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When the Mekong River changes,  a way of life does too. Listen to the reflections of two generations of “Mekong people” from Pho Sai District, Ubon Ratchathani Province, who are facing dead plants, disappearing fish, falling incomes, and diminished tourism – because of upstream dams in China.

“I wish the river was like it used to be. If the waters return, the riverside communities could recover.”

These are the words of ‘Son Champhadok’. To locals in Ban Samrong, Pho Sai District, Ubon Ratchathani Province, she is ‘Mae Son (Mother Son)’, a 60-year-old fish hunter who has lived with the river ecosystem since birth.  It has always been a part of her life.

Son Champhadok

According to Mae Son, much has changed since 2013 and her way of life is now under threat.  She recalls that as far back as she can remember, the Mekong River was always changing. Changes in the past 10 years have been the most pronounced, however. Since 2013, she has been worrying that her previous way of life is over and may never return.

“The fish slowly disappeared. There used to be lots in the past. We caught a lot of fish, enough to fill the boat. After catching them we’d trade some for food in Ban Kok and we would keep some. We didn’t often sell them. We dried them or made fermented fish. When we did sell them, they’d go for 60-70 baht a kilo; 7 baht a kilo for the small ones

“A car from Khemrat District used to come and  buy fish from our village market to sell elsewhere. When the river changed, the car disappeared. We don’t catch many fish anymore.  If they drive here, they lose money,” Mae Son said.

Mae Son’s nickname - ‘Lady Fish Hunter’ - was earned the hard way.  She is an expert in hunting Mekong River fish. She grew up in a fishing family in Pak La Village, Khongchiam District, Ubon Ratchathani Province.  After marriage, she joined her husband’s family fishing at Ban Samrong. She has been a ‘fish hunter’ her whole life.

“When little, I helped my parents cast the nets. After I grew up a bit, I also did farming next to the Mekong, fishing at the same time. My parents showed me the best luang for fishing.”

A word in local Isaan language, luang refers to a family’s fishing areas. Traditionally, the river terrain was divided among fisher families. It was similar to farming a field.  Claims to ownership were informal, but people respected them and did not trespass on each others spaces.

Mae Son said that in the past, there were many different types of fish in the river, and that each had its own season. Carp and other smaller fish came in the dry season between January-March. Then, in April, catfish, loaches and other large fish came to eat the smaller ones.

Asked how many fish they used to catch, Mae Son answered that they filled up their homes, that in the past, the river fish were abundant throughout the year.

The changes witnessed by Mae Son include sharp declines in fish stocks, unseasonable changes in water levels and deteriorating water quality.  The latter affects the fish spawning because river fish lay their eggs in the freshwater seaweeds that grow in the clear, still water of the shallows. The grasses serve as a food source and also protect eggs and hatchlings from bigger fish.

A 2021 Mekong River Commission (MRC) report, Status and Trends of Fish Abundance and Diversity in the Lower Mekong Basin during 2007–2018), reports a total of 617 species of fish in the Lower Mekong Basin. The highest diversity, 115 species, was found in Tonlé Sap, Cambodia. The second highest was found in  the river delta in Vietnam.  In the waters adjacent to Laos and Thailand, only around 50 species remain. Invasive species are few in number, less than 1% of the total, but the problem may grow worse in the future.

The Mekong River Commission concluded that fisheries in the Lower Mekong Basin were stressed by overfishing and other factors disrupting the lives of aquatic animals: human settlements along the river; economic development, and changes in the surrounding environment. They called for the commission’s four member states to protect fish stocks and diversity in order to assure food security for the millions of people who live in the Lower Mekong Basin.

The report did not collect data of about fish populations at various dams on the river and made no mention of construction of dams in China whatsoever.

Dams change the Mekong’s colour

In late 2019, a number of news agencies and environmental groups reported that the water in the Mekong River had changed colours. Published images showed a river turned bluish-green, a seawater hue, different from the murky-red colour of a river carrying sediment. Green News explained that this was the “hungry water effect” caused by water dropping sediment upstream, behind a dam. They also noted that the river’s downstream sediment carrying capacity was likely to cause increased erosion along its banks, a loss of Thai territory over time.

In a 2019 study of riverbank failures in eight river-side provinces  between 1992-2018 , the Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR) revealed that some 200 square kilometres of land had been lost along the 958 kilometre river bank running from Chiang Rai to Ubon Ratchathani.  The erosion reportedly increased after 2003, when the Jinghong Dam started operating.  According to the report, far more land was lost to erosion than gained through sedimentation.

ONWR’s latest report, A study on the Riverbank Failure in 8 Mekong River Provinces during 2018-2020, found that the problem is getting worse. Riverbank failures over 3 years amounted to another 97.23 square kilometres. After the Xayaburi Dam started operations in 2019, river bank failures doubled from the previous year.

Montree Chantawong and Chanang Umparak, representatives of a local environmental group, the Mekong Butterfly, conducted field research together with people from six villages in Chiang Rai, Loei, Nakhon Phanom, Amnat Charoen and Ubon Ratchathani Province to study the volume of sediment in the river.  They used a simple method which allowed villagers to collect and analyse data by themselves. Data was also collected in Ban Samrong, Mae Son’s home. Their main hypothesis is that river sediments have declined because of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos, 300 kilometres from Chiang Khan District, Loei Province.

Measures of water turbidity between Feb-May 2021 found river sediment decreased from test points in Loei to Ban Samrong, Ubon Ratchathani, an area below the Xayaburi Dam. Turbidity in Chiang Khong District, Chiang Rai, above the Xayaburi Dam,  higher value. The turbidity was measured in centimetres. The higher the value, the less the turbidity (very clear). If the value is low, then there is a lot of turbidity (not very clear).

Changes in water level impact fishing, agriculture and tourism

Thanyaphon Bupphatha, a Song Khon village agricultural volunteer and community tourist guide in the Pho Sai District, Ubon Ratchathani Province, said that another factor causing fish in the river to disappear is reduced water flow. Not enough water reaches the areas where fish lay eggs. Many species spawn in small brooks that flow through river-side communities.

Thanyaphon Bupphatha

Born and raised in Ban Song Khon, Thanyaphon is a true child of the Mekong. Her family has been living on the river for three to four generations. Thanyaphon worked in the city for a time before returning to develop her hometown. She plans to develop Song Khon into an ecotourism site, inviting visitors to experience local culture and lifestyle. She is currently pursuing a a Masters’ degree in tourism at Ubon Ratchathani University.

According to Thanyaphon, over the last 5 years, the number of fish in the Mekong River has decreased markedly – leaving just enough to catch for food but not enough sell.  People are no longer able to earn their livelihoods through fishing.  As a representative of Ban Song Khon, she has actively participated in developing the Mekong River Basin with the Seven Isaan Province Mekong Basin Community Council Network Association. One of the projects planned by the association is a program to conserve Mekong fish. The hope is to revive a way of life and bring the fishing profession back again.

In addition to environmental issues caused by dam construction, Thanyaphon said that locals and outsiders sometimes engaged in illegal fishing, catching protected species or poaching in neighbouring territories. Local people could be warned and stopped but in some cases, for example when tourists came to go diving and shoot fish underwater for sport, it was necessary to get help from provincial fishery bodies and related agencies so that developments could be investigated and monitored.

According to Thanyaphon, changes in the river water level effected not only fishing but also riverside farming. Farming along the riverbanks has long been a side job for those living next to the Mekong. Common crops included vegetables and greens.  Others made money from planting indigo, cotton, corn, peanuts, sweet potatoes, jicama, garlic, spring onions and coriander. Back when water levels were stable, Mae Son also did this as a side job, earning an extra ten thousand baht per year.

Thanyaphon standing an agricultural area next to the Mekong, near Pak Bong, the narrowest spot between Thailand-Laos. In the past, this area would flood during wet season but now, the water does come up as high.

Thanyaphon explained that lower water levels reduced the fertility of the soil.  Local farmers previously did not use fertilisers but relied instead on minerals from sediment deposited by the river when it flooded. The resulting produce was chemical-free, tasted great and no bad effects on health.  Farmers used to plant after the water receded in November.  Now, however, the water seldom reached the bank, and yields were less than in the past.  Worse, the upstream release of water from dams occasionally caused floods in the dry season, making it risky to plant anything.

A raintree at Pak Bong, near Song Khon. In the past, the roots would be covered by water.  Now, the roots can be clearly seen. Water has not flooded the bank for many years now (photo taken in Sept 2021).

Shifting water levels are not only having an impact on traditional occupations like fishing and farming. New occupations dependent upon tourism are also starting to disappear. According to Thanyaphon, two decades back there were many well-known tourist spots in Udon Ratchathani.  Thai and foreign tourists would come for sight-seeing, enjoying local culture and nature.

One such attraction near Ban Song Khon is Sam Phan Bok. Erosion caused during the flood season by river rapids created a site similar to the Grand Canyon in the US. In addition, there is also Hat Salueng, a kilometer-long white sand beach that used to appear every year in the dry season. The site was a popular tourist attraction during Songkran holidays, providing millions of baht in revenue to locals. But tourist flows at Hat Salueng have dried up. In the ten year period after China’s Jinghong Dam began operating, water levels have grown irregular.

Sam Phan Bok (image by Tourism Authority of Thailand)

Hat Salueng (image by Tourism Authority of Thailand)

As Thanyaphon explain it, the river was now likely to “flood in the dry season and dry up in the flood season.” The fluctuation has been so extreme that Hat Salueng is now neglected and unoccupied, devoid of tourists.

According to Thanyaphon, since 2013 the Mekong has been flooding its banks in March-April, which used to be the tourist high season. Withouts tourist, family restaurants, hotels and resorts have had to shut down. With the spread of COVID-19, things have gotten worse. Some houses now sit vacant.

Hat Salueng in the wet season. The water level in the dry season no longer drops.

Thanyaphon took us to see tourist sites around Hat Salueng, now without visitors. At a local pavilion, ferry boat tickets used to be sold for 500-1,000 baht a trip, depending on the distance and destination.  Some cruises lasted for up to five days. Guide services also used to be a source of income for local youth, who could earn up to a 1,000 baht/day. Thanyaphon said that when tourism was flourishing, village kids had thousands of baht in savings and were able to pay school fees without asking money from their parents.

A booth near Hat Salueng that previously sold tickets for boat trips is now quiet.  Fluctuating water levels in the Mekong River ended the tourist high season.  The business has been devoid of customers for almost 2 years due to COVID-19 lockdown measures.

Mekong Riverside pavilion near Hat Salueng

Song Khon restaurant, located next to the Mekong River, near Hat Salueng, is quiet now, without a trace of tourists.

In addition to businesses dependent upon tourism, other occupations have also been affected. Without visitors, community state enterprise OTOP (One Tambon One Product) outlets cannot sell anything.

“If there was no impact from the dam, everything would be normal. We villagers would have food security, enough food to eat and some left over to sell. There would be jobs other than farming and income from crops grown on the river banks. River bank farming didn’t require a big investment … but now, more inputs are required and income is not enough to cover expenses. We are operating in the negative

“People have to find work elsewhere, to hire themselves out, go to work in Bangkok. People who run away from COVID in Bangkok return home with nothing to do. Other than rice farming, they just sit at home. There is nothing to do; they can’t even plants gardens,” Thanyaphon said.

According to Thanyaphon, the local economy was already in crisis as a result of changed water levels in the river.   When the pandemic hit, things got worse. Locals working out of town returned home, some because their factories shut down and others to isolate themselves and recover from the virus. Those who returned had no work. Natural resources which used to be abundant enough to live off of were almost gone. People lived off their savings instead. Those without savings had to wait for state welfare, which did not help much. People in the area were sinking into debt … taking out loans to pay expenses and school fees.

A 2021 Mekong River Commission report, Social Impact Monitoring and Vulnerability Assessment: SIMVA 2018), compared the incomes of 2,800 households in 200 Mekong villages in four countries - Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam - in 2016 and 2018. Some 35% of the total experienced a fall in income. The incomes of another 32% remained flat. Some 26% reported that their incomes had increased slightly. Only 6% said that their incomes has significantly improved. 

“If the spread of COVID slows down, there may be some tourism, but it will require a good vaccine as well. If we have good vaccines in sufficient quantities, things should return to normal. It will probably take a year or two before tourism returns. In 2021, the disease hit us hard. In 2022, we should get good vaccines, allowing the situation to return to normal in early 2023,” Thanyaphon said.

An a more positive note, Thanyaphon said that the decline of tourism gave nature time to recover. She acknowledged that the tourist industry also had negative impact on the river. People threw trash in the water, damaging a marine ecosystem that was already being affected by global warming and climate change.  She added that the biggest threat to traditional lifestyles remained the fluctuating water levels resulting from upstream dams releasing water without warning.

“Rain does not fall in season. Floods happen. These are natural disasters. Our grandparents understood this … but these days, they don’t know how the water rises and falls,” Thanyaphon said.

China should disclose their water management plans at least 3 months in advance.

Mae Son, Thanyaphon, and other people living near the Mekong River know that there is no way to return back to how things were, to restore the natural abundance and the way of life of those tied with the river in past generations.  There is no point in demanding that the dams be destroyed. It is possibly to demand an effective water-level warning system, however. Warnings could be issued before dam water is released so that the people can make timely preparations.   It would not change the impact on river bank gardens or village water systems but at least it would help people living downstream to protect their property - boats, fishing equipment, and houses.

“It would be good if there were a warning system for the water rising and falling. We have to live in fear, worrying because the water comes very fast and very strong,” Thanyaphon said.

Demands have previously been made for warnings prior to the release of dam water.  According to Montree from the Mekong Butterfly, warnings are not enough, however.  An alert issued a few weeks before a release does not give people downstream enough time to prepare.  Investments have been made in things like fish farming in floating baskets and growing crops on the river banks. Months of work are at stake. If China sends people a warning and they have not yet been able to harvest their produce, the water will still damage their incomes and way of life. Montree proposes that the Thai government and Mekong River Commission demand that China reveals its water management plans at least 3 months in advance. If, in late October, Chinese authorities disclosed their water management plans through to January, those living downstream would be able to plan their lives, deciding what plants to grow or how to farm fish, with minimal disruption.

Lower Mekong Basin countries should negotiate with China to change their last two dams into ‘diversion dams’

Montree also proposed another method to help solve the issue of fluctuating water levels in the Mekong River. He recommends that downstream countries join hands for some hard-headed negotiations with China to repurpose the Nuozhadu Jinghong dams. The last fortress dams planned by China, both are being built to generate electricity. They could be used instead as diversion dams to restore pre-1993 water levels in the Mekong. This would maintain the stability of water flow in the lower Mekong River, making it as natural as possible.

Mae Son and Thanyaphon agree that if they could choose, they would like the Mekong to return to its original state, with water levels changing according to the seasons, and water rich with sediments. With water so clear that one can see the river bed, a way of life is dying along with the fish.

“If the dams had not been built… things would be as they were, our lives would be the same.  The only real change would be tourism,” Thanyaphon said.

“In my heart I want the river to be restored to what it was.  Our food would be better.  Our health would be better. We would be able to eat natural produce, growing it ourselves without using chemicals. The water would bring abundant nutrients. In my heart I want it all to be as it was in the past. If it was, the lives of all of the people in the communities along the river – not just mine – would get better,” Mae Son said.

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