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Milton Osborne: The Mekong River Under Threat

Read this. Dr. Osborne has been a scholar and authority on Southeast Asia for many years, having written crucial texts, including one biography of Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk which all Cambodianists should read.  He has also had a long-standing interest and authoritative position on the Mekong, having authored a wonderful history of European attempts to achieve its headwaters, and most recently, a more contemporary and scientific examination of the Mekong and the (already going on but oftentimes described as ‘impending’) water wars. His bio at the Japan Focus site (which includes directions for getting to the entire paper by Osborne at the bottom of the page) follows this excerpt.

The Mekong River Under Threat

Milton Osborne

Until the 1980s the Mekong River flowed freely for 4,900 kilometres from its 5,100-metre high source in Tibet to the coast of Vietnam, where it finally poured into the South China Sea. The Mekong is the world’s twelfth longest river, and the eighth or tenth largest, in terms of the 475 billion cubic metres of water it discharges annually. Then and now it passes through or by China, Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is Southeast Asia’s longest river, but 44% of its course is in China, a fact of capital importance for its ecology and the problems associated with its governance.

The Mekong is Southeast Asia’s largest river, seen here at sunset in Luang Prabang, Laos. (Photograph by Milton Osborne)

In 1980 not only were there no dams on its course, but much of the river could not be used for sizeable, long-distance navigation because of the great barrier of the Khone Falls, located just above the border between Cambodia and Laos, and the repeated rapids and obstacles that marked its course in Laos and China. Indeed, no exaggeration is involved in noting that the Mekong’s overall physical configuration in 1980 was remarkably little changed from that existing when it was explored by the French Mekong Expedition that travelled painfully up the river from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to Jinghong in southern Yunnan in 1866 and 1867. This was the first European expedition to explore the Mekong from southern Vietnam into China and to produce an accurate map of its course to that point.

Since 2003, the most substantial changes to the Mekong’s character below China have related to navigation. Following a major program to clear obstacles from the Mekong begun early in the present decade, a regular navigation service now exists between southern Yunnan and the northern Thai river port of Chiang Saen. It is not clear whether the Chinese, who promoted the concept of these clearances and carried out the work involved, still wish to develop navigation further down the river, as was previously their plan. To date, the environmental effects of the navigation clearances have been of a limited character.

read the rest here.

The Mekong at Sunset near Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by M. Osborne

Milton Osborne has been associated with the Southeast Asian region since being posted to the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh in 1959. A graduate of Sydney and Cornell Universities, his career has been divided almost equally between government service and academia and he has served as a consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He is the author of ten books on the history and politics of Southeast Asia, Including The Mekong: turbulent past, uncertain future (2006) and Southeast Asia: an introductory history, which is about to be published in its tenth edition. Milton Osborne is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute and has been an Adjunct Professor and Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University.

This article draws on the author’s Lowy Institute Paper 27, 2009. See the complete paper here. To read the complete paper, it is necessary to type in the current year after entering the site.

Recommended citation: Milton Osborne, “The Mekong River Under Threat,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2-2-10, January 11, 2010.

See also Milton Osborne, The Water Politics of China and Southeast Asia: Rivers, Dams, Cargo Boats and the Environment.

via JapanFocus.

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