Sand dredging damaging the Mekong

The Mekong naturally produces around 20 million tonnes of sediment a year, but is now seeing twice that amount extracted annually. Without strict rules, the dredging will trigger erosion patterns that could take decades to reverse.
The Mekong naturally produces around 20 million tonnes of sediment a year, but is now seeing twice that amount extracted annually. Without strict rules, the dredging will trigger erosion patterns that could take decades to reverse.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Laos' fishermen and farmers affected by hollowing out of the riverbed

VIENTIANE • Grain by grain, truckload by truckload, Laos' section of the Mekong river is being dredged of sand to make cement - a commodity being devoured by a Chinese-led building boom in the capital.

But the hollowing out of the riverbed is damaging a vital waterway that feeds hundreds of thousands of fishermen and farmers in the poverty-stricken nation.

"Today, it's more complicated for us to go fetch water for crops," Ms Deam Saengarn said from the muddy river's shores, describing how its gentle slopes have given way to steep embankments.

The 36-year-old mother of two captures Laos' development conundrum: She depends on a US$10 (S$13.60) daily wage from a sand extraction firm, but also relies on the very river she is helping to gouge.

"We really need this water," she said, perspiring as she separated stones from the mountains of sediment piled on the shore.

All around her, industrial pipes and excavators suck up the Mekong's floor, carving craters into the bed of a river that winds through most of the landlocked nation.

It is a familiar story in a country whose natural resources have been steadily plundered by businesses under the gaze of communist leaders who brook no dissent but welcome foreign cash.

Sand, an unflashy and seemingly infinite resource, is the chief ingredient in cement and the hidden hand behind the explosion of cities worldwide.

China is its top consumer - devouring over 60 per cent of the global output and using more sand in four years than the United States did in the entire 20th century.

Dredging has been taking place for years along the Mekong, but the industrial scale is relatively new to Laos, where the grains pave a flurry of new construction projects, many of them funded by Chinese firms.

China is the largest source of foreign investment in neighbouring Laos. Chinese businessmen loom large in the isolated nation and have zeroed in on its array of timber and mineral resources.

The 4,800km-long Mekong, which starts in south-western China and empties out in southern Vietnam, is the world's largest inland fishery and among the most biodiverse rivers on the globe, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

It naturally produces around 20 million tonnes of sediment a year, but is now seeing twice that amount extracted annually, according to research to which WWF contributed. Without strict rules, the dredging will trigger erosion patterns that could take decades to reverse.

"The river has changed a lot. Here, the banks are collapsing. This did not happen before," a Laos fisherman said as he drew his nets, declining to give his name in a country where many fear speaking out. "It requires us to go further to fish. It's not good for us."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2016, with the headline 'Sand dredging damaging the Mekong'. Print Edition | Subscribe