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Earlier this week, I attended a showing of this film at the Meta House (German Cultural Centre) introduced by the film’s Director, Tom Fawthrop.
The film addresses a signficant issue – the management of the Mekong – one of the world’s great rivers, which supports the life of many millions of people in 6 countries. From its source in Tibet, it flows over 3000 miles through China, along the Lao-Myanmar border, then marking the Lao-Thai border, before flowing through Cambodia (backing up the Tonle Sap, swelling Asia’s biggest inland lake, in the rainy season), finally reaching the sea through a wide delta in Vietnam. Along the way there are some unique fish, rare freshwater dolphins and a variety of fragile eco-systems. Four of the six countries involved created the Mekong River Commission so that they can co-operate in the management of the river systems. China and Myanmar are ‘dialogue partners’ of the MRC, but not full members. Tom explained before the film was shown that it had been put together hastily because of the urgency of the threat facing the Mekong- a threat summarised in the film’s subtitle: killing the Mekong dam by dam.
At present, four massive hydropower dams have been built in the upper reaches of the Mekong in China. There are plans, at various stages of development, to build up to another 17 on the lower reaches of the river, including several in Cambodia. If even a few of these projects go ahead, many people will lose their liveliehood. Some of the proposed projects have associated environmental impact assessments, but these are not public, nor have they been ‘wikileaked’! None of the countries involved have too good a record on standing up for local people when big business brings its wallet to the table (or under the table). Campaigners and local residents therefore mistrust both the methodology and motivation of those involved.
Unfortunately this poorly made film, notwithstanding Tom’s excuse of tight deadlines, does little to advance the case.
It sits uneasily in a space between campaigning propaganda and documentary. It aims to be the latter, but provides only an inadequate scatter of information, which would not pass muster in a school project. There are one or two randomly interesting vignettes of campaigners in different parts of the river, a couple of talking heads, agreeing that ‘yes it’s a problem’ and a large number of shots of one of the large Chinese hydropower dams. None of the developers involved are interviewed. There is no discussion of vital issues such as salination in the Vietnam delta. There is no information about the land that will be flooded by the dams. It is a poor piece of research. If the film had set itself different ambitions this might not matter. Objective research might not be necessary for a partisan but inspiring call to action: however the film does not do too well on this front either. Activists might feel slightly less than enthusiastic about the amateurish incompetence of the presentation. Those inspired to action by the issue, and the film does at least raise the issue, are offered no information that might help them to take appropriate action.
This critical review is inspired by a sense of aggravated frustration. The Mekong’s future is of concern to anyone interested in Cambodia’s future, yet somehow the film’s partisan snippets fail to convince. It is only because we already know about the character of the ruling kleptocracy through better research such as that of Global Witness ( http://www.globalwitness.org/library/country-sale ) that we can add extra insight and understand the possiblity, against all reason, of decisions being made which will enrich developers but cause significant ecological and human damage. In introducing the film, Tom described it as an evolving project – let’s hope it evolves to a point where it can be a credible witness of this ecological threat. In the meantime you might get some better information from these YouTube videos: