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The Making and Unmaking of a River Delta: Historical Patterns of Human -Nature Interactions in the Mekong Delta

IWRA World Water Congress 2008 Montpellier France
1. Water availability, use and management
Author(s): David Biggs
Fiona Miller
Hoanh Chu Thai
Sokhem Pech


AbstractLike most of the world’s major river deltas, the Mekong Delta is both impressive for the power of the rivers and tides coursing through its waterways and the power of human societies that have in the past few centuries built a dense infrastructure of canals and levees supporting several million hectares of fields. Recent natural catastrophes in river deltas such as the flooding of New Orleans and the abandonment of islands in the Bengal Delta have drawn new attention to the combined natural and social causes of these events. Recognizing that many such catastrophes, big and small, are the result of short-sighted water management policies and other social conflicts, this paper, a joint effort by a policy specialist, a social scientist and an historian, seeks to understand why certain land/water-use policies became precedent over others and how those historical patterns of water-use have had an enduring effect in local society and in the physical environment. In tracing the brief history of the transition from strategies of adaptation to strategies for regional, machine-assisted control of this complex water environment, the paper examines four aspects or themes of this larger historical phenomenon: ethnicity, technology, sovereignty/jurisdiction, and conflict. Similar to the racial and class lines defining the flood-afflicted neighborhoods of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, ethnicity and social class in the Mekong Delta have played a significant role in water management decisions and the organization of people and land over several hundred years. Technology, especially since the turn of the last century, has also played a very important role in reclamation efforts and a culture of scientific positivism that often still animates state plans for regional water management schemes. While the question of who owns the land has often been a major reason for political conflicts, few studies have examined the power that legal and property documents accumulating since the 1800’s play in shaping contemporary debates over land and water management issues. Finally, the Mekong Delta is perhaps unique only in the intensity of violent conflict that disrupted regular maintenance of infrastructure and more measured responses to environmental challenges. This paper considers how repeat periods of warfare have also shaped the patterns of human-nature interactions in the Mekong Delta.
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