Teerachai Sanjaroenkijthaworn 

“Stride and Speak for Fishes” the Mekong people arrive the Government House with 7 demands after the establishment of the Joint Committee for tackling the Mekong River’s problems has silently been gone with the wind for nearly a year.

Since the construction of Xayaburi Dam and the commencement of commercial power generation in October 2019 feeding electricity into the system with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) as a buyer, the Mekong River obviously changed. It is hard not to explain that the beautiful crystal clear and sediment-free Mekong phenomenon was not caused by dam constructions on its mainstream. Symptoms of dam catastrophe affecting the ecosystem and livelihood of the Mekong people were discussed through a wide variety of media, it has already been evident what the main cause of the Mekong crisis is.

Only 3 days ahead of the International Day of Action for Rivers (March 14), more than 50 people from 7 Mekong provinces of Thailand including Loei; Nong Khai; Bueng Kan; Nakhon Phanom; Mukdahan; Amnat Charoen and Ubon Ratchathani traveled to the heart of Bangkok at the Government House in order to address the problems they have been facing for several years and requested to talk with more than 12 government agencies demanding for concrete and practical problem-solving mechanisms.

This series of articles “Stride and Speak for Fishes” will record events and messages or conclusions derived from conversations between civil society network, representatives of people from 7 provinces along the Mekong River, and government agencies responsible for the management of political; economic and social problems as well as relations happened on the Mekong River. In this first article, it summarizes a memo of talks and discussions of the Mekong people’s representatives and presents photos of their marching “Stride and Speak for Fishes”.

Mekong people strike the Government House EP.1: To the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and propose an establishment of the Mekong Fisheries Solution Committee

On 11 March at about 11.30 AM, approximately 50 members of the Community Organization Council Network of 7 Northeastern Provinces in Mekong River Basin Association (ComNetMekong) started their marching in front of the Ministry of Agriculture to meet with Mr. Alongkorn Ponlaboot, adviser to the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, submitting a request for a solution to the Mekong River’s problems. The situation of the Mekong has been unusual for several years after the construction of dams on its mainstream, especially after the Xayaburi Dam started generating power for sale to Thailand in October 2019. 

Then at about 13.00 PM, the representatives of the network have started their conversation with Mr. Alongkorn Ponlaboot along with different relevant agencies under the Ministry of Agriculture in order to inform problems faced by people in the Mekong River Basin and to propose an urgent setup of a specific working group or mechanism which allows public participation for solving the Mekong fisheries problems.

Ms. Ormbun Thipsuna, President of the ComNetMekong, started her explanation in the meeting that the Mekong River has changed a lot nowadays, during these 2 years in particular, since the construction of the Xayaburi Dam, the Mekong water daily rises and falls like the sea.

“What we would like to tell the Ministry of Agriculture is that the fluctuation of the Mekong severely affects fishery resources and this affects the Mekong people’s way of life. There are also other issues which involve many government ministries in which we must take part in solving problems.”   

Mr. Chawien Kongseema, representative of the Community Organization Council Network from Pak Chom, Loei province, said that there are 12 villages in Pak Chom sub-district where people are riverbank gardeners. When the Mekong fluctuates irregularly, it is unpredictable. In Pak Chom, during the dry season when water level decreases, villagers will set up their kiosks selling things on the sand beach. But now with dams blocking sand and sediment, beaches get smaller owing to no sand and sediment added. Moreover, the Mekong earthworm and Homonoia riparia or the willowleaved water croton (‘Khrai’ plant, in Thai) also disappear, standing dead with no new birth. The Mekong ecosystem has changed making fishes confused of when the water will go up or down, they could not adapt and eventually became extinct.  

In relation to agriculture, the villagers are now lacking of water. If we use solar energy to pump up water, the situation will get better. The villagers also have to form the Mekong fish banks as local organizations refused to do so. Sub-district or village headman will do nothing without higher authorities, there must be a policy. For this reason, there must be a decentralized management at a local level.  

A venerable monk from Hai Sok Temple, Sangkhom sub-district’s dean of monks in Sangkhom district, Nong Khai province, said that Hai Sok is the only temple conserving the Mekong fish species. Rocks now appear more as water level has considerably dropped, Khrai plants are not growing and fishes are reduced. In the past, this place was called “Phan Khot Saen Khrai” (1,000 rocky reefs covered by 100,000 Khrai plants) because a lot of Khrai plants were found on the rocky reefs during the dry season. But it now becomes “Phan Khrai Saen Khot” (1,000 Khrai plants on 100,000 rocky reefs) because of very dry water together with the crystal-clear Mekong phenomenon kill almost all Khrai plants and make the reefs show up. In addition, since the Mekong water became clear, fishes really got affected as they now have no shelter. Although they are many in numbers, very few species remain. The temple is currently taking care of the fishes that villagers released here for conservation such as Asian red-tail catfish and giant catfish.

Apisit Sunatrawiwat, representative of the Community Organization Council Network from Loei province, added that we are concerned about dams built on the Mekong River. They planned to build another dam only 2 kilometers above Loei province. The ongoing construction of dam has tremendously affected already with “flood in dry season, dry in rainy season” phenomenon. The ecosystem which indicated the fertility of the river had disappeared.

The Mekong people in Pak Chom do gold panning as their important sideline career, each household used to earn 20,000 baht per month but now less.

As for fishery, the Mekong people rely on the fluctuation for their foods, it is now very difficult for both agriculture and fishery. It is hard to get fishes, they have to change their career. Some people in the community must find a new job such as being workers in the city. There are also a lot of cultural changes when the fluctuation is unseasonal, many traditions such as boat race or illuminated boat procession can no longer happen. Community participation might be the best way to fix these problems. There should also be a fish conservation as well as Khrai plants as their roots are good nurseries for the Mekong fishes.

“Since we are very close to the dam, we are worried about how we could cope with it in case of the collapse of dam or earthquake. How will this be resolved?”   

Pimonchan, representative of the Community Organization Council from Songkhram River Basin, said that the unusual fluctuation of the Mekong River inevitably affects the Songkhram River as it is one of the Mekong’s matrices where fishes from the Mekong will enter during flood season. There were no Mekong fish species at all in the past couple of years, we then created a fish conservation area in the swamps. We always check our fishes whether their numbers and species change while in our protection area.    

We want the Department of Fisheries to be in charge as, in many villages, they do have conservation area but not seriously follow up. They did not make a proper area and just released the fishes which as a result may not survive.

Amnat Trichak, representative of the Community Organization Council Network from Nakhon Phanom, pointed out more problems after the opening of the Xayaburi Dam that people living along the Mekong have greatly been affected. The ecosystem and culture have totally changed.   

The Songkhram River has been registered as an international wetland area. Fermented fish is an important and famous product of this area, but wrong type of fishing tool is now used. People in the past used their hands as fishing tool, they now use colander since even clams are hard to find.     

We saw the blue Mekong River 2 years ago, many of us were glad as they do not have to go to the sea anymore without realizing that it is catastrophe. Their way of living has changed, fishermen use wrong tools for fishing as fishes are difficult to find. Fish shocking and bombing are used and fish prices are higher. Sediment also disappears and productivity is all gone. There are only harsh and sandy soil left, but it is more difficult to grow plants. Villagers began to use chemicals, there was no need to apply any fertilizers. When fishes disappeared, we started to find places for conservation using temple area, we cooperated with Provincial Fisheries Office releasing Mekong fishes into the fish conservation area.        

“The current situation turns completely upside down, the Fisheries Research Center under the Department of Fisheries used to ask us for fish breeders, now we instead have to ask them for fishes to conserve; breed and release back to the Mekong River.”

According to Alongkorn Ponlaboot, adviser to the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, stated that they take this matter very seriously with many ministerial advisers here. He himself intended to go to the Mekong areas and found that there are several dimensions involved in such matter.  

Chalermchai Suwanrak, Deputy Director-General of the Department of Fisheries, explained that he went to Hai Sok Temple 2 years ago and found that there were quite a lot of joint activities doing together with the Department of Fisheries. They tried to equally allocate the Mekong fish species to every areas in order to create food security, but the recovery became more difficult with the changing conditions. The second thing was the suppression of illegal fishing that they will continue to do. The third thing was community engagement in accordance with the Royal Ordinance on Fisheries 2015 allowing a properly registered community organization to participate in the development of their communities and fishery resources and receive the budget for doing fish conservation activities. Next month, they will go to the northeastern region and can immediately work together. They used to have a freshwater fisheries committee as well.    

Ms. Ormbun said that the Community Organization Council Network previously submitted a proposal to the Department of Fisheries explaining that the Mekong River is different from other freshwater resources as its situation is getting worse and worse. They thought that normal mechanism would no longer work, they therefore came here.      

As a network who used to work with the Department of Fisheries before with little and very slow budget found that this issue is bigger than fishes or fishery, it is then needed to skip such normal mechanism.

Prof. Tuanthong Jutagate, fisheries expert and scholar, stated that the Mekong issue is beyond the context of the Department of Fisheries because of 1. change of water level mainly caused or stimulated by dams, despite of fish houses, this abnormal tides weaken fishes and their spawn and 2. lack of sediment, project developer often claims that the sediment of the Songkhram River is low but there is more in fact. Less sediment follows by no foods for fishes.

Assoc. Prof. Thanaporn Sriyakul found that the regular mechanism has failed to catch up with the international solutions for solving problems of the Mekong. We do not have host to fix it and this issue is beyond the potential of the Department of Fisheries. He could not imagine how the Department of Fisheries will solve the problem or talk to other higher authority and how the future committee will deal with it. He would like to propose the Ministry of Agriculture as an integrated agency to work more efficiently together with other departments.  

Alongkorn Ponlaboot added that it seemed like we found an important proposal and will as soon as possible submit it to the cabinet. The Mekong River is an international issue having a mechanism under the framework of the Mekong River Commission (MRC); the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) as well as the Mekong-Lanchang Cooperation (MLC). The government must take care of both Thai people and people in the region, many cases are beyond our responsibility but we will try our best to solve the problems of the Mekong River.

“The problems were actually caused by unsustainable development, we cannot go back in time to fix them or destroy the existing dams. We need a sustainable and engaging vision through two levels of international relation, that is to say between state and state as well as between people and people”, said the adviser to the Minister of Agriculture.

“We are now re-designing Thailand and creating green economic corridor which includes the Mekong Economic Corridor, this will bring both government and private sectors to look at the problems and solve them together. Moreover, the government has planned to connect Isaan (the Northeast) with the world by opening a China-linked railway out to the world market including Russia; Middle East; Japan and Korea. The Mekong Economic Corridor will therefore be a door for 7 northeastern provinces along the Mekong River to connect more with the outside world. In the future, the Mekong will have to change like the Chao Phraya River which is now very dry. We have to think about the development that is in consistent with sustainability”.

A representative from the Department of Fisheries said that he will speed up the central budget and explained the reason why the project developer came to him, that was because they wanted to get involved in solving problems.    

Amnat Trichak said in the middle of the meeting that they came here today to protect the Mekong River. He frankly said that the people could not stand that the companies involved in dam building came to release fishes and put their names and logos on the sign while destroying the ecosystem themselves.

Mr. Boonsak, representative from the Department of Fisheries, expressed his concern that the Department of Fisheries was really worried about the Mekong River and its fishery. Changing ecosystem came with the change of aquatic animal’s production capacity, we need to find an accurate problem/impact solution. If not, what we are doing may not be effective.    

Ms. Ormbun gave a closing remark that we came here today to honestly talk about our problems and proposal, we urged the Ministry of Agriculture to set up a mechanism like the Mekong River Working Group as soon as possible. Despite the fact that the Mekong will not be the same, we yet want to keep it as best and least damaged possible. 

Alongkorn Ponlaboot ensured that the Ministry of Agriculture will promptly inform the Prime Minister. However, we have to understand that the Mekong River has changed, the government has plans to push forward the Mekong Economic Corridor in a very broad context. It will lead to new cooperation, but must be in line with sustainable development.   

 “I do agree in principle that there should be a mechanism for working on the Mekong issue, but we must not forget that it is far beyond the context and authority of the Ministry of Agriculture. It needs a multiple cooperation which, of course, does not deny any participation.”  

People from 7 provinces along the Mekong go on a protest march and submit a letter with 7 demands, then meet with relevant ministries and agencies.

At about 2.40 PM, after the meeting with the representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, the network set up their march in front of the Ministry striding towards the Government Complaint Center at the Office of the Public Sector Development Commission (OPDC) opposite the Government House in order to talk with 12 government agencies involved in the Mekong River management.     

This “Stride and Speak for Fishes” is one of today’s key activities initiated by the crisis situation of the Mekong River after the construction of dams both on the upstream in China and downstream which has been continuously affecting and causing changes to the Mekong ecosystem and people’s livelihoods for a long time. When problem solving through normal mechanism was delayed and failed to happen, they therefore marched and spoke not only for fishes; ecosystem; Thai Mekong people, but also for other people in downstream countries which are Laos; Cambodia and Vietnam so that the problems will urgently be solved.

At about 3.00 PM, approximately 50-60 people of the ComNetMekong together with civil society network and the Mekong academics marched from the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives to the Government Complaint Center of the Prime Minister’s Office. Along the way, marching tempo was made by the “Ratsadrum” (people with drums) while other participants showing their dream pictures/banners of the Mekong River; its ecosystem, including different dimensions of impacts after the construction of dams on both upstream and downstream Mekong. This march took approximately half an hour.

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