The Mekong


Whilst many people would have turned to the Amazon as an example of a river giant, I’m headed east to another great river, the Mekong.  A river I have seen, crossed over, floated on.  From a boat on the Mekong, I spotted Irrawaddy river dolphins.  From an island in the river, I talked agriculture with a tuk tuk driver.  I slept in rooms looking out at the Mekong.  I have a connection to it which I do not have with any of the other massive rivers.

The Mekong, like the Amazon, is an incredibly important river in terms of wildlife, economy and livelihoods.  It flows from Tibet to China to Myanmar to Laos to Thailand to Cambodia to Vietnam where it ends in the 9 dragons before entering the South China Sea.  From source to sea it is an estimated 2,703 miles.

Flowing through so many countries, the Mekong binds together a range of cultures and is the life blood of Asia.  It provides food, transport links, irrigation, the river edge provides homes to a vast array of wildlife.

“Mekong River gives everything. Mekong River is mother”
– a local living by the river

I visited the Mekong when I was in Cambodia and so will be focusing on that stretch of this epic waterway.  Life in this country is focused around the river and the regular floods are important to the economy.  When it floods, the Mekong brings water and nutrients to the rice fields which line the riverbanks.  Rice is the main crop in Cambodia and without the river bursting over to the floodplains, irrigation would be needed and I suspect it would become uneconomical to grow.  Looking at the Mekong delta more widely, we see how crucial the floods are.  A vast amount of rice grown here gets exported and earns the area the nickname the rice bowl of asia.

When I was in Cambodia, we drove over a rickety, slightly terrifying, wooden bridge to reach an island in the Mekong.  This bridge gets rebuilt every year because when the floods come, it gets washed away.  But these same floods are what provides the fertile land for agriculture and grazing.

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The Mekong is important to food security in another way; the fish. Fish and crustaceans make up over 80% of the protein that Cambodians eat and fishing provides jobs and livelihoods.  And the impact of the river goes beyond her banks.  At Phnom Penh, the Mekong is joined by another river and lake system – the Tonle Sap – and affects the direction of this water system.  When the Mekong is low, the Tonle Sap is a tributary and when the Mekong floods, the flow reverses and the floodwaters head up the Tonle Sap.  This means that a larger area benefits from the gifts of the floods and more people would be affected by changes.

Which brings me to the topic of dams.  Any transboundary river brings with it potential for political difficulties.  In the case of the Mekong, this is played out by the creation of dams in Thailand and China.  The dams themselves are built, for example, to provide hydroelectricity to their people but actions have consequences and in this case, the consequences play out down river.  Out of sight, out of mind, especially if it’s not affecting your country.

As we’ve seen, millions of people depend on the Mekong and her floods and without the fast flowing waters, food security will be threatened, economies will be affected and so will cultures and the environment.

The Mekong is already heavily dammed, with many more dams planned and under construction, and we can’t always predict the impact they will have.  What we do know is that damming the river increases the risk of earthquakes, creates food shortages, and, as is so often the case, those most in need will be hardest hit.

“The very people that regional governments and international organisations are spending a lot of time trying to alleviate from poverty are the ones who are going to be impacted.”
– Ian Baird

As well as the human cost of changing the river, there is the environmental one.  The Mekong basin is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world, second only to the Amazon.  As well as the many known species of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, new species are being regularly described.  In 2009. There were 145 newly described species which included 29 fish, 2 birds, 10 reptiles and five mammals.

The river is also home to some very large fish including the giant freshwater stingray which can reach 5m in length and the Mekong giant catfish which can grow to 3m and weigh 300kg.  These large fish populations have, however, declined drastically, in part due to the building of dams.

Another species that is particularly susceptible to the impact caused by dams is the Irrawaddy dolphin.  Some Laotians and Cambodians believe that the Irrawaddy dolphins are reincarnations of their ancestors and there are tales of them rescuing people from drowning and even from attacks by crocodiles.  Despite this reverence for them, there are exceptionally few of them left in the Mekong.  They are shy and elusive, barely breaching the surface to breathe so I didn’t even attempt a photograph of them.  It was an honour and a privilege to see them.


In the 1970s there were over a thousand of them but they suffered terribly under Pol Pot’s regime and were virtually wiped out.  Today, threats come from fishing, pollution and population segmentation as well as the impact of damns.  But in conservation areas such as Kratie where I saw the dolphins, ecotourism is being encouraged as an alternative way of making a living to fishing.  Hopefully they will not follow the Yangtzee River Dolphin which went extinct in 2007.

The delta plays home to many other interesting flora and fauna including the, now rare, yellow headed temple turtle.  Smooth coated otters, fishing cats and Siamese crocodiles all live in this rich environment.

Perhaps the most moving animal tale is that of the flying bird, a type of crane standing 6 foot tall with a wingspan just as large, lives in the delta.  They disappeared during the Vietnam war as the delta saw some of the harshest fighting but as peace returned, so did the cranes.  What creatures are we driving away with our war against nature?  Our desperation to control the river?  Who is going to pay the price?

The Rivers Running Through Me

“We are all caught by a river.  This, I think, is what catchment means.  Every fragment of landscape slides to one river or another and our feet are sucked into the mud wherever we stand… A river is mire than the ribbon of flow at the foot of a valley.  It is the distillation of that valley.  A river is the expression of us and we are rooted in it.  The meandering relationship between the shaper and the shaped is revealed time and again: the rivers of childhood surge through memory and water the formation of the self.  Rivers are in the blood.  Rivers get under the skin.  Rivers stay with you when everything else moves on.”
– Charles Rangeley-Wilson

There was a brook near the house I grew up in.  For a small child, trying to explore and play, the banks were high and the trickle low.  There was a noticeable difference between summer and winter and you could stand on a rickety wooden bridge and peer down.  Later, once I’d grown a little more, I could clamber down to the water.  Splash about in wellies.  You wouldn’t want to go barefoot.  It wasn’t that sort of stream.  Getting back out was harder, wet boots slipping against the muddy slopes, hands grasping at clumps of grass and pulling your body weight up with the faith that the roots would stay loyal.

I looked it up recently.  It flows into the Mersey.  Not surprisingly.  But I’d never thought to think about it before.  This was my brook, this little stretch, and I spent very little time thinking about where it came from and where it went after.  My world was contained, and with that, so was the flow of the water.

Had I been a more courageous or adventurous child, perhaps I would have followed that stream bed in my little blue wellies.  Perhaps I would have twisted and turned with it, the water level rising and rising until it flooded my boots, drenched my socks.  Eventually sweeping me off my feet and pushing me along until the brook-now-river spat me out into the Mersey.

The Mersey was a feature of my life.  Echoed by the Dee on the other side of the peninsula.  We went on the ferry across the Mersey on a school trip.  I remember my finger had been trapped in a toilet door that morning before we left.  We traipsed round the slavery museum and walked around the docks.  But like most people, when I traversed the river, it was normally going under not over it.  The Kingsway and Queensway tunnels.  You needed to have change to get through.  These days I suspect they take credit cards.  An anxious child, I always held in my mind that question, what if?  What if the weight of the water became too much and the tunnel could no longer bear to stand up?  What if it started to crack?  What if?  What if? These worries echoed through the tunnel until we emerged into daylight.  Stunned by our survival.

The River Dee on the other hand, was exclusively crossed by bridge.  No ferry here.  No tunnel.  From the Wirral, you can see across the Dee to Wales.  You can walk out into the Dee at low tide to reach the uninhabited Hilbre Islands.  Again, what if? What if? Rung loud in my ears as we crossed at low tides.  Warnings of sinking sand and a vivid imagination.  What if?  What if we got the tides wrong and were stranded on the island?  What if?  Always, what if?

A safer way to experience the Dee is to stand on the front at Parkgate with an ice cream in hand.  The water itself is too far away to touch and the land between is marshy and is now an SSSI – A Site of Special Scientific Interest – I believe.  The river used to reach the walls.  It used to crash up and over them.  It fed into an open air swimming pool, my Granma told me about it.  Perhaps, a hundred years earlier, here too I’d have heard those endless what ifs?

You would think, from this, that perhaps I don’t like water.  But I do.  I love water.  I love the sea, rivers and lakes.  I love their beauty but I have a respect for their darker side too.

Leaving the brook behind, I headed east to the River Ouse and the Foss.  York.  A town built on rivers.  A town which once had a healthy respect for water.  Floodplains allowed the river to rise and fall, allowed her to live on her own terms with her own rhythms.  These floodplains have been built on in places, showing no respect for a river who bursts her banks many times in a year.  An attempt to control the uncontrollable.


Sited where the Foss joins the Ouse, York was a very strategic settlement.  The two rivers providing natural defences as well as communication and supply routes in and out.  Romans built jetties and wharves and warehouses here.  Vikings arrived with their shipbuilding and navigation skills.  York, through the Ouse, was connected to the entire world.  Liverpool would come to echo this, the Mersey replacing the Ouse when it comes to commerce today.

By the late sixteenth century, larger sea going ships couldn’t reach York, the rivers were filling with sediment. Shortly after, in 1715, Liverpool’s first dock was built.  I moved in the opposite direction to trade.  York’s rivers, no longer used for commerce, today host pleasure boats, historical cruises and an ice cream boat.

The riverbanks gained importance as the river itself lost some of hers.  This fertile land was used for agriculture and today there are four SSSIs along the banks in York; Clifton Ings and Rawcliffe Meadows, Fulford Ings,  Naburn Marsh and Acaster South Ings.

For me though, it is not the trees or shrubs or flowers or rare beetles which make the river Ouse a magical place although they do add their charm.  For me, meeting the Ouse as an adult in a new city, it is the memories that pull me, that draw me into the currents. I met the Ouse in a more academic, detached kind of way. The way that adults meet rivers.  There were no wellies splashing or scampering up and down banks.  Instead, the Ouse is a patchwork blanket with strands of emotion tying together moments and woven with facts.

The Ouse will always be the river I walked along with my love.  It will always be the night I went for a walk with my close friend and it rained and we were tipsy and took off our shoes and ran home.  The conversation I had with another close friend about the death of her mother.  The days when depression had wrapped itself around my heart like bindweed and threatened to squeeze my lungs and I stood staring and staring on a platform over the river.  There was the night I returned from a protest and it was pitch dark and my friend walked me home despite going far out of his way and we encountered a creepy shadow and both held our breath.  Sitting on the steps, watching geese scare overly brave tourists.  Ducklings floating by, defying the strength of the currents.  This river undoubtedly runs through my veins.

For the second and third years of my life in York, I would walk along the river path to town.  Doing so makes you acutely aware of the seasons and cycles, the life of the river.  Some days that walk would be impossible, underwater.  Other days it was borderline and the waves would lap dangerously close to the path.  The river wove itself into my life in those years, I became attuned and aware of her character.  She has her twists and turns, her placid days and her violent deadly moments.  She is both life giver and life taker.  We have our own rhythms, but both are the same.

Apart from my first and fourth year in York, I have never been more than a stones throw from the Ouse.  One of those years my bedroom looked out onto a tributary of the other river, the Foss, but that was a year of intense depression and detachment and I never knew that beck like I do the Ouse.

The Foss, thought to be from the latin fossa, meaning ditch, is a stranger to me.  The waters run and mingle and become the Ouse and it is only when coupled with my river, that I know the Foss.  It is like the partner of a friend.  You see them through the eyes of your friend, you know them as part of your friend but you do not know them truly, not in their own right.

“The many waters I’ve known as part of my own personal world – rivers, streams and lakes – have taught me, shaped me, and given me a sense of values.”
– Thomas Moore

The Mersey, The Dee and The Ouse.  These are the rivers which run through me.  These are the rivers which shape me.

Watery words

There are many many different words for bodies of water.  We have the ocean, seas, bays, estuaries, springs, rivers, lakes, brooks…

And on top of the geographic language, there are interesting regional words and this is what I want to look at.  I’m honing in on Yorkshire and northern England as that’s where I live but even with that focus there are still many words so here are just a few:

  • Beck – a stream
  • Blatter – a puddle
  • Carr – boggy or fenny copse
  • Foss – waterfall
  • Gill – deep rocky cleft or ravine, usually wooded and forming the course of a stream
  • Grain – the point where a stream branches
  • Ing – wet meadow, especially one by the side of a river
  • Keld – deep, still, smooth part of a river
  • Mell – sand dunes
  • Moss – bog or marsh
  • Mytholm – meeting of waters
  • Ness – promontory, cape or headland
  • Sike – a small stream, often flowing through marshy ground
  • Slack – hollow in sand or mud banks on a shore
  • Slake – stretch of muddy ground left exposed by the tide; mudflat
  • Sleck – mud at a river where the tide comes in and out
  • Strand – shore
  • Tarn – a mountain pool or small upland lake

As well as there being a vast array of words to describe different types of water, it is also interesting to look to the names of the individual bodies.  For example, in York, we have the River Ouse which some people believe comes from the celtic word usso*, which literally means water.  Other Yorkshire rivers are also named for water (such as the river esk from isca and the river don from dana) and we find yet more rivers being named after celtic nymphs and goddesses.

*another theory is that it is derived from udan, a Sanskrit word for water


As I discussed a few months ago, we can gleam a lot about the history of a place when we turn to their names.  The same is true of water.  For example, if we know somewhere is called Ings, we know that is likely to have been used as a flood meadow in the past, even if this is no longer the case.  Another example is the wonderfully named Blubberhouses gets its name from the medieval blubber, used to describe the foaming or bubbling of the sea, and probably referred to the turbulent flow of the River Washburn.

The famous Knavesmire Racecourse gets its name by combining a person’s name with a landscape descriptor; Knorr (a personal name) and myrr (meaning marsh).

Thanks to Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks and his twitter feed for both informing and inspiring this post.