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Mekong and Mississippi deltas: defoliation vs. ‘refoliation’


Defoliating Mekong delta mangroves & refoliating Mississippi delta marshes

Left: A UH-1D helicopter from the 336th Aviation Company sprays a defoliation agent on a dense jungle area in the Mekong Delta. 26 July 1969/National Archives photograph. Right: State workers recently replanting lost vegetation on Cheniere au Tigres in the Mississippi Delta. Photo by CC Lockwood.


by Len Bahr, PhD*

In July 2005 I had a memorable opportunity to attend an international river conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. My trip was funded by the US Agency for International Development (AID), which also supported travel for a Minnesotan named Tim Sullivan, then head of the Mississippi River Basin Alliance (MRBA).

I recalled this trip while writing the previous post, in which I cited the infamous Vietnam war as an example of the importance of media exposure of ‘Bureaucrats Gone Wild.’ The theme of that post was that massive government-led projects, including military intervention far from our borders and the protection and restoration of south Louisiana, clearly need independent oversight by a well-informed media, a media that is currently in crisis.

While in SE Asia I learned that the Mekong has fortunately not been cut off from its delta, so the lower river landscape is not sinking as rapidly as south Louisiana. For better or worse, there is no analogue for the Corps of Engineers to either manage or mismanage the Mekong.

Phnom Penh vs. New Orleans

While drinking Thai beer on the balcony of a bar overlooking the muddy Mekong in downtown Phnom Penh, I imagined drinking Abita beer on the riverfront in New Orleans. My Cambodian watering hole, once popular with foreign war correspondents during the Vietnam war, was about the same distance from the sea as the old Jax Brewery is from the gulf.

From my vantage point three obvious differences between Phnom Penh and New Orleans were apparent. One was the virtual absence of flood levees along the river. Both urban and rural structures in the lower Mekong are elevated to offset the effects of annual high river stages.

A second difference was the absence of an obvious strong river current, which may have had to do with the dry season and a low river stage. The third difference was the absence of commercial navigation. I saw many small fishing boats but no oceangoing vessels or barge tows.

Defoliating the Mekong delta

Between 1964** and 1974 the US government invested $584 billion and about 58,000 American lives in Vietnam, including the Mekong River delta.

A major tactical component of that ultimately futile effort was a Pentagon-inspired plan to defoliate the mangrove wetlands on which the ecological productivity of the Mekong estuary depends.

Defoliation was aimed at denying the cover of jungle vegetation to the resilient and resourceful Viet Cong guerilla fighters, in what was then South Viet Nam. These wily insurgents from upstream of the delta showed delta survival skills reminiscent of the French Acadian veterans of the diaspora to south Louisiana from Nova Scotia in the 1700s.

Mangrove defoliation measures included herbicides, napalm and good old-fashioned carpet bombing. I once had a conversation about the Mekong and the Mississippi with the late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who had been Chief of Naval Operations during the latter stages of the Viet Nam war.

The admiral was instrumental in what turned out to be a tragically fateful decision to approve the military use of the new and highly toxic herbicide Agent Orange for delta defoliation. His son Elmo Zumwalt III, who commanded a patrol boat in the Mekong River during the war, died in 1988 from cancer thought to have been caused by exposure to this herbicide.

The Vietnam war and its collateral delta damage ended only after Daniel Ellsberg and The New York Times shared government files revealing years of misguided and irrational government decisions.

“M” River sisters, the Mekong and the Mississippi

Graphic from NPR's All Things Considered 2/19/10

Graphic from NPR's All Things Considered 2/19/10

While writing this post, by pure coincidence National Public Radio (NPR) carried a comprehensive five part essay by Michael Sullivan, who traveled along the 3,000 mile long Mekong River, from its source in China to its delta in Vietnam. The series ran during the week of February 15-19.

The series includes accounts of upstream sewage pollution and dam building; political corruption, such as dredging sand to fill in “publicly owned” water bottom for private development; and overfishing what is a zero-sum resource in an unregulated “commons” context. Sound familiar?

The fifth and final part of the series includes a comparison of the Mekong and the Mississippi Rivers. The similarity of issues between the M rivers is striking and definitely worth a listen. The first four segments can be accessed here as well.

Refoliating the Mississippi River delta

We are now contemplating spending upwards of $15 billion(?) to ‘refoliate’ the Mississippi River delta. Ironically, much of this effort is the antidote for another Pentagon-based plan that inadvertently defoliated the Mississippi delta over 200 years by (mis)managing the Big Muddy solely for navigation and flood control. I use the figure $15 billion because prior to Katrina that was the estimated cost of coastal restoration before coastal protection added $85 billion to the price tag.

I intend to continue to call attention to the fundamental role of the media in assuring that our quest to restore the Mississippi is guided more by science than by politics.

*Founding Editor (

**Some accounts put the initial American slide into the Vietnam tar pit at 1933.

Addendum: In an extraordinary coincidence of timing, just before publishing this post I received this very relevant link to an article about a Thai delta resident who developed an ingenious approach to offsetting coastal land loss caused by upstream sediment starvation. I got the link from Don Boesch in Maryland, who relayed it from another former colleague, Bob Ulanowicz from the University of Florida.

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