Your Next Trip: My Tho in the Mekong Delta

By: Keely Burkey

As I recently learned, a trip to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta can’t be fully complete without spending some time in My Tho City. Only 70 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho is one of the closest destinations for a truly relaxed getaway away from Saigon’s madding crowds.

As I learned, My Tho has innumerable things that can be enjoyed. A bike trip through towns, villages, and along footpaths; tours of fish farms, coconut farms, and cocoa farms; exploring small city markets full of beautiful local products; visiting Cao Dai temples and Buddhist pagodas; and, of course, enjoying the peace and serenity of Vietnam’s country life.

And, if you’re as lucky as I was, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery and high-class luxury of The Island Lodge.

But First, a Few Words About My Tho

You might not have heard about My Tho, and I don’t blame you. When placed alongside larger and more overly scenic cities like Ha Long Bay, Da Lat, Can Tho and Hoi An, My Tho often gets sidelined.

You’re even more likely to hear about the neighboring city of Ben Tre, connected by the relatively new Rach Mieu Bridge, which is quickly becoming a homestay hotspot. While all of these locations have their own charms, let me tell you: there’s no place like My Tho.

My tho river

This small city of around a quarter of a million residents thrives on small-town charm. In the past, this town, located in the northern region of the Mekong Delta, was considered a gateway into the southern lands and rivers. The economy here is largely built around fishing and agriculture.

Nowadays, My Tho is separated into six “communes”, and our story today takes place in Thoi Son. Even more specific, I spent my weekend on Unicorn Island (Con Lan), one of the four islands in Thoi Son (the other three: Dragon Island, or Con Rong; Tortoise Island, or Con Qui; and Phoenix Island, or Con Phung).

The mere fact that you can stay somewhere called Unicorn Island should be reason enough to go. But if you need even more reasons, read on.

Experience the Truly Special Island Lodge

The fun thing about this weekend was that I was able to experience two completely different worlds. On the one hand, I spent time in authentic Vietnamese countryside, biking and sightseeing for two wonderful days (more on this later). One the other hand, I got to luxuriate in The Island Lodge, an exquisite hidden gem of a boutique hotel.

Mekong delta

Run by Michel and Françoise Scour, from the time I stepped foot in The Island Lodge, I knew it was a special place. As I walked up to the receptionist, I saw a welcome drink waiting for me; as I sat down and took a look around the open-air restaurant area and magnificent 24-metre pool, I was given three amuse-bouches just because.

Resort My Tho

I could wax poetic about the quality of the rooms, the deliciousness of the French and Vietnamese food offered in the restaurant and the lush opulence of the grounds and well-placed architectural touches. Basically, there are so many places to relax on the grounds of The Island Lodge that, even if you trip and fall, you’ll probably land in a beautiful and comfortable lounge chair. Just try and feel tense at The Island Lodge – I don’t think it’s possible.

Pool My tho

One of the best things about The Island Lodge, however, is the owners, Michel and Françoise. Natives of France, they opened their hotel two and a half years ago because 1) who wouldn’t want to live there?? And 2) to celebrate and promote the beauty of My Tho’s surroundings and people.

Their devotion to both their guests’ happiness and the Mekong Delta as a whole is evident by the way that Michel personally leads bike tours and tailors each guest’s experience to their particular interests. Case in point: during my weekend there, two guests told Michel they were in Vietnam to look for chocolate farms to source cocoa for their candy factory in France. So, Michel organised a trip to a local cocoa farmer in the area.

What Can You Do in My Tho?

Bike Through the Countryside

Without a doubt, biking is a must when you visit My Tho, or anywhere else in the Mekong Delta. The plentiful bridges arching over small rivers and streams, the narrow country paths leading to places more and more beautiful, the ability to pass at your leisure and enjoy the country at your own pace… it’s hard not to fall in love with My Tho on the seat of a bike.

But before we go on, a bit of context. I don’t exercise often. For me, climbing up three flights of stairs to my apartment is exercise enough, thank you. So when Michel announced on Friday night that he would show me his 13-kilometre Fish Farms Road tour, I was, at first, a little worried. I’d been to the Mekong Delta several times before, and the tours were markedly different.

On a typical tour, travellers are herded onto a boat where they are driven straight to an empty floating market and then the coconut candy factory. The tour Michel was proposing sounded like a proper bike tour. Could I handle it? Or had my cushy Saigon lifestyle atrophied my leg muscles? I would soon find out.

It was actually amazingly fun. We rode through a variety of different terrains and Michel essentially showed me a cross section of what life was like in the sleepy towns of Ben Tre and My Tho. I was able to see sugar cane fields, banana farms, cocoa trees, pink carp fish farms, and about a dozen other spectacular things. What I really enjoyed about the trip was how relaxed the itinerary was. Michel asked casually if I wanted to see an independently owned pagoda for fruit and water, for example (the answer, of course, was “yes”).

My Tho path

Explore the Vinh Trang Temple

The Vinh Trang Temple is definitely the most famous tourist destination in My Tho, and for good reason. To call it just a temple does it a slight injustice, because you get a lot more than a temple when you come here: the grounds also feature two massive statues of Buddha (one reclining and one sitting), the temple proper, a lotus garden, a small cemetery and amazingly beautiful gardens.

Mytho1

But be warned: when I visited the temple, I was not alone. There were three large tour groups milling around the grounds and enjoying the sights. Be prepared to have a certain number of photobombers invading your pictures.

Buddha My Tho

Admire the Cao Dai Temple

This beautiful building is a great example of Cao Dai architecture. This religion, established in 1926 and unique to Vietnam, incorporates aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam. What I discovered on my visit, however, is that it also incorporates stunning and colourful architecture.

Mytho Dragon

As soon as I walked in, I was struck by how quiet and still the pagoda was. It’s not a huge place, and there aren’t many attractions attached to it, but it was a wonderful place to visit.

Visit the Fruit and Vegetable Market

After my trip to the peaceful Cao Dai Temple, my trip to the fruit and vegetable market was a big shock. The energy! The people! The (sometimes unpleasant) smells! And, of course, the fruit!

Fruit and vegetables weren’t the only things sold here. I went on a Sunday morning, and the place was packed with people, sounds and activities. There’s a huge food court, flowers, textiles, sassy vendors (one woman let me take her picture and then – somewhat – playfully tried to shake me down for VND 5,000) and fresh fruit and vegetables literally everywhere you look. Even better, this market was a good place to interact with locals. The language barrier was strong, but we still found ways to communicate.

Read. Live. Enjoy.

I’ll just leave this here.

My Tho

Things to Watch Out For

The sun. I grew up in Hawaii, and I’ve never felt the sun so strong as during this trip. During my bike ride I slathered myself with sunscreen, and I still got a slight burn. My advice: keep the sunscreen with you and reapply it often.

If you’re a foreigner, you’ll probably get a lot of stares. Don’t let this get to you! Just take it in stride. If you smile, you’re pretty much guaranteed a smile in return.

Who Should Go

My Tho is a great place for families and couples.

Boat tours and market visits are perfect for families. With the scenery changing with every moment, kids will no doubt be entertained. Plus, the abundant fruits, teas and candies in most restaurants are ideal for people who take pleasure in sitting for longer periods and simply enjoying the peaceful surroundings.

More adventurous couples will definitely love My Tho as well. Bike tours abound, and most hotels and homestays rent bikes for a half day or full day if you’d rather go solo. While there’s the slight chance that you’ll get lost amidst the different paths, roads and canals, it won’t be difficult to find somebody willing to direct you back on the right path.

For more information about The Island Lodge, be sure to check out their website.


Your Guide to a Weekend in Cai Be

By: Keely Burkey

If you live in Saigon, or are travelling around Vietnam, the big cities aren’t the only things worth seeing. It’s really Vietnam’s vast countryside, like what you’ll find in the Mekong Delta, that gives you a true impression the country. Cai Be, just a few hours southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, gives you the perfect opportunity to take a quick weekend getaway.

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Along with Ben Tre and My Tho, Cai Be is a charming small town in the south sitting picturesquely alongside the mighty Mekong River. If it’s your first trip to Cai Be, you should definitely take the almost mandatory tour of the floating markets and coconut candy factory, or you can make your day loose and easy with a leisurely bike ride along the small residential roads. Here’s your guide to Cai Be to help you can make the most out of your trip.

And might we suggest staying at the Mekong Riverside Resort for a taste of the finer things?

What to Do in Cai Be

First order of business: relax. The warm and friendly people of the Mekong Delta have perfected the art of enjoying life, which is seen in the proliferation of hammock cafes dotting the roadside, and the abundance of fresh fruit in markets wherever you turn. Embrace it! Sit down and eat a pomelo.

Depending on where you’re staying, your homestay or hotel will probably have a list of activities you can choose from. At the Mekong Riverside Resort, they were plentiful.

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Kayaking and Canalling

While kayaking in the Mekong River itself would be terrifying due to workboats constantly roaring up and down the waterway, my friend and I kayaked around our resort’s large garden pond. It didn’t go anywhere, but was still pretty fun.

If you want to venture into more narrow bodies of water, you can always sign up for one of the many canal tours. Done in wooden sampan boats and adeptly steered by riverside denizens, travellers can see small canals and rivulets you’d never be able to explore with a larger vessel. Plus, you always get to wear a nón lá when you take one of these tours, which adds enjoyment for everyone involved.

Boat Tours

You’ll probably be offered boat tours more than once when you travel through the Mekong Delta. Sure, they’re touristy, but also fun, and you can learn a lot about daily life here—especially if it’s your first trip to the region.

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The go-to sites for a Cai Be boat tour include: a trip to the floating market (which opens very early, so be prepared to leave before sunrise if you want to partake in this), a tour of a coconut candy factory (these are also great places to stock up on snake-infused rice wine, if this is your drink of choice), and a rustic, local-style lunch at a nicer restaurant in the area. Definitely check these out if you’re travelling with a group or with your family.

Different tourism agencies offer varying prices and tour quality, but your best bet will be asking the proprietors of your hotel or homestay for advice. The Mekong Riverside, where we stayed, offered two different tours: the floating market and island tour, and the floating market, ancient house and island tour.

Biking

This is a favourite thing to do in the Mekong Delta. While biking or driving a scooter only induces panic and stress in Vietnam’s big cities, the bicycle is actually enjoyable in Vietnam’s small towns. Be sure to pin your hotel or homestay’s location on your map when you embark on your journey: there are a lot of twists and turns to these roads that could get you confused.

If you take a ferry to another island, don’t be worried if your Google Maps feature just shows a block of green, without mapping any actual roads. Just learn or write down the phrase “Phà ở đâu?” (Where is the ferry?) Show someone this and give them the name and address of your accommodation; that will probably get you where you need to be.

Relax at the Pool and Spa

I’m not sure if you can do this everywhere in Cai Be, but my friend and I got to indulge in some serious relaxation at the Mekong Riverside Resort. My friend luxuriated in a foot massage (VND200,000) by the resort’s professional masseuse while I, too ticklish for such things, found my inner peace in the warm-yet-refreshing swimming pool. Be warned: the sun and the mosquitos are both fierce here. It’s best to bring the resort’s complimentary bottle of mosquito repellent, along with some sunscreen, with you at all times.

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What to Eat in Cai Be

Here you’ll find some of the best of Southern Vietnamese cooking. When my friend and I had our dinner at the Mekong Riverside Resort, we got a tour of the region’s different culinary options. We enjoyed crispy and beautifully fried Elephant Ear Fish (Gourami), displayed majestically on wooden holders. A server helped us take the meat from the body, which we rolled into fresh spring rolls and enjoyed with the traditional fish-sauce-and-chilli combo. So good.

Another highlight you have to check out: the enormous bánh xèo. Depending where you travel in Vietnam, the size of bánh xèo differ, but in the south, they’re usually huge and filling. Filled with pork, shrimp and coconut meat, this saffron-infused pancake is served alongside a veritable mountain of fresh Vietnamese greens. At the Mekong Riverside, most of these were grown on the property, completely organically. This dish was the perfect marriage between fresh and decadent.

If you’re in Cai Be and staying elsewhere, you can still check out the Mekong Riverside Resort for lunch or dinner. Or, if you want to venture out and see what some other local restaurants have to offer, here’s a list of some well-regarded houses of culinary delights.

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Le Longanier (49 Hamlet 5, Phu An Village)

Quiet and peaceful, good food is served in a jungle setting.

Mr. Kiet’s Historic House (1924 Phu Hoa Village)

Quaint, charming, local and very remote. A few river tours, including the ones at our hotel, partner with Mr. Kiet’s. Plus, the house itself is an attraction. At around 200 years old, it’s one of the oldest preserved buildings in Cai Be.

Getting There

Around 113 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City, you can get to Cai Be a few different ways: motorbike, bus or car. When we went, we chose the motorbike option, which took around 3.5 hours. Google Maps was not incredibly helpful when picking a route. Many of the roads it chose for us were expressways for cars and trucks—no motorbikes allowed. Luckily, there was usually someone at the traffic booth who could show us alternate routes on a map or phone.

If you’re not comfortable with this, or don’t want to go through the hassle, it might be easier to book a ticket for Can Tho with Phuong Trang. Just make sure that both the ticket salesperson and the driver know that you want to get off in Cai Be. You don’t want to miss your stop.

Image source: Keely


Mekong’s Helping Hands

By: Keely Burkey

It’s a hot day in Long My in the southern half of the Mekong Delta. Luong Thuy Hang walks carefully around women sitting on the laminated floor of the open-air, covered veranda; the walls hold sewing supplies and colourful fabrics, and fans are strategically placed to move the still, heavy air.

The women sit in groups, talking quietly amongst themselves as they work on their sewing. Small piles of fabric ornaments and children’s room decorations pile high as the day wears on.

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As the manager of the operation, Luong Thuy Hang has worked with Mekong Plus, a non-profit that helps Vietnamese and Cambodian communities struggling with extreme poverty, for over five years. When the women finish their weekly quotas, they will send their products to one of the five Mekong Quilts stores; all proceeds will be reinvested in their community.

For Hang, the opportunity to earn a regular income was too good to pass up. I ask her what her plans are in the future, and she looks at me like I’m crazy. “I’ll be working to help support my family,” she tells me through an interpreter. “If I don’t have this job, I’ll find another. It’s what I have to do.”

A Dire Situation

The Mekong Delta region, which spans over 38,000 square kilometres and houses over 17 million people, is one of the poorest areas in the country.

With an emphasis on agricultural and aquacultural production and traditionally labelled as Vietnam’s “rice bowl”, this largely flat land has been almost entirely devoted to growing food, an activity dependent on the Mekong River. And due to several factors, the livelihoods of millions could be permanently altered in the coming years.

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Dr. Marcel Marchand, flood risk and coastal management specialist with Deltares, told me via Skype that the changes we’re currently seeing in the Mekong Delta are nothing new, and will probably get worse without strategic and intense human intervention.

“The Mekong Delta is often referred to as one of the most vulnerable deltas in the world to climate change, and that is basically because of the low-lying area. That means it’s directly impacted by sea level rise,” he explained.

Dr. Marchand was also quick to report that the gradual rise in sea level is just one of the factors. “The river discharge of the Mekong River will probably change [due to] a combination of climate change and human interference by large dams.” As dams and dykes are built upstream in Vietnam, China, Laos and Cambodia, for hydropower in China and to regulate the yearly flooding in Vietnam, the farms downstream are affected by increased salinity brought in from the ocean and a lack of fertile silt flowing from the upper plains.

Traditional cash crops like rice wither in the salty and brackish water and poverty grows—and not just for farmers. Logistical workers who transport heavy loads of rice are also affected.

Career Shifts

For Dr. Marchand, the potential solution is all about farming diversification. Rather than try to prevent the inevitable salinity rises, he’s working with local governments in the Delta to encourage the spread of other agricultural and aquacultural crops. The most profitable change, adopted by many farms, is a two-tiered approach: growing rice during the wet season, when freshwater is plentiful, and switching to saltwater or brackish shrimp in the dry season, as the ocean waters surge upstream.

Alongside this approach, soon helped by the salinity-measuring system Dr. Marchand is helping to produce and distribute with Deltares, are recent efforts to propagate salinity-resistant rice strains and encourage coconut farming—a crop that requires less fresh water to flourish.

Bernard Kervyn of Mekong Plus also heartily encourages alternative career paths for Delta citizens. Besides the Mekong Quilt retail program, the group also promotes new and updated agricultural systems to farmers eager to increase their yields.

Kervyn and others working in the Mekong Plus’ Long My division showed me the work they’ve done with pig farmers like Nguyen Van Troi. Troi, who comes from several generations of livestock farmers, pointed to the biogas system the Mekong Plus team helped establish near the pig pens, where methane harnessed from faeces is used for cooking. As we walked back, Kervyn proudly announced that Troi has spread the system to other pig farmers in the community.

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This is just one of the welcome ways to save on money, especially as pork prices drop, a consequence of China’s ban on Vietnamese pork exports established earlier this year. “Troi is worried about it, of course,” Kervyn told me. “Farming pigs is all he knows how to do, and now […] it costs more to raise them than to sell them.” Asked what Troi can do about it, Kervyn shrugs. “What can he do? Just wait for better days.”

The Way Out

As situations seem increasingly dire and poverty increases in these rural communities, organisations like Mekong Plus don’t just focus on individual households.

Efforts are also being made to provide tutors for children who need extra help and scholarship funds for deserving students.

As a study by the Ministry of Education showed in 2015, the Mekong Delta has the nation’s largest dropout rate, nearly three times the national average.

The gap between rich and poor has risen in quickly developing cities like Can Tho, and more remote regions lack the resources to transport children to schools, which are sometimes long distances away from the family farms.

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The need to focus more on education to eliminate poverty is sometimes lost in translation. Kervyn recalled a conversation with a potential donor while raising funds for his project.

“She asked me why we’re devoting resources to education, if our organisation was trying to reduce poverty. Like it was two separate things,” Kervyn says, shaking his head. “I didn’t know how to respond.”

Through a mix of education and employment opportunities, many hope that environmental changes in the Mekong Delta won’t stop communities from developing on their own terms, with a few helping hands.

Image source: by Keely


Mekong Damming: What are The Environmental and Social Impacts?

By: Robert Fouldes

The Mekong river is one of the worlds longest rivers and traverses six Southeast Asian countries, acting as a natural boundary between territories. Its estimated length of 4,350 km runs from its sources in the Tibetan Plateau down through China’s Yunnan Province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, until it meets the sea in a vast delta on the southern coast of Vietnam.

Mekong DammingImage source: www.lonelyplanet.com

The river acts as a major trade route through these countries and also buoys local economies by supporting neighbouring communities, fisheries and agriculture along its banks and tributaries, with wild captured fish making up a major portion of local dietary protein.

Mekong DammingImage source: s3.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com

The river and its surroundings also support a rich biodiversity, with many fascinating and several endangered species, such as “Cantor’s giant softshell turtle”, a freshwater stingray that grows beyond 5m in length and 1.9m in width, and the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin, now with only near 80 individuals remaining.

In 1995, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam established the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to manage and coordinate use of the Mekong’s resources. In 1996, China and Myanmar became “dialogue partners” of the MRC and the six countries now work together in a cooperative framework.

Video source: mrcmekongorg

Hydropower along the Mekong

Recent developments have seen numerous hydropower dam projects along the Mekong. China already has several hydropower dams completed, with many more already under construction, planned or proposed. Laos has two dams currently under construction and another seven planned or proposed, the Xayaburi dam in Northern Laos raising “serious concerns” with NGOs and scientists. Cambodia has two dams planned/proposed, one in particular, the Sambor dam, attracting some criticism as the “worst possible place” to build a major dam following a three-year study commissioned by the Cambodian government in 2014 from the National Heritage Institute (NHI), a US-based research and consultancy firm. These projects will not have a direct impact on Vietnam, but indirectly river silt flow will be affected and coastal erosion and marine inundation will probably result along the coastline. Fish stock could also be impacted.

Mekong DammingImage source: mekongeye.n.openearth.net

Beyond the obvious benefits of large hydropower supply for help in developing these areas economically, significant drawbacks have been noted and commented upon concerning not only the environmental changes and loss of habitat, but also upon the speed of change in the river system itself and the knock-on consequences of building consecutive dams. China’s construction of dams on the Upper Mekong has had impacts on downstream communities where fish migratory patterns have been disrupted and water level fluctuations have also affected ground irrigation and agriculture.

Video source: mrcmekongorg

One Study on Sustainable Management and Development of the Mekong River including “Impacts of Mainstream Hydropower Projects”, points out positive benefits of hydropower projects, such as an increase in economic benefits, navigation opportunities, flood protection and drought management, and more dry season flow for irrigation expansion, but these development projects also bring along negative impacts, including food security issues, fish stock depletion, reduction in sediment and nutrient transport downstream.

Another study on the planned developments in Laos makes recommendations for a further study period when the results of current negative impact mitigation measures can be better evaluated.

Alternatives

Alternative models for developing power generation have been considered and may in fact prove more cost-effective, but no doubt they will have their own environmental impact. One proposal is to install large floating arrays of solar panels on existing reservoirs for electricity generation (a technology already successfully utilised in China and India).

Environmental and Social impact

According to the NHI study, the proposed Sambor Dam and the reservoir in Cambodia would create a barrier that would be devastating for the migratory fish stocks in the Mekong and its tributaries, disrupting the reproductive cycle. At least 86 species are long-range migratory species in the Cambodian part of the Mekong River, and all would become endangered by a Sambor dam. Irrawaddy river dolphins, which are critically endangered, also use the Sambor corridor for refuge and breeding grounds. Dam construction at or near Sambor places the remaining 80 dolphins at high risk of extinction in the Mekong.

Mekong DammingImage source: d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net

Any impact on the fisheries and fish stocks that exist along the Mekong, including Vietnam, is expected to have a direct effect upon the riverside communities, were fisheries-related employment and indeed subsistence living relies on the free fish in the river as well as farming along the river banks. Large dam projects will have an immediate impact resulting in displacement of a large number of communities upstream of the dam, and an equal if more gradual impact on fishing and farming communities downstream of large dams, resulting in a dramatic change in the social and economic prosperity of these areas. Modern developments and relocation from rural community life and work to an urban and factory work life will likely bring significant societal change.

Mekong DammingImage source: i0.wp.com

Additional Complexity

More complicated issues associated with damming of large rivers is that of sediment supply (river-borne silt). As the dams limit flow and seasonal flooding, silt build-up accumulates in the more sedate main river channel and may require dredging to maintain a navigable waterway. Dredging becomes another significant threat to fisheries, disrupting fish spawning rounds as well as affecting the irrigation of adjacent agricultural lands. Of particular concern in the river delta area, the resulting reduction (possibly by as much as 90 percent) of river silt and sediment accumulation in the delta could lead to further loss of habitat and increased inundation of land areas by the sea during storm events, leading to an eventual loss of overall land area to the sea.

Modelling of overall effects on the entire river is far from simple, and the still poorly understood systems being affected are best observed and studied over long time periods as development progresses. As mentioned above, current recommendations are to observe the outcomes and impacts of existing dam construction and the efforts at problem mitigation, and to gather data for a more complete study before proceeding with further development of major river dam projects.

The NHI study reports that the proposed Sambor Dam would capture all of the bedload (particles transported along the river bed) and 60% of the suspended sediments that are needed to maintain and replenish the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, which according to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is one of the three major delta systems in the world most vulnerable to sea level rise, through storm surges and salt water invasion/salinisation. The resilience of the delta to the effects of climate change depends directly on the continued replenishment of sediment.

The Future

Thanks to the internationally coordinated efforts of the MRC, the onward and further development of the Mekong River will continue with due caution and regard for all parties with continued participation in the agreed regional decision-making procedures called the “Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement” (PNPCA).

Mekong DammingImage source: d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net

Whatever the outcome on the immediate forward plans of the individual and coordinated governments, the immediate prospect for the Lower Mekong and its habitats and environment is one of certain change, and as with the Yangtze River Dolphin in China, now functionally extinct, the Irrawaddy Dolphin and perhaps other species will cease to exist in the mighty Mekong.

Banner Image source: www.lowyinstitute.org

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