All posts by Mason Schlief

The Mighty Mae Kong River

“If things continue the way they have been, by 2040, 97% of the original biodiversity within the Mekong River will be lost.”

Niwat Roykaew – Local Advocate and Director of Chiang Khong Mekong School for Local Knowledge

Winding almost 3,000 miles, the Mekong (Mae Kong) River spans through the countries of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Mekong River, known for its rich and essential biodiversity, provides livelihoods for more than 60 million people (Lovgren, 2018). Social and economic development in the Mekong Region is posing major threats to the conservation of the river. In this post we will discuss some of the main pressing threats to the Mekong River that we learned through articles and the organizations we encountered while in Thailand. The Mekong River has been changed by the increasing level of development of unsustainable infrastructure and high rates of pollution, directly impacting the fish biodiversity, livelihoods, and human health in the regions.

Environmental Infrastructure

With 11 major dams already developed along the Mekong river, there are plans for future dam development, some already being constructed. Mr. Niwat Roykaew, local activist and the director of Chiang Khong Mekong School on Local Knowledge, discussed the many environmental issues associated with the development of large infrastructure in the Mekong.

Image courtesy of Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF) of Thailand.

China is causing disastrous conditions for the countries downstream, dam construction has already caused downstream impacts, especially in the Thai-Lao border where communities have been suffering from the changing water levels. Mr. Niwat Roykaew also stated that China will close their dams when they need water and open them when they have too much, resulting in the downstream countries to experience major drought and then flooding, drastically changing the waters flow rate and limiting the amount of nutrient rich sediment that is crucial to maintain biodiversity.

Effects of Fish Biodiversity

Around the globe, it is known that dams negatively impact fish populations due to the disruption they have on spawning. The Mekong River is no exception and is now experiencing the side effects of having dams in place. Perhaps the most iconic fish in the Mekong river, the Mekong giant catfish, is a perfect example of the effect’s dams are having on migratory fish. Before the construction of dams began in the 1990’s, annual catch rates for the Mekong giant catfish hovered around 70 fish. This number steadily declined over the next decade leading to four years between 2000 and 2006 with no Mekong giant Catfish being reported (Hogan, 2013). It is now illegal to fish for the Mekong giant catfish as it is a protected species and is listed as a critically endangered species as well. Mr. Niwat Roykaew stated that if nothing changes in the Mekong River, then by 2040 97% of the biodiversity in the river will be lost. Local communities and their fisherman will be left to deal with the fallout.        

Fishing not only provides food for villages located on the Mekong river, but is an important source of income for many families. The total economic value of the Mekong river is estimated to be between $5.6 and $9.4 billion per year (Morton & Olson, 2018). The economic boost that fishing and the industries that compliment it provide should be incentive enough to attempt to save this habitat. Fisherman around the globe have suffered because of the impact dams have had on their fisheries. The Columbia river, whose first dam was completed in 1933, is a clear example of this pattern. In 1940, commercial harvest for salmon was 15 thousand metric tons. This number has decreased to around two thousand metric tons in 2010. The Columbia river houses, 15 mainstream dams and an extensive network of hatcheries is being used in order to help maintain salmon populations (Environmental Management, 2010). Right now, there are a very limited number of hatcheries supporting the Mekong. The livelihood of fisherman on the Mekong is being challenged at the moment. Local representatives from the Hill Tribe Development Foundation (HADF) told of fisherman villages that are now abandoned along the shores of the Mekong river because there were no longer fishable populations left in those areas. Dams are interrupting the equilibrium of the Mekong river which in turn affects the local fisherman that rely on this fishery.

Environmental Public Health

The issues stated before directly impact the health of the individuals within the Mekong River area. With contaminated water, fish become contaminated, providing another route of harmful exposure to local people. According to Niwat Roykaew of the Chiang Khong Mekong School for Local Knowledge, local fish are also being forced to span in new areas due to the changes the damns have enacted, heightening the possibility of contamination. Fish and aquaculture in the Mekong Delta is one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world. This has made the fish both a large part of the income of locals, but a staple in local foods as well.

Traditional Hill Tribe dish made from local fish, garlic, cilantro and chili peppers.

Metals have been found to be the leading cause of concern in cultivated Mekong fish. Studies have shown that zinc, arsenic and copper are the most concentrated metals in the fish, followed by cadmium and lead. Daily intakes of these metals range up to 50 mg/(kg day) while the average recommended amount is 12 mg (Chanpiwat et al. 2016). The hazard quotient for zinc in the Mekong River ranges from 50-120 HQ, meaning that there is an increased likelihood of health risks that are highly expected. These include low copper levels, low immunity and low levels of HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Overexposure to copper metals has produced liver and kidney damage along with a decrease in fetal growth (Agency for Toxic Substances, 2004).

Thousands of people are exposed to these increased concentrations of metals, leading to many long term health issues and even death. In addition to the dangerous water quality and fish, the number of fish has decreased. This has removed a very important part of the local people’s diet, causing them to turn to other sources of food. With many of these individuals being low income, individuals may begin to turn to cheap, nutrient-empty foods. This includes chips, cookies, fast-food and other snack items that are high in sugar and salt, but low in nutritional values. Food deserts like this are correlated with the rise in obesity, cardiovascular diseases and other health care risks. Overall, there are large health impacts on the local community that are directly caused by the misuse and mistreatment of the Mekong River and its environment.

Future Progress

The Mekong River has been changed by unsustainable infrastructure and pollution, which directly impacts the biodiversity of fish and human health in the region. Organizations such as the Chiang Khong Mekong School on Local Knowledge have focused on educating young people on the history and importance of the Mekong River in their communities. They also have been involved with numerous community-based research efforts which are used on the national and international level to defend and protect the Mekong River. Partnerships with other organizations including the Mekong Youth Assembly, International Accountability Project, The Center for ASEAN Studies, Chiang Mai University and iMekong have broadened the horizons and impact of local communities to enact change (Weerachat, 2016). Outside countries including Australia and the United States have also begun to take notice of the worsening conditions. However, more support, education and resources are needed to change the course of the Mekong River. It is vital to these local communities, the ecosystems in the region and to the countries in which it graces their border.

Authors: Lilly Arvidson, Griffin Conway & Mason Schlief

On Your Market, Get Set, Connect!

One of the most prominent things that I have noticed so far while on this study abroad trip is the importance of the local markets in these communities. We have had the opportunity to explore a couple of markets so far and these experiences have really stuck out to me. Back in the United States, farmers markets are a deep tradition in my family and are something that I have always admired and enjoyed. There was even a time in which I attended them weekly, helping my grandparents sell their plants. I fondly remember connecting to other vendors and sharing stories. Here in Thailand, markets provide a variety of important ingredients in Thai’s life. The most obvious is the food, which comes from local farmers stationed throughout the country. Fresh meat including chicken, pork and fish along with a diverse selection of vegetables, fruits and home-cooked meals.

This image is from a local market in Chiang Mai, Thailand and shows the beautiful selection of foods.

Food is a central part of the Thai culture and provides a chance for Thai’s to connect with each other and their families. It also has become an expression of their culture, a true staple of the country. Additionally, the food that is sold at the market is a large, if not only, source of income for many individuals and families. It is crucial for community members to support their neighbors and fellow Thai at these events by stimulating the economy and purchasing their produce at the market.

A local market in Chiang Mai, where local Thai meet to collect fresh produce and can connect with others.

Lastly, the market creates a social environment for locals and visitors alike to connect and share in something. Friends laugh and reminisce, check in on each other’s families and simply make connections to those around them. As someone who is not local, I find the market to be an opportunity for me to peer into the life and culture of the community. In the United States, we have begun to lose touch with events like this and may think lightly of it happening in other countries. I cannot tell you how many people I have interacted with that did not even know what a farmer’s market was. However, the importance of the local markets is vital to understanding other cultures and lifestyles, especially those in Thailand. It can, even if just for a moment, allow you to also be a part of all of it. So get out there, visit a Thai market, and get a taste of Thailand!

Hello, I am Mason!

Hello everyone! My name is Mason Schlief and I am in the Bachelor of Science Health Science program at the Rochester campus. I am a junior, but will be graduating this coming December! I grew up in a rural town called Lowry, Minnesota which has a population of less than 300 people. I have one younger brother who attends the University of North Dakota and a large mixture of plants and pets that I love.

Although I am nervous about leaving the country for the first time, I am incredibly excited for the opportunity to be a part of this program and experience Thailand and its culture. My goal for this experience is to expand my knowledge of the Thai culture and issues surrounding equity and health care in the country. I cannot wait to learn and grow in my understanding, experiences and within myself during this program.