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River Of Tears: How Chinese Dams Are Devastating The Mekong

Chinese-backed projects are bringing irreperable damage to the Mekong, the largest freshwater fish source in the world feeding millions of people living along its banks.

Morning scenery of Laos' Nam Lik River, a tributary of Mekong River
Morning scenery of Laos' Nam Lik River, a tributary of Mekong River
Bruno Philip

BAN MUANG — Seen from the Thai side, facing the jungle-covered hills of the Laotian bank, the great river bordering the two countries ebbs continuously, like a body of water symbolizing the eternal course of life. The melancholic and beautiful flow of the Mekong, so steady and slow, seems to carry its traditional majesty along with its flat, white waters.

But this is an illusion, and an error of judgment: The Mekong is in danger, and so are the fish, vegetation and people it has nourished since living memory. There is one statistic that illustrates how important the river and its resources are for those who live along its banks: Two million tons of fish are caught in the Mekong every year, a world record for rivers.

"Look at the middle of the river," says Chaiwat Parakun, a fisherman from the village of Ban Muang in northern Thailand, pointing to the grassy islets protruding from the brown surface. "Since we have entered the rainy season, they should all have been submerged by this time. But no: the Mae Nam Kong (the Mekong in Thai) is at least three meters lower than its usual height." We are now at the beginning of August and it will take weeks before the river level finally reaches almost-normal levels in early September.

In 2019, the Lower Mekong Basin, which includes Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, experienced its worst drought in 40 years. The waters of the Tonlé Sap, a lake in Cambodia fed by the Mekong, were also unusually low this August. This was due to a delay in the famous biannual "turnaround" of the river, which sees its course reversed in a beneficial phenomenon of regulatory pulsation. In Cambodia alone, the human stakes are enormous: The average Cambodian derives about 60% of their protein intake from fishing in the lake and the river that crosses it.

The number one culprit identified by most experts is not climate change: it's China. Since the start of the century, China has built more and more infrastructure, including 11 dams on the Lancang Jiang (the Mekong, in Chinese), the "turbulent river" that originates in the Tibetan heights and flows into Laos.

This has carried consequences. The fluctuations of Asia's third longest river, after the Yangtze and the Yellow River, are now unpredictable, as dams have upset its ecological balance. The engineering structures cause silt to settle in the reservoirs and prevent valuable nutrients from moving downstream. In 2019, to the surprise of residents, the absence of nutrients turned the river, normally the color of a flat white coffee, blue.

Straight to disaster

Laos, a small country that has become dependent on its northern neighbor, is aggravating the situation. At the end of 2019, the opening of a first dam on the Laotian part of the Mekong was met with anger and bitterness by the Thai fishermen downstream.

On the Thai side, it was time for citizen mobilization. Fishermen and residents organized themselves into an association defending the integrity of the Mekong. The discontent continues to spread around the northeast Isan province in the 64 tambon (local governing units) bordering the river.

"For years — especially since 2010 — we've been trying to make the authorities hear our observations and about the negative developments underway," says activist Chanarong Wongla, leaning against the railing that runs along the river in the large town of Chiang Khan, located in the western Loei province.

"We're heading straight for disaster."

As if to demonstrate that the survival of the Mekong River is a global issue, he is wearing a black T-shirt that reads: "All lives matter, here I can't breathe," a reference to the slogan now known worldwide in memory of George Floyd, who died asphyxiated below the knee of a white policeman.

Unfortunately, says Wongla, the authorities have so far remained indifferent to the "asphyxiation" of river life and the alarms sounded by fishermen. "We submitted a 180-point report concerning the erratic fluctuations of the river, the erosion of the banks and the progressive disappearance of certain species of fish," explains Wongla. Yet when it comes to the river, there is little difference between the current government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, heir to a recent military junta, and the democratically-elected governments of the past.

At Wongla's side is Thong-in Rueng Kham, a 65-year-old who has just returned from fishing. The veteran nods to the leader while the waning sun sets the entire landscape ablaze, bringing an additional dramatic touch to Kham's observation that sounds like a death knell: "We're heading straight for disaster. When I was young and went fishing with my grandfather, we could bring back about 50 fish a day. Ten years ago, fishing was still good. Now, we are happy when we catch about 10. Sometimes we don't catch any at all."

The good times of bountiful fishing are over. Kham doesn't remember when he last caught a pla buek, the famous Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) and one of the biggest freshwater fish in the world. As its name indicates, the fish is only found in the waters of this particular river. "Half a dozen species out of more than 1,000 — 700 of which are migratory species in the Mekong seem to have disappeared from the waters where I fish," he says.

The future looks bleak: "The river level is sometimes so low that the fish no longer swim up the river and there is no more room to lay their eggs," says fisherman Chaiwat Parakun of Ban Muang village. He gives a very specific example: "Every year, the pla rak kluay period a term meaning that the last fish coming up the river have arrived for spawning is a pivotal time of the season. From now on, everything will be unpredictable: This movement of fish arrival can occur earlier or later."

A study published in April and financed by the U.S. State Department highlights China's responsibility for the degradation of a river that is the largest reservoir of freshwater fish on the planet. The aquatic life of its lower basin provides a livelihood for 66 million people in four countries, a third of whom are Thai. The findings are the subject of fierce debate at a time of unprecedented tensions between China and the United States. According to the report, China retained a considerable volume of water behind its dams on the Mekong in 2019, without worrying about the drought that this could cause downstream.

Worse, Beijing's denial that China was also a victim of the same drought was a lie, according to a study by Eyes on Earth, an American research center for water-related issues. "The satellite data doesn't lie, and there was plenty of water in the Tibetan Plateau, even as countries like Cambodia and Thailand were under extreme duress," Alan Basist, a co-author of the report, recently told the New York Times. Basist said there is no doubt that the Chinese caused the drought by withholding water for their power plants and "regulate their river flow." Another April report from the Stimson Center, a nonprofit think tank, confirms this thesis.

The construction site of the Nam Theun 1 hydropower project — Photo: Sinohydro 3/Xinhua/ZUMA

"More water is discharged from Chinese dams to the lower Mekong River in the dry season and less water in the rainy season. That means a reduction of drought and flooding in the lower Mekong countries. That was the ideal ‘cooperation" Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam expected from China," reads an editorial in the Bangkok Post published this past April. "In reality, China seems to have done the opposite."

On July 5, the Chinese English-language publication Global Times, one of the regime's voices for external propaganda, persisted in maintaining that "hydrology researchers found China was one of the countries that suffered the most from a severe drought along the Lancang-Mekong River in 2019, in contrast with allegations by some foreign researchers which blamed China for the drought in countries on lower reaches of the river."

The daily paper went on to assert that there was no "causal link" between the dams and the phenomena observed downstream: as Chinese "scientists have found continued high temperatures and decreasing rainfall are the main causes of the drought."

The indifference of the Middle Kingdom to the destinies of its smaller neighbors not only causes drought but also floods. The excessive proliferation of dams has upset the rhythms of the rivers, which are at the whim of Chinese decisions to open or close the sluices at will. So much so that, downstream, it can be dry when it should be wet and vice versa.

The small Thai village of Ban Muang faces the Laotian bank. On a Sunday in August, over the voices of a deafening karaoke, the fisherman Chaiwat Parakun explains, "From the beginning, we knew the dams would have a negative effect. We didn't think it would be this bad." All the fishermen we met along the river reacted in the same way to qualify the Chinese authorities: "Liars!"

While the Chinese are responsible, they haven't acted alone. In fall 2019, Laos erected its first large dam on the Mekong River, erected in the province of Xayaburi. The 1,285 megawatts of electricity generated by this 32-meter high structure, built by the Thai company CK Power, will be used primarily to supply power to Thailand.

Therein lies the problem for the kingdom's fishermen. They are upset by Chinese achievements but equally concerned about the consequences of dams built by companies from their own country. "And yet we have more than enough electricity in Thailand," says activist Chanarong Wongla.

Construction frenzy

Laos doesn't seem to have any intention of stopping. In January, the government announced a new dam project, which will be built 2 kilometers from the Thai border in the Sanakham district. The hydroelectric production will likely be purchased by Thailand but work on the dam, which was supposed to start at the end of this year, was halted by COVID-19. The Chinese company Datang Hydropower is behind the construction, at a cost of just over $2 billion.

"Why does Thailand want to continue to build certain dams when it does not need more electricity?"

Obsessed by its goal to become the "battery of Southeast Asia," the small, landlocked Laos (seven million inhabitants) is experiencing a construction frenzy. Laos would be able to sell its electricity to neighboring countries on a large scale and thus ensure its continued development.

A total of 50 or so dams are currently under construction in Laos, despite the sometimes critical opinions of the Mekong River Commission. The regional advisory committee brings together authorities from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and has its headquarters in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. China refused to join. According to Martin Burdett, a contributor to the International Journal on Hydropower and Dams, Laos "would have the hydroelectric capacity to provide 6,500 megawatts per year and has so far developed only 5% of this potential."

Besides, "more than 130 dams are being considered for all the countries of the lower river basin," according to Open Development Mekong, a nonprofit organization. The figure seems excessive, and it's is possible that, in 20 years, several projects will be canceled and the frenzy will subside.

Will the fishermen's mobilization and the negative impacts of the dams begin to make the Thai authorities react? The deputy prime minister, former General Prawit Wongsuwan, who also serves as chairman of the National Mekong Committee, announced on Aug. 4 that he would ask the concerned authorities to find ways to mitigate the possible environmental consequences of the Sanakham dam project in Laos. Wongsuwan said he was "concerned" about the impact of such a dam.

Very Narrow Vision

However, Paiporn Deetes, head of the NGO International Rivers for Thailand, is skeptical: "We can see an awareness in the deputy prime minister's statement. For my part, the real question that hasn't been asked is: Why does Thailand want to continue to build certain dams when it does not need more electricity? One of the answers is that it makes Thai companies work."

At the University of Udon Thani, located in northeastern Thailand, Professor Santiprop Siriwattanaphaiboom, who teaches in the Faculty of Science and Environment, wonders about the reasons behind Chinese "selfishness."

"The volume of the Mekong River in China represents only 18% of the river's total volume," says Siriwattanaphaiboom. "The countries with the largest volume in cubic meters are Thailand and Laos. We are, therefore, the first concerned and the ones entitled to ask: what exactly do the Chinese want? To use the potential of nature — in this case, that of hydroelectricity — to consolidate their political power? Is this a strategy to ensure control of the river, in terms of navigation and trade, even downstream?"

For Siriwattanaphaiboom, the Thai people are not helped by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who was behind the last coup d"état in 2014. "His vision is very narrow; he does not see the connections between ecology, the life of the riverside residents, nature and the environment," he says.

Further north, in Nong Khai, on the very edge of the river, the activist Ormboon Teesana points out with a discouraging gesture that the river is "at such a low level for a monsoon." She conveys her dismay into a disenchanted sentiment, which goes well with the melancholy of the great river: "The dams are based on a vision of the economy that flows on the tears of the people."

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