Mekong 'dammed' by uncertainty
Last week, it was reported that Chinese authorities notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) that Jinghong Dam in Yunnan province will reduce its rate of water discharge by half from the beginning of the month until late January. For communities living along the Mekong, unusual water fluctuations in the Mekong River are not new. This has been happening for more than a decade.
Before the construction of the Lancang cascade, of which 11 dams are already online in China, there had been no extreme water fluctuations in the Mekong River. For many millions of years, the Mekong water levels rose and receded in accordance with the cycle of the seasons. We used to have dry and rainy seasons.
But when the dam cascade blocked the upper Mekong, locals living on Thai-Lao border experienced a changed Mekong that has now been controlled by dams for a period of 20 years. So far, 11 dams have been built in the Upper reaches. The one closest to the Thai border is the Jinghong Dam, only 340km from the Golden Triangle, in Chiang Rai's Chiang Saen district.
In the rainy season, the Mekong River flooded along both banks, its tributaries and wetlands. Rising water levels allowed fish and aquatic life to migrate to the Upper Mekong and its tributaries to breed.
But as the Upper Mekong dams began to store and control the water, the river ecology has changed. There are no floods in the rainy season. This adversely affects the cycle of life of this river. What were originally wetlands and flood-prone areas became barren, resulting in negative impacts that have been accumulating over the years.
During the rainy season, the Upper Mekong dams store massive amounts of water. And now sediment and nutrients are disappearing in lower areas. The blue and clear Mekong means the abundance and source of life are slowly vanishing from the river system.
The notification to the MRC by China about reducing water flow from the Jinghong Dam is evidence that the dams cause ecological destruction. This cannot be denied.
The evidence is now strong, and the MRC website shows that water level of the Mekong at Chiang Saen station has dropped sharply since the early days of 2021. This has been long noticed by local fishermen, farmers, and children of the Mekong River.
The damage and disruption reflect how policymakers have focused on one dimension: macro-economic development. But in reality, the Mekong River and its associated communities have many other dimensions such as culture, water supply, agriculture, food security and its role as an important source of income for the local economy.
In other words, the Mekong River's resources are the backbone of communities that live on both sides
But the current direction of development shows that regional decision-makers do not acknowledge the broader value of the river, ignoring other users of this shared resource. The so-called development has been focused on large infrastructure construction. The adverse impacts aren't an overnight occurrence. Besides, the impact and damage is regional and does not just a small group of people -- we are talking about tens of millions throughout the Lower Basin.
This problem needs to be fixed immediately by and Mekong riparian governments must accept the transboundary impacts of dams on the river.
The Mekong River management is in the hands of a small group of elites, in governments and businesses. Ordinary people, villagers, fishers, farmers, those powerless people who rely largely on the Mekong River have had no say in the decision-making process. I've seen that only the state and business receive benefits, economically and politically.
In order to fairly manage the Mekong River as a regional common resource, there must be meaningful participation from all stakeholders.
It's time to stop looking at the Mekong River as a cake to share among those at a party. The mighty Mekong must be viewed as an important common resource to be carefully shared sustainable and equitable manner.
The Chinese Embassy in Bangkok once said in a statement, "We drink from the same river." So, different stakeholders must be included in the planning and management of the Mekong.
Moving forward together, the Mekong River management process needs to based on knowledge-based decision-making, not centred around the economic and political interests of a few powerful people. This is to enable the Mekong society to live together sustainably over the coming years.
With regard to the "notification" from China to the MRC, I, as a local, am of the view that although the management of the Mekong River needs more than data sharing, that alone is not enough. Local communities in Chiang Rai have been complaining for many years, probably over a decade, that we need the seasonal ecological flow. This means changes to the way dams are operated. The Mekong needs better and more accountable governance so that these ecological impacts can be solved sustainably. The livelihoods of millions of people depend on it.
During the past two years, our flood season has evaporated. Even worse, during the dry season, the water level now fluctuates unusually, with drought as well as floods. The damage caused is cumulative and will eventually be irreversible.
In order to sustainably manage the Mekong River, we need to look holistically, well beyond the border of the nation-state.
Niwat Roykaew is Chairperson of Chiang Khong Conservation Group, and a member of the Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces.