Tailing a River

A yearlong multimedia project documents life on the Mekong

It all started when photojournalists Luc Forsyth and Gareth Bright decided to go on a boat ride.

“We got bored of doing news assignments, so we bought a wooden fishing boat in Pursat province and then drove it from Phnom Penh toward Siem Reap for three weeks,” Mr. Forsyth, a 31-year-old Canadian, said of the trip last year. “We never actually made it to Siem Reap—we broke down part-way. We were really unprepared. We barely knew how to drive it.”

The photographers, who have been based in Cambodia for two years, blogged about the failed journey. It caught the attention of Lien AID, a Singapore-based water and sanitation NGO, which proposed an unexpected partnership.

“The project from that point evolved to the idea to explore the entire Mekong from sea to source, rather than from source to sea, which is how it’s usually done,” said Mr. Bright, 30, from South Africa.

They ditched their longtail boat and enlisted 32-year-old French videographer Pablo Chavanel. Lien AID provided the funding that covers travel expenses.

The ongoing yearlong multimedia project was dubbed “A River’s Tail.” Meandering more than 4,000 km from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, the Mekong River serves as a vital source of food and power for China and Southeast Asia. But pollution, development and drought are depleting the river’s resources and adversely impacting the region’s poor.

In March, the team began their expedition in Den Do, a Vietnamese village where one of the Mekong’s eight “tails” meets the sea.

“We looped our way back through the delta, with no idea of what we were going to find,” Mr. Bright said.

Their travels took them to farmers, fishermen and brickmakers, who shared personal stories that shed light on more severe, structural problems.

“In Vietnam, there are almost no fish left in the river,” Mr. Forsyth said. “And that’s because of population growth, illegal fishing equipment—dynamite fishing, electric nets,” all while toxic agricultural effluents pollute the water, he said.

Meanwhile, in Laos, “dams are everywhere,” Mr. Forsyth said. “Laos is trying to transform itself into the battery of Southeast Asia.” But the dams are destroying reservoirs and displacing whole communities.

This week, the team published an installment on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake, where, similarly, overfishing and upstream dams are diminishing fish stocks in the once bountiful body of water. “It’s really, really struggling,” Mr. Forsyth said.

The team is now preparing to leave for China in January, with plans to wrap up the project in March.

“The interesting part about traveling upstream is that you see the problem before you get to it,” Mr. Bright said. “It’s trans-boundary, which always becomes this complicated problem of shared space.”

“Anything that anybody does affects it, whether it’s at the bottom or at the top,” he said. The river’s sorrows, “they affect everyone in the world eventually.”

The project is online at ariverstail.com.

Ngo Than Thai, 50, has been a fisherman since he was 15. After noticing a severe decline in fish stocks in the river, he took out a loan to start his own fish farm three years ago. (Gareth Bright)
A man feeds fish in an inland farm. Throughout Vietnam’s Mekong delta, locals have reported drastic decreases in the number of fish being caught in the river. (Luc Forsyth)
At the Lower Sesan 2 Dam in Stung Treng province, a man points to a pipe discharging chemical byproducts from the dam’s construction site. Environmental activists are mobilizing communities against the Chinese-owned dam, which will displace thousands. (Luc Forsyth)
A fisherman inspects a net with his children at the edge of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tampoun lake. The lake is being filled with sand for development projects that will deprive communities that live on and around the lake of water. (Gareth Bright)
A construction crew rebuilds the Mekong’s banks using sand in Kandal province’s Khpob Ateav village. The banks are eroding at a rate of 4 to 5 meters per year in the area, largely due to sand dredging upstream, threatening families who live along the river. (Luc Forsyth)
Ethnic Cham villagers gather along the river in Phnom Penh. Many Cham people live on boats and in stilted houses, but the unprecedented pace of development in the capital puts them under constant threat of eviction. (Gareth Bright)
A fishing boat races across the Nam Ngum Dam reservoir in Laos. The dam was the first major hydropower project constructed in Laos. The resevoir has been dubbed ‘The Laos Sea’ by locals, serving as a fishing ground and vacation destination for the wealthy. (Luc Forsyth)
People bathe their elephants in the Mekong north of Luang Prabang. To make extra income during the low tourist season, elephant owners hire out their animals to loggers, who use them to carry heavy loads. (Gareth Bright)
A village near the Nam Kong 1 Dam resevoir in Laos. Once the dam, visible in the background, is completed, the area will be submerged. Most of the villagers have already abandoned their homes. (Luc Forsyth)
A fisherman casts his net into a pond in the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route. (Gareth Bright)