Saving the Mekong: The arduous battle to sustain life along South-East Asia’s longest river


The upper half of the Lancang River mostly runs through deep valleys and is sparsely populated. The Mekong is known as the Lancang in China. - ST PHOTO: LIM MIN ZHANG

THE MEKONG (The Straits Times/ANN): Bean sprout farmer Orapin Waotikon describes life along the Mekong River as “throwing the dice”. At the crack of dawn every day, the 56-year-old woman heads to the river bank in Thailand’s northernmost province of Chiang Rai to water the sprouts that she plants in containers laid out on the sand.

She keeps tabs on the river’s water level through social media channels, especially those of local conservation networks, which share near real-time information in her district of Chiang Khong.

And she is always ready to move her crops to higher ground. Some years ago, she lost 2,000 baht (S$74) worth of sprouts because the river swelled suddenly through the dry season, submerging her crop for hours.

The abrupt changes in water flow are not a natural phenomenon, but the product of hydropower dams upriver that store and release water according to electricity production needs.

“You can see from here that the water is clear,” she tells The Straits Times one morning in March 2024 as the sun paints the river a gentle gold. “This means it’s not the normal Mekong water. It’s water that’s been stored behind a dam.”

River water should instead be full of silt.

The Mekong, South-East Asia’s main artery, winds 4,900km through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Its basin is dotted with 190 operational hydropower dams along its main channel and tributaries, including in China.

Its basin is dotted with 190 operational hydropower dams along its main channel and tributaries, including in China, where the Mekong is known as the Lancang

While the Mekong supports the world’s largest inland fishery, it also faces threats that range from pollution to wetland destruction and overfishing. Of these, it is the erection of hydropower plants – sustained by the global demand for energy produced with low-carbon emissions – which experts say has caused the most damage.

Thai farmer Orapin Waotikon with the bean sprouts which she grows in containers placed along the Mekong River in Chiang Khong district in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Sand from the river provides good nutrients and moisture for the sprouts to thrive, and farmers can conveniently rinse their harvest in the water. - ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUIThai farmer Orapin Waotikon with the bean sprouts which she grows in containers placed along the Mekong River in Chiang Khong district in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Sand from the river provides good nutrients and moisture for the sprouts to thrive, and farmers can conveniently rinse their harvest in the water. - ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

The dams block fish from migrating and silt from nourishing the plains downstream, robbing the river of its natural ebb and flow. As a result, eggs laid by beach-nesting birds during summer can be suddenly submerged. Juvenile fish normally protected in the river’s murky depths may be abruptly exposed at shallower depths to poachers when dams hold back more water.

While most of the 13 operational dams on the Mekong’s main stem are located in Laos and China, much of the hydroelectricity they generate powers faraway cities and towns. Laos sells electricity to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Singapore, which began importing hydropower from Laos in 2022, is looking to expand the deal as it pursues its target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

“The biggest challenge for the Mekong River is really the cumulative development of all these projects,” said Ms Courtney Weatherby, deputy director of the United States-based Stimson Centre’s South-east Asia programme.

“The impacts of one dam can be relatively well understood and projected and modelled. But what is much more difficult is the impacts of a cascade of nine potential dams on the mainstream, which was proposed in Laos for instance, or the interactions between those dams and all the hundreds of dams that have been built on tributaries.”

Laos has so far completed two of the nine hydropower dams it has planned on the main stem of the Mekong within its territory.

The resulting unpredictable water flows are worsened by climate change, resulting in unusual phenomena like wet-season droughts. “You don’t see the sort of traditional pulse that you used to get,” says Ms Weatherby.

The upper half of the Lancang River mostly runs through deep valleys and is sparsely populated. The Mekong is known as the Lancang in China. ST PHOTO: LIM MIN ZHANGThe upper half of the Lancang River mostly runs through deep valleys and is sparsely populated. The Mekong is known as the Lancang in China. ST PHOTO: LIM MIN ZHANG

Sharing the river requires delicate power play

Ensuring fair use of the Mekong’s resources is a delicate geopolitical and economic exercise. China and Laos hold 90% of the Mekong River's water reserves in reservoirs.

The region is increasingly a tacit backdrop for the rivalry between the United States and China. Beijing favours extending top-down assistance to the lower Mekong states to spread its influence, while Washington focuses on “soft infrastructure”, strengthening public institutions and civil society to enhance their resilience to Chinese influence, notes ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute senior researcher Hoang Thi Ha.

This is on top of the race among lower Mekong states to shape the basin’s infrastructure to their advantage.

Cambodia, trying to reduce its dependence on Vietnamese ports, plans to build a 180km navigation canal to link its portion of the Mekong to the coastal province of Kep by the Gulf of Thailand. While more detailed studies of what Cambodia calls the Funan Techo Canal have yet to emerge, Vietnamese experts fear it could reduce the water available to southern Vietnam’s rice-growing hub – something which Cambodia refutes.

Farther upriver, China began filling the reservoir for its 1,400MW Tuoba Dam around Feb 1, after the completion of the hydropower plant.

For different reasons, both projects remain beyond the purview of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental organisation through which Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam try to manage the river’s resources. MRC members are required to notify one another prior to carrying out projects which may have significant impact on the Mekong’s main channel, so that they can be mitigated.

Cambodia, in an August 2023 note to the MRC, labelled the canal project a Mekong tributary project rather than one affecting its main channel. This limits the amount of scrutiny that the MRC can impose on this project. Senate president Hun Sen in April 2024 doubled down on this position, telling the business community that Cambodia will not back down or negotiate this project.

China and Myanmar, meanwhile, are not bound by requirements to notify the commission as they are only dialogue partners of the MRC. Both are, however, members of the six-country Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), a broader Chinese-backed development initiative. The Mekong is known as the Lancang in China. Through the LMC, Beijing has funded more than US$80 million (S$109 million) worth of development projects in downstream countries.

Beijing has tried to portray the dams as symbols of its generosity. Global Times, a media outlet widely seen as the mouthpiece of China’s ruling Communist Party, in a December 2023 article likened Chinese hydropower stations in Yunnan to “fortresses of hope built upon the river, providing much-needed help to downstream countries when they suffer from extreme flooding and droughts”.

But few expect Beijing to join the MRC, as that would require China to open future projects in the Lancang to external scrutiny.

Thai fisherman Kong Kayankarn, 69, has seen dwindling catches owing to the hydropower dams. Here, he tries his luck in the section of the Mekong next to Ubon Ratchathani province. - ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUIThai fisherman Kong Kayankarn, 69, has seen dwindling catches owing to the hydropower dams. Here, he tries his luck in the section of the Mekong next to Ubon Ratchathani province. - ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Communities protect dolphins and stingrays

The superpower politics notwithstanding, local communities living along the Mekong are bent on protecting what’s left of the river.

Dams have exacerbated the damage already wrought by overfishing, in some cases by making it easier for poachers.

In Cambodia’s north-eastern Stung Treng province, Ms Phoeu Sophy, the chief of the Chou Tamao fishery community, works with volunteers to patrol waters off-limits to fishers during spawning season.

Sustained by a shoestring budget and a network of community informants, she and other volunteers also try to deter villagers from using damaging fishing methods like cyanide and explosives. But dam operations make their job doubly difficult.

“Last night, when I was patrolling the area, the water level suddenly dropped,” she tells ST during an interview in February 2024 on the Tonle Srepok river, a tributary of the Mekong. “People used that opportunity to harvest the exposed fish.”

(They) came to do illegal fishing in our conservation area.

The community vigilance has helped grow the size and population of local fish, but enforcers like her bear personal costs.

“They say ‘you are only a woman, don’t try to be smart’,” she says. “Sometimes they threaten me. They say, ‘you should be careful’.” Snubbed by local fishers, she travels two hours to another village if she wants to buy fish.

Over in Koh Preah, an island in the broad waterways of Stung Treng where the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins congregate, community patrollers confiscate gill nets laid out in the fast-moving waters. The telltale signs are plastic water bottles that bob on the surface of the water but are not dislodged by the currents. They are attached to long nets underwater, which can be fatal for the bulbous-headed dolphins once they are trapped.

Here, strict enforcement is also producing results.

Mr Pheng Boeurn, the deputy chief of Koh Preah’s fishery community, showed ST the amount of fishing nets he seized during his patrols.

He said he used to confiscate up to 6km worth of nets on each patrol about two years ago, but this decreased to about 2km in February 2024.

“(The fishers) get scared because they lose money when their nets are confiscated,” he says. “So they turn increasingly to farming, or they move to other areas to do construction work.”

This has helped stabilise the population of the river dolphins to about 90 in Cambodia. So far in 2024, eight new dolphin calves have been spotted in the country, though two have died.

Stung Treng was where a 300kg giant freshwater stingray was found in 2022 and later recognised by the Guinness World Records as the world’s largest freshwater fish.

The fisherman who snared the endangered 4m-long stingray, Mr Kom Sophol (below), recalls the evening he spotted it trapped on a hook he had placed about 200m from the shore.

“I was excited and frightened at the same time because it was so big,” the 41-year-old man tells ST.

It could have been butchered for food for US$5 per kg at the local market, if not for the years of outreach by conservationists beforehand.

Members of the United States-funded Wonders of the Mekong conservation project had spread the word among local residents to alert them if they found endangered fish, says project manager Chea Seila. Her team promises to compensate the fishers for the loss of potential income and the costs of caring for the animal before researchers examine and release it back into the water.

In this way, Mr Sophol was paid US$600 for looking after the giant stingray until Ms Seila’s team got there.

“Freshwater stingrays have been living in the Mekong for a very long time, but we don’t get much information about them. The villagers are afraid of informing officials about their catch in case they get into trouble,” Ms Seila says. “In the past, they would keep it a secret and chop it up for sale, or to eat within their village.”

The record-setting stingray was eventually tagged and released back into the river on June 14, 2022 (below). Today, it is a potent symbol of the wildlife that could be lost forever if the Mekong’s environment deteriorates further.

Dams are also fast erasing the unique rhythms of the dry season in the Mekong.

By the northern Thai district of Chiang Khong, near the Golden Triangle where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, the receding river waters reveal sandbars that are vital to the survival of pratincoles. These grey birds nest on the sand, laying brownish-grey eggs that are camouflaged among the smooth pebbles.

Farther downriver by Ubon Ratchathani province, in a place local residents nickname “9,000 Holes” (below), deep potholes on the exposed riverbed teem with juvenile fish that are protected from the larger dangers in the main waterway.

Both the young fish and bird eggs don’t stand a chance against sudden discharges of water by hydropower dams upriver.

Data from the Stimson Centre and Eyes on Earth’s Mekong Dam Monitor portal shows that the 55 largest reservoirs on the river were holding 26.29 cu km of water in February 2024 – enough water to fill 10.5 million Olympic-size swimming pools. Forty-six per cent of that water was stored within China’s borders.

The Lancang River as seen from Xishuangbanna, an autonomous prefecture in China’s south-western Yunnan province, which shares borders with Myanmar and Laos. The river flows downstream towards South-East Asia. - ST PHOTO: LIM MIN ZHANGThe Lancang River as seen from Xishuangbanna, an autonomous prefecture in China’s south-western Yunnan province, which shares borders with Myanmar and Laos. The river flows downstream towards South-East Asia. - ST PHOTO: LIM MIN ZHANG

Dams uproot lives in China

The Mekong begins its journey in China’s Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, where it runs through deep valleys and canyons and surrounding villages in Yunnan province, home to China’s largest population of ethnic minorities.

China views the dams in this region as critical to its “dual-carbon goals” of peaking its carbon emissions by 2030 and becoming carbon-neutral by 2060. Yunnan and neighbouring Sichuan province together account for 43 per cent of the country’s hydroelectricity generation.

As the dams have contributed to China’s green transition, villagers who have lived next to the Lancang for generations have also benefited from the associated economic development, though many still rue the cost of progress.

Ms Shi Yunhuan, 38, is a new immigrant to Sandeng fish village at the Nuozhadu – the largest of 12 dams on the Lancang mainstream.

She sells breakfast rice noodles in broth for 10 yuan (S$1.90) a bowl and grows garlic in a new built-up area next to the dam (below).

It was an economic opportunity not previously available to Ms Shi, who is of the Lahu ethnic minority, and who used to live 2km farther up in the mountains but moved from there four years ago because of the dam’s redevelopment works.

“When I lived farther up the hill, you could only work on your land,” she says. “But now people with business instincts can open homestays and eateries.” These cater mainly to domestic tourists, such as those who come for recreational fishing, she said.

Another relocated villager, Madam Luo Xiuzhen of the Yi minority, moved from her ancestral land nearby more than a decade ago, after rising water levels swallowed her old house. At home, her daily routine had consisted of starting fires, pounding rice, chopping firewood and making meals.

“Every time I think of (my old place), my entire heart is there. Then, my home and my soil, where I lived, were together. Now, our land is under the river,” she says from her simply furnished two-storey cement house in Sandeng village. She lives there with her husband, retired accountant Li Fayun (below, with Madam Luo).

She used government compensation for her relocation to buy 8 mu (5,333 sq m) of rice fields that her family farm for themselves. “My son didn’t agree with buying the land, but I told him that our future generations need to live off the land. So now we have more than enough to eat.”

A 2016 study by the non-profit Fireplace Culture Association in Pu’er city, Yunnan, which draws attention to environmental issues in Yunnan and promotes folk culture, found that more than 46,000 people have been resettled in the Nuozhadu reservoir area.

The association’s founder, Ms Luo Miduo, says: “We shouldn’t say that the dams are wrong, because if the country really needs them then we have no choice. But there should be more time for reflection on how to reduce these harms to the environment and biodiversity.”

In her interviews with former river-area residents, Ms Luo said many of them lamented the disruptions to their previously bucolic lifestyle, and have described their lives as being now “buried under the dam”.

“Many of those voices might express what the river wants to say – it just cannot do so.”

A similar yearning for the past can be found among residents of Cizhong village in northern Yunnan, which is known for being the site where French missionaries arrived in 1862 to establish what later turned into a thriving Roman Catholic community.

They moved here from the neighbouring village of Yanmen, which was partially submerged due to rising water levels from the nearby Wunonglong dam, built in 2017. They were given government compensation to move.

Changes to the lives of local communities continue apace, even as experts debate studies on the exact contribution of dam-building to biodiversity changes.

Beijing has bristled at criticisms that it is holding downstream countries hostage through these mega structures. For instance, a study by the US-based Eyes on Earth research firm, which provides environmental data to public and private sector clients, found that an acute drought in the lower Mekong countries in 2019 was worsened by restricted water flow from China’s dams.

Hydraulic engineering professor Tian Fuqiang of Tsinghua University, an expert on Lancang/Mekong issues, dismisses as “untenable” the accusations levelled by environmentalists and non-profit groups that China’s dams exacerbate seasonal drought, pointing to studies which have shown that Lancang river dams help to regulate floods and have a replenishing effect in the dry season.

He says there needs to be more scientific evidence to pinpoint the real threats to the Mekong’s biodiversity. The factors at play include climate change, reservoir construction, agricultural irrigation and land-use change, he says. Not all of these are a result of hydropower operations.

Furthermore, China has strict measures in place for building hydropower plants to minimise adverse effects, says Professor Tian. For example, considerable efforts have been made to protect fish, including setting up fish-breeding stations and the construction of alternative habitats.

But Ms Luo believes no conservation methods, however effective, can match protection of the river’s natural ecological balance. In her view, “respecting and revering nature is much more important than any high-tech experiments”.

Farmers in Thailand’s Chiang Khong district use the fertile banks of the Mekong to plant crops like cabbage in the dry season. But unpredictable releases of water from hydropower stations threaten these crops. - ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUIFarmers in Thailand’s Chiang Khong district use the fertile banks of the Mekong to plant crops like cabbage in the dry season. But unpredictable releases of water from hydropower stations threaten these crops. - ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Countries say they have sovereign rights over Mekong’s resources

Water is a sensitive subject and closely tied to territorial rights.

China currently shares mainly hydrological data such as rainfall with the MRC. While it has promised to relay “urgent information on any unusual rise or fall in water levels and discharges”, its dam operations are mostly kept secret.

“Everyone realises that sovereignty is a key question here,” says Ms Weatherby. “It’s not just sensitive for China. It’s sensitive for a lot of countries in the region... It truly is a transnational challenge.”

She concedes that Chinese dams get more scrutiny because they are larger and relatively fewer, and thus easier to monitor. But she adds: “While China is not the only part of the challenge here, it absolutely has to be part of the solution.”

Nudging China into sharing more information about its dam operations has been a decades-long trust-building exercise, but there are signs of progress. In October 2023, the MRC and the China-backed Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Centre released the results of a joint study that recommended the sharing of “real-time data on storage levels and hydropower operations” as well as weather-related flow conditions on both the Mekong main stem and its tributaries.

While the cooperation centre did not respond to requests for an interview, MRC secretariat’s Laos-based chief executive Anoulak Kittikhoun tells ST that the second phase of this joint study currently under way will assess future trends and develop adaptation measures like additional storage capacity and better coordination of infrastructure development.

“We anticipate that the findings from this study will significantly contribute to shaping future adaptation strategies for the basin, ensuring the sustainable management and equitable utilisation of water resources for all stakeholders involved,” he says.

“While monitoring and mitigation of impacts are important, they are not sufficient in ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Mekong.”

The MRC is thus developing a plan for the entire Mekong basin that would include joint investment projects which address water security, food, energy and environmental needs in an integrated manner.

Solutions will come from the next generation

Local community organisations work together to keep public attention on the precarious state of the Mekong. Few are as prominent as the Mekong School, a small institute in Chiang Khong where young people learn about the treasures of the waterway and collaborate to advocate for its protection.

Here, in a shady cluster of buildings on the river bank, students from nearby districts learn how to test the water’s quality. They brainstorm how to save the pratincoles whose eggs are being drowned.

During a class conducted on March 4, girls from Anuban Chiang Khong School (below) get a taste of the river weed called kai, a local delicacy which thrives in clean, shallow water but can die off after sudden discharges from dams.

The Mekong School was founded by Mr Niwat Roykaew (below), a retired teacher and conservationist whose tireless advocacy forced the Thai government to abandon a China-led project to blast rapids in the upper Mekong to make way for Chinese cargo ships sailing downstream. If the blasting had gone forward, it would have devastated local ecology.

Mr Niwat, who is known in the border community as “Teacher Tee”, is circumspect about his victory in 2020.

“We may have stopped the project for now, but they can always restart it,” he tells ST.

“The Mekong’s problems are enormous and complex. They are so difficult and huge that I am sure they can’t be solved in my lifetime.

“To ensure the Mekong survives, we have to entrust our hopes to the next generation, those who will represent the future.” - The New Straits Times/ANN

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