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Death of the Mekong, River of Buddhism

by Khanh T. Tran, The Buddhist Channel, June 20, 2016

Hanoi, Vietnam -- From its origin in the high plateau of Tibet, the Mekong river is 4500 km long and the 12th longest river in the world, flowing through six countries that include China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Through its long course, the river is known as Lancang in China, Mekong in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, and finally as River of Nine Dragons because it flows out to sea through nine estuaries in south Vietnam. 

True to its name (Mekong means Mother River in Laotian), the Mekong river is the lifeline to more than 65 million inhabitants, mainly in downstream countries of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The majority of these inhabitants are Buddhists and all three major Buddhist traditions are practiced: Theravada  in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia; Mahayana in China and Vietnam; and Vajrayana in Tibet.  Hence, the Mekong is called the “River of Buddhism”. 

Most residents along the river are poor fishermen living off the river fish catch or poor farmers using the river water and rich silt to grow rice. They also use the river as their principal means of transportation. In the next two decades, the number of the basin inhabitants is expected to increase to over 100 millions.

Environmental Effects

Their daily life is constantly threatened by floods, deforestation, pollution as well as ill-planned development projects. The biggest threat to their livelihood is the gigantic hydroelectric dams built or planned in Yunnan Province and the smaller dams in Laos and on the Lower Mekong.

Moreover, the Chinese have cleared and enlarged the river as a navigation channel for large commercial boats including oil transport vessels. These development projects cause serious economic and environmental consequences in countries within the river basin.

All these environmental effects will be worsened by global warming in coming years (Khanh Tran, 2014). In going ahead with these hydropower projects, upstream countries have not considered the interests and concerns of downstream countries. 

The hydroelectric dams, both in Yunnan and the Lower Mekong basin, cause severe social, economic and environmental disasters, both locally and in downstream countries, especially Cambodia and Vietnam.

The survival of these countries along with the livelihood of over 65 million people are threatened. Most dam projects have not brought any significant economic benefits when compared with their enormous costs and the adverse environmental impacts.

Upstream countries need to realize that the Mekong river is not only for upstream countries but also for downstream ones. The Buddhist teaching of dependent origination requires mutual understanding, full cooperation, respect of interests and concerns of others.  

The Buddhist Response

Compassion covers both humans and animals, especially the fish species that are facing extinction. It is recommended that all countries, including upstream China and Myanmar, fully collaborate and strictly adhere to the Mekong River Commission procedures.

A viable and sustainable alternative to dams is solar and wind energy. Light manufacturing has also been suggested as the viable strategy for economic development.

Since the countries and peoples along the Mekong are mainly Buddhists, the Sangha can play an important role in influencing the government policies and educating the general public about the costs and environmental impacts of dams and the benefits of clean, renewable energy. 

Only through these efforts can future conflicts, economic and environmental disasters be avoided and the River of Buddhism can be spared of a terrible death in a very near future!

>> Download full article here

Khanh T. Tran is President of AMI since its establishment in 1980. He has over 30 years of experience in project management, meteorological modeling, air quality modeling, emission inventory and data base management. Mr. Tran is a former member of the National Committee on Meteorological Aspects of Air Pollution of the American Meteorological Society. He received his B.S. (1973) and M.S. (1974) degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He completed graduate courses in Atmospheric Sciences, Computer Sciences and Environmental Fluid Dynamics and developed in 1980 a predictive atmospheric modeling system for real-time emergencies as his Doctoral research at UCLA.

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