Thứ Ba, 3 tháng 5, 2016

An interview with Ngô Thế Vinh Author of “The Nine Dragons Drained Dry – The East Sea in Turmoil”

By reporter Lê Quỳnh, “Báo Người Đô Thị”

 Crossing the Tonle Sap Lake on the way to the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve [source: Ngô Thế Vinh’s private collection]

[1] Lê Quỳnh – Doctor Vinh, 17 years have gone by, with the countless experience you have personally gone through, you painted a real and harrowing picture concerning the ongoing catastrophic impacts caused by the hydrolelectric dams on the livelihood of the inhabitants of the Mekong River Basin.  To this day, this is still the case. We can say that, very early on, you have entertained extremely perceptive and foreboding observations  on those impacts from the dams on the Mekong’s current in general and Mekong River Delta in particular. What are your thoughts on the present situation? 

[1] Ngô Thế Vinh – Up to the year 2000, at the mention of “The Mekong Drained Dry” many people considered it an oxymoron especially when a flood was mercilessly ravaging the Western Region / Mekong Delta at that time.  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 carried 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 over past decades of unsustainaible 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 destroy 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, mistakes in the hydrological programs being commited in the Mekong Delta like: unplanned irrigation, local dykes construction, and sand removal from rivers... with immediate consequences: floods will be more pronounced even during the Rainy Seasons, droughts more severe in the Dry one, seawater intrusion deeper 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.

 [2] LQ – On the Mekong’s main current, upstream, China has been building and  continues to build hydroelectric dams, waterways… 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?

[2] NTV – 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 of the Lancang, 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 build. 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 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 River Delta, the cradle of the Civilization of Orchard, may face the bleak future of being transformed one day into barren lands because of desertification.

To answer your question: in the face of such situation, what do I fear the most? 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.

[3] LQ – the Mekong Agreement of 1995 is seen as a monitoring agency tasked with the protection of the Mekong. 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 institution? What are the opportunities opened to Vietnam and the other participating countries in the basin? In your opinìon, does China have any hidden agenda behind all this?

[3] NTV  -- 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. Again 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. (It is not without reason that the founders of the Mekong River Committee had the “vision” to empower the member countries with such an extremely important right). 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.

[4] LQ – The fact is the 6 countries in the Mekong Basin: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam are faced with urgent and serious problems like economic, social as well as conservation of the environment – ecosystem. Nevertheless, geopolitical differences present 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?

 [4] NTV – Referring 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 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. Those 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 consider 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 be 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 at a loss to act and unprepared especially in the formation of "gray matter".  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: we need, right away, to 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 be ranked 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.

[5] LQ – 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?

[5] NTV – Taking an overall view of the 5 countries in the Lower Mekong countries [with Myanmar being the 6th 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. On the other hand, it is common occurrence to hear from the inhabitants of Northern Thailand, of Laos and even from the Cambodians who are living under Hun Sen’s ironclad control on these issues. 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 practiced mind-control. That explains why we see them display a resigned attitude. Talking about the NGOs – the present authorities have yet to promulgate an offìcial status for the NGOs to operate lawfully even though their staff are well trained and educated. Their pronouncements are constantly being controlled 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 the use of force will prove powerless in their attempt to block the march forward of the trend of our time.

The Tonle Sap Lake: Dry Season 2,500 km2 [left], Rainy Season
12,500 km2 [right], The Tonle Sap Lake gasping for air can no longer contract or expand with the Dry or Rainy Season and is being drained dry [source: Tom Fawthrop]

[6] LQ -- Likewise, what is your impression 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?

[6] NTV – I do not have the chance to meet or be in contact through the Internet 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 effforts 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, young people and college students inside the country. Vietnam does not lack “gray matter”. What she lacks is the means, freedom of action, and “autonomy” enjoyed by academic institutions. We can come to this conclusion: "Democracy and the Environment” must form an "Inseparable Duo."  

[7] LQ – We can say that you have conducted observations and maintained  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. In addition to factual notes you also recorded your personal comments and analysis supported by technical information or materials not at all 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?

[7] NTV – 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 like war and peace, freedom and democracy, social justice especially in regard to the minorities. 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. I would like to avail myself of this occasion to offer the readers of Người Đô Thị the Website address of the Friends of the Mekong Group / Viet Ecology Foundation which is It contains a good number of up-to-date information.


As a conclusion to this interview with reporter Lê Quỳnh, I would like to share this thought with the scientists and environmentalists in Vietnam:  if we succeeded in saving the heartbeats of the Tonle Sap Lake, we would at the same time arrive at a workable solution to the threats the Tonle Sap Basin in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta in our country are facing. Naturally we will be presented with a hefty price tag and Vietnam just cannot afford to let Cambodia pay it alone. It has to settle its fair share too. A dialogue in such a spirit among the experts both inside and outside Vietnam is already taking place in the VEF forum.

California, 04.12.2016

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