, 52, is a former businessman who left city life behind to farm fish on the Mekong in Can Tho.

A floating fish farm in the city of Can Tho. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

A floating fish farm in the city of Can Tho. Throughout Vietnam’s Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

With the absence of fish, Fisherman’s Village had evolved into something akin to a retirement community rather than a haven for hardworking fishermen. Though we came across several small engine repair shops and boat repair facilities, the vast majority of the area was residential. In an attempt to rebrand itself as a quieter alternative to Can Tho’s main tourist district, those residents of the village whose properties faced the river had constructed flower gardens in the space that was once occupied by fishmongers. And people flew kites.

A woman is framed by two caged birds on her houseboat in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commerical hub of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

A woman is framed by two caged birds on her houseboat in the city of Can Tho.

A quagmire of plastic and styrofoam washed up on the Mekong's banks in FIsherman's Village, Can Tho.

A quagmire of plastic and styrofoam washed up on the Mekong’s banks in FIsherman’s Village, Can Tho.

A man takes a bath in the Mekong in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

A man takes a bath in the Mekong in the city of Can Tho.

Kite flying, a popular pastime throughout Southeast Asia, was particularly prevalent in Vietnam. In Fisherman’s Village, they were everywhere. Young children and grandparents alike lined the riverfront in the afternoons, squinting into the setting sun as they tugged at the lines, fighting for height. From cartoon likenesses of sharks to incomprehensibly complex splashes of colour, there was no shortage of variety among the fluttering shapes.

Children gather along the riverfront promenande in the neighbourhood of Fisherman's Village in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Children gather along the riverfront promenade in the neighbourhood of Fisherman’s Village in the city of Can Tho.

Young boys play along the Mekong river in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Young boys play along the Mekong river in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Ultimately Can Tho was a city very much connected to water, but when more than a million people draw on a river’s resources without oversight or planning, things cannot end well for the river. In Fisherman’s Village we had seen that there was only so much a waterway could give before it faltered, leaving the people who once depended on it with little to do but fly kites.

———-

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , |