Skip to main content

Story and Photos by Samanachan Buddhajak and Donlawat Sunsuk

Bird eggs washed away in 2015.
(Photo from Bueng Kan Bird Lovers Group)

The above image of bird eggs washed up on the sand near Bueng Kan City shows one of the more immediate impacts of unseasonal water level fluctuation in the Mekong River from upstream dams. Many species of birds that used to migrate and lay eggs along the riverbank are disappearing. As a result of tourism and riverbank development, traditional lifestyles and natural habitats are disappearing as well.

In the dry season of 2013, Ratchaneekorn Buaroi, from the Bueng Kan Bird Lovers Group, was taking some children to watch birds on a Mekong riverbank near Bueng Kan City. A child pointed to an egg floating in the river. It belonged to a Small Pratincole, a species of bird that migrates to the area to build nests along the riverbank during the dry season. Surveying the riverbank, Ratchaneekorn found that a large number of the birds’ nests had been damaged by water.

Ratchaneekorn grew up in Bueng Kan, a former district of Nongkhai that is now a province. She was aware all along of how Bueng Kan was changing but after picking up a camera and traveling around her home province for bird watching, she saw the changes more clearly. In her view, the damaged nests on the riverbank were a telling indication of how Bueng Kan development was washing away some valuable things. 

Birds, Sandbanks, and Locals

Ratchaneekorn worked in many publishing houses around Bangkok before deciding to settle down in her hometown. She recalls that Bueng Kan and its surrounding districts used to be very peaceful. The area is over 100 kilometres from Nong Khai province. Houses are scattered throughout the area, mostly along both sides of Highway 212, which runs parallel to the Mekong River. Ratchaneekorn was born into a civil servant family. The fields and waterways near her home led her to take an interest in nature and the environment. After finishing high school, she studied at Mahasarakham University and had a chance to join in college camping trips in rural areas. It was her first chance to study nature seriously and go hiking, an activity that subsequently became a life-long hobby.  It was on a hiking trip that she met Noppadol Buaroi, a wildlife preservation officer at Phu Kiew National Park. They later married and he became her birdwatching partner.

Ratchaneekorn and Noppadon Buaroi, the founders of the Bueng Kan Bird Lovers Group.
(Photo by Donlawat Sunsuk)

In the Bueng Kan area, sandbanks run along the Mekong. Local people use the banks to fish, relax, and farm. Ratchaneekorn and her family loved going there and observed that there were many species of birds living there. Birdwatchers, they grabbed their cameras and traveled around the province to record what they saw.

“At first, we just wanted to visit the sandbanks, observe villagers’ way of life, and take some pictures. However, we discovered that birds living along the riverbank were different from the wild birds that we used to see.”

Small Pratincole eggs on a sandbank near Bueng Kan city. 
(Photo from Bueng Kan Bird Lovers Group)

They didn’t intend to record the impact of dam-related water-level changes in the river on local wildlife.  “We just wanted to know how many bird species were there,” said Noppadon Buaroi. A conservationist, he did a survey and took notes on what he saw, documenting some 47 different types of shore and migratory bird that lived in the Bueng Kan area.

These included the Small Pratincoles and Little Ringed Plovers that made their nests on the sandbank. Noppadon explained how the two species had adapted to fit with the lifestyles of local people, feeding on insects in riverside gardens and laying eggs nearby. Unlike forest birds, they were used to being around people.

The two founded the Bueng Kan Bird Lovers Group, inviting people from different places to join them in birdwatching. On many occasions, they also organised school outings, bringing young people to see birds and appreciate the surrounding environment. Ratchaneekorn’s aim was to have community members, especially its youth, appreciate the importance of environmental conservation. In the process, however, Ratchaneekorn and Noppadon came to understand the wave of change that was transforming Bueng Kan.

Changing Rivers and Cities

After Bueng Kan became a new province in 2011, the area began to rapidly develop. “We were excited to become a province … excited to be known by more people …a town that used to be like a big village suddenly had tall buildings. We were happy to see tourists coming here, not thinking that there would be negative consequences,” said Ratchaneekorn. 

In earlier times, eggs on the sandbank were like a seasonal clock. When they appeared, it signalled that the dry season had arrived. From the end of one year to the beginning of the next was the golden time for birdwatching. The river water receded and its sandbank grew, with birds migrating in to build their nests. In the dry season of 2013, however, Ratchaneekorn and Noppadon started to see nests being washed away by fluctuating water levels. They did some research and found that rapid water level changes were caused by the release of water from 11 upstream dams in China. 

Noppadon uses GPS to mark the changed locations of the nest.
(Photo by Donlawat Sunsuk)

Ratchaneekorn and Noppadon set to work, using GPS to mark nest locations and collecting data on damaged nests. Their survey indicates that during the 2014 – 2016 period, when China was frequently opening and closing dam gates to improve the river channel during upstream demolition work, Small Pratincoles and Little Ringed Plovers, the two main species of birds that used the sandbank as a nesting ground, lost over half of their eggs.

Looking at more recent data, Noppadon found that the birds began laying eggs at higher points on the sandbank. “They learned that the area would be flooded and tried to adjust to the situation, just like us.” As a result, the survival rate of eggs improved.

Other problems arose from area development, however. Bueng Kan experience a boom in tourism and roads were expanded to support it.  Efforts were made to attract visitors from other province and sandbanks became tourist attractions.

According to Noppadon, after sandbank tourism became a trend, they found more damaged nests.  Just like rising waters, tourism came in fast, not allowing enough time for the birds to adjust. Villagers also found it hard to use the sandbanks to fish, relax, and grow plants.  Visitors were driving their cars there.  More people, cars and then related construction  projects, including a 5th Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos, from Bueng Kan to Bolikhamxai. When completed, it will attract even more development to Bueng Kan.

Noppadon understands that Bueng Kan needs development. However, as a conservationist, he wants to propose that there be a sandbank management scheme and zoning to designate open tourist areas and bird refuge areas where people will only be allowed to walk in.  “We need to declare bird preservation areas. The government needs to clearly identify how much land they need for tourism and which part of the sandbank should be designated as a preservation zone. Only then will the birds adapt themselves.”  He believes that the birds will move to refuge areas to lay eggs. It would also preserve the local way of life, leaving space for fishing and gardening.

The Small Pratincole, the main species of bird which lay egss along the bank of the Mekong in Bueng Kan.
(Photo from Bueng Kan Bird Lovers Group)

Riverbank protection -  the best approach to riverbank development?

Riverbanks are naturally eroded by water currents.  Parts of the bank disappear.  As currents deposit sediments, other stretches of the river ‘grow’ more land. Interfering with this process can create problems. A recent study of Mekong sediment transport indicates that excessive use of bank resources, such as sand suction businesses, and the sudden fluctuation of water levels from the dams, can cause comparatively severe downstream erosion.  This has been occurring along many parts of the Mekong. A report written 1 year after the construction of Xaiyaburi Dam in Laos, the 12th dam in the Mekong River, found that 2020 was the worst year yet for bank erosion.

A partial solution, the construction of bank protection, can be seen in all 28 districts adjacent to the Mekong River. While these can impede erosion, they also have social and environmental impacts, breaking the connection between the land and the river.

As noted by Weerachart Rimsakul, a member of the Mekong Preservation Group in Nakhon Phanom Province, “riverbank erosions and sediment depositions are part of a normal cycle of rivers. Building bank protection disrupts this natural process.”  He contends that such interventions are destroying a once abundant riverbank ecological system and causing irregular sediment deposition.

The construction of a bank protection, with parts extending into the river, in Bueng Kan.
(Photo by Donlawat Sunsuk)

Riverbanks in Bueng Kan are similar to other riverbank areas along the Mekong. They are constantly being changed by the flow of the river and look different in each season. In the dry season, banks extend into the river   The area is reduced during the rainy season and small streams run through the banks.

In 2020, the municipality approved a river protection project along 500 rai of land. It includes walls extended into the river to protect parts of the bank. Soil was used to backfill the wall, creating a public park and a new city landmark. The area is still under construction.

“The project did not include an evaluation process. After the government came up with the idea, they budgeted it right away without conducting an environmental impact assessment or hold a public hearing.”  None was necessary, explains Montree Chanthawong, an independent researcher from the Mekong Butterfly Group. The construction of river protection does not require an environmental impact assessment, one of the reasons why the government sector prefers to do this type of construction all along the riverbank.  In the case of the Bueng Kan project, where backfilling took up more space than usual, no serious assessment was done. 

A garden area on the riverbank is poised to disappear behind bank protection. (Photo by Donlawat Sunsuk)


Like shifting water levels, construction has had an impact on bird populations, however.  Ratchaneekorn and her group have yet to assess their numbers or what their adaptation process looks like.  They plan to do so.

“Development can happen, but it requires that we investigate what resources exist in the area … there needs to be a more serious environmental impact assessment,” said Noppadon.  In addition to the consequences for birds and the flow of water in the river, consideration needs to be given to other living things in the ecological system, local fisheries and the traditional lifestyles of local people - all things affected by mega projects. “We have gained money but lost value. There is more money flowing in, more tourism … but Bueng Kan stands to lose its beautiful riverbank gardens and birds."

 This article was support by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network


Prachatai English's Logo

Prachatai English is an independent, non-profit news outlet committed to covering underreported issues in Thailand, especially about democratization and human rights, despite pressure from the authorities. Your support will ensure that we stay a professional media source and be able to meet the challenges and deliver in-depth reporting.

• Simple steps to support Prachatai English

1. Bank transfer to account “โครงการหนังสือพิมพ์อินเทอร์เน็ต ประชาไท” or “Prachatai Online Newspaper” 091-0-21689-4, Krungthai Bank

2. Or, Transfer money via Paypal, to e-mail address: [email protected], please leave a comment on the transaction as “For Prachatai English”