On an early morning last December, Manee* (name changed to protect privacy), a woman of 73, woke to prepare offerings to the monks in Ban Viang Kook of Nongkhai Province in Thailand. A papaya in one hand, she steadied the knife in the other to make somtum – northeastern Thailand’s famed salad dish. Apart from unripened papaya, the other crucial ingredient is tomato. Manee walked to her backyard on the banks of the Mekong River to pick some. That’s when she realized that her riverbank crops had flooded overnight, as she lifted her sarong up above her knees to avoid the water.
Manee was not the only one directly affected by the sudden and unexpected fluctuations of the Mekong water levels this past dry season.
Downstream some 400km away, Somboon*, a fisherman in Amnat Charoen Province, awoke to find his boat missing. Somboon has been fishing since he was born – it’s in his blood, and one of the skills he is most proud of. The waters swelled overnight and washed away his 8-meter boat and its motor engine. And with it, the main means with which he makes his livelihood.
The Mekong River starts its 4,400km flow from the Tibetan Plateau through China’s Yunnan Province – where it is known as the Lancang River – before it enters Thailand at the Golden Triangle near the borders with Myanmar on the west and Lao PDR on the east. The Mekong’s water volume changes seasonally, with May to July being the most turbulent time and also the period for highest fish catch in downstream area. In the dry season, the water starts to recede around November, allowing riverbanks to emerge for locals to cultivate during and for fish to migrate and breed.
The livelihoods of local communities are fused with this seasonal cycle. Different agricultural strategies, cultivation times, and fishing methods depend on the fundamental understanding of this natural cycle. This knowledge allows local people to get essential nutrients via fish and crops, as well as the economic means with which to send children to school.
For the past twenty years a Thai environmental NGO, Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), has been working closely with riparian communities. In tandem with locals, TERRA tracks and records the stories of their livelihoods and interdependence with the Mekong and its natural resources. With the knowledge that the Mekong is being increasingly impacted by dams, TERRA also strategically monitors and campaigns against large hydropower projects on the Mekong mainstream.
The rapid fluctuation of water level in the Mekong is not new but the phenomenon seems more erratic in recent months. In 2008, Lu Xixi, Wang Jianjun and Carl Grundy-Warr examined the relations between Chinese dams on the Lancang and water level alteration on the Mekong downstream and found that the operation of Manwan Dam – the first dam on Mekong/Lancang mainstream completed in 1996 – had a significant influence on the Mekong hydrological flow mostly in dry season when the water level dropped much lower than normal. In addition, Montree Chantawong, TERRA’s Research and Campaign Director, charted the water level recorded at three Mekong water stations in Thailand and found it irregular in comparison to previous years.
“Such a rise in Mekong water level in December was unheard of among locals. This is the time when the Mekong should be very low, but the water came suddenly. Many farmers and fishers were not prepared for it that’s why their fields were flooded and their boats were damaged,” explained Montree.
When asked about the cause of this unprecedented flood, many locals pinned Chinese dams as the culprit. When the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental commission mandated to promote sustainable water management on the river, suggested that sudden rainfall in Yunnan and northern Laos contributed to the sudden rise, locals countered that natural precipitation could not possibly have led to such a rapid water level change in the space of only ten days or less.
That December, Montree was invited to visit a flooded riverbank field in Nakon Panom. A local farmer planted at least 2 rai of jicama over the course of two months. He up picked up a jicama, the size of two tennis balls, to show Montree and Thapanee Muangkot, TERRA’s partner from the Mekong Northeastern Community Network.
“These jicamas would be ready for sell in two weeks. But it’s all flooded. I tried to pick whatever I could, but most of them won’t survive,” lamented the local farmer.
Learning about such daily struggles is part of TERRA’s strategy is to build local capacity and monitoring and recording how local livelihoods are inextricably tied to the Mekong’s natural resources. This data provides evidence-based fuel to argue that the full economic loss created by dams cannot be comprehensively understood in financial terms. The loss of traditional livelihoods, riparian cultures, and food sovereignty are beyond the ability of any economic formula to measure.
The locals’ losses went unacknowledged by municipal governments. A majority of households claimed that no government agency had visited their communities to assess their losses, according to a survey conducted by a local youth group.
“My one rai (0.4 acre) field where I planted cabbages, sweet potatoes, peanuts, garlic, and onions cost me nearly 15,000 baht [$500USD]. If I want to regrow everything, there is no guarantee that the plants would grow as well,” said Surat Tongjundee, a riverbank farmer from Chanuman, Amnat Charoen.
During that 10-day flood period, the Network of Community Organization Council of Seven Northeastern Provinces in Mekong Basin, a coalition of Thai riparian communities along the Mekong River, and TERRA conducted a survey to calculate estimated costs for the lost seeds and fertilizer for riverbank cultivation and the repair of damaged fishing boats and equipment. The result indicated that the cost accumulated to at least 1,100,000 baht ($33,800USD) for only the 158 surveyed villagers from 11 tambon (sub-districts). This number is only a fraction when compared to the 95 tambon located next to the Mekong River in northeastern Thailand. The true cost of all the accumulated damages could be devastating.
Chinese dams are located 1,500km away from northeastern Thailand. The impacts of the six completed Chinese dams on the upper stretch of the Lancang are already borne by resettled Chinese communities and downstream communities.
The question is whether China will bear this responsibility and notify downstream states when it opens its dam gates. While this would not alter the negative changes to fisheries or other ecological problems, downstream communities would at least be able to prepare for sudden rises in the river and attempt to mitigate their losses. And the Thai government could fulfill its duty to assess the economic losses and alleviate damages in these communities, while putting pressure on China to accept its responsibility in handling shared river sources such as the Mekong/Lancang.
The Ban Viang Kook woman exhales in sadness. “I have no energy left to plant anymore. Everything is under the water. The river took everything away.”