Fight for the Mekong gathers pace

Fight for the Mekong gathers pace

A section of the Mekong River in Wiang Kaen district, Chiang Rai province opposite Laos.
A section of the Mekong River in Wiang Kaen district, Chiang Rai province opposite Laos.

More than 20 years ago, when two Chiang Rai-based environmentalists, Niwat Roikaew and Somkiat Kuenwongsa, learned that the Chinese government were blasting rapids in the upper Mekong River from Yunnan to Myanmar and Laos to clear the way for large commercial vessels, they started worrying.

Back then there was little data about what China was doing in the international river. But the two environmentalist realised that blasting obstacles such as rapids and islands was bad for the river's ecology as rapids are habitats and spawning grounds for fish.

More importantly, without rapids, there would be no natural barriers against strong currents during the wet season. In the early 2000s, they gathered more information and learned that the Manwan dam, the first dam on the upper Mekong, had been finished, more were to follow and that blasting was continuing.

The two activists then campaigned in earnest against these activities. Given their scarce resources, the fight was much like David versus Goliath. Fortunately, their campaign attracted media attention, which provided them the space to express their concerns, which eventually saw the Chinese government suspend plans to conduct blasting along stretches separating Thailand and neighbouring countries. However more dams were completed.

In Chiang Rai, villagers soon found that these upper Mekong dams affected their way of life.

Runoff is no longer seasonal thereby causing damage to the ecology, fishing and riverine agriculture especially in three districts -- Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong and Wiang Kaen.

The impacts raised awareness among villagers in eight provinces along the Mekong in the North and the Northeast significantly. They formed networks and sent alarm signals which were rarely noted.

Each time the Thai media questioned the environmental damage China was inflicting on the Mekong, the Chinese government would say the Mekong dams would ease the impact of flooding in the rainy season, and maintain water supply during drought.

Typically, this is a dam builders' standpoint.

For locals, such development ruins ecosystems, disturbs water cycles and damages the livelihoods of the people in the Mekong river basin. During the rainy season, water spillover flows into tributaries which are seasonally flooded. During the dry season, islands emerge as the water recedes. Those areas serve as habitat for migratory birds. This significant ecosystem has lasted for thousands of years and nurtured numerous civilisations such as the Lanna and Khmer.

In 2001, dam builders started to target Laos, with projects for the lower Mekong after the country adopted its "battery of Asia" policy.

Frustrated, Mr Niwat, and villagers in eight provinces along the Mekong brought the Xayaburi dam case to the Thai Administrative Court, petitioning for the scrapping of Egat's power purchase contract as the dam, which was completed late last year, would cause transborder impacts. The verdict is pending.

By the end of 2015, the Prayut Chan-o-cha government endorsed China's Mekong plans as proposed by Thailand's Transport Ministry. This was tantamount to opening the country to Chinese teams to survey, design, and conduct activities that could include island and rapid blasting. This greatly upset civil society.

It demonstrated state agencies had did not understood the impact such development had on national security and on ecology, local economies and food safety among communities along the Mekong.

The two environmentalists fought hard and opened communications with society, and pressure grew so much so that the government was forced to backtrack and renegotiate with the Chinese government, which earlier this year agreed to withdraw the plan.

It's sad that while activists have staunchly sought to protect the Mekong River, some government agencies still see the river as an asset that the private sector can reap benefits from without thinking about the ecology or villagers' livelihoods. For some, the river is just a commercial waterway. Dam builders, meanwhile, want to use of it for power generation. It should be noted that Thailand continues to buy electricity despite a massive surplus during this economic slowdown due to the pandemic.

"We have been fighting for more than 20 years. At the beginning, it was like throwing a stone into the ocean -- nothing coming back. But now we can see some results, like China's response, while some countries are now eager to take action. Now is a good time to set up a Mekong People's Assembly that can echo our concerns. The assembly will be instrumental in providing sustainable solutions for this river. We have to build up awareness and knowledge at the same time," according to Mr Niwat.

He, Mr Somkiat and other environmentalists will on Dec 1-2 hold an event that will include panel discussions and cultural activities to mark the establishment of the assembly, which will comprise representatives from eight Mekong provinces. They have invited representatives from foreign embassies, including the US, Australia, China, Japan, and Germany to attend. Most have shown an interest.

Now more countries are scrambling to play a role in the development of the Mekong River, Southeast Asia's major artery. Such interest is very welcome as long as local people benefit and its ecology is preserved.

Paskorn Jumlongrach

Founder and reporter of

Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of

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