No government has ever admitted that the building of dams is the cause of “poverty” among the people of the Mekong River. The fish of the river and their economic value have been taken away in the name of development that comes with the construction of dams. Mekong people have seen their options for survival restricted and narrowed. The poverty of their lives is not something that has just appeared out of the blue. Their fate lies entirely in political decisions, despite the government’s attempts to make the issue apolitical.
Along its 4,909-km-long course flowing through six countries, the Mekong River has a total of 24 dam projects that have either been completed or are being built. No government has ever admitted that the building of dams is the cause of “poverty” among the local people. While dams have become the symbol of development decreed by government policy, they have brought loss to those who once depended on the river, and destroyed the resources, homes, livelihoods, ecosystems, and traditional ways of life of people from the source of the river to its mouth.
Map showing dams on the Mekong River
Today, the Mekong River is contested, negotiated over, and subject to construction by many groups of actors, leaving the river almost powerless and giving rise to poverty among the groups depending on its resources. Actors like governments and institutions with influence over the direction of development including the World Bank and investors, do not admit that dam construction is one key cause of the impoverishment of a large number of Mekong people.
Examples of people who have become impoverished after the construction of dams in the Mekong basin can be observed from the past to the present.
Past: Pak Mun Dam: When the Dam Gates Opened, Fish Disappeared and People Became Poor.
One of the water management policies that inflicted inescapable harm and poverty on people in the northeastern is the Pak Mun Dam project in the Mun River basin at Ban Hua Heo, Khong Chiam District, Ubon Ratchathani Province. Construction of the Pak Mun Dam by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) with an installed capacity of 136 megawatts was approved in 1990 under the Chatichai Choonhavan government. Construction started in 1991, operations began in 1994. Out of the total construction budget of 3,880 million baht, 1,940 million was borrowed from the World Bank by the Thai government.
The Pak Mun Dam was part of the government’s “Green Esan” Project aimed to create energy security and develop the rural areas in the northeast.
Before construction of the dam, the Mun River was one of the key fertile rivers of the northeast since it was the largest tributary to the Mekong. It was home to over 265 fish species. This ecosystem earned it the name “fish city” among villagers. Ban Hua Heo villagers depended on the resources from the river for food and as a source of income.
As soon as EGAT began the construction of the Pak Mun Dam, the “fish city” was destroyed by the blowing up of natural rock islets, which are used by fish to spawn and live. A report said that after Pak Mun Dam began operations in 1994, only 96 fish species remained above the dam. A number of fish species disappeared after the construction of the dam. The “fish ladders” built by EGAT did nothing really to facilitate fish migration from the Mekong to the Mun River. Over 7,000 fisher households lost their livelihood and so got together to demand that the dam gates be permanently opened.
The villagers affected by the dam collectively opposed the project since the beginning. In 1994, the villagers seized the machines used to drill into rock layers and the tools used to blow up the islets, and sat on the spots where dynamite had been planted under the rock islets. They organized a big demonstration in front of the provincial hall. In 1995, the affected villagers formed the “Pak Mun Dam Assembly of the Poor”. In 1998, Pak Mun villagers staged a 99-day rally together with the Assembly of the Poor in front of Government House in order to present their demands . One of the key demands was for all the eight dam gates to be opened to allow the ecological system and endangered fish species to recover. At the same time, the government and relevant agencies were also pressured to provide fair compensation to affected individuals.
The poverty resulting from the loss of resources and livelihood compelled the affected villagers to relocate elsewhere. Almost 30 years after its construction, the impacts of the Pak Mun Dam are felt today and some villagers are still fighting for accountability and compensation from EGAT.
Present: Xayaburi Dam, an Empty Net and Emerging Poverty
“My most recent catch was one fish”
On an early morning in late December 2022 with mist hovering over the Mekong, Sutta Insamran, a middle-aged fisher from Sangkhom District, Nong Khai Province, talked about the last Mekong fish he caught three months ago. The fish weighed about 10 kg. and was sold for 2,000 baht, a now rare income from fishery. Since the Xayaburi Dam began operations in 2019, the level of the Mekong has decreased significantly. The fish that Sutta used to catch daily since he was young have almost completely vanished.
Sutta, a fisherman from Sangkhom District, Nong Khai Province
The Xayaburi Dam is located in Sainyabuli (Xayaburi) Province in Lao PDR, about 200 km from the Thai-Lao border district of Chiang Khan in Loei Province. Construction began in 2012 with an installed capacity of 1,285 megawatts involving an investment of over 150 billion baht by CH Karnchang PCL, a Thai company and a shareholder in Xayaburi Power PCL. The project received loans from the Siam Commercial Bank, Krungthai Bank, Kasikornbank, Export–Import Bank of Thailand, Bangkok Bank, and Tisco Bank. The Xayaburi Dam officially started to sell electricity on 29 October 2019. More than 95% of the power generated was supplied to Thailand under a 31-year electricity purchase contract with EGAT.
The Xayaburi is the first dam ever built on the Lower Mekong River. Already during its test run in July 2019, the water level below the dam decreased by 3-4 meters within one week despite it being the rainy season. The change caused fish and small animals to die along the river banks. More importantly, villagers also observed that since the dam went into full operation, sediments, that are signs of fertility, have disappeared. The Mekong’s muddy water has now turned “clear”, a phenomenon referred to by academics as a ‘hungry river’.
Sutta’s family had earned a living by catching fish in the Mekong River since his parents’ generation. Sutta was raised by the river and started fishing when he was 18. Currently 47 years old, Sutta has witnessed many changes on the stretch of the river in Sangkhom District. The striped barb or the black-eared catfish that used to be caught and sold daily are now a less and less frequent sight.
Sutta had laid fishing nets in three spots in the Mekong. Before he pulled each of them up, he would pray “Let there be big ones!” However, at the end of the 50-meter-long large nets used to capture only big fish, he found only tufts of weed. No single trace of fish.
“Back then, the fish were so abundant that we could exchange it for rice, share it with family, or ferment it for later. There would be fish hanging to dry in front of every house. We were able to earn 20,000-30,000 baht from fishing every month. There was a lot of money to be made from catching Mekong fish. I used to earn as much as 140,000 baht in a year. We used to be able to catch fish all the time. In 2019, it was still alright. After 2019, even 10,000 baht is not possible. Sometimes two months would pass without finding any fish at all. Nowadays, there is no dried fish to eat. It is difficult to catch anything. We need to rely on fish in the market”, said Sutta.
The Mekong fish serve as one important source of capital in Sutta’s life. “The more fish we can sell, the more capital we have. We can use it to repair nets. Today, no fish, no capital”.
Before the Xayaburi Dam, Sutta used to be able to catch at least two fish of 10 kg. each per day and earn at least 4,000 baht a day. “10,000 baht could be earned in 2-3 days. It’s not the case anymore today. It doesn’t even cover the fuel cost.”
Today, Sutta has to take on an extra job doing general labouring for hire. “I get by on a daily basis. You cannot depend too much on the Mekong anymore. There is no fish. Only loss and loss, no gain”. Though not anticipating a catch, Sutta insists on making the trip every day. “The reason I go out every day is the feeling of attachment. If I don’t go, I will be worried that fish would just rot in the net. Some people say if you cannot catch fish, why don’t you go do something else? I can do something else but catching fish is my life”.
“Today, it seems as if the Mekong is in the terminal stage of cancer. In a coma. No one can catch any fish. Fishers here all complain about it. No fish, big or small, none. The water level rises and falls and the water is contaminated. Fish cannot survive in it. Fish lay eggs in small pools. The water will rise before the baby fish could grow into adults. Earlier, we were able to catch lots of fish because the water level went up and down consistently according to nature. Fish could spawn. Nowadays, the fish are tricked by the water level. Now it rises and falls, now it dries up. The roots of water crotons used by fish as a place to sleep and feed are also gone”, explained Sutta about the changes on the Mekong through a fisher’s perspective.
A tyle of algae known locally as "gai" is often caught on fishing nets
Sutta believes that if dams continue to be built on the Upper and Lower Mekong, it will be difficult for the fish to return. As someone who has spent his whole life by the Mekong River, Sutta could hardly believe that one day fish would disappear. But it did. He is convinced that the dam is to blame.
Sutta has joined several protests against dams, even though he is aware that as villagers it is difficult to go against the government’s multinational projects.
“There is nothing we can do. The dam is already built. We cannot destroy it. But there is this one dam that is going to be built in nearby Pak Chom District, Loei Province. We have to stop them. When they were going to build the [Xayaburi] dam, they never asked [the villagers]. The Thai and Lao government had already talked to each other. I used to think that the cause was the Xayaburi Dam only. In fact, the problem is larger. It already began with the dams in China”, said Sutta.
Poster of the Fish of the Lower Mekong at Sutta’s house.
Sutta and his mother, who used to fish in the Mekong
While Mekong fish can demand high prices today and are in demand by restaurant owners who are found waiting on the river bank eager to pay for them, the fishers do not have any fish to sell. “Joi” [tiny], the word Sutta says each time he pulls up a net that has no fish, perfectly sums up the lives of Mekong fishers. In spite of his dream of generous income from Mekong fish, the truth is it may never happen now or in the future as long as the dams are standing across the Mekong.
A man drying fish next to the banks of the Mekong
No Future for the Old Way of Life
Today’s Mekong leaves no future for the old way of life. Kanokwan Manorom, a lecturer in social sciences and development at Ubon Ratchathani University and researcher on the impacts of Mekong dams, explains that “poverty has been constructed” by the dams in the name of development. The Mekong people living along the river banks used to live securely in terms of food and income through their reliance on the resources of the fertile Mekong.
Kanokwan further explains that poverty has been constructed socially and economically. “Dams are a tool of development which the state believes will bring happiness, prosperity, and overall structural improvement to the country. Both the Thai and Lao governments believe that. Development is driven by the mindset that dams are a tool of modernization which can liberate people from poverty. Lao especially is still actively using dams as a tool of poverty reduction. The way of life of people has always depended on the resources of the Mekong River to create food and income security, as well as to form relationships with other users of the Mekong. The economic history of people in the basin was like this. With the dams, the resources which people on the banks of the Mekong once benefitted from have been divided up, have been seized in the name of development to solve the problem of poverty. It is an irony because development was supposed to reduce poverty, but it has turned out instead that the dams create a problem of poverty".
The resources of the Mekong River are an important determinant of the quality of life of the Mekong people. The resource grabbing has created uncertainty and destabilized their income. Without fish to catch, villagers are left with no tools to make a living for themselves. The dams have been constructed for the purpose of development, but on the contrary:
“Dams have not generated genuine development for the local people. For the state, probably, because it can collect taxes from electricity trading. But for the local people who depend on its resources, it has created problems, has had impacts, and has made life precarious. It is impossible for them to predict what their lives or their future are going to be. And compensation has not yet arrived. This issue goes beyond poverty and becomes a matter of injustice. It is about pushing people away from the resources they have used and neglecting people’s right to use the river”, said Kanokwan.
Kanokwan adds that in case of Sutta and the Mekong villagers, the fact that they still go out to fish knowing that will be none reflects that their options for a livelihood have been restricted and narrowed. The have to use the old ways and think that with luck they’ll catch fish because Mekong fish have high economic value.
“Their life options have become limited, because they themselves have no other form of capital to switch to another profession or no knowledge of anything else. They have no options in life other than fishing. This is especially true for middled-aged and elderly people. They grew up fishing. It is not that easy for them to create new skills to earn a living. They have limited options in life and they are attached to the river. It is a matter of the culture of humans and fish. It is their worldview and the river”.
The next generation that is born and raised amid limited resources in the Mekong will be able to adapt better than the older generation, as they are accustomed in their lives to the ever-increasing scarcity.
Kanokwan proposes that the state must take people affected by the dam construction seriously, as well as place importance on the issue of water governance. The Thai state must apply the PNPCA (Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement) process as part of its “water diplomacy” tools with other countries through its position in the Mekong Commission in order to raise standards, not just meet the minimum requirements, and solve the Mekong crisis.
“Whether the Mekong will face a crisis or not depends on political decisions”, said Kanokwan.
At the end of the day, no government of any Mekong country has ever come out and admitted that the poverty among the Mekong people is a result of dam construction. All they ever did was claim that poverty was caused by other factors, such as climate change.
“Since the poverty reduction mechanism has been designed that way, states cannot come out and say that dams make people poor," said Kanokwan.
"Otherwise, the state will no longer have the legitimacy to look for vast budgets or investment loans. It makes them avoid saying that the impacts are both positive and negative. They cannot say frankly what has been positive and what has been negative. It is a technical design not to say that dams are a political matter."