Accessibility Tools


The River Line

The Mekong in the age of the Anthropocene

Josephine Condemi
a story by
Josephine Condemi
The River Line

The management of the Mekong River is a geopolitical conundrum on which the survival of millions of people depends. That is why its water is increasingly salty and how a film anthology offers a vision of it in 2030 

On the map, the Mekong River is a long line from the Tibetan highlands and it vertically runs through six countries: China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Each country has its own segment, its own little piece of this line that sometimes constitutes a natural border, as in the case of Burma and Laos and Laos and Thailand. The river line, however, is continuous, as the water flows for over 4800 kilometres before ending in the South China Sea with a delta of over 40,000 square kilometres. Water flowing from a territorial basin of over 800,000 square kilometres, is almost three times the surface area of Italy. Silty water, means it is full of silt, the sandy clay that makes it turbid but fertile for the soil. From above, the Mekong is a line divided into segments. On a human scale, it is the source of livelihood for millions of people. What happens if the segments prevail over the line?

The Mekong Water Salinity

«The Mekong is the perfect example of an Anthropocene river, affected by a series of natural disasters and human impact». Edward Park, listed by Stanford in the top 2% of the world’s leading scientists, is a geomorphologist, meaning he studies how and why the shape of territories changes. He has been studying the Mekong for five years at the Earth Observatory of Singapore. «After my PhD, I realised that hydrologists and geomorphologists can do meaningful work to contribute to society through applied research», he says. «I am American, but I was born in South Korea and I have always been interested in Asia. As you may know, especially in Southeast Asia, the population density, which is already high, is constantly increasing. So, especially in this part of the world, there is no river that is not subject to the impact of man. The Mekong is emblematic and by studying this case, it can become relevant on a global scale the planning of sustainable river management».

Edward Park is a geomorphologist. After his PhD in “Geography” from the University of Texas in 2017 with a research project on anthropogenic impacts in the Amazon River, he furthered his education at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, where he has been teaching within the National Institute of Education since 2019 and a principal investigator at the Earth Observatory of Singapore since 2021. The research programme he coordinates at the Observatory, “Tropical Rivers in the Anthropocene”, investigates changes in the form and geology of river ecosystems to broaden the discussion on the sustainable management of large rivers. In 2023, he was awarded the Nanyang Research Award (Young Investigator) for his contribution to expanding the frontiers of knowledge and was listed by Stanford University in the top 2% of scientists in the world.

His works Discover the Tropical Rivers Group

Park and his team measured the salinity level in the Mekong Delta, which has been steadily increasing, in relation to increasingly frequent droughts. «The intensification of salinity infiltration depends on many factors, but we identified four main ones», he explains. «The first one is, of course, the climate change, which results in rising sea levels entering the delta. The second one is the dams, which trap sediments such as silt that should continue to build the delta. The third one, common to most of the deltas around the world, is the subsidence of the land, which is getting lower and lower due to intensive agriculture: to maximise harvests, crops are cultivated even during the dry season by extracting water from the water table. The fourth is the extraction of sand from the river bed, widely used in the construction industry».

It is not immediately clear how many dams are active in the Mekong basin today. A recent study by the Nanyang Technological University, in which Professor Park participated, integrated the major databases that exist today and released the results in opensource1: this shows 1055 dams, of which 661 are operational, 54 are under construction, 331 are planned, 2 are closed and 7 are cancelled. Most of the operational dams are located in Thailand and the Chinese river valleys, while most of the planning takes place in Laos, Cambodia, and the upstream part of China. According to the study, 608 dams generated a growth in hydropower capacity from 1242 MW in the 1980s to 69,199 MW after 2020.

The country with the largest increase in hydropower capacity in the 2000-2010 decade was China (+16,854 MW) while Laos has the largest number of planned dams and is expected to grow the most (+18,223 MW after 2020). China and Laos together account for over 80% of the total potential, which is estimated at over 1,300,000 MW today but could grow to over 2 million megawatts. Laos exports electricity to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and also Singapore. Hydropower is the asset the Chinese government is focusing on to compete with coal. 

But dams impact the course of the river in many ways: they prevent the passage of fish by interrupting their life cycle; they block the sediment flow such as silt from upstream to downstream; they change the duration, frequency, and quantity of water flows in each season, with major impacts on crops, above all rice. According to the WWF report The Mekong’s Forgotten Fishes2, published in March 2024, the Mekong is home to 899 known species of freshwater fish, making it the third most biodiverse river in the world after the Amazon and the Congo, with 25% of the fish found nowhere else on earth and many species not yet scientifically identified. It was not until 2023 that a particular species of catfish and stonefish were discovered. The Mekong is the giant fish river, with species weighing over 50 kilos, and the river of the 321 migratory fish that form one of the largest animal migrations on the planet. Where will they go, with the dams?

The ‘water diplomacy’ is composed of many bodies: from the ‘Lancang-Mekong’ cooperation table, established in 2016, which brings together all the states crossed by the river; to the Mekong-US partnership3, inaugurated in 2020; up to the Mekong River Commission4, the intergovernmental organisation composed of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam established in 1995 but whose history dates back to the post-World War II period. 

«Cross-border water governance is a very complex geopolitical issue», Park comments. «Of the four causes of Mekong salinisation, the issue of dams is the most complicated to manage. Surely a greater scientific consensus would help», he emphasises.

«But while hydropower dams and climate change are global-scale phenomena, the other two causes, namely sand mining and land subsidence, can be effectively addressed and improved if every government committed to it».

The increase in salt water implies an adaptation and change of cultures that in some areas is already taking place: «along the coastal regions of the Mekong, rotational farming has already begun», explains Park, «during the wet season rice is cultivated, during the dry season the same area becomes a fish farm». But even this transition comes at a cost: «Many people are afraid to change what they have been doing for generations», Park points out. «There needs to be an investment by governments to encourage the education of people and give them the means to understand and cope with what is happening and what will happen».


The Mekong 2030 Mosaic

«There’s no fish left to catch»: in different forms, two of the five short films in the Mekong 2030 anthology give cinematic expression to one of the recurring nightmares of those living along the river. In Soul River, by the Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho, the scarcity of fish forces one of the two protagonists to become a forest ranger; in The Che Brother, by the Laotian director Anysay Keola, the protagonist’s sister is forced to abandon her old business to embrace a new one. Mekong 2030 collects five short films from five countries on the banks of the river, trying to give a vision of 2030. Production finished in 2019, thus before the pandemic and the worst drought ever to hit the Mekong Delta in 2020. «Sotho shot on the shore of a Cambodian lake, the water level was so low that she had to wait three months longer than planned», recalls producer Sean Chadwell. 

Soul River is the story of the journey/duel between a fisherman and a forest ranger hoping to illegally sell an archaeological find: nine years earlier, a flood destroyed the village and the fisherman and his companion hope to start again. Cambodia is one of the most flood-exposed countries in the Mekong Basin and the journey between the three becomes an opportunity to look at their inner selves.

Frames of “Mekong 2030”. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the production.

The Che Brother, on the other hand, portrays the dilemmas of a young Laotian man who is passionate about Che Guevara. He is called upon to take part in a dispute between his brother and sister over his elderly mother’s blood, sold to produce an effective vaccine against an unidentified epidemic from which he must protect himself by wearing masks.

The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong by the Burmese director Sai Naw Kham is set in a small village in Shan State and revolves around the juxtaposition between the young local politician, who sells the concession to exploit a gold mine, and the elderly grandmother, who has a completely different relationship with nature.

Sai Naw Kham is a Burmese filmmaker. Born in Shan State, northern Myanmar, he has often portrayed it in his works. He made his directing debut in 2014 with ‘The Crocodile Creek’, which won best documentary at the Myanmar Climate Change Film Festival 2017. This was followed by “32 Souls” (2015), “The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong” as part of the anthology “Mekong 2030” (2020), “Song of Souls” (2023), which won Best International Documentary at the Dokumenter Film Festival in Indonesia. He is currently working on his first feature film ‘Mangoes are Tasty There’, based on the impact of the civil wars in Myanmar.

«In the first draft of the script, the main character was supposed to be a young man, but then when we got there, we met this lady in traditional costumes. We were there with no electricity, looking at the stars, and the role of the grandmother grew accordingly», says the director.

All the actors and actresses are not professionals but locals. «The short film is a mixture of reality and fiction», he explains. «The concessions for gold mining after the 2021 takeover have increased and are linked to the military, so the locals cannot do much. They can only protest and make their voices heard». What the Mekong means to you? «It is a border line between Myammar, Thailand and Laos. A connecting line, an economic and cultural bridge: the people who live around the river are very close.» 

Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong also focused on The Line, the borderline between art and reality where different forms of knowledge can converge: the short film tells the story of a young artist’s arrangements for an exhibition on the changes in the Mekong Delta through a narrative that brings out Thai animism. «The final image of the toaster is brilliant, no one would ever think of it in a film about ecology, yet it works», Chadwell recalls. 

In Unseen River by Vietnamese director Pham Ngoc Lan, a woman meets her former lover near the hydroelectric power station while a young man goes with his partner to a temple in search of a cure for his insomnia: does the invisible river represent time?

«This short film has racked up awards, it was even nominated at the Sundance Shorts Festival, we were really proud to be there», comments Chadwell.

Sean Chadwell is very interested in understanding what people talk about when they mention authenticity. After a PhD in “English Language and Literature” at Texas A&M University, where he taught for ten years, he moved to China and then Laos. In 2014, he began volunteering with the Luang Prabang Film Festival, now Blue Chair, and became its executive director in 2019. In this capacity he oversaw the completion of the “Mekong 2030” anthology, took support for the Lao Filmmakers Fund in the 2020-2023 triennium to unprecedented levels and produced the 2020 (online) and 2022 (live) festivals.

Find out Blue Chair Festival

«I think with this anthology we managed to show the richness of the cultural diversity along the river: there is no distance between the people and the water, it’s all tied together».

The project, initiated by the Open Society Foundations, was funded by The Asia Foundation, Oxfam, the Mekong River Commission and the Heinrich Boll Stiftung. «We called for applications and chose the five proposals that seemed most appealing to us», Chadwell explains. «At the beginning of 2019, we arranged a meeting between the five filmmakers and representatives of Oxfam and the Mekong Commission to learn more about the different features of the river. I had never produced anything choral before, this experience taught me a lot. Next year we will be halfway between 2020 and 2030. The original idea was: let’s look into the future, ten years from now. Now I really want to work with that idea, I want other people to see the film and ask: does it feel like five years have passed and progress has been made?»

The story this article is about was discovered using an artificial intelligence tool, Asimov, developed by ASC 27, especially for Mangrovia. The tool helped us find the story, but the rest of the content you read and see is the outcome of creative processes and human sensibilities and is in no way generated by artificial intelligence. Follow us to find out the details of how we use artificial intelligence in the newsroom! 

  1. On the Nanyang Technological University study published in open source see Ang W. J., Park E., Pokhrel Y., Tran D. D., Loc H. H. (2024). Dams in the Mekong: a comprehensive database, spatiotemporal distribution, and hydropower potentials, Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 16, 1209–1228. ↩︎
  2. For the WWF report, see Hughes K. (2024). The Mekong’s forgotten fishes and the emergency recovery plan to save them, WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.–web-version-.pdf ↩︎
  3. The official website ↩︎
  4. The official website ↩︎


Where culture branches out and evolves

Sign up to receive our free newsletter every Saturday