Mekong River Dams Disrupting Lives of Southeast Asian Fishermen, Farmers

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Chiang Rai, Thailand
200219-TH-mekong-1000.JPG Villagers take advantage of lower water levels in the Mekong River to search for gold nuggets in northern Thailand’s Chiang Khong district, Feb. 14, 2020.
Nontarat Phaicharoen/BenarNews

Tiem Ngern-tok pointed at the water level, shook his head and talked about dragon boat races to explain how dams in China and Laos have disrupted the lives of Thai people whose villages abut the Mekong River.

“During annual boat races the water was high,” said Tiem, a government hydrologist at a water-measuring station in Ban Sob Kok, a village in Thailand’s northernmost Chiang Rai province.

A colleague interrupted him: “Three meters high.”

With water levels usually reaching about 10 feet in April, Tiem said this year’s numbers were “exceptionally low.”

“In previous years, the levels were a bit over 1-meter high, but that was during the driest time in April, not this soon,” he told BenarNews. “In March and April, it will get worse.”

The Mekong is the world’s 12th-longest river, stretching 4,350 km (2,703 miles) through six nations before draining into the South China Sea.

More than 60 million people depend on the Mekong and its tributaries for food, transport and water. Experts say it hosts 474 species of fish – the world’s most biodiverse after Brazil’s Amazon River.

Thai farmers said their troubles on the river began when the turbines of the Xayaburi Dam started churning upstream from Nong Khai in Laos seven months ago, further disrupting the river flow that was already drying out even at the end of the rainy season.

“Lately there is no water. … It’s very dry,” Mr. Chai, a fisherman in Chiang Saen who declined to provide his first name, told BenarNews. “There are impacts from the dams. We can see the sandy river bed.”

Last month, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental agency that works with regional governments to manage the river’s resources, warned that water outflows could potentially drop as Beijing said it was testing equipment at one of its 11 dams on the upper Mekong.

Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries in its quest to become “the battery of Southeast Asia,” exporting the electricity they generate to other countries in the region. Vientiane is preparing to build scores more dams in the years ahead while aiming to sell 95 percent of the Xayaburi Dam’s generated power to Thailand.

NGO: Villagers report ‘unprecedented bluish water’

But environmentalists say that dams threaten fish populations, alter the Mekong’s natural hydrology and cause major soil erosion.

Last week, members of the Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces submitted additional evidence to the Thai Supreme Administrative court, describing damage to fisheries and dramatic changes to the Mekong’s ecosystem, while also challenging the legitimacy of a power-purchase agreement between Laos and Thailand.

“During this period, downstream of the dam, stretches of the Mekong in seven Thai provinces experienced sharp and unusual water fluctuations, and ‘clear blue water’ – a phenomenon that signals an absence of the nutrients and sediment that are critical to aquatic lives and fisheries,” the International Rivers NGO said in a press statement about the submission.

Thailand last year said it would develop its own solar energy section, while officials said they were also reconsidering the government’s decision to purchase large amounts of hydropower from Laos.

Niwat Roykaew, co-founder of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group, based in Chiang Rai, and the Thai People’s Mekong Network in Eight Provinces said the “unprecedented bluish water” underscored the fluctuations in water levels.

“These indicate troubles along all stretches of the river; impacts on fish migration, river bank erosion, impacts on flora in the Mekong,” Niwat told BenarNews.

“The fluctuation endangers some trees, especially the water croton which is important to the Mekong,” he said, referring to a shrub that helps prevent soil erosion during spawning season.

Xayaburi’s impact, according to the dam’s critics, has been observed in parts of Thailand’s Loei province, as well as in Nong Khai, Bueng Kan, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan, Amnat Charoen and Ubon Ratchathani provinces.

Niwat said Bangkok hadn’t done enough to push for solutions.

“The Thai government should leverage discussions about dams’ water control management, how to, how much to, in accordance with seasons to keep the ecology functions, not to be severely affected like in the present,” he said. “But the government isn’t enthusiastic to do so.”

Early this month, Bangkok responded to the environmental protests by rejecting Beijing’s plan to open up a stretch of the Mekong River in northern Thailand by blasting about 60 miles of rocks and dredging the riverbed.

China’s plan was aimed at creating a river link that would open up trade from its Yunnan province using massive cargo ships that would go through the five other Mekong countries – Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

But according to International Rivers, Beijing has already built seven megadams and 20 more are under construction or being planned in Yunnan, Tibet and in China’s landlocked northwestern province of Qinghai.

“The scheme will drastically change the river’s natural flood-drought cycle and block the transport of sediment, affecting ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions living downstream in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam,” the NGO said in a statement posted on its website.

“Impacts to water levels and fisheries have already been recorded along the Thai-Lao border,” it said.

A study released by the Mekong River Commission in August 2018 showed that fish stocks in the river could fall by up to 40 percent, with a 97-percent reduction in the amount of sediment going downstream as a result of the dam projects.

Last month, Thai water-resources chief Somkiat Prajamwong told BenarNews that he had documented complaints from villagers who had suffered economic hardship as a result of the river’s erratic flow, which had lowered soil fertility and hampered yield in agriculture.

Somkiat said he would raise the country’s concerns with the river commission.

“We compiled from and studied those concerns of the people along the Mekong River,” he said.

Also in January, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Ministry responded to concerns raised about the drought and “greatly reduced” water levels on the Mekong and reservoirs in the region, saying this was caused by intermittent rainfall and climate change. The prime minister had instructed Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai to visit China on Jan. 23 “to discuss ways and means to alleviate the drought situation and mitigate its impact,” the ministry said.

That day Pramudwinai met with Wang Yi, China’s state councilor and foreign minister, the ministry said in a statement.

“Both sides agreed that the severity of the drought situation caused by global warming has been affecting every riparian country, including China. The Thai Foreign Minister sought cooperation from the Chinese Government in alleviating this problem and mitigating the impact faced by the people in the downstream countries,” the ministry said.

Pra Apichart Ratigo, the abbot at the Sob Kok Temple in Chiang Saen district, said the water level in the Mekong at various times during the past five years had abruptly risen or receded “like someone turned a faucet on and off.”

“So I’ve noticed that the abrupt tidal changes were due to water-release control,” he told BenarNews, as he called on Thai authorities to provide villagers with advance notice to water-level changes, “so that people can prepare.”

“Sometimes we would hear the news that China had released more water, but the news came late and the water came already,” he said.

Somdej Thanatulyakul, a fisherman in Ban Sob Kok village in Chiang Saen, a district of Chiang Rai, said the fluctuating water-level led to unpredictable fishing harvest.

“We caught more fish five years ago, even during dry season,” he told BenarNews. “The water tides are unpredictable. They change so fast, fluctuating in rapid manner. Dams have such impacts.”


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