On 20 March 2016, Mr. Prayoon Saen-ae, member of the traditional fishers group in Chiang Khan District, Loei, mentioned about the announcement of the Chinese authorities which are about to release more water from the dams in the upper reach of the river to address drought in the lower reach countries that right now the water level in the Mekong has risen more than two meters causing floods on major riverbanks/beaches in Chiang Khan District including Hat Khai and Kaen Kudkoo, which are major tourist attractions. Prior to this, the water level in the Mekong had gone down to the normal level in dry season, when boulders and gravel beaches emerged. But now, all the riverbanks have been completely flooded leaving only four or five Kai plants left visible. When it was low tide, Kai (a riverweed in the Mekong) sprang up on gravels by the riverbanks. Now with the sheer volume of gushing water, Kai plants have been uprooted and swept away from the fishing gears of the villagers.
Mr. Prayoon further said that he and his neighbors living by the Mekong have heard from TV that more water is to be released from dams in China and it has caused much concern among them, though they have no idea how to address it. They have heard that the Chinese authorities will release the water on 10 April. Right now, the fishing season in the Mekong has begun, particularly in Ban Nua, Chiang Khan, with more than 50 fishers. The sudden rise of water level will certainly affect their fish catch. He wants the Mekong to return to its natural course of flow.
“We have no idea what to do. We simply have to bear with it. Even though the Mekong water rises up in the middle of dry season like this, we have to continue fishing. I heard news that Sanakham Dam is going to be built as the fourth dam in the Mekong, closer to Chiang Khan District, and I could foresee how miserable it will be. The Mekong will be teemed with dams” said Mr. Prayoon.
From a field trip and survey by the Mekong E-san Community Council last week, they have found villagers in Hat Hae, Tambon Nam Kam, That Phanom District, Nakhon Phanom, were so worried with the abnormal tide in the Mekong. This has happened since several dry seasons before. As a result, the sand beaches have shrunk, the water course has changed, and riverbanks have eroded along with the shrinking food cultivation ground by the river. This affects income from tourism of the community.
According to the field trip report of the Mekong E-san Community Council, with the discharge of 2,100 cubic meters per second of water, the villagers are concerned that their sand beaches, local tourist attractions, will be inundated. It has also shot up investment cost for tourism as food stalls along the beaches have begun to build a walkway to connect with the other shops on the beaches. The walkway has to be built strong and durable to ensure safety of tourists, hence the rising costs. Meanwhile, local leaders are so ill-informed about the impact from the discharge of water from the dams this time.
The report of the Mekong E-san Community Council further states that normally, in the past five years, the locals are able to set up stalls on the beaches since before the New Year when the water level in the Mekong was low until after Songkran (April). Then, all these stalls would be submerged as the water level started to rise toward the rainy season. During this tourist season for five or six months (December-April), the locals were able to earn five hundred thousand baht to one million baht from each of the food stalls, or about two hundred thousand baht per month. But in the past couple of years, there was a huge change in the Mekong’s water level and it is no longer natural.
One owner of a food stall said that he just set up one stall in February when the water had just begun to recede. Now he has heard that a sheer volume of water will be discharged from China up until April, this has made him feel deeply worried.
“We used to be able to set out the plans, in dry season, rainy season, what we would do to earn living. We used to be able to calculate the costs and benefits from our undertakings; how much we could sell, how long we could do it. But now, we can no longer do that planning. Meanwhile, the tourists are complaining that it is getting harder and harder to find any beaches by the Mekong to celebrate Songkran. Kaeng Krabao in Mukdahan is almost empty. The tourists feel it is not safe anymore to play in the water by the Mekong; it also gets murkier and not fun. The prices of food and drink have gone up as well as the vendors have to invest more given the shorter period of time they can sell. This has caused problems to all of us” said the vendors.
Meanwhile, Dr. Chainarong Srettachau, a faculty member of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science, Mahasarakham University said that the proposed Lancang-Mekong River Cooperation Framework is an attempt by China to dominate as the exclusive economic powerhouse in the region. They want to use Yunnan as the gateway to the Mekong Subregion and Guangxi the gateway to ASEAN. The Chinese-backed Lancang-Mekong River Cooperation Framework is simply an implementation of neoliberalism aimed at accumulating capital.
According to Dr. Chainarong, the meeting of leaders in the First Lancang-Mekong River Cooperation Framework meeting during 22-24 March in China will inevitably aim at paving the way for capitalists to plough their way through easier and people who stand to benefit the most are the capitalists, the investors at the expense of local villagers. For example, China has embarked on assuming the exclusive power to manage the Mekong by building dams at its upper reach and discharging a sheer volume of water during dry season as being widely reported now. The discharge of such water shall cause floods over the food cultivation ground by the riverbanks of the villagers. This demonstrates how China has grabbed the power and the control over the river exclusively. The problem with the river management is leaders in countries of the lower reach of the Mekong act so complacently; they don’t seem to care and to be aware how grave the impacts can be.
“Prior to traveling to meet in China, the country leaders should get to meet and listen to the problems of the villagers in eight riparian provinces. They should listen hard to their suffering, their thinking and their genuine need and how they want the river managed. This is the principle of good governance applicable to the management of the Mekong. Though it is touted that this meeting seeks to explore possible cooperation for sustainable development, but I think it will be really hard since previous cooperation with regard to the river has not resulted in any fruitful and sustainable development. The more the Mekong is developed, the more unequal the economic statuses. It has simply destroyed the economic foundation and ecological and environmental soundness of the Mekong Basin” said Dr. Chainarong.
Mr. Somkiat Kuenchiangsa, coordinator of the Network for the Preservation of Natural Resources and Culture in the Mekong-Lanna River Basin, Chiang Rai, said that the discharge of water by China this time sets to serves their own self-interest since they will gain from hydropower production and the navigation of their boats for trade in Chiang Saen. It is so obvious that with six dams, China has virtually controlled the whole stretch of the Mekong. Meanwhile, governments of countries in the lower reach of the river seem to care about other benefits they could gain from China or simply think China is so generous. They don’t really care about the damages done to local community and its own people, which are also important. That floods occur by the river in the middle of dry season reflects how havocked the ecology of the river has become. Its ramification can be felt on the local livelihood which is so dependent on the river. And it demonstrates how community rights have been completely deprived.
“Right now, they are preparing to construct the Pak Beng Dam. The Chinese and Thai companies are building this dam across the lower reach of the Mekong, only one hundred kilometers from Wiang Kaen District, Chiang Rai. That means the chunk of the river in Thailand, around Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong and Wiang Kaen Districts will be situated in-between the two dams, the Pak Beng Dam and the Jinghong Dam in Chiang Rung. No one can tell what will happen with people over here. I am not sure, but by discharging water to address drought this time, China may take the opportunity to tout the benefit of dam and cite it as a reason to build more dams in the Mekong or not, said Somkiat.