The Living Mekong

Posted: August 1, 2013

Cambodia and Vietnam, emerging as spirited economic powers in Southeast Asia, are destined to become major influencers in global trade and commercial development. They are also home to some of the world’s most endangered and charismatic species, as well as hundreds of newly discovered species. Rapid, unsustainable development is affecting ecosystem services, biodiversity, and local communities.

When I first started to organize elements of the new SFS program, The Living Mekong—and certainly after my first trip to the lands of the mighty Mekong River—I knew that this region was not a place that SFS ought to be, but instead a place that SFS needs to be. I immediately began to ponder: How do these emerging economies balance development and environmental protection? How does the Mekong River serve both industry and traditional fishers? How, after only 30 years of stable government, do these nations’ agencies protect threatened ecosystems and safeguard endangered species? How do the rural poor maintain access to depleted natural resources that they depend on for sustenance and income?

These questions are extremely complex but exactly the kind of questions SFS tackles. Cambodia and Vietnam reflect the “wild West,” or more appropriately the “wild East,” where conservation and ecosystem management are new concepts—being only peripheral initiatives of policy makers.

SFS is in a position to help establish baseline measures of biodiversity, literally helping to identify what species exist in natural regions only partially explored by scientists. We will collect data on the pressures, including habitat disruption, that massive numbers of tourists have on the fragile ecosystems surrounding the resplendent temples of Angkor. We will assess what effects the damming of the waters of the upper Mekong has on the natural downstream pulses of the river and how livelihoods are affected. There is virtually no limit to the work that students and faculty can do in this region.

Cambodia especially will captivate our students. Students must be prepared to be inundated with stimuli—sights, sounds, smells, and visions that will inspire them to work hard and learn deeply. There will be moments of true inspiration and times of deep emotional reflection. Few American students have had the privilege of studying abroad and exploring this region of the globe.

Next fall, let SFS take you on a journey of discovery and learning in the lands of the Living Mekong.