or decades, dam construction in the Mekong River has adversely affected the people living and working on the water. Northern Thailand, which is separated from neighboring Laos by the transboundary river, has been witness to some of the problems affecting the Mekong River and surrounding communities.
Problems with the Mekong River in northern Thailand are not new. They began 30 years ago, in 1993, when the Man Wan Dam in Yunnan, China was completed. This first Mekong dam was followed by others. At present, on the upper reach of the river alone, 11 dams have been built. Their subsequent impacts have been felt throughout the Mekong region, devastating ecological landscapes and disrupting the lives of people across six countries making up the vast region, where the river flows: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
However, the dams gradually wore down the ecosystems within and around one of the world’s longest rivers, according to the Mekong Community Institute, an environmental organization in Chiang Mai. For example, “riverbank gardening areas have disappeared due to erosion from unseasonal water-level fluctuations, referred to by locals as a “Destabilized Mekong,” said the institute.
Known for its rich biodiversity, the Mekong delta is the source of livelihood of an estimated 80 percent of the people living in the Lower Mekong River Basin.
Living things and ecosystems in communities in northern Thailand, which is separated from neighboring Laos by the Mekong River, have also been affected, with birds losing their nesting places along the river banks and disappearing food plants. The seasonal migration of fish has also been disrupted, making it difficult to catch any fish, let alone large ones.
In its March 2023 report titled, “The Changing Mekong River: Research by Mekong Villagers in Chiang Rai Province,” the institute noted that the river and its tributaries flowed through many places in many countries, creating rich ecological landscapes that were unique to each area. For generations, people have relied upon a shared knowledge of this diverse ecosystem for their survival. A source of income and food, it has shaped local cultures. Disturbingly, though, this body of local wisdom — and the environmental niches in which it arose — has begun to disappear, says the report.
Dams on the upper Mekong River also have sweeping consequences for downstream communities that once depended upon the riverine environment. The “‘little people”’ — or poor and powerless communities — have been particularly affected; powerless to negotiate, they have often been ignored by state authorities.
In an effort to change their dire fate and draw attention to their plight, they have had to create their own networks and work with non-governmental organizations. Some have undertaken local research in a bid to explore solutions to their problems in the basin.
A crisis without a solution?
“Over the past 20 years, many dams have been built. It’s a crisis without a solution,” said Niwat Roykaew, president of the nonprofit Rak Chiang Khong Conservation Group and winner of the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize. “On the upper Mekong two dams were built. Then, on the lower Mekong, Xayaburi dam and Don Sahong dam were built.”
The Xayaburi dam in northwest Laos was completed in 2019 and built by Thai construction giant CH. Karnchang Public Company Limited; and the Don Sahong dam, which started operating in January 2020, by a Malaysian company, Mega First Corporation Berhad.
In the pipeline are China-backed dams in Pak Beng and Pak Lay in Laos, which are 60 to 80 kilometers away from the Thai border.
“Now, the Pak Beng and Pak Lay dams will be built; the [Thai] government is in the process of signing power purchase agreements [covering] these dams. News of these projects just cropped up,” Niwat said.
In a talk given in September last year, Niwat noted that the current Mekong River crisis must be addressed by liberating the river from “the discourse of ‘nation-state boundaries.”
Dam building is treated as the sovereign right of states, which are free to act without regard for the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the impacts on people living downstream. As the Mekong is an international waterway shared by six countries, a single country should not be allowed to act alone.
“Currently, 11 dams have been built on the upper Mekong, where the river originates,” Niwat said. “Eleven more dams including Xayaburi and Don Sahong are being planned for the lower Mekong.
“Justified in terms of national sovereignty, without a holistic view of the Mekong region, these projects contribute to unsustainable development. The river ecosystem is being cut into pieces; this is a crucial point. When we talk about fish, there are no Lao fish or Thai fish – only Mekong fish, swimming unbounded without national affiliation. Borders and nation-state labels provide the structure for dam projects,” he added.
Recent reports reveal that the Chinese government has plans to build a total of 20 dams on the upper Mekong. The twelfth, the 1,400MW-.Tuoba dam, is currently under construction in Yunnan, China. This is cause for worry especially since the upper Mekong sits adjacent to an active geological fault line. Building a huge reservoir in earthquake-prone Yunnan province could result in a disaster affecting hundreds of thousand people.
The growing number of dams on the upper Mekong River has resulted in unseasonal water fluctuation. During the flood season, the volume of water decreases but rises during the dry season due to dam construction and operations. On average, during the dry season, 45 percent of water in the Mekong basin is retained in China. Around 90 to 95 percent of the water reaching Chiang Saen, a district in Chiang Rai, in the dry season comes from the Jinghong Dam in Xishuangbanna Prefecture, 340 kilometers upstream, in the southwestern Yunnan province of China.
Fighting river destabilization
People living in upland communities adjacent to the Mekong basin – particularly those in areas targeted by Thai state authorities for natural resources management – have also been affected by river “destabilization.”
According to Kraisit Sithichodok, otherwise known as Atu Pochae, director of the Association for Akha Education and Culture in Chiang Rai, some 30 Indigenous ethnic groups who live in the region, including Akha, the biggest of these groups, are also suffering the economic and cultural consequences of large-scale development projects within and outside Thailand.
Local cultural practices were already being disrupted by state resource management efforts that denied people access to resources and compelled them to comply with legal frameworks such as Thailand’s Forest Act of 1941, Kraisit added.
Such regulations, he argued, have created a knowledge gap between Indigenous groups living in forests and Thai authorities who do not recognize the former’s rights, leading to human rights violations.
Kraisit argued that “modern borders have to do with resource management. If modern borders such as those straddling the Mekong River are erased, community relationships can be seen in terms of language and culture. The Akha people are dispersed throughout the Mekong River Basin from China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand. Wherever they are, they are Akha people.”
He believed one of the best tools to counter the national security discourse in border areas was to tell the stories of local people, providing a counternarrative to dispel the dominant thinking that puts Indigenous peoples at a gross disadvantage. Articulating the relationship of “a people and the river” where livelihoods and natural resources are both protected is the way to go.◉
A longer version of this article was originally published by Prachatai. Reprinted with permission.