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Swimming to Cambodia

FOR even the most casual observer of events in Cambodia over the last two months,

to say that the Mekong River has an overwhelming presence and the potential to influence

the lives of those who reside near its banks would be, at the very least, a gross

understatement.

With more than three million flood victims struggling to piece together their shattered

livelihoods, with Phnom Penh having escaped inundation by a mere few centimeters,

and with no clear explanation, as yet, on why the Kingdom suffered its worst flooding

in recent recorded history, one can only wonder what's next?

Can we expect in the years ahead to see Phnom Penh swimming waist-deep in turgid

water for weeks, resulting in a massive outbreak of cholera, leaving thousands dead,

the city's infrastructure in ruins and forcing one million-plus residents to flee

in panic to higher ground?

Sales of fishing poles in and around the capital sky-rocketed in early October. But

maybe we should be thinking about something longer term, like buying row boats!

It is in this quite urgent vein that Milton Osborne's latest book proves to be such

a necessary and timely read.

For while the bulk of Osborne's The Mekong: turbulent past, uncertain future deals

with an historical perspective of the Mekong, the peoples who have struggled for

supremacy along its banks, and the efforts - mainly by foreigners - to determine

if the world's twelfth longest river was suitable as a navigable trading route into

the underbelly of the Middle Kingdom, there is an appropriate, if perhaps too brief,

treatment of the problems that lay ahead. Not surprisingly, many have to do with

trees, dams, the desire for growth and the region's increasing appetite for energy.

Osborne's Prologue offers a cautionary if not oft heard tale. Sitting in a backwater

café near the Khone Falls in southern Laos in 1998, he wonders who the well-fed,

festive party of revelers are at a table nearby. His Laotian companion sheepishly

explains that they are Sino-Thai businessmen coming to celebrate a recently signed

deal for the illegal import of logs from Cambodia.

This brief episode, combined with other research on the Mekong, leads the author

to conclude "Increasingly, there seems every reason to fear that it is a river

with an endangered future."

The last three chapters focus on the nub of the issue wherein Osborne deals calmly

and reasonably with the controversial question of dams. Only one so far has actually

been completed on the Mekong, the Manwan Dam in China. But the Chinese have plans

for an additional six, with construction already under way on the Dachaoshan Dam.

Alarmingly, the Chinese have declined to join the recently reconstituted Mekong River

Commission (MRC). As Osborne points out, Bejing seems determined to go it alone and

has "no intention of allowing its own plans for the Mekong to be affected by

the interests of other riparian states".

With the just completed visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and the floodwaters

still receding, one can only hope that Prime Minister Hun Sen encouraged the Chinese

to join the MRC as a gesture of regional neighborliness.

This is especially so as the Chinese argue that their dam construction program will

be valuable in "evening out" the flow of the Mekong downstream. Fair enough.

Massive floods on the scale recently witnessed need to be prevented, but what of

the fate of the Tonle Sap lake? A floodless Mekong means the death of the Great Lake,

a prospect hardly palatable to Khmers.

The situation in Laos is even more critical for the fate of the region. Osborne writes

that "the best estimates are that tributaries of the Mekong in Laos contribute

no less than 60 per cent of the water flowing into the Lower Mekong." Four dams

are already under construction and 11 more are being reviewed.

These are just the bare facts which, to Osborne's credit, are presented with appropriate

analysis, dispassionately and lucidly for the beginner in what has already become

a political hot potato for the region's planners and politicians.

Putting the present and its "uncertain future" aside, Osborne, the eminent

historian, spends most of his time plunging into the depths of the Mekong's past.

For anyone with even a passing interest in the history of the Mekong and those who

have spent time along its course, the book is an absolute delight, written in Osborne's

inimitable prose, charting the fantasies, follies and frays that have peppered the

region for centuries.

ï The Mekong: turbulent past, uncertain future is available at Monument Books.

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