The Mekong is not just a river, it’s an international boundary and the source of life for an estimated 65 million people, but the consequences of the structural and geopolitical changes outlined in these two titles puts the future of the region in jeopardy. Institutional arrogance, corruption, repression and violence on a breathtaking scale and lack of concern for sociocultural issues which are subordinated to economics, make at times for depressing reading.
Reading both is like changing lenses on a camera. Last Days take a wide-angle panoramic shot of the geopolitics, history and future of the Mekong, while Dead in the Water zooms in on one particular project – the infamous Nam Theun 2 hydropower dam in Laos.
Dead in the Water is not exactly about the Mekong, rather it dissects the assumptions, the pretensions and the disregarded warnings about outcomes resulting from the construction of an iconic dam on a major tributary, the Nam Theun. Labelled a ‘Kinder Gentler Dam’ by Newsweek and clean and green by hydropower proponents, it is neither.
The book’s editors, Bruce Shoemaker and Bill Robichaud, have assembled a compelling and damning body of evidence to show that the World Bank and managing agencies (Lao, French and Thai, who together formed the Nam Theun Power Company) produced serial disasters that devastated and impoverished the lives of those dispossessed of their land and have damaged, possibly beyond redemption, one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots by facilitating access by poachers and loggers.
Yos Santasombat’s introduction sets the tone: ‘Despite rapid economic growth averaging seven to eight per cent a year… Laos remains one of the least developed and poorest countries in Southeast Asia. The disparity between urban and rural dwellers is widening. The majority of rural households remain under or close to the poverty line and natural resources vital to their livelihoods are being threatened by megaprojects designed to exploit natural wealth for corporate profit.’
Both books are strong on authoritative data and details. Eyler’s tenure at Kunming University enabled him to build a Mekong Basin-wide network of experts and colleagues. Last Days’ informal, at times adventurous tone is juxtaposed with stories of enormous cruelty and disregard. And warnings: ‘Cambodia has slipped into full authoritarian mode, backstopped by the country’s close relationship with China.’
Eyler’s intimate knowledge of China and therefore his realistic sense of the hard reality behind soft power, should put a sober tone to the West’s flirtations and unquestioning acceptance of the giant’s terms. He tells of Pich Samod, a farmer who refused terms of resettlement offered by Chinese corporation Shukaku filling Boueng Khak lake, near Phomh Penh. The lake was Samod’s home and source of income. No matter, representatives went to his hospital bed, dipped his unconscious finger in ink and applied it to the approval document.
Written and edited by authors well versed in the languages and cultures of the region, both books are essential reading for those who still think large hydro is a good idea or those who assure us that neoliberal growth models should be unassailable development dogma. Both books make it plain that ‘sustainability’ is mere wallpaper concealing cultural and environmental destruction. Rather, the maxim that Greed is Good reflected in grandee architecture, expensive cars, and $9,000 traditional skirts, is the new normal.
Wolfgang Sachs posited that development or international assistance had its origins in the US’ post-war fear of communism. Harry Truman sought to address the needs of the world’s ‘underdeveloped peoples’ using an economic condom to keep the infection of Marxism at bay. Ironically, China now presents the biggest risk to the US not as a purveyor of political dogma, but as an all-consuming capitalist force. In the case of Dead in the Water and Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, it is development, and promises of economic growth itself that is destroying precious ecosystems and the lives of those who live in them.
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