The major river systems that drain the Himalayas provide water that sustains the lives and livelihoods of a significant proportion of the global population, but a variety of pressures, including population growth, the motivation to stimulate economic development to alleviate poverty, and multinational corporate ‘land grabs’, have done, and will continue in the future, to place these resources strongly under threat. Furthermore, through processes of flooding, erosion and sedimentation, the Asian ‘mega-rivers’ also present a hazard to which riparian peoples must adapt. Water, People and Environment is a module designed for students who are interested in understanding firstly the relationships between processes of environmental change and their impacts on key resources (water, food, energy), but secondly the impacts of these complex changes on both the river environment and the people it sustains. The module is delivered as a residential field course and as such has a specific focus on an exemplar mega-river system - the Lower Mekong in Cambodia. Draining parts of China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and fed by the Asian Monsoon, the Mekong’s annual monsoonal flood pulse transports large volumes of water, sediment and nutrients that sustain (i) the Mekong Delta, SE Asia’s rice basket, and (ii) the most important freshwater fishery on the planet (the Tonle Sap Lake). These water and sediment flows therefore underpin the lives and livelihoods of well over 50 million people, many of whom are living in poverty. Yet the Mekong, like other rivers in the SE Asia region is undergoing unprecedented environmental change. Global climate change is affecting the river’s hydrology through an intensification of the monsoon and shifts in the tracks of tropical cyclones that pass over the basin. Population growth and urbanization, rapid economic growth, as well as controversial ‘land grabs’ that convert natural forest cover to rubber and palm oil plantations, are influencing catchment land cover (the vegetation cover of the Mekong’s drainage basin, which affects water resources and soil erosion). Meanwhile, the growing populations and economies of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand are providing an impetus for the large scale development of hydropower. This is in turn regarded as a profitable opportunity by powerful (Chinese) hydropower construction companies which have already built large hydropower dams in other poorer countries. In tandem, scholars argue that the Chinese government is seizing a valuable opportunity to address the rising energy needs of China in order to continue the exponential industrial and technological growth. The construction of numerous large dams is already underway, and these structures threaten the Mekong’s biodiversity and ability to transmit sediment and nutrients to its delta. Projections of the impacts of these environmental changes are enormously troubling – the development of hydropower has the potential to reduce, by as soon as the 2050s, the freshwater fishery (the main source of protein for 3 million people) by half, while disconnecting the flows of sediment from the river basin upstream to the Mekong delta downstream may result in the delta sinking into the South China Sea as a result of rising relative sea-levels, affecting the lives of the 17 million people who live there. The implications for regional, and indeed global, food security as a result of these changes are uncertain, but significant.
Understanding the complexity of these processes would be partial without the inclusion of the human factor. The module, therefore, places equal emphasis on exploring the ways in which the riparian population interacts with their environment and in turn responds to environmental change. While these populations have shown remarkable resilience and adapted to regular seasonal variations, the processes discussed earlier magnify these challenges, risking stretching their adaptive capacity to the limit. For many, the key pre-occupation is survival. Migration is one way to adapt to the changing environmental challenges posed in this region, and migration can, therefore, be viewed as part of a livelihood diversification strategy and a means to enhance individual and family resources. However, it is widely acknowledged that migratory options and outcomes differ for poorer and more affluent people. For example, international migration is often out of reach for many poor people, who typically migrate internally instead. Such internal migration is closely linked to urbanisation and Cambodia is no exception. Rapid urbanisation in the global South with associated poverty and exclusion, along with environmentally induced migration and sustainable livelihoods feature as key concerns in the current – and, most likely, future – development agenda of policy makers at a global level. This module places such concerns at the heart of its content and practice, seeking to equip students with the knowledge, as well as the practical tools that will enable them to engage with, and influence, such debates as part of their potential future careers.
This module will, through a combination of tutor-led discussion and group project work in the field, cover topics that are central to understanding these complex issues; issues that are faced by other river environments in rapidly developing regions. Starting in Phnom Penh, at the apex of the Mekong delta, and travelling upstream overland to the city of Siem Reap, close to the UNESCO-protected Angkor temples, we will:
- Explore the relationship between environmental change and the physical response of the Mekong River (i.e., undertake impacts analysis to establish historical changes in water flows and patterns of erosion)
- Consider how the shifting course of the river affects the lives and livelihoods of riparian populations through processes of river bank erosion
- Seek to understand how individuals and communities may adapt to changing environmental hazards, including processes of migration
- Observe the ways in which local populations shape their environment
- Explore the political, socio-economic and cultural dynamics of local and regional development (e.g. through observation, key interviews)
- Employ models to investigate the impacts of future environmental change on water and sediment flows to the Mekong Delta, and the implications for the lives and livelihoods of the Mekong’s riparian peoples.