National Geographic : 1968 Dec
of water discharged, it ranks tenth in the world and first in Southeast Asia; and three-fourths of that discharge stems from the monsoon rains bursting down on the Lower Mekong Basin. As wet seasons alternate with dry, a major tributary actually reverses and flows upstream. On damp nights fish walk across the land on their fins-perch of the species Anabas scandens,in search of better puddles. Here too, across the millenniums, varied peoples adapted their rice growing and their lives to the rhythm of the monsoon and the Mekong. They created the temples of Angkor, and the politico-military machine called the Viet Cong. The Lao and the Thai of the Lower Mekong Basin share a common tongue and speak of the river as Mae Nam Khong, meaning "mother river khong." What does "khong" mean? Nobody can be sure. The contraction of Mae Nam Khong into Mekong was made by Westerners. The Cambodians, or Khmers, call the river Tonle Thom, the Big Water. The Terror: Rockets in the Greenery Counting Lao, Thai, Cambodians, and Vietnamese, the people of the Lower Mekong Basin add up to scarcely 28,000,000. But as I lived among these Southeast Asians, I could never forget how far their importance now exceeds their numbers, for two compelling reasons. First, the war. I saw it blazing most fiercely in South Viet Nam, where the U. S. Navy's "miniature battleships," painted green and built expressly for combat along the Mekong Delta waterways, pitted their rapid-fire cannon against Viet Cong rockets made in the Soviet Union and in China.* Those deadly rockets spewed from bunkers hidden in dense greenery, sometimes along canals so narrow that the boats could not turn around (pages 778-9). "It's like the old days," said the commodore of the River Assault Flotilla, "exchanging broadsides at 15 to 20 yards, point-blank." Quieter but deadly too was the war in Laos, where scores of Americans, chiefly civilians, supported tens of thousands of government soldiers facing tens of thousands of insurgents supported by North Vietnamese troops. In Thailand, an ally of the United States, terrorism mounted in step with Communist-directed infiltration across the Me kong. Not even Cambodia, determinedly neutral and compar atively calm, remained free of armed subversion and the fears induced by psychological warfare. In short, the people of the Lower Mekong Basin found them selves enveloped by a struggle whose course might well deter mine the actions of Washington, Moscow, and Peking-and hence the fortunes of some 1,170,000,000 people-Americans, Russians, and Chinese, a third of mankind.t Second, as hope kept rising for a settlement in Southeast Asia, the Lower Mekong Basin promised an unprecedented spectacle of peace: the Mekong Development Project. The aim is to pump prosperity into an area where eight of ten inhabitants subsist as rice farmers-most of them poor, suffering from malnutrition and disease. The means is the *Dickey Chapelle described the "Water War in Viet Nam," in the GEO GRAPHIC for February, 1966. tAuthor Peter White has also written "Behind the Headlines in Viet Nam," NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, February, 1967; "Hopes and Fears in Booming Thai land," July, 1967; and "Report on Laos," August, 1961. 744 Harnessing a giant T HE MEKONG rises beyond the Himalayas, a trickle of water from melting snows. Ever widening, it sweeps 2,600 miles through China and the heart of Southeast Asia to the South China Sea. In the 236,000 square miles of its lower basin live 28 million people, four-fifths of them rice farmers. No bridge has ever spanned the Mekong; no dam has ever slowed it. But today teams rep resenting 28 countries, cooper ating under the auspices of the United Nations, are engaged in the research, planning, and actual construction of an enor mous water-control system. To erect all the dams and power lines (opposite) will require dec ades, planners estimate. The Mekong Development Project will cost billions. The United States and other nations have promised massive support. In pledging American aid in a speech at Johns Hopkins Uni versity in 1965, President John son said: "The vast Mekong River can provide food and water and power on a scale to dwarf even our own Tennessee Valley Authority." Yet another hope of the proj ect concerns thousands of square miles of coastal South Viet Nam where, in the dry sea son, salt water from the South China Sea intrudes into half the Mekong Delta. When peace comes, major drainage efforts may halt this invasion of salt.