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Thai Villagers Feel Effects of Mekong River Dams

A local villager drive a boat where the future site of the Luang Prabang dam will be on the Mekong River, outskirt of Luang Prabang province, Laos, February 5, 2020. (REUTERS/Panu Wongcha-um)
Thai Villagers Feel Effects of Mekong River Dams
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The Mekong River is Southeast Asia’s longest, passing through China, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

But dams have changed the path of the river system. Now there are droughts during the rainy season and high water when it should be dry. That has affected the lives of people, including those in northeastern Thailand where locals depend on the river for food and work.

Recently, Rodjana Thepwong searched for flecks of gold on the edge of the Mekong River in the northeastern part of Thailand. She said the waterway has been her playground, food supply and way to earn a living for all of her 64 years.

But it is changing at a speed she can hardly believe. When she was younger, the water was so low during dry season that she could walk to the Lao side a few hundred meters away. Now, she said, the water rises in the dry season so she stays on the Thai side and searches for very small amounts of gold.

Upstream dams have destroyed the natural processes of the river. About 60 million people depend on the river for food and survival. Many of the dams were built by China.

The land along the river used to provide farmland to the poorest Mekong villagers. But now, when the dams are closed to produce electricity, water levels rise and fall without warning. And the land will not grow much of any food crop.

Campaigners say many kinds of fish have disappeared. They say the river downstream now lacks needed sediment. This has sent a shock through the whole river system.

Thai Villagers Feel Effects of Mekong River Dams
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A new $2 billion hydroelectric dam, financed by China, is being planned for the town of Sanakham in Laos. It is just two kilometers from northern Thailand. Locals fear it will rob the river of nutrients and the sediment that provides nutrients for fish. They say it will be the end of the living river in northern Thailand.

The Mekong River Commission is in the process of examining the Sanakham dam proposal for possible effects on the environment and communities. But such steps are seen by locals as being unserious.

From a conservation area on the Thai side of the river, local researcher Apisit Soontrawirat records the destruction. The conservation area is a few kilometers downstream from the proposed dam.

He said the Chinese and Lao dams have ruined the river system. Apisit said nearly 70 kinds of fish have disappeared because of the lack of sediment. But the dams also affect plant species, which help provide food for fish.

Dam operators say they have put in place measures to reduce environmental damage, including building a passage for the fish. The structure permits fish to move upstream during mating season.

But Apisit said big companies in China, Laos and Thailand are taking everything and leaving the common people with nothing.

“Villagers are not getting any benefits from these dams,” he said. “The only people that gain are the big businesspeople involved” in the hydropower.

From a small village home, a network of fishermen defends the river from the hydropower centers. But they stand little chance against the business interests that oppose them.

Chaiwat, one of the fishermen, said locals call the Mekong the River of Life. All they want, he said, is for it to be returned to them, so they can live off of it, even if it is not the same as before.

With fish populations greatly reduced, many fishermen have left the waterway for work in rubber fields or factories in the city.

Another proposed dam in Pak Chom could further hurt the people who still eat, live and work along its waters. It would be the first dam across the Thai stretch of the Mekong.

Fisherman Sudta Insamran has a simple plea to the dam builders:

It is time to stop building dams, he says, and return the Mekong River to the people.

“Please stop,” Sudta says. “Enough is enough.”

I’m Alice Bryant.

And I’m Bryan Lynn.

Vijitra Duangdee reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

drought ­–n. a long period of time with little or no rain

fleck –n. a small spot or mark

upstream –adj. the direction that is opposite the flow of water in a stream or river; opposite of downstream

sediment ­–n. the material that sinks to the bottom of a liquid

conservation –n. the protection of animals, plants and natural resources

benefit –n. a good or helpful result