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Mekong River communities rely on it for food — new dams threaten resources

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Southeast Asia's famed Mekong River is under threat. Chinese dams upriver and climate change are partly to blame, but dams downriver are also having an effect. And some countries are starting to respond. Cambodia recently announced it was scrapping plans for two new dams. But the question is, is it enough to save the river's biodiversity? NPR's Michael Sullivan reports.

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MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Koh Preah is a small island in the middle of the Mekong in northern Cambodia, accessible only by a rickety single-car ferry.

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SULLIVAN: It's a remote stretch of muddy brown river where residents eke out a living growing vegetables and fishing. And last year came the biggest fish story of them all.

MOUL THON: (Through interpreter) We caught it at about 4 in the afternoon and got it to the boat about five hours later. I thought it was about 80 kilograms, but when I finally saw it up close, I said, oh, my God, it is so big!

SULLIVAN: How big? The giant stingray Moul Thon and his crew caught weighed in at 661 pounds, the largest freshwater fish ever recorded. And when Chea Seila got a phone call alerting her to the catch, she jumped in a car immediately for the seven-hour drive from the capital, Phnom Penh.

CHEA SEILA: If we don't go immediately, I'm afraid that the fishermen - he decide to sell.

SULLIVAN: Because big fish can mean big money if cut up and sold in the local market. Seila is with the Wonders of the Mekong Project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. She paid the fishermen for the stingray once she got there. Then it was time to name her - an auspicious name.

SEILA: And I just checked the calendar. It's the full moon day. OK, so I name her Boramey.

SULLIVAN: Boramey, or full moon in Khmer. She and her team measured it, weighed it, tagged it, and then she and about a dozen others gently eased the huge creature back into the current and released her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bye bye.

SULLIVAN: But it wasn't really goodbye, because Boramey is now in the system.

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ZEB HOGAN: This fish was tagged with an acoustic tag that emits a ping, and so we've been able to track the movement of the world's largest freshwater fish for the last year and learn about its behavior.

SULLIVAN: That's fish biologist Zeb Hogan of the University of Nevada, Reno, and the leader of the Wonders of the Mekong project.

HOGAN: This area - it's not only home to the giant freshwater stingray, it's home to other critically endangered species as well. It's home to the last population of Irrawaddy dolphin, giant turtles, giant Mekong catfish, seven-striped barb. So these are critically endangered fish. This is the only place in the world where all of these endangered species occur together.

SULLIVAN: And that makes the Cambodian government's decision to cancel two proposed mainstream dams so important. One would have been not far downriver from here. The bad news - the government of neighboring Laos plans another, the Phou Ngoy dam, not far upstream.

BRIAN EYLER: If the Phou Ngoy is built, it is the death knell for the Mekong fishery.

SULLIVAN: Brian Eyler is director of the Stimson Center's Southeast Asia program and the author of "Last Days Of The Mighty Mekong."

EYLER: This won't be a gradual loss situation. It's going to be quick. The fishery will collapse. Tens of millions of people who get their food from the river are going to suffer immediately. It's just the absolute wrong place to build a Mekong mainstream dam.

SULLIVAN: He says that's because the dam will severely restrict access to Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake, the so-called beating heart of the lower Mekong ecosystem.

EYLER: A rule of thumb with building dams in the Mekong is that the closer they are to the Tonle Sap Lake, the more impactful they're going to be. And that's because tens of millions of fish move in and out of the lake each year. It is the world's largest migration of animals. You just can't see it because it's underwater. And a large portion of that migration is going to pass through where this Phou Ngoy Dam is being built.

SULLIVAN: Or not pass through, he says, since no fish ladders or other mitigation efforts will be nearly effective enough, he says, to allow that many fish to migrate successfully. The community leader here, fisherman Pheng Boeun, is concerned, too. We're sitting in a small boat next to one of the floating receivers used to track the fish, right about where he thinks Boramey could be lurking below.

PHENG BOEUN: (Through interpreter) We have to be worried about three things. The first is the dam. The second is climate change. And the third is people. More people also means more pressure on the river.

SULLIVAN: And Laos' plan to lift itself out of poverty by using hydropower to become the battery of Southeast Asia doesn't seem to be working, with the country sinking deeper into debt even as it continues to build more dams. Brian Eyler says the Phou Ngoy Dam won't help.

EYLER: There are forces at work within Thailand making a case to the new government there as to why this is a really bad idea. And note I said Thailand and not Laos, because Thailand is the major purchaser of power from this dam. And it's going to light up shopping malls in Bangkok for, you know, the death of the Mekong fishery.

SULLIVAN: And Thailand already has an ample energy surplus, he says, but has already signed power purchase agreements with Laos for two more dams on the Mekong, including one just above the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang that, he says, will essentially turn that stretch of the Mekong into a lake. Pianporn Deetes is Southeast Asia campaign director for the advocacy group International Rivers.

PIANPORN DEETES: So I will say that, yeah, anything can happen anytime. But I think more and more people are asking critical questions about legitimacy of signing new power purchase agreements with Mekong hydropower dams.

SULLIVAN: Neither the Lao government nor the Thai developer responded to queries about the Phou Ngoy Dam, and a spokesman for the Mekong River Commission says the proposal is still in its early stages. Chea Seila of the Wonders of the Mekong project hopes that's as far as it gets, and hopes the title of Brian Eyler's book, "Last Days Of The Mighty Mekong," is wrong.

SEILA: We try to make everyone understand about the value of the Mekong River. I believe that it's not the last day of the Mekong.

SULLIVAN: And it might not be the last days of record-breaking fish either. Locals claim they've seen a stingray even bigger than Boramey, further proof the river is incredibly resilient - at least for now.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Koh Preah, Cambodia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.