For as long as one can imagine the meandering flow of the mighty Mekong River has passed through the nations of Southeast Asia, making its way south from China’s Tibetan plateau until it spills out into the South China Sea.
But for the past few years fishing communities living along the riverbanks have complained that their fish stocks are drying up. The iconic waterway is going through some unprecedented changes.
Huge hydropower dams and irrigation systems to power modern farming in the Mekong region have changed how we interact with the river. Now, the Thai government has announced a sweeping new project that will funnel tens of thousands of cubic meters of water from the Mekong to plantations and industry in the country’s northeast.
It would be the biggest water diversion project on the Mekong and has prompted concern from environmentalists and experts.
Like many people in Thailand’s Chiang Khan region living long the Loei River, Wachira Nantaprom has been fishing since he was a teenager. He could also face resettlement under the scheme.
“I am concerned that if this dam project gets constructed at this point of the Mekong River, there may be no longer a place to make a living because we always do fishing to make a living. The fish will be partly gone. We don’t catch fish as much as in the past. This career may be gone from the Chiang Khan area,” he said.
“Moreover, the way of life will disappear. No one will continue this way of life in terms of the next generation. If there is a dam, we have to change careers. We will go to the city to be a day labor or do odd jobs. These are our concerns.”
Chhanarong Wongla, a fishing industry representative in Loei, said a review of the project by the Royal Irrigation Department in July had prompted further concerns.
“My concern is about the ecosystem, the varieties of fish and lives of people in the region. We are concerned that if there is construction here, there would be no flowing of water. It will stay still. People generally have different lifestyles based on the changes of the river. If the water is still, their lives will be entirely changed.”
Thailand originally proposed the Khung Loei Chi-Mun project in the 1960s, but it never got off the ground until now.
According the the project’s website, environmental and social impact studies were carried out in 2011. The construction would connect the Mekong to six smaller rivers including the Chi and Mun. It also says that the project would provide water to the entire northeast and irrigate 32 million hectares of farmland.
However, thousands would likely face resettlement.
Tanusilp Inda, a village chief in Ban Klang village, said the villagers were afraid of the consequences of such a large-scale project. “They don’t want it to be constructed,” he said, adding that villagers would “resist [the project] to their deaths”.
Tek Vannara, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia in Phnom Penh, said the diversion project would siphon water from other Mekong Basin countries who were also experiencing water shortages.
“The reduction of water would impact biodiversity … [and] agricultural practices which depend on water from the Mekong. Climate in the region is also affected on the ground.”
More than 60 million people rely on the fish and other produce derived from the river, he added.
The project would also affect the cultural practices on millions of people who live near the river, he said.
“When the water level goes up or down, or when the ecosystem changes, their culture also changes. For instance, people in Steung Treng province and six other provinces around the Tonle Sap basin depend on fishing. However, when the water does not cover a wide area of the flooded forests, it affects the size of fish spawning area. Hence, the number of fish decreases.
“In turn, this affects the socio-culture and the lifestyle of the fishermen,” he said.
More than 30 other hydropower dams are planned for the Mekong, prompting alarm from experts.
Dr. John Ward, a specialist at the Mekong Region Futures Institute, said economic competition among Mekong Basin countries had led to environmental concerns taking a back seat.
“Other countries have gone through this. They've gone from the river and unmodified system to the hardly developed one and there are lots of lessons to learn from that,” he said.
“So, it'd better to avoid the problems in the first place. And certainly like in the U.S., in Europe, in Asia, and Australia, there are lots of examples, of transboundary problems like the Mekong, and lots of lessons to be learned, how to avoid the future problems in the first place.”
Ward added that multi-party talks should be held with a focus on environmental protection, before it’s too late.
Viroj Jiwaranga, the Loei provincial governor, acknowledged the impact the project would have on the region’s biodiversity and cultures, but said the project would be good for the local economy and could go some way towards solving the water scarcity issue in Thailand’s northeast.
Fishermen like Wachira Nantaprom, however, are not convinced.