Apocolypse Now on the Mekong River

Gary Wockner

Smoke hangs heavy in the air over the Mekong River in northern Thailand. Dawn is breaking over the village of Chiang Khong and with the sun comes the promise of another sweltering April day.

The smoke is from slash-and-burn agriculture taking place on the other side of the river in Laos, a country ruled by a military dictatorship. The sound of reveille flows across the river each morning, along with the smoke and heat, into the democratic country of Thailand, with only the river between the two.

The smoke, the heat, the bugle calls at dawn — it’s Apocalypse Now on the Mekong River.

But the river is a bustling, happy-looking thoroughfare filled with longboats transporting food, fishermen casting nets and college students calling out commands as they row crew.

And on this particular April morning, Gary Wockner is also in a longboat taking a tour of a village forestry program with Chiang Khong local Chak Kineessee.

Back home in Colorado, Wockner is known for his tireless devotion to protecting the state’s waterways. He’s the director of Save the Colorado and Save the Poudre, and has been an outspoken voice for stopping the expansion of Gross Reservoir Dam, which activists fear could drain some creeks and tributaries to almost 80 percent of their total flow.

He also volunteers and consults for International Rivers and the Boulder-based Global Greengrants Fund, both of which fund and support river protection advocacy worldwide. In this capacity, Wockner has expanded his activism, traveling to and writing about dam and water threats in Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, Belize and Spain.

Which brings us to the Mekong River in Thailand.

This past April, Wockner traveled to the village of Chiang Khong to consult with locals in their fight against the development of more dams upstream.

China has built several dams on the river that irrevocably damage the ecology of the waterway, and subsequently the lives of the people in Chiang Khong. Many more dams are proposed on the Mekong River in China, which will further mar the communities and ecological systems downstream in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

While Wockner’s no stranger to the water wars being waged across the globe, he had “a little bit of an epiphany” on his trip to Thailand.

“The local people, or what you might call indigenous, are trying to protect their landscapes from the crush of industrial culture, [from attempts] to dam for hydroelectric power,” Wockner says. “People have been living there for a thousand years, but they don’t own the land so they can’t say, ‘Here are the four corners of my property.’ When the government comes in and tries to cut down the forest or build the dam, they have to start a process of legally demarking these land rights and going through the court process. It creates a very different legal and political dynamic.”

And this is the work Wockner does in his far-flung travels; he advises locals on how to navigate new and complicated legal processes.

Well, that’s the job description, anyway. One might say he’s teaching them how to save their own lives.

Wockner says he’s realized that in the U.S. we protect nature for lots of reasons, often to defend endangered species or habitats, but we can be very removed from the idea that something like a dam can wipe out an entire village and its centuries-old way of life — that damage was done long ago with the influx of Europeans.

He’s expanded his work because the problem has expanded. The controversy around water — who gets it, and how much of it — is escalating across the planet, from the banks of the Mekong to the tributaries of the mighty Colorado River. And it’s all based on water diversion technology that was created in the U.S.

“The technology that was created in the U.S. along the Hoover Dam, that was first major hydroelectric dam on the planet,” Wockner explains. “That same technology, over the last 50 years but especially over the last decade, is being transported all over the planet. There are hundreds of proposed dams across South America. The country of India recently came out with a plan to plumb the country together. Nepal is proposing dams, Tibet, the Balkan countries of southern Europe…”

Rivers across the world are facing an apocalypse.

The following photo essay describes Wockner’s experience with the villagers of Chiang Khong and their fight to stop more dams on the Mekong River.

“This is my home and these are my people,” says Chak Kineessee as he guides us on a longboat ride up the river. Chak was born in a village east of the Mekong River and is a member of one of the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand. He works to protect the river and the livelihoods of the local indigenous people. Chak gave us a tour of one of the village forestry programs as well as a longboat ride up the Mekong River. Gary Wockner
“This is my home and these are my people,” says Chak Kineessee as he guides us on a longboat ride up the river. Chak was born in a village east of the Mekong River and is a member of one of the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand. He works to protect the river and the livelihoods of the local indigenous people. Chak gave us a tour of one of the village forestry programs as well as a longboat ride up the Mekong River.
Top right: Dawn breaks hot and smoky on the Mekong River in Chiang Khong, Thailand, on April 11, 2016. Looking across the river to the neighboring Laos town of Huay Xai, the sun eases above the hills amidst intense haze and humidity. April is the hottest month in Thailand, and April 2016 was the hottest month in 65 years, breaking 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day the entire month. The dawn smoke is from slash-and-burn agriculture that is causing havoc on the forests on the Laos side of the border and throughout northern Thailand. Gary Wockner
Top right: Dawn breaks hot and smoky on the Mekong River in Chiang Khong, Thailand, on April 11, 2016. Looking across the river to the neighboring Laos town of Huay Xai, the sun eases above the hills amidst intense haze and humidity. April is the hottest month in Thailand, and April 2016 was the hottest month in 65 years, breaking 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day the entire month. The dawn smoke is from slash-and-burn agriculture that is causing havoc on the forests on the Laos side of the border and throughout northern Thailand.
China has built several dams upstream on the river that impact the lives of downstream residents here in Chiang Khong. Many more dams are proposed on the Mekong River in China, down through Thailand, and downstream through Vietnam and Cambodia. The river — and the local indigenous people and their livelihood — is severely threatened by dams that change the flow in the river, drown fish and bird habitats, drown villages and displace people, and submerge and erase local, centuries-old knowledge of how to live sustainably on the landscape. Gary Wockner
China has built several dams upstream on the river that impact the lives of downstream residents here in Chiang Khong. Many more dams are proposed on the Mekong River in China, down through Thailand, and downstream through Vietnam and Cambodia. The river — and the local indigenous people and their livelihood — is severely threatened by dams that change the flow in the river, drown fish and bird habitats, drown villages and displace people, and submerge and erase local, centuries-old knowledge of how to live sustainably on the landscape.
We start our day by meeting at the Mekong School for Local Knowledge, which sits along the banks of the Mekong River in the small town of Chiang Khong in the very north of Thailand, several kilometers downstream from the Golden Triangle where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet on the river. The school is a very small NGO and a grantee of Global Greengrants Fund (GGF) and GGF’s partner International Rivers. The School uses the phrase “local knowledge” in the same way that we think of “indigenous knowledge” — that which has developed naturally as a part of the lives of native peoples. Gary Wockner | Boulder Weekly
We start our day by meeting at the Mekong School for Local Knowledge, which sits along the banks of the Mekong River in the small town of Chiang Khong in the very north of Thailand, several kilometers downstream from the Golden Triangle where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet on the river. The school is a very small NGO and a grantee of Global Greengrants Fund (GGF) and GGF’s partner International Rivers. The School uses the phrase “local knowledge” in the same way that we think of “indigenous knowledge” — that which has developed naturally as a part of the lives of native peoples.
Yod La is a member of the Dai Yaun tribe, which is the oldest Hill Tribe in the area. She joined us on our tour of the forest preserve near the Ing River. While we walked and drove through the forest, she harvested wild vegetables from the forest floor. If the forest no longer floods because of the upstream dams, the food will no longer grow during the dry season. Gary Wockner
Yod La is a member of the Dai Yaun tribe, which is the oldest Hill Tribe in the area. She joined us on our tour of the forest preserve near the Ing River. While we walked and drove through the forest, she harvested wild vegetables from the forest floor. If the forest no longer floods because of the upstream dams, the food will no longer grow during the dry season.
Yod La’s son, Sam, joined us on our visit to the forest as a passenger in the farm truck. Their family lives on the farm beside the Ing River along with 400 villagers. The Ing River is an important spawning habitat for Mekong River fish, and parts of the river are a fish sanctuary that the locals call a “fish palace.” The government has threatened to cut down the forest around the river and use the land for rice farming.Gary Wockner
Yod La’s son, Sam, joined us on our visit to the forest as a passenger in the farm truck. Their family lives on the farm beside the Ing River along with 400 villagers. The Ing River is an important spawning habitat for Mekong River fish, and parts of the river are a fish sanctuary that the locals call a “fish palace.” The government has threatened to cut down the forest around the river and use the land for rice farming.
The Mekong School for Local Knowledge undertakes research about the river and all of its aquatic life and ecology, as well as the ways that local people use the river for their livelihood. The research collected by the school is used to inform decision-makers in the government. The School’s 20-meter longboat boasts its credentials on the canopy — “The Mekong River Is Not For Sale!” Chak’s hat echoes the same river-saving sentiment. The river is the center of the culture for tribal people as well as for the more modern culture that is encroaching on the Hill Tribe areas of Northern Thailand. Chak and his group believe that the Mekong River should be for nature and people, not “for sale” to the highest bidders in business.Gary Wockner
The Mekong School for Local Knowledge undertakes research about the river and all of its aquatic life and ecology, as well as the ways that local people use the river for their livelihood. The research collected by the school is used to inform decision-makers in the government.
The School’s 20-meter longboat boasts its credentials on the canopy — “The Mekong River Is Not For Sale!” Chak’s hat echoes the same river-saving sentiment. The river is the center of the culture for tribal people as well as for the more modern culture that is encroaching on the Hill Tribe areas of Northern Thailand. Chak and his group believe that the Mekong River should be for nature and people, not “for sale” to the highest bidders in business.
Below: The Mekong River is used for transportation — crops and food travel up and down the river by longboat. Some of these boats have large inboard motors that run on propane; others have outboard motors with spinning propellers at the end of 10-foot long shafts. The river bursts with the noise of boat traffic, fisherman and even local students hollering out commands as they row crew. Gary Wockner
Below: The Mekong River is used for transportation — crops and food travel up and down the river by longboat. Some of these boats have large inboard motors that run on propane; others have outboard motors with spinning propellers at the end of 10-foot long shafts. The river bursts with the noise of boat traffic, fisherman and even local students hollering out commands as they row crew.
A small fish encampment on the Laos side of the river sits idle in the late afternoon as most of the fishing is done in the morning along the Mekong River. The Mekong School for Local Knowledge focuses heavily on research about the fish, their habitat and the ways of the fishermen along the river. By understanding the local knowledge, the school can influence decisions about the future of the river and help protect it from more dams. For example, the school has researched 93 fish species in the Mekong River, 83 of which are native, 10 non-native. Thirteen of the Mekong’s fish are officially “endangered,” including the world famous “Giant Catfish,” which can grow to over 200 kilograms. The operation of the Chinese dams upstream cause the river to be too cold, clear and deep in the dry season because they run the water out through the hydroelectric turbines at a steady and unnatural rate in order to generate electricity. This, in turn, has led to the endangerment of some of the fish. Gary Wockner
A small fish encampment on the Laos side of the river sits idle in the late afternoon as most of the fishing is done in the morning along the Mekong River. The Mekong School for Local Knowledge focuses heavily on research about the fish, their habitat and the ways of the fishermen along the river. By understanding the local knowledge, the school can influence decisions about the future of the river and help protect it from more dams.
For example, the school has researched 93 fish species in the Mekong River, 83 of which are native, 10 non-native. Thirteen of the Mekong’s fish are officially “endangered,” including the world famous “Giant Catfish,” which can grow to over 200 kilograms. The operation of the Chinese dams upstream cause the river to be too cold, clear and deep in the dry season because they run the water out through the hydroelectric turbines at a steady and unnatural rate in order to generate electricity. This, in turn, has led to the endangerment of some of the fish.
“We are the children of the Mekong River,” says Niwat Roykaew, director of the Mekong School for Local Knowledge. After our trip up the river, we visit with Niwat who is locally famous for boarding a Chinese ship that was attempting to blast the rocks out of the river a few years ago. Niwat kept the blasting at bay for several days until the Chinese government agreed to stop the work. Niwat speaks about the river in spiritual terms and sees the relationship between the river and the people as holistic. “When the river has problems, the people have problems,” he says. “When the people re-learn their local knowledge and their relationship with the river, they can rebuild themselves as well as fight to protect the river.” Gary Wockner
“We are the children of the Mekong River,” says Niwat Roykaew, director of the Mekong School for Local Knowledge.
After our trip up the river, we visit with Niwat who is locally famous for boarding a Chinese ship that was attempting to blast the rocks out of the river a few years ago. Niwat kept the blasting at bay for several days until the Chinese government agreed to stop the work. Niwat speaks about the river in spiritual terms and sees the relationship between the river and the people as holistic. “When the river has problems, the people have problems,” he says. “When the people re-learn their local knowledge and their relationship with the river, they can rebuild themselves as well as fight to protect the river.”
 This is Mr. Niwat’s desk — and also serves as the Mekong School’s lunch table — on the banks of the river. Niwat sees the main threats to the river as dams, destruction of rocks and rapids, agricultural chemicals, garbage thrown into the river from ships, development in wetlands and illegal fishing techniques like blasting and electro-shock.
This is Mr. Niwat’s desk — and also serves as the Mekong School’s lunch table — on the banks of the river. Niwat sees the main threats to the river as dams, destruction of rocks and rapids, agricultural chemicals, garbage thrown into the river from ships, development in wetlands and illegal fishing techniques like blasting and electro-shock.
“When local people learn their history, they are empowered by that knowledge,” Niwat says. Researching all of the local history, relating that knowledge to decision-makers, and teaching that history to members of the Hill Tribes is the work of the Mekong School for Local Knowledge under Niwat’s stewardship. Niwat has served as an expert witness in Thai court, arguing for better protection of the river and the landscapes and people who live around it. He is also frequently quoted in Southeast Asian newspapers as a key spokesperson for local and indigenous people fighting for their livelihoods along the river. Gary Wockner
“When local people learn their history, they are empowered by that knowledge,” Niwat says. Researching all of the local history, relating that knowledge to decision-makers, and teaching that history to members of the Hill Tribes is the work of the Mekong School for Local Knowledge under Niwat’s stewardship. Niwat has served as an expert witness in Thai court, arguing for better protection of the river and the landscapes and people who live around it. He is also frequently quoted in Southeast Asian newspapers as a key spokesperson for local and indigenous people fighting for their livelihoods along the river.

Gary Wockner is an international environmental activist, writer, and consultant/volunteer for Global Greengrants Fund and International Rivers. This photo essay previously ran in New Internationalist.