All lives of the Mekong River depend on the river’s seasonal flow and sediments to flourish.
Current development plans extract and destroy the Mekong River’s sources of lives.
Stop the destructive developments. Bring back the seasonal flow and sedimentation.
Mekong River Situation and Thailand Government’s Policies in 2022
Two pressing issues of the Mekong River are the unnatural flow fluctuation and disappearing sediment load
Hydropower dam developments on the Mekong mainstream in China and Laos and the tributaries in Laos (as well as Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam) have adversely affected the riparian ecosystems and livelihoods since 1993 and exacerbated in 2007. Communities lose income from tourism when the flow of the Mekong River fluctuates unnaturally in the dry seasons. When the river does not rise as high to flood the riverbank, it causes a few impacts. Certain plants are left growing rather than dying with the flood. Sediments are not dispersed to deposit on the riverbank. Consequently, communities lose farming land for riverbank cultivation. This also reduces the chance that the Mekong mainstream would flow and flood the tributaries such as the Songkhram River. As riverbanks erode and the Mekong River becomes drier, new sandbars emerge and the streambeds change. This affects houses, irrigation and water utility systems and agriculture on the riverbanks as well as land titles and ownerships. In the river, as the fish migration season changes, fisher folks can catch less fish, lose their ways of earning income and jeopardize food security. As a large number of aquatic plants die, the Mekong river ecosystems are greatly affected by this loss and the fish lose their habitats and food. Flowering time of the riverine plants–such as willow-leaved water croton (Homonoia riparia, known in Thai as krai-nam in Thai) and jambolan (Syzygium cumini, known in Thai as wah nam) appear out of season. Abnormal river fluxes in dry seasons flood egg-laying areas of many bird species who lay eggs only in the dry season. Sediment-starved rivers allow algae bloom in the Mekong River in the dry season while preventing fisher folks from catching fish. These abnormal phenomena happened immediately after the operation of the Xayaburi dam on 29 October 2019 and continued to 2022. Subsequently, other unfortunate incidents follow such as the shootings of mature adult fish in their habitats such as whirlpools and underwater caves and losses of fishing gears and riverbank cultivation products.
Governments only seek economic benefits from the Mekong River
- Despite Thailand’s large excessive power generation capacity reserve and cost burdens under the “Take or Pay” electricity purchase system, the Ministry of Energy pushes forward the Tariff MOU for as many as three dams. The power purchase agreements (PPA) will soon follow.
|Dam||Tariff MOU Signed Date||Purchasing Power (megawatts)||Scheduled Commercial Operation Date||Concession Period (years)||EGAT’s Agreement Signee|
|Pak Lay||24 January 2022||763||1 January 2032||29||Gulf Energy Development|
|Pak Beng||25 April 2022||897||1 January 2033||29||Gulf Energy Development|
|Luang Prabang||27 April 2022||1,400||1 January 2030||35||Ch. Karnchang (Lao)|
- The government is willing to risk losing its sovereignty and territory in the Mekong River for the construction of Pak Beng Dam
- The government does not enforce the Public Procurement and Supplies Administration Act with its agencies. Instead, it is willing to allow private companies to conduct surveys for the construction of the Salawan dam and Pha Mong dam—although these studies are commissioned between the companies and Laos only.
- Office of National Water Resources (ONWR), as the government agency directly responsible to the Mekong River management, has failed completely to notify discharge from the dams in China and release data and analyses related to the sedimentation of the Xayaburi dam and the 6-year study of the impacts on the Mekong mainstream. The ONWR has not been able to provide an integrated analysis of negative impacts of the dams in China and Xayaburi dam. It fails to provide a more efficient notification system to show the changes of the Mekong River flow in relations to the discharge from the dams in Laos and Thailand beyond the available data from the MRC.
- The government agencies directly responsible for the Thai-Lao territory boundary—such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Royal Thai Survey Department—fail to analyze whether the Pak Beng dam would affect the Thai-Lao borderline in the Mekong River and report to the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs on 8 and 15 September 2022.
- The government agencies directly responsible for the power purchase agreement—such as the Ministry of Energy and EGAT—ultimately omit to reveal the contracts or draft agreements for public inspection. Instead, they explain that the contract is a business contract competitiveness. Failing to make the agreement available only binding them for their own interests rather than abiding to the Official Information Act.
- Twelve government agencies are responsible for responding to the letter re: social and environmental impact assessments of the Sanakham dam submitted by fifteen civil society organizations on 11 June 2022. However, only five agencies responded. The government agencies that are directly responsible for such a request—such as ONWR, the Department of Fisheries, and the Department of Treaties and Legal Affairs—have been negligent.
- The government has been negligent in responding to the requests made by the Northeast Community Network in Seven Provinces of Mekong River Basin (ComNet Mekong) on 8 March 2021. The requests are outlined as follow:
- Conduct bilateral negotiations with Laos and China
- Suspend the power purchase or any binding contracts to purchase electricity from the hydroelectric dams on the Mekong mainstream in Laos. Only until a clear conclusion on Thailand’s energy demand and the necessity of electricity procurement from the dams on the Mekong mainstream is made available should the government reconsider the procurement.
- Conduct a transboundary environmental impact assessment, led by the Thai government
- Organize a database and create a real-time river monitoring and notification system
- Set mitigation and compensation measures for affected Mekong riparian communities
- Distribute power to local administrations to participate in natural resources and environmental management tangibly and concretely
- Commission a committee to mitigate ecological impacts specifically on aquatic lives and resources in the Mekong River basin
- Although a few government agencies responded by acknowledging these requests, many of the requests have been neglected by the government. In the opposite, the attempt to purchase electricity from the dams on the Mekong River continues. The Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives is responsible for recovering fishery and agricultural resources. Yet, it fails to recover the Mekong ecosystems comprehensively and holistically. For example, it continues to release fish although less than one percent of the introduced fish could survive. Instead of seeking different solutions, it increases the number of fish to be released. Additionally, it has attempted to preserve and culture plant tissues of Crinum viviparum (known in Thai as plub pleung tan Mekong) and Cryptocoryne sp. Yet, its process actually destroys the natural habitat and flora genes permanently. Currently, no comprehensive study on the Mekong River ecosystems has been planned to ensure ecological recovery of the Mekong River in the long term.
- The phenomena of sediment-starved Mekong River started in November 2019. Until present, no government agency has provided explanation, including the ONWR. Consequently, Thai communities along the Mekong River have come together and agreed to independently measure and monitor sediment loads and turbidity with turbidity tubes and Secchi disks since early 2019. Results from November to March show a clear difference in turbidity between sampling locations upstream and downstream of the Xayaburi Dam. Upstream sampling location is in Chiang Khong district, Chiang Rai. Measurements in downstream locations are conducted by communities in Chiang Khan and Pak Chom districts, Loei; That Phanom district in Nakhon Phanom; Chanuman district in Amnat Charoen; and Pho Sai district in Ubon Ratchathani. Data collected by the communities correspond to sediment load data collected before and after the construction of the Xayaburi dam which appeared in the impacts assessment conducted by the Department of Water Resources and ONWR. Results indicate that the comparative rate of sediment between Chiang Saen and Chiang Khan decreases from 11.4% in 2014 to 77% in 2020 and 98% in 2021 respectively. The calculation of the disappearing sediments between Chiang Saen and Chiang Khan Hydrological Stations from December 2020 to March 2021 reveals approximately 463,461.87 tons of sediments are lost. (The load is an equivalent to 15,000 30-ton trucks). Such a clear-looking sediment-starved Mekong River directly affects the Mekong ecosystems. Bank severely erodes. Less deposits on soil, reducing nutrients for riverbank agriculture and fish. It is speculated that the disappearing sediments might be crucial nutrients sources for some bird species too.
Mekong River Situation in 2022
The power purchase agreements for the Luang Prabang dam, Pak Beng dam, and Pak Lay dam will only set an irreversible countdown towards the ecological and social collapses of the Mekong communities. More dams to block the lower Mekong mainstream will follow and be listed falsely as sustainable hydroelectric power dams under the regional mechanisms of the MRC–Sanakham dam, Pak Chom/Pha Mong dam, Ban Koum/Salawan dam, Phu Ngoy dam, Don Sahong dam (extended), Stung Treng dam, and Sambor dam. If all dams were built, the Mekong River ecosystems that are nourishing more than 60 million peoples will collapse and never return to their abundance.
The Thai government and its mechanisms will fail to protect, safeguard and mitigate the Thai peoples, specifically those who reside by the Mekong River, and the Mekong ecosystems. Although mitigation ecological recovery plans may be put forth, they will increasingly be implemented separately under the discourse of sustainability and economic stimulus.
General elections and changes in the administrations in 2022 may lead to changes in policies that put more attention to the Mekong River and various impacts on the river. Notwithstanding, if EGAT has signed the PPA, changes could only occur when EGAT decided to terminate the PPA and accepted to buy in the dam project with a monumental amount of investment.
Maintain community dynamics by creating conservation spaces for ecosystems and aquatic lives in the Mekong River. These conservation spaces will ensure abundance in fishery resources, food and income security at the local level, and ecological regeneration in the future.
Recommendations for Sustainable and Just Policies
The government must clarify its political will in protecting, recovering and mitigating the Mekong riparian ecosystems to ensure sustainable livelihoods. A clear political will shall direct the government responses to the community’s struggles and ensure its integrity during bilateral negotiations with China and Laos.
At present, similar recommendations have been issued by the Northeast Community Network in Seven Provinces of Mekong River Basin (ComNet Mekong) on 8 March 2021 (see aforementioned details) and the The Northeastern People’s Protection Network for Mekong River Basin on 3 December 2022 as follow:
- Stop reviewing “old” development projects and cancel “new” projects including the Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun Water Diversion (Management) Project.
- Mitigate and regenerate ecologically, socially and economically
- Assess possibilities for critical dialogues to happen safely
- Develop legal instruments to ensure genuine participatory process
- Review water management and energy development strategies
- Amend environmental and water laws to comprehensively address transboundary impacts
- Distribute powers of natural resource managements to local/communities
- Promote small-scale water management policies to be implemented by local communities
The government’s policies should promote and empower communities to ensure long term ecological recovery and regeneration of the Mekong riparian ecosystems in the future. The government should seek to install instruments that will secure funding directly for local communities to conserve and enhance our fisheries abundance for local food and income securities. Multi-scale cooperations among various government and administrations levels as well as academic institutions, experts and communities must be grounded in equality and different contexts.
The government and its agencies should stop a project that aims to “restore the environment”. But in fact, it is severely destroying the ecosysteme.g. construction of large sluice gates at the mouth of the Songkhram River or other streams and dredging streams in wetlands areas.
- The Mekong River flows over 4,800 kilometers from its origin in Tibet through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The lower Mekong region includes areas four countries—namely, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—and nourishes more than 60 million people. Of this number, approximately 29.6 million work and live within the 15-kilometer radius from the Mekong River and approximately 2.1 million reside within the 5-kilometer radius (SEA 2010/2553). In Thailand, Mekong riparian communities within the 15-kilometer reside in seven provinces of the northeastern region. This is broken down into 1,485 villages in 90 sub-districts of 25 districts (ComNet Mekong). The Mekong River is also a primary source of protein for the locals, accounting to as much as 47-80% of protein intake and contributing between 127-231 billion bath of fishery income annually (WWF).
- The changes in the Mekong River flow began during the construction of the Manwan dam in China. After its operation in 1993, China has constructed another ten large-scale hydroelectric dams on the Mekong mainstream until 2019: Dachaoshan dam, Jinghong dam, Xiaowan dam, Nuozhadu dam, Gongguoqiao dam, Lididam, Miaowei dam, Dahuaqiao dam, Huangdeng dam and Wunonglong dam. These dams have a total generating capacity of 19,200 megawatts and can retain more than 40 billion cubic meters of water.
- Concurrently, Laos has constructed dams on the tributaries of the Mekong River: Nam Thenn 2 dam (in 2010), Nam Ngum 2 dam, Theun-Hinboun dam, Nam Ngum 5 dam, Nam Ngiep dam. The impacts of these dams on the flux and flow of the Mekong River are apparent. The most visible impact is the flooding that lasts for more than three months in 2018 as the Nam Ngum 3-5 dams continually release water.
- Laos is the first country to build dams on the lower part of the Mekong mainstream: the Xayaburi dam (operation begins on 29 October 2019) and the Don Sahong dam (operation begins in December 2019). The Lao government grants concession for the construction of the Xayaburi dam to the Xayaburi Power Company Limited. This company contracts Ch.Karnchang as the main developer with a joint investment with Thai investors. Five commercial banks in Thailand are involved in lending loans to the project. The power purchase agreement with EGAT states a purchase of 1,260 megawatts 31 years.
 By Mr.Montree Chantawong, The Mekong Butterfly, December 2022.