Mekong runs dry as politics, business fail local communities


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“The most disastrous situation in history,” was one expert’s stark verdict when shown images of the dry Mekong River bed and dead aquatic animals. Dr Chainarong Setthachua, a lecturer and ecology expert at Maha Sarakham University, was at a loss when asked to describe the ongoing Mekong crisis.

However, little is being done by governments despite recent photos of the dried-bed of a river that passes through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Chainarong puts this inaction down to the adverse impact of development in the Mekong Basin.

“The Mekong River is part of our history, when we struggled against Communism and joined a capitalist, neo-liberal world. We used the river as a political tool and an asset for economic development. Yet, we did not supervise its development, which has resulted in a real disaster. I don’t see any solutions because every government is only focusing on building dams, but not on the scars these development plans are leaving behind,” said Chainarong, who has been monitoring Mekong River development plans for more than two decades.

The politics of the Mekong River

Mekong River development, especially on the 5,000-kilometre main waterway rising in the Chinese Himalayas and flowing through six countries to its mouth in Vietnam, can only be understood through the lens of political ecology. This lens – the study of political, economic and social factors as they relate to the environment – is the one Chainarong uses to study the river and its changing ecology.

Political ecology reveals that Mekong development began in earnest with the advent of American regional dominance after French colonial rule faded. During civil wars in Cambodia, Vietnam and surrounding countries, the river was a front line in the Cold War battle between capitalist and communist forces.

The United States used political development as a key weapon against communism, no more so than in the huge hydroelectric dams it planned along the Mekong River. Among them was Pa Mong Dam, envisaged as one of the seven wonders of the modern world – larger even than America’s own Hoover Dam.

However, Mekong dam plans were shelved when the US lost its war in Vietnam.

Tensions gradually eased between Thailand and its Cold War enemies of communist-ruled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, bringing phase two of Mekong development. Led by Chatichai Choonhavan, Thailand began turning Indochina “from a battlefield into a marketplace” in 1987.

Mekong countries forged economic cooperation across what would become known as the Greater Mekong Sub-region, receiving support from the Asia Development Bank. The inter-governmental Mekong River Commission was founded by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam under the Mekong agreement in 1995 to jointly manage the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the river.

Missing from the commission is China, which refers to its portion of the upper Mekong as Lancang.

To step up its plans for 10 dams, China launched the Lancang-Mekong economic development belt in cooperation with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

China built the first Mekong dam in 1994, without consulting the Thai river communities downstream. A decade later, impacts from the dam finally kicked in, said Chainarong, who founded the Southeast Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN) to track the effects of Mekong water resource management.

Thai communities impacted by dam operations were finally given a voice in development plans, which were being driven by international investment, especially from Thailand. However, as Thai protests grew, investors turned to neighbouring countries including Laos, which declared plans to become the “battery of Asia”.

Embodying those plans and tensions is the Xayaburi Dam, the first of 11 barriers planned on the lower Mekong and set to begin operating in October.

Chainarong says the Xayaburi dam is an ominous sign of future unregulated Mekong development.

“We criticised China’s water resource plans for 10 years, but the Xayaburi Dam was finally built on the lower part of the lower Mekong River. After Xayaburi’s success, Pak Beng [Dam] and Luang Prabang [riverbed blasting] will continue the job. I have asked [authorities] for oversight of social and environmental impacts to control future damage, but there’s been no reaction so far. How can we fight against them?” he asked.

Mekong border impact

According to the independent International Rivers organisation, China has completed 11 dams on the upper Mekong. The biggest are the Xiaowan and Nuozhadu dams, whose 250-300-metre-tall barriers hold back reservoirs of 40-billion cubic metres capacity. Of the 11 dams planned for the lower Mekong, at least three have entered production. Xayaburi Dam is being tested, Don Sahong is under construction, and Pak Beng is at the pre-construction stage.

But completed dams are already having a dramatic impact. This month, Thais living downstream from the Jinghong Dam woke to find the river level had dropped sharply. No one had warned residents of Chiang Khan district on the Laos border that the dam was undergoing maintenance, dramatically reducing their access to water.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) and Chinese authorities warned in early July of reduced outflow from the Jinghong dam from July 5-19, but the news was not widely spread.

On July 18, the MRC stated that the lower Mekong may experience the lowest water levels ever recorded, “possibly” due to less water outflow from upper dams and less rainfall than usual. However, the MRC didn’t mention the Xayaburi Dam test, which cut the amount of water flowing.

The National Water Resources of Thailand (NWR) asked Laos to postpone the test on the same day as Laos assured people living downstream that the water level would rise again in a few days.

According to NWR analysis, this was the first time that the public was informed of fluctuation in the Mekong water level. The analysts said decreased rainfall in China, Laos and Thailand, as well as lower outflow from Jinghong Dam due to electricity cable maintenance, had caused Mekong levels to drop from 2.68 metres to 2.10 metres on July 18. During the Xayaburi Dam test, water levels fell to the lowest point ever recorded before rising 40cm to 50cm on the last day of the test.

Pianporn Deetes, Thailand and Myanmar campaigns director at International Rivers, said the public was already being hit with problems and that authorities involved in dam construction could no longer deny their responsibility.

Pianporn and the Network of Thai People in 8 Mekong Provinces had collected concerns of lower Mekong communities in the report, “Summary of the Mekong River Situation for Mekong descendants”, published early last month. Those concerns cover changes in water flow and the rise of water levels, especially from the Xayaburi Dam, located 200 kilometres upstream from Chiang Khan district, as well as the long-term impact of daily water level changes of between 1 and 3 metres during the dry season.

They are also concerned that the local ecology will change drastically due to the fluctuating outflow from the Xayaburi Dam. This is submerging rapids and sandbanks, which are important spawning grounds for migratory birds and fish, while also eroding beaches important for tourism in the dry season, especially in Loei, Nong Khai, Bueng Kan, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan and Amnat Charoen provinces. The Thai government has not made plans to deal with this changing ecology, say locals.

Dam construction on the main Mekong waterway, especially Don Sahong Dam on the Hou Sahong channel, will seriously damage migratory fish stocks, marine animals’ food sources, and fish propagation in the river.

The study shows that more than 100 species of fish immigrate through the Hou Sahong channel, some travelling thousands of kilometres to the Mekong’s mouth in Vietnam.

The people in the lower Mekong predict the unstable water level will decimate migratory fish stocks and impact food security in an area where local communities depend on river fish. Studies report that Mekong communities depend on river fish for up to 80 per cent of their daily protein consumption. A study from the Australian National University states that Mekong Basin dwellers are struggling to find new protein resources as a substitute for the fish. It would take both massive water and land resources, especially in Cambodia, to create new protein substitutes.

Farther downstream, communities in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta decline are suffering coastal erosion and salination of their once-fertile land. Dams are threatening the country’s “breadbasket” as locals experience food shortages and are unable to access freshwater for daily needs.

Despite the expanding concerns, the government has not launched serious measures to study, monitor, or prepare remedial plans for people suffering the impact of dams.

Apart from the direct impact of dams on Mekong communities, longer-term issues are being studied by regional organisations like the MRC, with its 2011 Strategic Environmental Assessment and the “Council Study of the Mekong River”, which investigated hydropower, sustainable development and management of the river.

However, both studies only suggest future solutions, rather than offering actual principles to follow.

Mekong runs dry as politics, business fail local communities

The exit

After the “Council Study”, the Laos government sent a request to build the Paklay Dam which has entered the six-month Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) process. The discussion process was due to end last April but did not include neighbouring countries since the environmental impact assessment failed to reach international standards.

Premrudee Daoruang, founder of Laos Dam Investment Monitor (LDIM), which has scrutinised large-scale dam construction investment in the Mekong delta for 20 years, said that Mekong watchdogs have to create a new working method, especially by offering themselves as coordinators between countries to discuss and negotiate about development.

Premrudee said the MRC had already made great efforts in information gathering, which could help support decision-making on the Mekong’s future. The MRC should not act as a tool of government or corporations but instead be a voice for local people to stand up against bad government decisions, she added.

“The most dangerous situation is when a government opens its country and provides full support for capitalism, while ignoring the voice of its people,” she said

Niwat Roykaew, chairman of Rak Chiang Khong conservation group, said that the old [top-down] way of working would not solve any problems, adding that he believed in the power of local people more than the government.

Mekong River communities have to work together and coordinate with organisations on information to empower themselves for future negotiations. Accurate information and understanding of people’s conditions will lead to a peaceful solution for both sides, he said.

“It’s too late to say no to dam building. We have to find a way to live together, find a middle way between the engineering perspective and the human interest,” Niwat said.