Tuesday, June 05, 2018

River Trilogy Part 1: Mighty Mekong - the Mighty Carrier of Plastic

I have marked 2018 as the year of visiting our great rivers. 

And so, since January, I have visited half a dozen rivers across Asia. Among them are the 3 of the continent's mightiest rivers: Mekong, Irrawaddy and Padma. I spent a couple of days - and nights too - by each of these great rivers, travelling along them, visiting communities that live by them and experiencing the riverside life.

On this World Environment Day, I am starting to write some of my experiences. I begin with Mekong.

I visited Mekong in Can Tho of Vietnam - known as the heart of the Mekong Delta. As my flight drew closer to Ho Chi Minh City, I could see the serpentine image of the river - zigzagging through the delta. I was awestruck!

A few hours later, I was in Can Tho checking into a modest guest house right over the river. It was 31st December. Back home and everywhere else, my family and friends were partying. The wi fi did not work, so I was cut off from everybody.

Lying in the darkness of my room, I could hear the burbles of Mekong. Occasionally I could hear boats paddling away. In a few hours time, the night would end and the morning sun would rise and I was going to welcome the rising sun - the first sun of 2018 - over the Mekong. I slept with that beautiful dream.

At dawn, I was up and sitting on a fishing boat with my fellow journalist friend Dinh Tuyen who lived in Can Tho. It was still somewhat dark and yet there were several other boats around us already. We were all moving to one destination: Cai Rang -the floating farmers' market.

The market, in nature, was not very different from the other floating markets I have seen in Thailand or elsewhere. But this was bigger and of course on the wide open river. All kind farm-fresh produce -from fresh fruits (pineapple, rambutan and guava) to vegetables, fish, besides groceries etc sold in the market.

As we were cruising through the market enjoying some fresh fruits and meeting some old farmers, the sun was getting hot and the crowd of tourists was growing bigger.
For us, this was time to move out of the market area and visit some riverside villagers. However, as we started out, the boatman began to slow down and halt abruptly. He had a nagging, nasty problem: plastic bags. Every few minutes, he would pull the oars out of the water and clear it off the plastic. 

And then it stuck me: floating around me were all kind of plastic trash: sandals, bags and plastic bottles of mineral water and soft drinks. The last one was clearly a contribution of the tourists.

Tuyen, who was born in the mountains of northern Vietnam, had fallen in love with the Mekong during a trip to Can Tho several years ago and decided to live here. He has been covering the Mekong Delta for years and he says, the volume of plastic trash in the river has been growing in an alarming rate.

There is a general lack of awareness, he says, about plastic pollution of a river. From fish to fruits to biscuits, everything comes in a plastic bag. Nobody bothers to discard this on the land and instead, just tosses it away in the river. "The current carries away everything (to the ocean), so nobody thinks its a big deal",  Tuyen told me.

There is no organized drive yet to  prevent this or to educate the communities yet, but the locals are indeed feeling the heat of the pollution, Tuyen says. The color of the water is changing and the fish catch is decreasing. But there is a much bigger damage of the plastic in the river: according to a study conducted by Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany, about 90% of the plastic in the oceans come from 10 rivers. One of them these 10 rivers is Mekong.

And just to touch base on this, there are 8.3 billion tons of plastic trash in the world that we live in today. In the ocean, its causing acidification, bleaching the corals and killing marine life.

For the next 2 days, I travelled to some islands and villages along the Mekong. Most of the people were subsistence farmers, growing fruits and catching small fishes for a living. 
Life seemed so simple, peaceful and so close to the nature.

But then, wherever I turned,  I saw plastics.

Even for safeguarding their fruits, they covered them with tiny plastic jackets - the same that would soon end up in the river.

Last week, the Mekong River Commission - the governing body of entire Mekong river (which flows through 5 countries), released a statement saying it was working on an initiative to go plastic- free. But this was the commission's office in Laos - faraway from the Mekong Delta.

As I took my last ride over the river, I felt sad.
It had been a dream for years to see Mekong - a river that feeds millions of people with its fish stock, besides helping nations prosper with its inland waterways and its hydelpower potential. 

This river needs to clean, free of plastic and not carry plastic to the oceans.

The communities - both locals and the tourists - need a campaign to tell them of the mountains of  plastic trash Mekong was creating, causing the ocean acidification.

After all, a healthy river is our biggest asset and its our responsibility to preserve its health.