Songkhram River threat

Songkhram River threat

Impact of hydropower dams on water flow is putting fishermen out of business

Kham Neelakul, a local fisherman from Ban Samphong, still goes fishing in the Songkhram River with traditional gear, but his catches are getting progressively smaller.
Kham Neelakul, a local fisherman from Ban Samphong, still goes fishing in the Songkhram River with traditional gear, but his catches are getting progressively smaller.

Development projects and agrochemicals are threatening the ecology of the Songkhram River -- the last free-flowing river in the Northeast and one of the country's few remaining freshwater biodiversity hotspots, although some species are already nothing but a memory.

- A vanishing haven -

"Fish are now harder to find," says Wichit Phonglad, a local sage in Ban Samphong, a small community by the river in Nakhon Phanom's Sri Songkhram district. "Many fish species have completely vanished from the river, and we can no longer sustain our livelihood by fishing."

Mr Wichit grew up and has spent most of his life fishing on the river, one of the major tributaries of the Mekong River in Thailand. At 73 years old, he no longer fishes for a living. But he still clearly remembers every kind of fish that used to swim in the river's brown-green water, and he's an invaluable source of local wisdom about traditional fisheries.

A habitat for some 192 fish species at the last count, and an important spawning ground for many migratory fish from the Mekong, the area encompassing about 34,000 rai of the Lower Songkhram River Basin in Tha Uthen and Sri Songkhram districts of Nakhon Phanom was declared the 15th "wetland of international importance" in Thailand in May 2019.

But now the Songkhram River has changed, and local fishermen are faced with an alarming drop in fish numbers. Mr Wichit says that in the past few years, fishermen have been catching far fewer fish, while 25 species of fish previously found in the river have now disappeared.

He blames the hydropower dams on the Mekong River for the big decline in fish stocks. Since the Xayaburi Dam in Laos began operating in 2019, he says, the Songkhram River is no longer flowing according to its natural patterns.

Under normal conditions, the river would flood for 3-4 months, between June and October each year. Mr Wichit says the lives of the people and those of every other living organism along the river are determined by this annual event, when the rising muddy-brown tide from the Mekong River surges into the Songkhram River and inundates the low-lying flood plain and riverine forestlands.

But since the Xayaburi Dam started operating, says Mr Wichit, the Songkhram River does not flood seasonally anymore and sometimes even floods out of season.

"Before the Xayaburi Dam opened, we already experienced minor impacts from the dams in China," he says. "But after the Xayaburi Dam -- which is situated much closer in Laos -- started running, the impact on the river flow greatly intensified.

"The dams do not just cause unnatural flow and extreme fluctuations of the water level in the Mekong River. These impacts from dams also extend into the Mekong's tributaries, making the Songkhram River unpredictable."

These changes to water flow are major threats to the Songkhram River and its rich biodiversity, says Mr Wichit, who stresses that the absence of the seasonal flood and the unnatural fluctuation of the river are interrupting the reproductive cycles of Mekong River fish and degrading wetland ecosystems.

- Big-money project fears -

"There is strong local opposition to new development projects in the Songkhram River Basin," says Amnart Trichak, chairman of the Network of Community Organisation Councils of Seven Northeastern Provinces in Mekong Basin.

"People up and down the Mekong and Songkhram River Basin are suffering direct impacts from the dams," according to Mr Amnart. "Instead of turning their attention toward mitigating the environmental issues, the authorities would rather come out with more of these large-scale projects that the local people do not want."

Mr Amnart cites the Marine Department's recently proposed river dredging, which he says is another example of a project that may harm the Songkhram River.

"This is a dangerous project that could devastate our river and wetland ecosystems," he says. "Because they will dredge the riverbed and dump sediment on the riverbanks, which will destroy both fish habitats on the riverbed and flood the forest on both sides of the river. Furthermore, this project has been assigned to protected areas of the Lower Songkhram River Ramsar Site."

Mr Amnart says that despite its potential to harm the river and wetland ecosystems, the Marine Department pressed on without public consultation, and the local people only learnt about it early this year.

"Because the authorities usually plan large-scale projects without consulting or acknowledging local communities, most projects end up ill-suited to their needs and draw opposition," he says.

Mr Amnart says he is referring to proposals to dam the Songkhram River with water gates at three separate spots.

The first gate would be built over the middle section in Sakon Nakhon's Akat Amnuai district to manage water flow and store up to 74 million cubic metres of water for irrigation. The second is planned to be built across the mouth of the river in Nakhon Panom's Tha Uthen district to manage the flow into and out of the Mekong River.

He says because of concerns over impacts on the river's ecology, these water gate proposals have met with fierce local opposition.

- Assessing likely impact -

Phirun Saiyasitpanich, secretary-general of the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (Onep), says the government has not neglected the problem of freshwater biodiversity degradation.

"As Onep is the agency directly responsible for biodiversity conservation, it has a duty to ensure that the ecosystems of all important wetlands are properly managed and protected in accordance with the Ramsar Convention," he told the Bangkok Post.

Acknowledging that one of the threats to freshwater biodiversity and wetland ecosystems nationwide comes from development projects on rivers, he says there is an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mechanism to study every project's possible adverse effects on the environment and propose measures to mitigate against them.

These EIA reports are submitted to Onep. Unless an EIA report shows that proper mitigation measures are in place to lessen foreseen negative environmental consequences, Onep will reject the draft and require further revisions. "Onep is also cooperating with other agencies to ensure that any new development projects consider the environmental aspects and have minimal impacts on local ecosystems."

But Mr Wichit, as a retired fisherman who has witnessed the Songkhram River's rapid changes, says more action is needed now. "The authorities must urgently address the impact of hydropower dams in the Mekong River and restore the Songkhram River's ecosystems to safeguard both natural resources and local people's livelihoods," he said.

"We must also stop building more dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries and focus on conserving our special ecosystems," Mr Wichit added, "as it has become clear that the dams are doing more harm than good to the environment".

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