The word Mekong means “Mother of Rivers” in the Lao language. In fact, the French colonized the land-locked, impoverished country of Laos thinking it would link them with the believed riches of China. However, as the image below at the river’s source illustrates, it takes a long time meandering its way down from its modest beginning as a glacial stream in the Tibetan Plateau until it reaches Laos. The resultant river becomes the Mekong River when it crosses the border between China and Myanmar. It passes through six countries before it drains into the South China Sea. The upper reaches of the river proved unnavigable and Laos remained the only uneconomic country in the colonial era of French Indochina.
The Mekong becomes a proper river by the time it reaches Luang Prabang, the historic capital of the former Kingdom of Laos. The “Mother of Rivers” was viewed as a major provider of “life” to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.
During the Vietnam war era in the late sixties and early seventies, it was just the opposite. The author had a role in transporting aviation fuel from Vientiane, Laos up the Mekong River to a secret airfield in Luang Prabang, Laos. The fuel was shipped to fuel T-28 relic aircraft piloted by Hmong Hill Tribe forces to bomb Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troop accumulations. The cover of the rainy season was the best time to transport as the war took a “time-out” and “re-opened” in the dry season. In today’s world, most tourists would not pick the rainy season to go to Luang Prabang. However, it was much safer during the rainy season as the other side often controlled the perimeter of the historic capital of Luang Prabang during the dry season. Few adrenaline-charged adventure tourists would choose to fly into a secret military airstrip behind enemy lines.
As these activities were in contravention of the Geneva Convention, there was no admission of any presence of U.S. military personnel - only the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) folks. It is somewhat difficult to comprehend the policy of bombing enemies under the auspices of humanitarian development. On the other hand, USAID workers were fair game to the other side though only the Hmong guerrilla fighters wore uniforms. You will note below that the bomb load under the wings was limited on these bygone era aircraft but the flights only lasted a few minutes. After a few audible boom/booms, you could expect them to land back home - almost like a front row seat to the action.
The New York Times recently published an article entitled Damming the Lower Mekong, Devastating the Ways and Means of Life. Thailand funded the first dam on the river in Laos and now, Thai towns, farms and fisheries are suffering the consequences. A boom in the hydropower generation and extreme weather patterns reflecting climate change is creating havoc in the lives of those who depended on the “Mother of Rivers.” The image below reflects a Thai fisherman steering his shallow draft boat in Nong Khai province, Thailand searching for fish.
Coincidentally, Nong Khai, Thailand is across the Mekong from Vientiane, Laos where we had a major fuel base under the code name PK 18 - 18 kilometers outside of Vientiane. Aviation fuel for northern Laos was transshipped from the Middle East via Thailand, taken across in barges, offloaded and placed in oil drums and rubber bladders for subsequent delivery to the front. One can only imagine what the losses due to evaporation, spills and theft were to the U.S. Department of Defense that owned the product until it was placed into combat aircraft.
Certainly, the U.S. General Accounting Office had great difficulty with the fuel loss numbers. However, the level of losses was not surprising when Lao motor vehicles would burn out their engines from ill-gotten, high-octane aviation fuel. The paper script to show evidence of delivery into the aircraft were entitled DD 250’s (U.S. Department of Defense). Interestingly, that same script was also used in Vietnam and the basis for which we were paid for delivery into the aircraft --come rain or enemy fire. Using the identical script always seemed like a bad cover for an illegal war in Laos. On more than one occasion, the author would carry a suitcase of them through Thai customs hoping to evade any scrutiny.
Back to today, and to compound the shrinking Mekong, the Chinese are planning additional dams along the river which would constitute the final death knell of a form of life that existed for centuries. At places, the Mekong almost disappears surrounded by barren land such that villagers are concluding that their way of life is over. With some ten more dams planned, the future looks pretty clear. Thai footprints will become even more evident along what was formerly the Mekong River path.
In places where there is a Mekong flow further downstream, the fish are small so the fisherman have taken to using dynamite to capture what they can which creates a continued downward ecological spiral. Further, the fishermen have historically grown crops on the banks of the Mekong. Given the lower water levels, they now pump water from the center of the river to irrigate their crops which further accelerates the demise of the river.
Therefore, the image below is beginning to resemble the “Mother of Rivers” at its source in the Tibetan Highlands. The Chinese are masters at destroying the environment but various Thai agencies and businessmen have been complicit in the process. As is often the case, the poor villagers are the ones who suffer.
Some many years ago, we began our interaction with elephants in the
Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Refuge. At that particular time, the elephants and their owners were encouraged to leave the streets of major Thai cities and relocate in a natural habitat in the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar join.
At this particular time, there are 21 elephants and their owners that reside in this natural habitat. However, financial support to them has dwindled given the COVID-19 virus for which all of us are suffering in one way or another.
The Elephant Story has recently provided additional support to this effort. If you would like to join, please go to our website and select something you might like to purchase - either for yourself or as a gift for someone else - where the sales margin will be returned to the The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. We are not soliciting contributions, just coming together to help others and our elephants back in The Golden Triangle where our elephant conservation connection began.