Stanislaus Jude Chan interviews STEVE VAN BEEK, explorer and author of several books on Asian culture who describes himself as being fascinated by rivers.
A stint as a volunteer in the Peace Corps brought Steve Van Beek out of the United States to Asia in 1966, where he served in a small village in southern Nepal. Then he “forgot to leave,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. The sprightly 65-year-old strides between sessions at the Mekong Media Forum with a barely noticeable limp, which one later learns is from a gash on his leg – the result of a minor accident just two weeks ago when he slipped while climbing a waterfall.
Beek is an adventurer, and, being passionate about life, it will take more than a few stitches to stop him from kayaking down the next river he sees.
Since moving to Asia, he has authored 23 books and 42 documentaries on Asian cultural, with particular interest in the beliefs attached to rivers and how they relate to the way these bodies of water are used or abused.
“One of the questions we are asked at this [Mekong Media] forum is how the Mekong region is perceived by the outside world, and the question I would ask is, I don’t think we are,” Beek, who is now based in Thailand, said during the Talk Show session, ‘Our Mekong: Inside and Outside’, held on the opening day of the Forum on Dec. 9.
The event brings together media professionals, comprising mainly of journalists, and a mix of other participants from different parts of the Mekong region and Asia on various media and development issues.
A Fellow of the Explorers’ Club – a multidisciplinary, professional organisation dedicated to field exploration – Beek has paddled the length of the major rivers in Thailand and is currently writing a book on the upper Mekong entitled ‘The Mekong Nobody Knows’.
He speaks to TerraViva about his desire to “infect other people with my love of, and appreciation of, and realisation of the vital importance of water”.
TerraViva: How did you begin your love affair with rivers?
Steve Van Beek: I was fortunate enough to have a house on the Chao Phraya [Thailand], on stilts, opposite the Grand Palace, for 11 years. That house was then torn down later, and it became the Supatra River House restaurant. And that used to be my view every morning.
Every day, I saw something new on the river. I wondered where all the water came from. It seemed to be telling a story, telling its history, of what it had seen in the past. So I asked questions, I looked for books, and I couldn’t find any. I realised, people told me later, that nobody had ever gone down the river.
In late 1997, I went to the headwaters, Dong Nam, up on the Burmese border, and I walked for three days. When the water was deep enough, I said, “Ok, I need a boat”. The only experience I had was with a rowboat, but I had the boat built, took it back up, started paddling, and 58 days later, ended up in the ocean.
I love the fact that in many cases, because nobody would go by boat, you could see people as they were, because once they saw you, it changed. So that appealed to me. I love talking to the old people who understood what I was doing. The young guys would stand by the riverbank sometimes and say, “Why don’t you put an engine on it, stupid ‘farang’ [colloquial Thai term for ‘foreigner’]. You could put an engine on it and be in Bangkok in a day or two.”
But old people grew up with the river and understood that the important days had gone by. For them, they understood and we could talk. I would say that the first trip that I took, I probably learned more about Thailand than I did in the previous 20 years, because books didn’t tell me the same thing.
TerraViva: What is it about rivers that has kept you fascinated all these years?
SVB: I was interested in understanding how the river thinks, what happens when you do things to it: take sand out of it, for example, or build dams across it. I’m still trying to answer a question: What is a river? Many cultures have ideas about water, but not many of them think about rivers, and I find that interesting because there are so many rivers . . . . Most people look upon the river as an obstacle. I was interested in the belief systems. In other words, do the people who live along the side of it see the river as a beneficent force, or as malevolent? And how does that affect the way that they use it, or abuse it?
TerraViva: How have rivers dealt with this abuse?
SVB: When people go in and they say, ‘My real estate is disappearing, I’m going to build a wall’, the river is not going to let the wall stand if it’s not strong enough. You’ve done something to the river by channelling it; it’s no longer flowing as it should. Rivers seek their own levels; they understand harmony and balance. If you start taking sand out of the river for construction purposes, the river is going to try to fill in that hole. Where is that sand going to come from? It’s going to come from collapsing farms and riverbanks upstream. There’s no other place for it to come from.
Left to itself, the river will regulate itself. It’s only humans who get in there and say, “Oh, we’ve got to control it.” Well, I’ve seen very seldom that we’ve actually been able to control it, so maybe we should listen to the river. We’ve built dams for flood control purposes — and we still have floods. Eventually the river will assert what it wants to do.
I think the problem is people look upon rivers as an exploitable resource, not as something with its own integrity and should be preserved for itself. I’m not anti-development, but how much electricity do we really need, and for what purpose?
TerraViva: There was heated discussion in the Talk Show session, ‘Our Mekong: Inside and Outside’, during the Forum over China’s dam projects on the Mekong River. What are your views on this?
SVB: I don’t want to go into the politics of it. Zhu Yan (senior editor from China Central Television, one of the discussants) was surprised by how angry people were. I mean, you heard it, people were angry. This tells you something about the reporting about the river in China. They are not hearing – forget about listening, they are not hearing – what their neighbours are thinking about it. At the end of the discussion, I said to him: “I’m sorry you became the target here, and it’s not your fault. But there’s your story! Why are your neighbours so upset and nobody in China knows about it?”
I feel that we have to address these questions because I feel it is water, not energy, that is the issue of the 21st Century. One billion people in the world do not have access to drinkable water. Yes, it is important to come up with alternative energy – solar power, wind power, and so on – and a lot of work is being done, but we’re not pouring nearly the amount of money into water as we are into alternative energy research. (END/TERRAVIVA/IPS/AP/HD/DV/AE/JC/TBB/09)