China’s Dams on the Mekong Destroying Fishing Villages in Thailand
CHIANG RAI: Every year from February to April, Kam Thon spends most of her days knee-deep in the Mekong River near her village in Chiang Khong district of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, gathering river weed to sell and cook at home.
Kam Thon and other Mekong River women have been collecting river weed, or khai, for decades, but their harvest has decreased since China constructed nearly a dozen dams upstream.
According to researchers, the dams have altered the flow of water and blocked much of the sediment needed for khai and rice cultivation.
“Generally, the water is clear and the level is lower in the dry season, and we can easily wade in and harvest khai. However, the water level is now higher during the dry season, making it more difficult,” said Kam Thon, a khai vendor at the local market.
“We need to spend more time collecting khai, and there is also less khai, which has affected our income,” the 48-year-old explained as she rolled handfuls of the stringy green weed into balls and slung them over her shoulder in a nylon bag.
Kam Thon, who lives in Chiang Khong near the Thai-Laos border, says she earns about a third of what she used to when the Mekong’s waters ran low during the dry season and the khai was plentiful. Her husband’s catch has also decreased, she claims.
The Mekong River, which runs for about 4,350 kilometers (2,700 miles) from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, provides a farming and fishing lifeline for tens of millions of people in China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Hydropower Dams on the Mekong
However, as China builds more dams to generate hydropower, concerns about the unseasonal flooding and droughts they cause are growing, as are concerns about the future of Southeast Asia’s longest river, which is now being shaped by powerful state-backed corporations.
Local communities and campaigners claim that in the push for clean energy, their concerns and complaints are being ignored.
“Upstream dams are affecting fish catch, rice cultivation, and river weed, which are important sources of income for women and the elderly,” said Pianporn Deetes, campaign director for Thailand and Myanmar at Rivers International.
“When the river is turned into just being a source of hydropower, it affects the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. It’s about their food, customs, and way of life,” she explained in an interview.
China, eager to increase its renewable energy capacity and reduce its reliance on coal, has built nearly a dozen dams on the Mekong, dubbed the Lancang, since 1995, including five mega-dams each more than 100 meters tall.
China has also constructed at least 95 hydroelectric dams on Mekong tributaries. China is planning dozens more, and it is also funding others in the Lower Mekong Basin.
Decline of the Mekong’s fisheries
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, values energy from hydropower dams in the Upper Mekong River Basin, which includes the Tibetan Plateau and the Lancang Basin in China and Myanmar, at around $4 billion per year.
Nonetheless, various studies estimate that nearly all of the river’s sediment load will be trapped upstream if all of the dams proposed in the Mekong Basin are built, potentially affecting rice cultivation, a major food source for millions in the region.
Furthermore, the MRC estimates that the decline of the Mekong’s fisheries, caused by dams that block fish migration and alter water flow, will cost nearly US$23 billion by 2040, with the loss of forests, wetlands, and mangroves valued at up to $145 billion.
Communities closest to the dams have been hit the hardest, including Chiang Khong, according to Brian Eyler, director of the energy, water, and sustainability program at the US-based Stimson Center, which monitors the Mekong dams.
During the dry season, reservoir releases for hydropower production can “double or even triple what natural flow would deliver,” while wet season restrictions can cut water flow by more than half, he said.
“As a result of this, fishing villages along the Thai/Laos border are becoming ghost towns,” he said.
“These communities have few adaptation options.” Their elders are unable to cope with limited livelihood options, and their youth may choose to migrate or pursue another source of income, but adaptation carries its own set of risks.”
Impact of hydropower projects
In response to such concerns, the Mekong River Commission Secretariat stated that the MRC, which it oversees, conducts social impact assessments and monitors river flow and water quality for changes that could affect agriculture or communities, both of which are affected by rising temperatures and population growth.
According to the secretariat’s emailed comments, the MRC provides “scientific and technical guidance and guidelines on dam design, construction, and operation” to manage risks and mitigate any negative impacts of hydropower projects.
However, campaign groups claim that the MRC does not consult with local communities and has failed to hold China accountable for the increased frequency and severity of floods and droughts since it began its dam-building drive.
According to research from the Stimson Center and Eyes on Earth, a U.S.-based satellite monitoring effort, Chinese dams held back large amounts of water during droughts between 2019 and 2021, when Mekong water levels fell to record lows, exacerbating drought conditions.
China has contested these findings, claiming low rainfall, and signed an agreement with MRC in 2020 to share year-round data on the flows of its portion of the river.
Effects of hydropower projects
In a 2021 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) described hydropower as “the backbone of low-carbon electricity generation,” with particularly high potential in emerging and developing economies.
According to the IEA, China is the world’s largest hydropower market, with Chinese firms financing more than half of all new hydropower projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America through 2030.
The Lower Mekong Basin’s energy demand is expected to rise by 6%-7% per year, resulting in economic gains of more than $160 billion by 2040 from “full hydropower development,” according to the MRC.
However, there is growing concern around the world about the effects of hydropower projects, including the displacement of people.
In 2018, for example, a dam under construction in Laos broke and killed dozens as it swept away homes in flash flooding, tarnishing the image of hydropower projects in the country that aspires to be Asia’s “battery.”
Mekong river has become unpredictable
Communities that have relied on the river for generations no longer know how to coexist with it, according to Niwat Roykaew, chairman of the Rak Chiang Khong Conservation Group.
“With the dams, the river has become unpredictable, and their knowledge is no longer useful,” said Niwat, 63, a Goldman Environmental Prize winner in 2022.
The Mekong Dam Monitor, a collaboration between the Stimson Center and Eyes on Earth, uses satellite imagery and remote sensing to alert communities along the Thai-Laos border when river flows change by half a metre or more in a 24-hour period.
According to Niwat, who also runs the Mekong School in Chiang Khong, which educates local children about the river and assists researchers in their research, this is of little use to communities that do not have other options.
“What people want and deserve is river co-management through an inclusive, consultative process,” he added.
Kam Thon is concentrating on the khai harvest during the current dry season, which lasts until April. On a good day, she can collect several kilos, some of which she dries in the sun in sheets that are eaten as a snack and fetches a higher market price.
“It’s difficult to predict when I can go out on the water and how much I can harvest every day,” she explained.
“I need to gather as much as I can as soon as possible.”