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Saigoneer Bookshelf: A Study of the Mekong Through Stories Told on the River

Much like humanity, great systems of the natural world rely on connectivity to thrive.

This is the thesis of Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, a 2019 book by Southeast Asia expert Brian Eyler. This highly readable book takes you on a deeply researched 10-chapter journey down the incredible Mekong River, from its headwaters high in China's Yunnan Province to its confluence with the East Sea in the Mekong Delta 4,350 kilometers later.

Unlike academic papers or dense research tomes, Eyler writes in the first person, describing his many visits to points along the great river over the years, all while sharing insight and anecdotes from farmers, fishermen, experts and officials living and working near the waterway. Impressively, he has created a very important book that is part-travelogue, part-anthropological study.

The most relevant chapter to Vietnam-watchers is the final one, which covers the serious challenges facing the Mekong Delta. I wrote about these issues earlier in the year, and spoke to Eyler during my research. His deep knowledge of the river system all the way up through China is very impressive.

As a result, the entire book should be required reading for anyone living somewhere impacted by what is happening to the Mekong, and that includes everyone in Saigon.

Children fish in a canal in the Mekong Delta. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

I consider myself relatively well-versed on the Mekong and the debates over the construction of more dams to the impact of climate change and agricultural practices along its banks, but Eyler's wide-ranging curiosity and expertise takes his book in a number of fascinating, unexpected directions.

For example, he introduced me to the concept of Zomia, described by Yale anthropologist James C. Scott in his 2009 book The Art of Not Being Governed as the lands above 300 meters of altitude ranging from Vietnam's Central Highlands to northeastern India, encompassing parts of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and southern China along the way.

While not an official feature on any map, Eyler (and Scott) argues that the dozens of highland ethnic minority groups that live in these areas often transcend national boundaries and live outside the culture of each nation's dominant group.

They are also more adept at utilizing the Mekong and the land along it more sustainably than people coming from major coastal cities, as they have called these remote regions home for generations.

Chapter four of Last Days of the Mighty Mekong looks at the Akha minority group in Yunnan, where the Mekong slices through dramatic valleys that make agriculture difficult. The Akha, however, have made farming work, but their livelihoods have been disrupted by dam reservoirs which flooded their land, and misguided environmental regulations from officials in lowland cities.

A flower harvest outside Sa Dec. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

Eyler also takes valuable digressions into the concept of mandala states, the French colonial construction of a Laos nation-state, Hun Sen's rise to political domination in Cambodia, American engineering projects that transformed the Mekong Delta, and much more. I found these sections, which are deftly woven into the narrative of the current state of the river and its ecosystem, enjoyable and necessary, as they allow readers to understand the full range of political, historical, social and environmental inputs that have led to today.

While each chapter deals with serious problems, from overtourism around Erhai Lake in Yunnan to Laos' ambition to become the "Battery of Southeast Asia" and much more, Eyler includes ample levity as well, largely thanks to the characters he meets along the way.

For example, in a Thai town called Chiang Khong in the Golden Triangle, he describes the owner of the Bamboo Mexican House Restaurant as such: "In his late sixties, Jib dresses like he is a 1970s Grateful Dead groupie. He is always wearing a knitted Rasta cap, and a blown glass medallion hands around his neck fastened to an old knotted hemp rope."

Such encounters turn this into a memorable book, as it is ultimately the people who rely on the Mekong to live who will pay the biggest price of environmental damage.

Of course, Eyler does not ignore the beating that nature is taking along the river's immense length. For example, the chapter devoted to the gigantic Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, which is one of the most unique ecosystems in the world, notes how lax fishing policies and impacts from upstream dams are wiping out the top of the lake's food chain. Incredibly, the Tonle Sap produces more fish catch than all of North America's rivers and lakes combined, feeding millions of Cambodians every day, but people living along, and on, it are noticing irregular water levels and fewer fish species than in the past.

The Mekong Delta is just one part of the Mekong's vast ecosystem.

Eyler's theme of connectivity really comes together in the final chapter, on the Mekong Delta, as the region feels the cumulative effects of every policy and action taken along the river's journey down from the Himalayas.

He notes, for example, that in the past, the delta grew by 16 square kilometers — or roughly 3,000 football fields — every year, whereas it is now shrinking by 430 football fields annually, a trend that will be difficult, though not impossible, to break: "As the delta sinks from groundwater extraction, naturally more seawater will penetrate deeper into the delta's inland. This, in turn, will increase the need for groundwater extraction."

Sadly, much of the damage to the delta is coming from within Vietnam. This is not to discount the twin threats of climate change and upstream dams, but Eyler describes ruinous agricultural policies such as a relentless drive for more rice production and an over-reliance on dikes at great length.

He quotes Nguyen Huu Thien, a delta expert who lives in Can Tho: "Now the whole delta is compartmentalized by dikes, and the rivers act merely as gutters. With the exception of the Hau and Tien channels, most other rivers are entirely imprisoned by their banks for much of their course to the sea. The water and the floodplains are not connected anymore so they are robbed of sediment deposits."

This is not to say that the book is fully pessimistic. The title is a warning, not a guarantee: if people in the Mekong's riparian countries don't take a holistic view of the great river, they will kill it. But by understanding that each step by any of these nations impacts its neighbors, we can help return the Mekong to its glory. That is a vital call to action, and this is a vital read.