27 Aug 09
by Helen Jacobs
PLANS to build a series of dams on the largest river in South-East Asia are threatening to destroy the livelihoods of millions of people in Cambodia and surrounding nations.
The Mekong River flows through the developing country, providing much of the food and nutritional needs of a population estimated at more than 14 million.
Most live a traditional lifestyle, relying on the river to grow their rice crops, and taking fish from the river - one of the world’s largest inland fisheries - for food.
But if plans by the Cambodian, Thai and Laotian governments to dam the river go ahead, these rural communities could find it difficult to survive.
Footscray resident and Leader photographer Glenn Daniels recently made a journey up the Mekong with international aid organisations Oxfam and Manna Gum as part of a campaign to save the river for the millions of people who rely on it.
“The aim of our journey was to document the livelihoods of people who live on the islands along the Mekong and how they’ll be affected if a dam is built,” Mr Daniels said.
Through his skills with a camera, Mr Daniels is hoping to alert Australians to the plight of these people.
His photos will be shown next year in Melbourne.
It was a highly unjust situation that the people found themselves in, Mr Daniels said.
“The first notification that these people had of the dam proposal was some Chinese officials surveying the land,” he said.
“There have been no talks of compensation ... for the relocation of families.”
Spending time with the villagers, sharing meals with them, observing their daily work patterns and watching children play gave Mr Daniels some insight into a lifestyle far removed from suburban life in Melbourne’s West.
“Most of the people we saw or interviewed technically live on less than $1 a day,” Mr Daniels said.
“In monetary terms they are extremely poor, but they grow their own rice, raise pigs, and they work together, along with taking all the fish that they need from the Mekong, and the family buffalo is like their bank account.
“The value of all that is far more than $1 a day.
“If they are forced to move they most likely won’t be able to farm the land any more. They will have to move to the cities, where, if they’re very lucky, they might earn more than $1 a day, but their expenses will also greatly increase so they would probably find it much harder to survive.”
Mr Daniels learnt a lot about a rich and diverse culture from “friendly and gentle people”, along with seeing the impact organisations such as Oxfam have had, including establishing schools, providing clean water and immunisations for animals.
“If these dams go ahead, they will make all the work that Oxfam has put in for these people a waste of time, it will threaten the diversity and health of one of the planet’s most important river systems, and most importantly it will destroy the lifestyles of millions of people,” Mr Daniels said.