Ngô Thế Vinh at the foot of the Manwan Dam 1,500 MW, the first mainstream dam of the Yunnan Cascades on the Lancang-Mekong. [photo by NVH 2002]
Foreword: We are already in 2020, yet a number of articles were recently uploaded on the Internet in which their author argued that because only 16% of the Mekong River’s current flow comes from China, the impacts of the series of dams in the Yunnan Cascades would be negligible. This is an attempt to cover up the devastating impacts Beijing brings to bear on the Mekong River over the past three decades. Starting with the building of the series of dams in the Yunnan Cascades, China has set in motion the destruction of the long-term balance of the entire ecosystem in the Mekong Basin. In addition to the more than 30 billion cubic meters of water retained in the reservoirs of the dams [in 2016], a very large quantity of alluvia was also prevented from flowing down to the Mekong Delta. Lack of fresh water, absence of alluvia, invasion of seawater due to rising sealevel, the entire Mekong River Delta, the cradle of the Civilization of Orchards, may face the bleak future of being transformed one day into barren lands because of desertification.
That is the distressful prospect confronting the 20 million inhabitants in the 13 provinces of the Mekong Delta during the first three months of the current year 2020. This "Interview with Ngô Thế Vinh MD – the explorer of the 4.800 km long Mekong River" conducted by environment correspondent Lê Quỳnh was first published in the newspaper Người Đô Thị [4/25/2016] under the heading: “Vũ khí giải cứu Mekong: chất xám và tiếng nói.” The content of that interview proves it is still relevant to current events. It gives an answer to the gratuitous argument that Mekong River Drained Dry is not the result of the series of hydroelectric mega-dams built by China. Viet Ecology Foundation
Interview with Dr. Ngô Thế Vinh – the explorer of the 4.800 km long Mekong River
ON APRIL 25, 2016 BY LÊ QUỲNH
From the Editor. With almost two decades of involvement with the issues pertaining to the Mekong River and the Mekong Delta, Ngô Thế Vinh MD authored two books about this river: “The Mekong Drained Dry, The East Sea in Turmoil” and “Mekong – the Occluding River”. Throughout that time, he remains an environmentalist committed and unrelenting. He undertook several trips to explore the 4,800 km long Mekong River from Tibet all the way to the East Sea. Người Đô Thị conducts this interview with Doctor Ngô Thế Vinh on the hot topics that are facing the Mekong River and Mekong Delta.
Dr. Vinh, 17 long years ago, from your explorations of the 4,800 km long Mekong River, you “sketched” a harrowing picture that showed the devastating impacts caused by the hydroelectric dams on the livelihood of the inhabitants in the Mekong Basin. What you discussed then still make the news today. Based on the predictions you made about the impacts the hydroelectric dams brought to bear on the Mekong River as a whole and the Mekong Delta in particular, can you share with us your thoughts on the current state of affairs?
In 2000, any reference to “The Mekong Drained Dry” is regarded by many as utter nonsense because, at the time, as you recall, there was a big flood in the Mekong Delta. At the mention of “The Mekong Drained Dry” many people considered it an oxymoron especially when a flood was mercilessly ravaging the Mekong Delta then. Upon hearing the title of the book being mentioned, a religious who was busily doing relief works exclaimed: “How can anybody say the Mekong is being drained dry while we are watching houses being washed away by the current, people drowned right before our eyes?” However, if one realizes that floods and droughts come with the Rainy and Dry Seasons – a natural order of things with the Mekong’s current and her basins over past millenniums – then the only difference is that they have become more severe and destructive in our days. We just can’t bury our head in the sand, like an ostrich, and blame everything on “natural disasters” but must have enough courage and call things by their correct names. We must take into account the “man made” factor that has contributed to the destabilization of the entire complex yet fragile eco-system of the Mekong River over past decades of unsustainable and self destructive development.
I can cite a long list of “man made” disasters: (1) suicidal deforestation in the entire basin, these rainforests acted as giant sponges that retained rain water during the Rainy Season and discharged it in the Dry One. They served as nature’s regulators of the rivers’ flow but have now disappeared from the face of the earth. (2) the building of hydroelectric dams not only on the main current but also on all the Mekong’s tributaries from upstream to downstream – most notably the series of dams of the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan Province, China. The dam reservoirs besides retaining the water also prevent alluvia i. e. natural fertilizer from reaching the Mekong Delta; with hydropower come industrialization and urbanization resulting in waste being discharged into the rivers creating pollution of the Mekong’s current; (3) we must not omit China’s plan to use explosives to blast away rapids and waterfalls to open the Mekong for navigation from Yunnan all the way to Vientiane. Consequently, China has transformed the current flow and created soil erosion along the banks; (4) then, we have to consider the errors, blunders in the hydrological programs being commited in the Mekong Delta like: unplanned irrigation, local dykes’ construction, and sand removal from rivers...
The immediate consequences we now witness include: more pronounced floods even during the Rainy Seasons, more severe droughts in the Dry one, deeper seawater intrusion inland. The main culprits are us, humans, on top of that we have climate change, El Nino... nature’s own contribution. Not owning up to the truth and blaming everything on nature is tantamount to dangerous denial of the facts on the parts of the present Vietnamese leaders.
On the Mekong’s main current, upstream, China has built and continues to build hydroelectric dams… Downstream, Laos is doing the same, Thailand is diverting the Mekong’s water even during the Dry Season… in the face of such situation, what do you fear the most?
In the first two decades of the 21st century, with the two largest dams Nuozhadu 5,850 MW and Xiaowan 4,200 MW built, as a whole, Beijing has achieved its goal for electrification on half of the Lancang’s current, the Chinese name of the Mekong. According to Fred Pearce of Yale University, the Mekong has been transformed into China’s water tower and electrical powerhouse. On his part, Philip Hirsch, Director of the Mekong Research Group at the University of Sydney observed: “The two giant dams Nuozhadu and Xiaowan will affect the flow of the Mekong in its entirety, all the way to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.” With only 6 dams built on the main stream, China has already reached a total output of 15.150 MW – that is the equivalent of more than half of the hydropower potentials of the Lancang. In the first decades of the 21st century, it is expected that China can easily finish building the remaining 8 dams in its overall plan as well as any new ones it wishes to.
We cannot simply conclude that the impacts from the series of dams in the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan are negligible because only 16% of the Mekong’s water comes from China. The building of those dams actually started the destruction of the long-term balance in the ecosystem of the Mekong basins. The dams’ reservoirs in Yunnan have the capacity to retain over 30 billion cubic meters of water [in 2016] but, at the same time, they also prevent a huge amount of alluvia from flowing down to the Mekong Delta. Threatened with water penury, lack of alluvia in addition to salinization, the once fertile Mekong Delta, the cradle of the Civilization of Orchards, may face the bleak future of being transformed one day into barren lands because of desertification.
What do I fear the most at the present time? Clearly Vietnam is caught off guard and finds herself ill prepared to fight “the undeclared environmental war” with China.
The call for China to release the water from the dams in Yunnan to save the Mekong Delta speaks volume about Vietnam’s "vulnerability." Its leaders could have foreseen the danger years ago. Nowadays, we have to contend with the addition of 9 dam projects on the mainstream in Laos and 2 more in Cambodia. The proposition to save the Mekong Delta is getting more challenging and complex while Vietnam is still groping for a coherent strategy to deal with it.
The Mekong Agreement of 1995 is seen as a monitoring vehicle tasked with the protection of the Mekong River. However, China refused to join. Similarly, The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) in 1997 was signed by Vietnam in 2014. It was expressedly designed to correct and limit the deficiencies in the existing ageements pertaining to the basins like the Mekong Agreement of 1995. In the process, China has promoted a new venue: The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation of November, 2015. What is your view of this new initiative? What are the opportunities opened to Vietnam and the other participating countries in the basin? In your opinìon, does China have any hi dden agenda behind all this?
The Mekong River Committee was established by the United Nations since 1957. However, all its development projects were put on hold on account of the Vietnam War. After 1975, during peace time, the countries in the Mekong Basin again turned their attention to the exploitation of its resources. Once more, the need to reestablish a transnational regulatory agency similar to the Mekong River Committee reemerged. On April 5th ,1995, the four member countries of the Lower Mekong Basin met at Chiang Rai, North Thailand to sign the “Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin” creating the Mekong River Commission.
Representing his country, the Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyễn Mạnh Cầm signed the Agreement accepting a crucial change in its bylaw: the removal of the veto power of the member countries. This is a complete departure from the Mekong River Committee (1957) that gave its member countries the right to veto any projects deemed detrimental to the Mekong’s main stream. In a statement made before the Conference on the Mekong of 1999 in Southern California, I observed that this is a miscalculation of strategic importance on the part of Vietnam since this country lies at the southernmost location of the river.
The fact is the 6 countries in the Mekong Basin: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam are faced with pressing and serious problems like economic, social as well as conservation of the environment – ecosystem. Nevertheless, geopolitical differences create considerable obstacles preventing those countries from cooperating with each other. The need arises therefore of finding a way to harmonize the national interests of the concerned parties. In your view, how do present political events impact regional cooperation as well as development in the Mekong Region? What are the prospects for the development of the Mekong within the context of Climate Change?
In regard to the Chinese initiative to form the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, an institution of 6 nations that border the Mekong, a number of people are quick to offer the optimistic assessment that this is a good opportunity to force China to give more consideration to the interests of the countries in the Lower Mekong. This optimistic view may, in the end, prove well founded or it may not. However, we must never forget that since 1995, China has chosen to stay away from joining the Mekong River Commission / MRC comprising of only the four nations of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. To this day, this country has built 6 hydroelectric dams and can therefore rest reassured that its hydro electrification program on the 2,200 km long section of the Mekong that runs within its borders is for the most part completed.
China’s intiative to establish the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation can therefore be looked upon as a strategic move to give this country an opportunity to burnish its friendly public image and extend its influence to allow it to eventually establish total dominance over the Mekong River Basin. With its technological capability and unlimited financial resources, China has all the assets at its disposal to eliminate American and Japanese influence from the Mekong River Basin. By the same token, it has neutralized the predominance of the US Seventh Fleet in the East Sea after it occupied the islands that belonged to Vietnam and built military installations on them.
The future of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation totally depends on the questionable good will of big brother China. The China old hands who have been keeping a watchful eye on this country’s behaviors over the years, are however of the same mind: Beijing has failed to show "Good track records" on this issue.
Another factor we must also take into consideration is whether the small member countries in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation possess the needed “gray matter” and most importantly the shared interests to help them come together and form a common front or not. We are presently facing this stark reality: while China maintains its unwavering policy of divide and rule; the countries in the lower basin continue to display a disregard for the "Spirit of the Mekong", play “odd bedfellows" with each other, and harbor animosity among themselves. If nothing is done to change the situation, then, the Lancang - Mekong Cooperation would only become another venue for China to exert more influence on the countries downstream.
In case China genuinely shows its good faith, this nation can be persuaded to join a Lancang-Mekong Treaty in which indivual countries are respected and treated as equals. This Treaty could be viewed as an expanded Mekong River Commission that also includes China and Myanmar.
A summary overview of the region offers this picture: PM Hunsen shows unconditional support for China’s policy. In spite of all warnings, Laos forges ahead with its plan to construct the 9 dams on the Mekong’s main current [it is currently building the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams]. Thailand never stops its water diversion from the Mekong to irrigate its arid lands. Myanmar is not a serious player since only a small section of the Mekong in the Golden Triangle runs through its territory. As for Vietnam, this country appears to be unprepared and at a loss to act. It can be said that this country lacks a “winning strategy on the Mekong chess board” as it decides to participate in the Lancang – Mekong Cooperation.
The urgent thing to do: move the Mekong River National Committee located at 23 Phố Hàng Tre, Hanoi to the Mekong Delta and establish a Department of the Mekong at the University of Cần Thơ. This "think tank" will set up a strategic roadmap, a Mekong File, for the use of the Vietnamese delegations attending Summits on the Mekong. Mekong Delta SOS must rank as top priority in the agenda of each meeting of the Council of State, the National Assembly and also the Politburo. A catastrophic drought in the Mekong Delta, if warranted, must be referred to the United Nations forum for discussion.
How do you view the role played by the communities, social organizations, NGOs in the countries of the Mekong Basin that are still divided by conflicting outlooks. In your opinion, how effective are they inside of Vietnam? What more do they need to do?
Taking an overall view of the 5 countries in the Lower Mekong countries [with Myanmar being the 5th and new member], a foreign reporter observed: it is quite rare to see any community organizations, social websites in Vietnam raise their voice about the issues facing the Mekong River. On the other hand, it is common occurrence to hear from the inhabitants of Northern Thailand, of Laos and even from the Cambodians. What is more troubling is the deafening silence coming from the 20 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta. This is quite understandable when we consider that the majority of the peasants are not well educated by an education system whose quality is rated lower than that in the Central Highlands. Besides, they are kept uninformed by a state system that practices mind-control. Talking about the NGOs, their pronouncements are constantly being manipulated and directed by a government’s policy known for its nearsightedness that stifles any intellectual initiatives. But in spite of all this, looking from outside the country, a light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Active efforts are underway to establish authentic civil social groups whose voices do carry weight. Naturally there is a price to be paid for those trailblazing achievements. This is an irreversible process and the time has arrived for the government to realize that they will not be able to block the march forward of the trend of our time.
Likewise, what is your view on the role of Vietnamese scientists at the present time in regard to the Mekong “dossier” in general and the Mekong River Delta in particular? What new “institutions”or “mechanism” do they need to help them become more effective in their work?
I do not have the chance to meet with all of them. However, I do keep abreast of their activities over the years. They did and are doing their works under the extremely difficult circumstances that exist inside the country today. Their efforts to voice the need to conserve a healthy eco-system for Vietnam though muted have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. Overseas, we always believe that the Mekong “dossier” and the preservation of the Mekong Delta must be won by scientists, and young people inside the country. Vietnam does not lack “gray matter”. However the scientists do not have the means and the freedom of action, even within the context of academic institutions. We can come to this conclusion: "Democracy and the Environment” must form an "Inseparable Duo."
I happen to believe it is within our ability to save the heart beat of the Tonle Sap Lake. By doing so, we will also save the Tonle Sap Basin in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Naturally the cost of such a venture will be extremely high and require that Cambodia and Vietnam work out a satisfactory formula to jointly fund it.
We can say that you have conducted observations and collected precious materials that could be regarded as a treasure trove about the culture, history, environment…pertaining to the 4,800 km-long Mekong – from Tibet to the South Sea - and its 65 million inhabitants. Those technical materials are not related to medicine, your profession. If given the opportunity to describe yourself, which one of the following will you choose: doctor, author, journalist, or scientist?
I graduated from the Saigon Medical School in 1968 then practiced in Vietnam and overseas for over 40 years. Medicine practically has been an integral part of my life. During my student years I wrote, worked as a reporter, got involved in social works like so many of my contemporaries. Our generation did not only devote ourselves to our studies but was very much interested in the issues confronting the country. In later years, I personally paid special attention to environmental issues including those of the Mekong River and the Mekong Delta. Since 1995, I worked with the Friends of the Mekong Group and continue to do so for 21 years already. I have been given many hats to wear. But generally speaking, to borrow journalist Long Ân’s words, I feel most comfortable with the name “the green man” of the ecology. *
Doctor Ngô Thế Vinh: graduated from the Medical School in Saigon. He collaborated with the School’s publication “Tình Thương”, served as the chief medical officer of the 81st Airborne Ranger. In the US, he interned with the University of New York and is presently treating physician at a hospital in Southern California. “The Mekong Drained Dry, The East Sea in Turmoil” is a faction pertaining to the environment and development of the Mekong River Basin and Mekong Delta. It was later followed by “Mekong – the Occluding River.” This travelogue was translated into English and attracted the attention of a good number of scientists, newspersons, and environmentalists in the world…
Người Đô Thị, April, 2016
(*) The title in the printed newspaper: “Vũ khí giải cứu Mekong: chất xám và tiếng nói”