During the seminar “Xayaburi Dam, ecological changes and irreversible livelihoods of the Mekong community” held from 1:00 to 3:30 p.m. at Pak Chom District Community Hall, Loei Province, representatives from 7 provinces along the Mekong River presented the changes and their lifelong memories of the Mekong as well as reflected some problems arising from the said changes. Since the dam was built on the mainstream Mekong River in China in 1996, especially during the last 5-6 years, the Mekong River has evidently changed in terms of ecosystem; community livelihoods; careers and understandings towards the divergent river as they could no longer predict anything based on their old knowledge or wisdom. This leads to a proposal for their necessary solutions or adaptations regarding the transformed Mekong River due to the dams.
Irreversible happiness of the Mekong people
Kusol Puttongsri, community representative from Loei Province, talked about his childhood happiness and memory of the Mekong River that in the past it was really abundant compared to the present. Large amounts of Chao Phraya giant catfishes, huge carnivorous fish in the same species as Mekong giant catfish, were formerly found. They had a distinct unique sound and with their huge quantity, such fishes could wake sleeping man up but there is no longer such thing. Additionally, the soil from the Mekong was very fertile, local people were able to plant crops on the riverbank without using herbicides and fertilizers. Only watering was enough to have exuberant vegetable productions. Cicadas and very long Mekong earthworms were also found. Kusol also said that villagers have started to see the changes of the Mekong River since 1997 perceiving its unusual tides which was more difficult to forecast. It is now even harder, he had never seen the Mekong River at Pak Chom dried-up like this in the rainy season.
Kusol continued saying that the biggest fish he has ever caught was a 170-kilogram Chao Phraya giant catfish, this kind of fish had now long gone since the construction of dams in China causing changes to the Mekong water level.
Weera Wongsuwan, representative from Chanuman District, Amnat Charoen Province, pointed out about the decreasing biodiversity as he has not seen mayflies for 2 years. The mayflies are important foods for Pangasius elongates. When it is harder to find the mayflies, such fish is also harder to be found due to the lack of their food source.
Amnat Traijak, representative from Nakhon Panom Province, said that when he was a kid, his family was growing non-toxic riverside vegetables. There was no need to use any fertilizer. But now, after the rapid and severe fluctuation of the Mekong water level happened, agricultural areas disappear; riverbanks collapse and soil is short of fertility due to the decreasing of the Mekong sediment. He also talked about the history of the Mekong community battle against dams, they had protested Chinese dams before the construction of the Xayaburi Dam. They used to carry the great Naga to fight the dragon in front of the Chinese Embassy. But as we all know, dam constructions continued. At the moment, the first dam on the lower Mekong mainstream is ready to generate power tomorrow, it is the Xayaburi Dam.
Amnat also noted that the Mekong riverbanks have been heavily collapsing after the Xayaburi Dam tested its electricity generation this year.
Sorn Jampadok said that, in the past, Mekong fish migration was seasonal. During the dry season, some fishes migrated from the Mekong River in Cambodia, particularly the Tonle Sap area such as Botia caudipunctata; Acantopsis; Hypisbarbus lagleri and Scaphognathops. These seasonal fishes are currently very rare. It is strange that we can find them during this period which is the rainy season since the Mekong River has extremely changed. The water is drying up, fishes then migrate thinking it is the dry season which is unusual.
Sompong Khunpitak, representative from Buengkan Province, said that his community is strongly against sand suction because there are a lot of stone and sand beaches on which people always grow beans and pumpkins. These beaches are very fertile especially during March and April, ‘Tao’ (Mekong Spirogyra) will easily be found point out the enormous abundance of ecosystem and food security. The reasons why people oppose the Mekong sand suction are because it reduces fish habitats and food sources, it also destroys land surface causing the Mekong riverbanks to easily collapse. Besides, the unusual Mekong tides after dam constructions further accelerate riverbank erosions.
Chaiwat Parakhun, representative of the Mekong research team from Ban Muang District, Nong Khai Province, talked about different dimensions of the changes happened to the Mekong River. He has noticed during the past 2-3 years the obvious abnormality of the Mekong tides and wanted to know the causes. He together with his team then started collecting data and doing research and would finally say that it happened as a result of the dam constructions on the Mekong River. July is normally a month that water starts to strike the banks, but it decreased more than 10 meters this year. This is a very unusual situation affecting both fishery and culture, for example, the lack of practice spaces for boat racing in Namprai Village as they now become river bars. Without practicing, it is unable to participate the boat racing, it is also impossible to organize the illuminated boat procession event because of the very dry river.
Chaiwat also added the impacts regarding the Mekong plant species such as Homonoia riparia which is the nursery and breeding area of the Mekong fishes. Such plant also helps maintaining topsoil like the seasonal marshes do and when many of them die because of the unusual Mekong tides, Mekong fishes accordingly and apparently decrease.
Representative from Pho Sai District reflected some impacts on the local and national main tourist attraction, Sam Phan Bok, which was also affected by the unnatural fluctuations of the Mekong water level. It is normally dry season ahead of January, water showed up surprisingly. The walking areas are suddenly flooded which is strange. Some of the touristic sites had already disappeared such as Salung Beach, a major tourist attraction in the past, which has been vanished since 2011.
He added that the rainy season comes and goes fast this year, there will be less sand and the beach will not be as beautiful as ever. There will be no longer place where peanuts and snake beans were planted as the water came quickly sweeping good soil and sediment away. During October, the water level is still normally high, but the river gone very dry this year and Sam Phan Bok has already appeared for tourists from this month on. It is good in terms of tourism, but the ecosystem has extremely changed. Local people could not adjust themselves in time since they are unable to predict any seasons or the exact periods for tourism anymore.
Kankong Janlong, chairman of the Mekong River Conservation Group and representative from a riverside village in Nong Khai Province, asked for opinions and consent from all Mekong community members participated in the seminar. They jointly approved to submit a complaint letter to Mr. Chuan Leekpai, President of the National Assembly, inviting him to witness the dried-out Mekong as a result of the Xayaburi Dam. As earlier on 5 October 2019, he was invited to visit the Xayaburi Dam by CK Power Public Company Limited, a subsidiary company of CH. Karnchang Public Company Limited, this will be for him to see the other side of fact about the dam.
Solutions and imperative adaptations of the Mekong people
Kusol Puttongsri, representative from the Mekong communities in Pak Chom District, Loei Province, proposed to raise the Mekong problems to ASEAN level. Only a network within Thailand is not enough, people in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam must be incorporated.
Chaiwat Parakhun suggested that in terms of information presentation, the media should cover what people say and directly report it. In addition, the media and people who reported the Mekong situation were both directly and indirectly threatened by some units in charge of security such as the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC).
Amnat Traijak analyzed that although there were many civil society movements against dams, for example, protesting in front of the Chinese Embassy and carrying out legal proceedings towards the Administrative Court, the construction has never stopped. Only the direct protest is therefore not enough, local people have to adjust themselves to the changes such as conserving and breeding some fish species. However, it is also important to create a network with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in order to strengthen people’s movements in the long run.
Weera Wongsuwan, Mekong community representative from Amnat Charoen Province, proposed that people in various sectors, whether they were directly affected or not, who are aware of the situation should join together. The network must be created at the regional level as well as other sub-levels: national; provincial and village, then jointly set its strategies. They should also have intellectual weapons such as collecting data and conducting participatory researches on the impacts and damages caused by the Mekong dams to point out scientific and empirical evidences and to publicly confirm how dams affected them.
Anan, Mekong community representative from Mukdahan Province, asked for the support from relevant agencies together with civil society in collectively seeking solutions to save the Mekong River. They should support the community fish breeding as their spare foods as well as find ways to keep and increase Mekong fishes like establishing fish conservation areas with the communities, for instance.
Sorn Jampadok talked about Samrong Village’s action to solve the problem of lacking the Mekong fish species by conserving the riverside marshes: Songhong and Dokgate. There are rules set by the community such as it is not allowed to use fishing net; poison or to catch during some periods such as dry season in order that fishes could have breeding and nursery areas. People can still catch marine species and fishes in other marshes which are not prohibited. This process of creating conservation marshes was approved by the community with full participation.
After the seminar, people from 7 provinces along the Mekong River and relevant CSOs jointly issued a statement of intention of the Mekong communities as follow:
Call for the protection of people’s rights and environment.
The Mekong River, flowing through Tibet; China; Myanmar; Thailand; Laos; Cambodia and Vietnam, is an international river nourishing the ways of life of those who rely on it in terms of agriculture; fishery and fish species. It is significant in terms of culture and beliefs, for example, the Naga fireballs tradition as well as other ceremonies that communities along the Mekong have been carrying on, these things indicate that the river is really vital for people’s lives.
The Mekong River has been used as an asset for several developments, for example, the 20-year ceaseless construction of dams on the upper Mekong in China has continuously affected us for more than 10 years now. There were then 2 more dams on the downstream Mekong: the Xayaburi and the Don Sahong Dams, causing obvious changes. The dams built for electricity generation especially the Xayaburi Dam located only 200 kilometers north of the Thai-Laos border, its electricity generation experiment in July 2019 caused an unprecedented dry situation of the Mekong. The water level rapidly decreased, the unseasonal fish migration happened and plants were dead throughout the river. This caused great concerns for us who live on the Mekong riversides.
Today is the last day that we can see the life of the lower Mekong River. We, the Mekong people, who grow vegetables on the riverbanks; who use the water; fishermen; merchants and ferry drivers would like to urge the responsible agencies to have solutions for the Xayaburi Dam cross-border impacts as follow:
We urge the Thai Government to solve the environmental problems currently affecting the ways of life of the Mekong people.
We urge Thai private sectors both the project owner and the Thai banks sponsoring the project to express their responsibility and measures both in the short-term and long-term for fixing transboundary impacts.
The cross-border impacts and accountability issues in doing businesses must be raised as an important agenda in the ASEAN Summit which will be held in Thailand early November because it is a regional urgent problem.
The environmental and social impact phenomenon directly affects our ways of life as fishermen; gardeners; merchants and general people who currently rely on the Mekong River. It also affects the culture and traditions of the Mekong people and a profound impact on our minds. And we call for the urgent solutions.
The Network of 7 Provinces Mekong People
28 October 2019