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Mekong river development challenges for an under-resourced Laos

Peter Windsor, Professor Emeritus, The University of Sydney

Spending this difficult week (July 22-26, 2018) in Laos to assist progress in our MLR projects, reminds one of how challenging it is for people and animals in this land-locked southeast Asian country. The wet season is in full swing now and rice planting & growth abundant. The flat lands are now a vibrant green with rice emerging from water soaked paddies and the Mekong and its tributaries are chocolate brown from soil erosion and the collapse of river banks. Sadly, we have seen the partial collapse of a the Xe-Namnoy saddle dam wall in Attepeu Province with loss of lives from flooding.

rice paddy
Image 1. Water logged paddy lands and rice planting in Bokeo Province in Laos (Photo: Peter Windsor)

In building a more viable economic future for its citizens, the majority of whom are poor smallholder farmers, the Lao government has decided to move rapidly from an agrarian rice nation to become the battery of SE Asia. With 46 dams and hydropower plants constructed and 54 more planned or under construction on the Mekong and its tributaries, Laos hopes to eventually produce 28,000 megawatts of power. With 70% of the power generated already exported, mainly to Thailand, this is a priority economic initiative, despite the environmental and political concerns on the dam strategy, particularly by other Lower Mekong countries and especially Cambodia and Vietnam.

An intergovernmental Mekong River Commission report states that hydropower projects in the river basin caused drops in rice production, fish numbers and soil fertility downstream, and were predicted to “reduce food security and potentially increase poverty levels”. The lower Mekong produces about 15% of the worlds rice, formerly involving draught cattle and buffalo that are now being utilised for meat, especially in China and Vietnam. This has created beef production opportunities for smallholders and emerging commercial operators and it has been estimated that in recent years, as many as a million cattle per annum have been transported into southern China, mainly through Laos. The Mekong countries are also highly dependent on fishing, with up to 80% of the protein in the Khmer diet from fish, extracted largely from the remarkable Tonle Sap, a lake back-filled from the Mekong river in mid Cambodia. Other environmental concerns include threats of extinction of the Mekong River dolphin population in southern Laos near the Cambodia. As our MLR group is dedicated to improving food security and rural livelihoods in Laos and Cambodian through research aimed at improving livestock production efficiency and safety, we are keen to see that adverse impacts on the Mekong river basin of these developments are minimised.

boat cattle
Image 2. Boat arriving in Bokeo Province in Laos from Thailand loaded with cattle and buffalo (Photo: Peter Windsor)

In many places, the Mekong river is a border between SE Asian countries and so an important transit point for the huge cattle trade to China. With a provincial meeting to attend in Bokeo Province in north-west Laos, we arrived the previous afternoon to examine the border crossing near Ban Don village. Here, between 300-500 large ruminants per day are assembled in Thailand from points further west (Thailand, Myanmar and beyond) and floated over the Mekong to Laos. There they are rested from a few hours to a few days, then loaded into trucks for the 6hr road journey through Luang Namtha Province to China. Similar numbers are also floated up the river on boats to China.

walking
Image 3. Walking the well behaved bulls from the boat (Photo: Peter Windsor)

Importantly, all animals transiting from Thailand require certification of vaccination against Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) and are ear tagged to confirm this. Curiously the tags are removed as apparently the Chinese importers don’t want the animals traced as this valuable international trade still remains informal (aka illegal) and many animals enter China away from official check points. On the day of our visit, the animals were mostly Bos indicus bulls, although some composite breed animals and buffalo were observed. It was pleasing that all were in condition score 2.5 or more (of 5) and were quietly resting, with no external injuries observed. As they all had nose ropes, they were much quieter than similar cohorts in Australia.

waiting cows
Image 4. Cattle and buffalo bulls assembled in Laos prior to loading into trucks for travel to China (Photo: Peter Windsor)

eartag
Image 5. The global plastic problem expands to include discarded cattle ear tags in Laos (Photo: Peter Windsor)

Following this visit, we embarked on a bruising drive for about 10kms on a deconstructing pot-holed road that promised impending rib and axle breakages. We then reached and examined a recently constructed feedlot.  Several hundred Lao cattle, including indigenous Lao fighting bulls, had been recently introduced and were fed on rice straw and a concentrate mixture containing cassava and maize that had been imported from Thailand. There currently appeared to be no biosecurity measures or protocols. I departed the next day with a promise from the Provincial and Central Animal Health authorities that this deficit would be addressed.

feedlot
Image 6. Newly constructed Cattle Feedlot in Bokeo Province (Photo: Peter Windsor)

Our final inspection point was a brief visit to The Golden Triangle. This infamous location on the Mekong is an intersection of the borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. This location was a former stronghold of the SE Asian opium trade and numerous palatial homes remain, despite the diminution of opium production. Opium has apparently been replaced by the more clandestine business of crystal methamphetamine production and distribution. There is a relatively new Casino complex in The Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone of Laos that is frequented mainly by Thai and Chinese gamblers, as gambling is not permitted in their countries. The current construction of numerous residential towers in adjacent paddy fields suggests the casinos are mainly a front for an online gambling enterprise, of questionable legality. Similar dubious activities in this region include the apparent toleration by authorities of the trade in wildlife animals and their parts into China (ivory, bear bile, tiger parts etc) and even concerns of human trafficking. Visiting this relatively remote corner of north-west Laos to better understand the rapid changes that are occurring in regional food security, confronts one with the strange and nefarious ways that some people choose to make a living; bizarre business indeed.

casino
Image 7. Outside a Golden Triangle Casino display of an unsuccessful gambler (Photo: Peter Windsor)

Events of this week have been tragic and a reminder that the extremely heavy rains of tropical storms, including the recent Son-tinh storm, regularly cause flooding in Laos but also threatens villagers living near hydropower dam sites. The 90% completed Xe-Namnoy dam wall cracking event resulted in hundreds of villagers to be reported missing and currently uncertain numbers of human and animal lives lost, plus other potential ramifications. A year ago we saw a major outbreak of tropical Blackleg disease in a Savannakhet Province project site causing the loss of over 100 cattle in 3 villages, following a flood event that presumably uncovered and released Clostridium chauveoi spores long buried in soil. Flooding and dam safety concerns are important to Lao smallholder villagers and the MLR  group. With many of our project sites located in the vicinity of the numerous dam projects, dam integrity and flood mitigation strategies need to be addressed more diligently.


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