The news from the 2nd Summit of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) held a few days ago in Ho Chi Minh City was disappointing. Although the Mekong leaders from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos reaffirmed their commitment to the sustainable use of the Mekong River, they did not condemn what International River's SE Asia Program Director, Ame Trandem, calls "the rush" of dam building along the Mekong. (International Rivers is a Berkeley, California-based organization committed to protecting the world's rivers and the rights of communities that depend on them.)
In a statement released by the group, Trandem wrote, "Words without actions are meaningless; the Lao government must stop its free reign of Mekong mainstream dam building. We expect all construction on the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams to end immediately and that no further decisions or actions be taken until the Mekong River Commission Council Study, Vietnam's Delta Study, and transboundary impact assessments for each project have been completed and the results have been comprehensively reviewed.”
Wake-up calls at 4 am are never fun, but it was well worth it as we took our first train ride in India from Delhi to Agra.
The "first-class" train may not be luxurious, but it’s clean, comfortable and spacious. The ride through the countryside gave us our first glimpse of open Indian country – just fascinating to see how life outside the city unfolds…
Agra Fort was our first stop. A very impressive monument, only 25% of which is open to the public. The word “massive” does not give it justice when I try to describe just how large this fort is.
The history, craftsmanship and dedication that the people of India have are something that should not go unrecognized. In India: bigger is better. It's proven! Look around. When they can, they create art with nothing but the best materials available, built by hand, with just four to six manual tools. Remarkable!
In Agra we met our new guide, Sharma. What a gentle and kind soul. Again, born and raised here and proud of his heritage. It seems as though every Indian is proud of where they come from. It's inspirational. He loves photography and is quite experienced helping travelers take pictures by pointing out where to take photos for the best angles and how to pose. My favorite quote of his:
Sharma: Want a picture?
Us: Sure! (Hands iPhone over)
Sharma: Now watch how fast I can run!
Headed back to Delhi tomorrow and strangely excited to visit a familiar place. Mike loves the country as much as I do. Wish we had more time in India. From Delhi, we're off to Kathmandu, which I know will steal my heart as well.
If you've thought of visiting Laos and seeing the magnificent Khone Falls, the largest in Asia, or catching a glimpse of an Irrawaddy dolphin, one of the oldest creatures on the planet, move that trip to the top of your bucket list. The Falls, the dolphins, and some villages along the lower Mekong may be gone in a few years. That's because in March, the Lao Government confirmed its intention to proceed with the construction of the Don Sahong dam.
By December, the construction will begin despite the protests of environmental groups and the World Wildlife Fund, strong concerns voiced by neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam, and without a go-ahead from the Mekong River Commission (MRC). If that sounds like déjà vu, you're probably thinking of the Xayaburi Dam in Northern Laos. Construction began on that Mekong River dam in 2012 with apparent disregard for much controversy and serious environmental and human rights questions.
What Laos and the world stand to lose if the largest tributary of the Mekong is dammed is incalculable. There is the impact on the environment and wildlife and damage to the local economy and the lives of those who live along the Mekong. Here are just a few predictions:
• Migratory fish must pass through the Hou Sahong channel year round, and experts doubt Mekong fish can be taught to swim up a "fish ladder" like salmon. Seriously that was a proposed solution by developers of the Xayaburi dam.
• If alternative routes for fish migration don't work--and many experts have serious doubts that they will --there will be serious impact on food and nutrition in Cambodia, according to a Cambodian member of the MRC.
• The end of fish also means the end of a livelihood for those who depend on fish catches above and below the Khone Falls. According to Time, the dam could decimate the world's largest inland fishery.
• Sound waves from explosives used to excavate rock for the dam will likely kill the 85 rare Irrawaddy dolphins that live in a 118-mile stretch of the Mekong between Cambodia and Laos. If any do manage to survive that bombardment, pollution and habitat degradation are likely to finish off the dolphins.
• The damage to wildlife will end of biodiversity so characteristic of this area. For example, the Mekong is home to more than 1,200 fish species.
• Damming the channel will have a serious impact on the sediment that fertilizes farmland. Plus, the accumulated sediment will eventually inhibit the power produced by the dam it self.
• The degradation will threaten the rice harvest of Vietnam's fertile delta. Currently it's the world's second largest rice exporter.
So why build it? Laos is one of the least developed countries in Asia and the poorest, yet its rivers, mountains, and plentiful rainforest have the potential to produce major natural hydraulic momentum--in other words hydropower to produce energy that could be sold to it's neighbors. The catch is the Don Sahong dam will produce only 260 megawatts. That's small "energy" change considering the damage that will be done.
The actions in Laos are the antithesis of how a country such as Bhutan thinks. Bhutan, not a rich country either, touts as a key pillar of Gross National Happiness the "conservation of the natural environment" and the promotion of "sustainable development." In Laos, also a Buddhist country, the philosophy seems to epitomize the kind of short-range thinking, dominated by greed, which is so much a part of human political thinking.
There is still hope…and time. The MRC summit begins soon and on its list of priorities is a moratorium on the Don Sahong dam construction. The World Wildlife Fund, which has been especially active in protesting the dam, and Cambodian conservation groups are not giving up. We’re hoping they will be heard.
Our intrepid operations coordinator, Jen K, arrived in Agra the other day. She took part in a "heritage walk", an intimate opportunity to walk in small neighborhoods to see how people live their every day lives. She was invited into a home where a woman offered to give Jen a temporary henna tattoo on her hands. While Jen was impressed with their long, thick lustrous black hair, the women admired Jen's radiant red locks and pale skin. As she continued walking, she met up with lots of neighbors, many of whom took the time to say hello, smile shyly, or wave to the camera. Because our groups are almost always private departures set up for small groups of just a handful of travelers, this kind of easy rapport is easy to achieve. Like our motto says, "Let the culture embrace you."
Our own Jen Kamen, operations coordinator for Asia and Southeast Asia, just arrived in New Delhi, India for the start of a month-long research and development trip to the Himalayas. Follow her on her journey as she heads off on her first-ever international trip!
Welcome to Delhi, home of the horns and where travel lanes are painted on the road just for decoration! There's a reason why people say Delhi is the green Capital of the World... it really is green, with trees and grass and tuk-tuks, too. It's 1:40 AM on 3/29/14 now. We just spent the day at the Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple (a true wonder, built by hand in five years, made out of red and pink sandstone), enjoyed our first authentic Indian lentil dish (and something else - not quite sure, but we're always up to try anything new), dodged traffic, sweated from the heat like it's going out of style, embraced the unexpected rainstorm and did site inspections for two hotels for work.
Our hotel in Delhi, the Taj Palace, is nicer than any hotel I've even been in. Seriously, it's amazing.
People stare at Mike and I like we're gods (or more like aliens who just invaded). We just smile back. So far, all is wonderful and we're happy to say we have no expectations, so all is a truly welcomed adventure! I've heard so many terrific things about India from working at Myths and Mountains from both Toni and Allie and our travelers who've been there and loved it, but I really think that everyone should visit India at least once in their life... I'm already thinking about when we're coming back, but can we please skip the 14 hour plane ride?