National Geographic : 2015 May
Harnessing the mekong 111 in a wooden bowl, the more than 500 known species of Mekong fish have sustained millions of people through droughts, deluges, and even the genocidal Cambodian regime of Pol Pot. Yet the Mekong’s narrow gorges and roaring waterfalls, which frustrated 19th-century Euro- pean explorers in search of a trade route from the South China Sea to western China, have long tempted dambuilders. In the 1960s the United States advocated the construction of a series of hydropower dams on the lower Mekong, hoping to develop the region’s economy and head off the rise of communism in Vietnam. The plans languished, the region descended into war, and in the 1990s China, not Southeast Asia, became the first to dam the main stem of the river. Today Southeast Asia is relatively peaceful, and for the most part, its economies are hum- ming. But only about a third of Cambodians and just over two-thirds of Laotians have ac- cess to electricity, and that power is often pain- fully expensive. Economic and population growth will further strain electricity supplies: A 2013 analysis by the International Energy Agency predicts that the region’s demand for power will increase by 80 percent in the next 20 years. Clearly the region needs more energy— and if the worst effects of global warming are to be avoided, the world needs that energy to produce as little carbon as possible. The hydro- power potential of the Mekong is more tempt- ing than ever. Dam construction on the lower Mekong is overseen, nominally, by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Funded by international development agencies and by its four member nations—Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos—the commission is held together not by a legally binding treaty but by a shared interest in the river and in regional peace. China is not a full member of the commis- sion; it has no explicit obligation to consult with Michelle Nijhuis wrote about California’s drought in last October’s issue. Photographer David Guttenfelder’s photos of North Korea appeared in October 2013. Thailand Nighttime is floodlit fun time for this group striking a pose beneath the Ferris wheel at Asiatique, a new shopping center in Bangkok. The Mekong is hundreds of miles away.