1. Mekong River’s Plights
There are several critical issues in the Mekong River such as unseasonal water currents and the disappearance of sediment loads caused by hydropower dam constructions in the Mekong Basin. These constructions in the mainstream river, throughout China and Laos and its tributaries in Laos (including Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam), have negatively impacted the river’s ecosystem and resource uses by communities in many areas. This has been a persistent issue since 1993 which was worsened in 2007 to present. These issues are endless, namely, unusual fluctuations in the dry season, loss of communities’ tourism revenue, fewer riverbank floods – constantly active grass – reduction in sediment loads which causes the loss of riverbank agricultural plots and fewer discharge to its tributaries like the Songkhram river. Another consequence is the riverbank erosion – marking recently appeared rock rapids which change waterways and water levels. These impacts affect riparian communities along the banks, their water supply system, their riparian agriculture with new land ownership. They are also affected by the unseasonal fish migration which means lower fish capture, their loss of jobs, revenue, and food security. There has been an extensive death of riparian flora during the loss of the Mekong River ecosystem which disrupts the food chain and habitats for fish, as well as triggers unseasonal blooming stages for riparian flora, e.g. willow-leaved water crotons, java plums and abnormal inundation for bird nest areas because of unusual water level during the dry season.
Another evident impact is the “Blue Mekong” or sediment-starved phenomenon, which happened immediately after the operation of Xayaburi dam on October 29, 2019, and has continued to present (2023). It also has created an algae bloom during the dry season, so the fisherfolks’ fishing attempts have been unsuccessful which led them to dive-and-shoot parent fish in river caves or spawning areas. Some of them have lost their fisher tools and crops from riverbank plots. A study on impacts from hydropower projects in the mainstream Mekong river from the Department of Water Resource and Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR) found that the decrease rate in sediment loads from Chiang Saen to Chiang Kan was at 11.4% in 2015 to 77% and 98% in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Moreover, an estimation revealed that between December 2020 and March 2021, the quantity of sediments that vanished from Chiang Saen to Chiang Kan was approximately 463,461.87 tons.
2. Controversial and Adverse State Policies to the Mekong River Ecosystem and Riparian Communities
The state policies are seeking economic benefits from the Mekong river by purchasing electricity from the mainstream hydropower dams. These policies have neglected transparent conducts, civilian participations, communities’ interests that depend on their ecosystem and its fertility, and neglected legal processes.
2.1 The approval to expand the scope of the Power Purchase Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Thailand and Laos with an increase from 9,000 Mw to 10,500 Mw (Cabinet Resolution on March 1, 2021) supporting the purchase from the Nam Ngum 3 project, Pak Beng project, Luang Phrabang project, and Pak Lay project is;
- against the Section 178 of the constitution as it requires the primary submission to the parliament for approval (reference: the National Energy Policy Committee Meeting No. 2/2564 (No. 154) on August 4, 2021, https://www.eppo.go.th/index.php/th/component/k2/item/17213-nepc-prayut04-08-64). Therefore, the signing ceremony of this MoU on March 5, 2021 was invalid. Also, the power purchase agreement (PPA) with the Luang Prabang project and Pak Lay project on November 7, 2022 and March 20, 2023 respectively violated the Thai Constitution of 2017 as, according to the Tariff MoU, it is required to complete the additional study of their transboundary environmental impacts before signing. Nonetheless, the study was incomplete;
- lacking transparency and civilian participation. The organizations in charge of PPA such as the Ministry of Energy (MoE) and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) keep the contracts confidential, not disclosing the draft in order that the public could participate in reviewing the draft. It was claimed that the reason was because of its business contract nature, binding itself to conceal the information and disobeying the Official Information Act;
- the operation that is contrary to the country’s power supply and is creating a power price burden with its Take or Pay scheme. Instead, the MoE signed the PPA for 2 hydropower dams almost simultaneously;
|Name||PPA Signing Date||Amount of Purchase (Mw)||Date of Grid Connection||Contract Duration|
|Pak Lay Dam||March 20, 2023||763||January 1, 2032||29||Gulf Energy Development|
|Luang Prabang Dam||November 7, 2022||1,400||January 1, 2030||35||Ch. Karnchang (Laos)|
- The government lacks clear policies for a study of impacts from the Thailand-Laos changing border, caused by the Pak Beng dam and Sanakham dam. This risks border sovereignty losses in the Mekong river. To date, there is no investigation on impacts in Nam Thue issues, for the Thai riparian communities and plots adjacent to the Mekong and its tributaries. Nevertheless, during the briefing with the Committee on Foreign Affairs on September 8 and 15, 202, the organizations in charge of the border issues of Thailand-Laos, e.g., the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Royal Thai Survey Department were unable to analyze how hydropower dam constructions: Pak Beng and Sanakam would affect the border between Thailand and Laos in the Mekong river.
- The government through Thai National Mekong Commissioner Secretariat (TNMCS) lacks a monitoring and rehabilitating system for impacts caused by existing dams in the Mekong river, whether they are in China or in Laos like the Xayaburi dam. The direct responsibility falls into the Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR) and it totally failed. It has studied impacts from mainstream dam constructions for 6 years; it is still unable to analyze the impacts from the dams in China and the Xayaburi dam. It also failed give notifications on water flows from upstream China, failed to disclose information and analysis on disappeared sediment loads caused by thr Xayaburi dam, failed to conduct a Mekong water level analysis using an integrated knowledge of dam’s discharge from Laos, Thailand and the commissioners of MRC, rather than depending entirely on the MRC system, as the former will be more accurate and efficient.
- The government did not respond to demands from the Association of Mekong Community Organizations Network in 7 Provinces in a letter to the prime minister on March 8, 2021 to;
- conduct a bilateral negotiation between Thailand – Laos and Thailand – China;
- delay the power purchase or any commitments on the purchase from hydropower dams in Laos until there is a clear basis on Thailand’s energy demand and its necessity to purchase from hydropower dams in the Mekong;
- prepare the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in projects that have transborder impacts;
- develop a real-time database and notification system to address sudden changes in water flow;
- launch compensation and relief measures for impacted Mekong riparian communities;
- distribute power from the commissioners to other local governing authorities; proceed to distribute power of the natural and environmental resource management in practical ways;
- establish a subcommittee group to address ecological changes in the Mekong basin which affects riparian fauna.
The government did not necessarily give response to these demands. Instead, it chose to advance in another direction, especially by purchasing from hydropower dams in the Mekong. As specified above, there was only responses in official missions’ scopes in the authorities under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives to revive aquatic and agricultural resources. However, they did not respond to any holistic rehabilitation of the Mekong River’s ecosystem at all.
3. Policy Recommendations
3.1 A clear policy framework for the Mekong river to protect, revive, and relief the Mekong River’s ecosystem and restore sustainable and subsistence ways of living with the Mekong. It is a necessity to review, revise, and engage in actions below;
- terminate the power purchase from every hydropower dam in the mainstream Mekong with unsigned agreements;
- terminate the power purchase MoU of an increase from 9,000 Mw to 10,500 Mw;
- suspend the PPA of Luang Prabang dam and Pak Lay dam until the MoU of an increase from 9,000 Mw to 10,500 Mw is approved from the parliament and until the study of transboundary environmental impacts from the aforementioned dams is open for the public hearing and public approval in the manner of the national EIA report’s approval standard;
- conduct the further study of transboundary impacts as required for the power purchase in Thailand (apart from the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) of the MRC); it also needs to open for public hearing and public approval in the manner of the national EIA report’s approval standard;
- disclose the PPA or contracts and open the documents for public hearing in prior to the signing process;
- revise the power development plan (PDP) and reconsider any upcoming power purchase plans to match current conditions of power supply and respond to 13%-or-below power purchase rate from Laos. Therefore, the purchase rate needs to match a relevant condition throughout the plan as the energy security is constantly maintained; not because the end rate of the plan as a criteria;
- develop structures and actions of a power cooperation subcommittee between Thailand and other neighboring countries, from the Ministry of Energy, in order that there is a public participation and accountability to ensure that any commitment is truly based on a principle of public participation and interest;
- study and analyze impacts from ecological changes in the Mekong ecosystem and use changes in Mekong communities from hydropower dams in the mainstream river in order to use the data to negotiate with China’s and Laos’ governments;
- develop structures and actions of the Thai National Mekong Commissioner Secretariat (TNMCS) to include public participation and accountability to ensure that any commitment is truly based in a principle of public participation and interest.
3.2 Revise the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin 1995 to have a clear participatory process for civilians, apart from the government’s representatives, in order that the latter would not become merely organizations to justify hydropower dams or water diversion projects.
3.3 Respond to the demands from the Association of Mekong Community Organizations Network in 7 Provinces in a letter to the prime minister on March 8, 2021 and the People Network of Mekong River Protection – Isaan on December, 3 2021 which are;
- halt and revise the “old” development projects. Discontinue the “new” projects including the Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun water diversion projects;
- revive and compensate for the ecology, society, and economics;
- evaluate performances in local areas for an open and collective discussion;
- develop participatory laws and regulations;
- revise water management strategies and power development policies;
- revise environmental and water laws and regulations to cover transboundary issues;
- distribute power of local resource management to locals / communities;
- promote and develop water management policies in a small scale by local communities.
3.4 Endorse policies that support and strengthen communities as a fishery reserve and aquatic resource fertile areas, for local earnings, food security, and future Mekong’s ecosystem revival by directing funds to communities and by establishing collaborative mechanisms among government agencies, local authorities, academic institutions, experts, and communities to collaborate on a basis of equality and adaptability to communities’ contexts.
3.5 The state and its agencies should discontinue and revise activities that are in the manner of isolated rehabilitation while continues to destroy the ecosystem, e.g., Songkram River’s water gate construction projects, other water gate projects, swamp dredges, especially in wetlands.
This Policy recommendation by The Mekong Butterfly presented at a forum on environmental policies to political parties. On March 30, 2023, from 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM, at the Sirindhorn Anthropology Center. Organized by TCJA, The National Assembly of Environmental Protection and Conservation of Natural Resources, Sirindhorn Anthropological Center, New Generation Group on “Environmental Politics” and The Reporters.