Alan Potkin

Mekong Memory Hole

Recorded: January 27, 2014

Alan Potkin, Ph.D., shares a story about his work in Southeast Asia, including his experience in Thailand with the Pak Mun Dam. Alan is Team Leader for the Digital Conservation Facility at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University. He describes the benefits of archiving important cultural resources in the event of new water projects.

Alan Potkin, an independent scholar affiliated since 2003 with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois U., holds a doctorate in environmental planning from U.C. Berkeley (1989), where his dissertation was on the management of tropical rivers and estuaries. His experience as a foot soldier at the height (1968- 69) of the Second Indochina War motivated a career rectifying some parts of the damage; and in 1991-92, he was the first American ecologist allowed access to Viet Nam for long-term research: specifically on the rehabilitation of the chemically- defoliated mangrove estuaries southeast of Saigon.

From 1995-2002, he was based in Vientiane, Lao P.D.R., where he co-founded, with the French art historian Catherine Raymond, the Digital Conservation Facility, Laos (DCFL) adopting emergent technologies for visualizing natural and built environments; and authoring interactive software documenting the impacts of urbanization and modernization towards prioritizing environmental and cultural conservation.

Applying that toolbox throughout mainland Southeast Asia, they have extensively archived exemplary landscapes and waterways; vernacular architecture; art objects and religious iconography; and historical and archaeological sites and artifacts. DFDL’s ongoing initiatives encompass routinizing institutional memory and post- facto evaluation in donor development schemes; curating, restoring and replicating Buddhist temple murals; critiquing reclamation and repurposing of undervalued wetlands; elaborating the prototype Interactive Taxonomic Atlas of Mekong Fishes; producing multi-lingual and multimedia interpretive materials and oral histories for virtualizing threatened museums; and preserving aesthetics in waterfalls hydropower.

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Alan Potkin:    Due to a bizarre series of stories, I ended up in the infantry in Vietnam between my junior and senior years at hippie-dippy Bard College. I mean, that was quite a story.  I really liked being in Southeast Asia.  I mean, the violence was terrible but everything else was great as far as I was concerned; so I kind of became a Southeast Asianist.  And like I say, my agenda is, I’m going to go back and work on making everything right.  But by the time that I got to go back, what was wrong was not the damage from the war, it was the usual Third World, totally wiping out the forests and over exploiting all the resources, and you know, Third World micmac desperation, corruption and so on and so forth.

Alan Potkin:    The most catastrophic hydroelectric project in the history of humanity was the Pak Mun project, which the World Bank was in up to its eyeballs.  Sixty friggen megawatts shutting off the fantastic migratory fishery to a sub-basin of the Mekong, occupying most of Northeastern Thailand, 131,000 square kilometers.  So this dam went ahead without anybody, including The World Bank, even thinking, you know, maybe fisheries are an issue here that we have to deal with.  Okay, so the World Bank said you know, we’ve got to do a fish ladder.  Roughly between 2 and 4 million metric tons, million metric tons of fish are harvested throughout the Mekong Basin; 60 million people eat the fish coming out the Mekong.  The cross sectional area of this fish passage couldn’t handle but a tiny, tiny fraction even if the thing worked.  But of course it didn’t work, because nobody knew anything about the ecology of fishes and whether there were even any fishes that were capable of jumping up this thing.  And of course the fish ladder didn’t work and of course, the fishery totally collapsed in this hole and there was like basically an uprising by the locals, which has been manifested further and further and further in Thailand with the Red Shirt uprisings, which were quite ugly and which you may well see again.

Alan Potkin:    Somehow or other a local NGO, the Assembly of the Poor, came up with a couple of hundred thousand dollars to build a museum of the lost way of life.  So the last two giant Mekong catfish skeletons are up there hanging from, you know, a gallows and then there’s bottles of fish. Its actually quite a touching museum. They haven’t had any maintenance budget and they don’t have any online presence but it’s an extremely interesting museum.  So in fact, I was back there for most of last week [January 2014] essentially archiving digitally every single object in that museum.  The project is essentially to take all of the stuff, and one piece of it will be to improve the interpretive materials at the physical museum and to try to get that museum out there in the world; so that maybe somebody will kick a couple of bucks in to fix the roof before, literally — before it collapses, but also to kind of create a virtual museum online.

Alan Potkin:   So the issue that I’ve been pushing to not great effect is that every big hydrological or water resources management project or energy project that’s going to vastly transform the ecological and social landscape should have a museum affiliated with it, associated with it, to show what it was like before.  And so the people who were being displaced could at least tell their grandchildren, Okay, this is what our life was all about and we were not so contemptible or backwards or savage.  If that museum could be a brick and mortar museum, so much the better, but if it couldn’t, at least to have it be a digital museum, a virtual museum, and that this would have to be a component of any large scale water management project.  So I put together this project, which I’m in the throes of but it’s already online, and kind of an earlier version of it called Mekong Orwell, and the Orwell is a reference to Orwell’s memory hole, okay.  And the amazing thing is, as mainstream dams on the Mekong are now under construction or under finalization that will have fantastically deleterious effects on fisheries.  The dam proponents are saying the same line, Oh yeah, we’re going to put the fish ladders in and here. They’re going to go up this way and they’re going to go down this…”  They don’t know what they’re talking about.  Nobody has enough ecological and behavioral and physiological and reproductive and feeding knowledge of any of these species to be able to come up with a manageable fish mitigation plan. It’s all bullshit, you know, from top to bottom.  But it’s bullshit that’s supported by the Lao government and the Thai government. There’s no opposition to any of this stuff that’s allowed to appear.  And the thing that amazes me is that nobody seems to remember the Pak Mun Dam as like a warning of what happens when you go off half-cocked and insert hydroelectric projects that aren’t very well thought through ecologically into blocking migratory, key migratory fisheries.  Corruption is what rules environmental assessment and international developments from my first hand experience. But, you know, I’m from Brooklyn and I have a very dim view about everything. So that’s it.

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