All posts by Madison C Jaschke

Project – Human Interactions with the Natural Environment

Madison Jaschke and Maria Keeler

The natural environment of Thailand is vibrant, abundant and filled with patient energy. In order to understand and preserve that natural environment, focus cannot solely be placed on one area. Instead, it requires analysis encompassing nature’s interactions with humans. For example, an economy’s infrastructure and initiatives as well as community attitudes and knowledge affect the degree of exploitation for natural resources.

As a duo, Maria and Madison, we will address the human interactions influencing the Mekong River based on conversations with Director Krutee and Pe-Chak of the Mekong School in Chiang Khong. Among others, these men have dedicated themselves to spreading local knowledge about the river. We were moved by their passion for this Mother River, the 10th longest river in the world. It spans from southern China through 6 countries, finally flowing into the South China Sea. Over 70 million people are connected to the river, with many different ethnic communities and perspectives. The mighty Mekong River used to have a natural flow, whether it was the dry season that decreased the water level and provided nutrient-rich banks to be farmed on, or the rainy season that strengthened the currents and brought an abundant water supply for communities. The continuum of the Mekong has changed as a result of human influences affecting water levels, sediment distribution, fish spawning and livelihoods.

The largest human impacts on the river are the results of hydroelectric dams placed upstream, causing upsets for the countries and small communities downstream who are reliant on the river to sustain their families with food and an income. The dams, which are primarily implemented and controlled by China, have now created unpredictable patterns in water levels and flow that can fluctuate every 4-6 days. These changes impact communities that rely on the water level for agricultural use as well as base their fishing techniques off of.

Beyond unreliable water levels and turbidity, the dams have been detrimental to the river’s biodiversity. Fish populations have decreased and some species, including the Giant Mekong Catfish, are at risk of extinction. This limited supply directly impacts families who require fish for adequate protein intake. It also causes a trophic cascade within other species connected to fish, such as birds, aquatic insects and macrophytes.

The damages to biodiversity and human livelihoods are by no means local. Resources for one community influence a large web of interconnected communities far beyond the reaches of the river. China’s dam construction is based on their desire to improve their economy and develop a substantial energy and water supply. These motives overpower the need for conservation efforts. It is challenging as individuals to be heard against decisions made by a global superpower.

The first step toward resource preservation is knowledge. Most communities don’t understand the reasons behind the decreased fish populations and peripheral effects the dams are causing. The Mekong School is an excellent example of planting seeds for future change locally by traveling to schools and communities along the river in order to spread awareness. They are in the process of forming a coalition to prevent future dam construction. The Mekong River represents traditions, cultures, and ways of life, something that must not be forgotten in large-scale economic decisions. We return home with awareness and a desire for change. Although we reside far from the Mekong River, issues of water quality and community vitality apply across the globe.

image image

“In a battle between elephants, the ants get squashed” -Thai proverb

#2 – The Natural Environment

imageThailand, for me, has been an opportunity for observation and comparison. I would like to stress that I am not focusing on judgmental comparisons, but instead constructive analyses between two very different cultures, the Thai and the American, in order to benefit from one another. In particular, my observations have been geared towards the natural environment and how the human built environment in working with it as well as against it. Looking out the window is where I notice the most, but also walking by and being among it all. I remember Acharn Linda saying, when we were all sharing our first impressions, that the Thai intentionally or even unconsciously maintain these “green spaces” throughout their infrastructure and within their built environments. I took notice to this as well, and I continue to see it as we travel around this country.

They seem to incorporate natural features into their city planning. For instance, the sidewalks (or more-so roadside curbs) have trees in the midst or their concrete slabs. Instead of bringing down the tree, which commonly occurs in American construction, the Thai value its presence and work around it. This is a minor aspect that I believe would be beneficial in American society in order to better preserve our natural environment.

I have also taken great notice to the water. This, through my observations, is not as thoroughly protected in Thailand. In Bangkok, their streams are not at all in their natural form and are instead surrounded by concrete which molds their pathway. This is where the human built environment in Thailand has controlled the natural one and, in this case, has restricted biodiversity. The water is not able to interact with vegetation that aids so significantly in its quality, as well as for any aquatic species that may be lurking in these waterways. In the city of Chiang Mai, it is a bit different. Green spaces do exist along the waters edge, which I love to see, but this led me to observe other aspects of the Thai’s water. The most profound, the brown, murky appearance (which is not necessarily bad) as well as the abundant liter present in many areas. The brown color is due to the soil and sediments in the river, especially due to intense rainfalls that are so common in Thailand and can sweep away much of the landscape. This is not directly linked to its poor quality, but instead turns people away, especially in reference to the views of the American, from considering it to be potable. The final aspect I will conclude with is the sanitation of the river that has been negatively impacted by the human built environment as well as some social and cultural norms here in Thailand. This is where my interest lies, however I am not yet significantly knowledgeable on the topic, especially in Thailand, but I have been intensely observing and comparing. The trash and lack of sanitation is very prevalent, but I believe the Thai people are not to directly blame. As Acharn Cathy considered, it is quite possibly the infrastructure and/or economy that is preventing sanitation from being the people’s main priority. Globalization is forcing Thailand to accommodate more people, and, especially in the city, the garbage has no where else to go. I believe this is an area where Thailand and its natural environment could prosper from implementing some aspects of America’s intense sanitation procedures into their society.

Personally, I will continue to observe my surroundings and compare it to the one that is familiar to me in order to take back with me ideas and values that I can consider throughout my life and future work. The two cultures have the capability of growing from one another in many ways. We are able to gain an appreciation for the natural environment and our reliance on its provided resources, whether it be for oxygen, water, food production, or simply its beauty.

#1 – Orientation @ Wat Temple

Hey it’s Madison! And this is my all-time favorite place (so far) – the Pacific Ocean.1013336_10207020517089200_1158828270358853220_n


Orientation at the Wat Temple was my first significant experience with Thai culture, and wow, was it already an eye-opening experience! I had the image of an ornate temple in my head prior to arrival, and while we were approaching I believe everyone in our car made a comment on the odd rural location. I was extremely taken back when I discovered it was more-so a large house that didn’t fit my conception of a traditional Buddhist Temple whatsoever. Right then and there I decided expectations only limit open-mindedness and should, from this point on, be avoided in order to immerse myself completely in this unique learning experience. Once inside, the presence of the monk filled the room with this nobility that seemed to pull out my innermost respect. I was transfixed by his words, even though I had no clue what he was saying. I’m so intrigued by their religion and have done some reading on it, so listening to him and the translator was a highlight for me. I also really enjoyed the short meditation session we had. I don’t know if it was the environment or if I was just tired, but I was so relaxed and at peace after that. I can’t forget to mention how warm and welcoming I noticed the Thai’s were to us, and how thankful I am for that delicious meal they prepared for us!

My learning goal is to ~BE CONSTANTLY LEARNING~ throughout our expedition around Thailand. I want to learn from the people, the environment, and this reliant and respected relationship between them.  In particular, I’m personally excited to learn as much as I can absorb about the Mekong River, due to my interests in water quality and public health. Another goal of mine is to get to know and make friends with my fellow travelers! I’m looking forward to this wild journey!! Just have to get through finals………