Seminar “Dams Water Flooding Mekong: Transboundary Impacts, Responsibility, and the Future Together”, 2nd October 2018, Bueng Kan Province.

The recent major disaster in Attapeu province of Laos PDR originated from a man-made construction, a saddle dam for Xe Pian – Xe Namnoy reservoir, which collapsed and had caused over 500 cubic meters of water to flash-flood down the Xe Pian river toward the lower Xe Kong river. Thousands of Lao people have lost their lives, houses, and properties; many have been separated from their families. The resulting impacts require intensive and continuous recovery and remedy. However, until today, helps provided by the project’s owners and stakeholders have not been thorough.

The incident did not affect only those areas in Laos but the impacts extended to neighbouring countries where the Mekong runs through. Because massive volume of water had flooded down the Xe Kong river, a tributary of Mekong where it forms border between Laos and Cambodia, people downstream had to evacuated from their communities. Consequently, 88% of agricultural lands in 17 villages of 8,000 families were directly damaged. At the same time, communities in Thailand along the Mekong upstream from the flooded areas were facing another situation. Large amount of water was released from other dams in Laos, e.g. Nam Theun 2, all at once which ultimately ran into the Mekong river; Many areas along the Mekong riverbanks in Northeastern Thailand had to deal with major floods especially in Bueng Kan province where it was severely affected. The reason for the unusual rise of the Mekong was reported that the Prime Minister of Laos had ordered inspection of other dams thatmight have tendency to break like the Xe Pian – Xe Namnoy dam; Subsequently, many dams began to release water to maintain water levels in their reservoirs therefore sudden rise of the river downstream.

With urgency to address these problems, this forum collected ‘The Mekong People’s Testimony’ and served as a space for people to consult about their rights and to demand responsibility from dams’ investors and governments who own/involve in the dams. It was organized by People Network for Laos Dams Investment Monitoring (LDIM) and Mekong Community Organizations Network in Northeastern Thailand.

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Problem with the warning system?

From the flash-floods of Mekong in Bueng Kan which had inundated agricultural lands and local residences; it became apparent that the warning system is too slow and inefficient which is one of the reasons why villagers were unable to handle the flooding threat in time. The Chief Executive of Bueng Kan Provincial Administrative Organization (PAO) accounted on how the people had to rely on themselves. In particular, they were relying on “Network of Thai Mekong People in 8 Provinces” who are groups of people working on Mekong issues spreading in the 8 Mekong provinces (of Thailand) – they would constantly monitor water levels and other significant changes of the river (where network members are presence) and shareed the information among each other via ‘LINE application’. While Bueng Kan province does not have an official water monitoring station, information from the people network has been crucial. During the Xe Pian incident, the network in Ubon Ratchathani sent out warning that they had observed abnormal flood from downstream upward; in contrary to previous [official] report which stated that water levels in the upper parts of the Mekong was stable and declining; water level at Bueng Kan province started to rise and eventually inundated some areas, especially in Bung Khla subdistrict, for over a month.

Amnart Traichak a villager from Nakhon Phanom province added about impacts on Mekong riverbank agriculture. He stated that before this incident, villagers never reaslised that the country doesn’t have flood prevention and warning system in place. What happened demonstrates that in the end the government could not help them even in providing necessary basic information in a timely manner. Unable to reply on government’s information, villagers need to adapt, to make use of communication channels available to them; Although in many occasions, their communication were still not timely enough or insufficient to deal with major levels of disaster.

On a related topic, other villagers discussed that the Hydro and Agro Informatics Institute (Public Organization) has a plan to create water [information] center in all provinces on the Mekong riverbank; villagers suggested the centres should have water scheme which identify water resources of each area/community and how they are connected. There should be disaster preparedness and responses plan(s) in place and the plan should be rehearsed. Provincial-level centres for water-related disasters are needed to manage future disasters in timely manner. The later suggestion is due to the fact that although information from the Public Hazard Mitigation Unit had been accurate, it always arrived villagers too late. Currently people would receive emergency/disaster warnings too late – i.e. receiving warnings about rising water level when the water has already approached their farmlands or residences – the existing government’s warning system is totally inefficient.

Amnart also suggested villagers may need a fund to financially assist among themselves. These incidents were not natural disaster – they were man-made. Without the network of people who share information, it would be impossible to avoid or mitigate impacts. There were shops set up on the beach in the river for dry-season festival and people could not dismantle the shops in time because the water rose too fast without warning. ltimately villagers have to reply on themselves, building a strong network and assistant fund to help each other. Villagers have to find ways to prevent and fix the problems. But the government should also help them, not leaving them alone – there should be measures to remediate their losses and recover the devastated environment.

When the rivers are controlled

Montree Chantawong provided information that water flow into the Mekong river from tributaries from both Thai and Lao sides. From Thailand, there are smaller rivers e.g. Huai Mong, Huai Luang, Songkhram river, Kam river, and Mun river. Mun river is the biggest one. In comparisons, tributaries from Laos are larger, the largest three are Nam Poon, Nam Ngum, and Nam Kham rivers. Nam Ngum is the biggest among the three having many of its own tributaries. There are also Nam Theun which flows into Mekong at Pak Kading district, Xe Don river, Xe Bangfai river, and Xe Banghiang river, etc. Importantly, many of the mentioned rivers in Laos are being damed with involvements of Thai investors or Thai electricity buyers.

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The Department of Water Resource has a model of Mekong riverbed from Chiang Saen (Chiang Rai) to Khong Chiam district (Ubon Ratchathani) which demonstrates slopes of the riverbed in each section. The more the slope, the faster the water flow: e.g. less slope between Nong Khai to Mukdahan means water would flow slowly along the section, the higher slope between Mukdahan and Khong Chiam means water will flow faster along the section. Accordingly, if additional flow is contributed from the tributaries between Nong Khai and Mukdahan, it is more likely to flood, and the flood would stay longer, in that section because the water could flow slowly due to less slope of the riverbed.

Data from MRC (Mekong River Commission) with measurements at Chiang Saen station suggests that not much water from upstream China had contributed to the Mekong overflow this year. However, the measurements from Luang Prabang station downward demonstrate higher water levels. There are overflows in Nong Khai section but the overflow levels were not much. In Nakhon Phanom section, water has been rising in longer period especially from mid-August to the second week of September; the flow rate in Nakhon Phanom section was measured at more than 20,000 cubic meters per second; there were more flow contributed from tributaries in Laos (where they are dammed) before the Mekong flows into Nakham Phanom section.

Take an example of Nam Un Dam in Thailand where the river Nam Un flows into Mekong in Nakhon Phanom section. The dam, as well as many other dams in Thailand, was not designed for very heavy rain in short period, i.e. torrential rain could cause problems. One solution could be siphoning the river. Data from 2017 shows that the dam had released 2 to almost 3 times more water than this year (2018); however it did not cause so much troubles because there was not much heavy rainfall and the water level in Mekong was not high. In comparison, this year (2018) when Nam Un Dam released water, it raised water level of Mekong significantly and contributed to worsening the flood situation. Therefore the rhetorics “Dams prevent flood” and “Dams keep water for the dry season” are untrue and should be dismantled because dams can actually worsen flood problem.

“Laos government often say that hydropower dams have less management/administrative costs comparing to other power plants like coal power plants. In fact, dams management have high costs. The costs are not monetary but lives of Laos people who are affected by dams management, either from containing the water or releasing the water.”

Fair remediation

Ormbun Thipsuna recounted stories of dams collapse/breakage from around the world to remind us how hydropower has left devastating consequences on people. In the UK and the US where they claimed high-tech dams construction, in the end they could not defeat nature. In Italy, when a dam broke, more than 2,000 people were missing. In China where they put numerous dams on upstream of the Mekong, there was a major dam collapse but the Chinese government had tried to cover up the story – it took 24 years until they finally accepted that 2,000 lives were lost from the incident. The Xe Pain – Xe Namnoy dam incident was also not the first in Laos, in the past 3 years there have been already 3 dams in Laos that were broken.

With regard to reliability of Thai stakeholders (on Xe Pain – Xe Namnoy dam incident), Ratchburi Electricity Generating Holding PLC (RATCH), a subsidiary of EGAT, is the main Thai project’s owner. RATCH sent two letters to the Stock Exchange Thailand (SET) to notify about the incident and actions the company had taken. The letters stated that RATCH, together with local companies and agencies, had already inform people to evacuate to higher land, However, photographic evidences show that many lives  were lost and many families were displaced and separated. This is in total contradiction with the company’s statement.

A villager from Si Wilai district of Bueng Kan province informed the forum that 6 tributaries of the Mekong joined together in their village area. When the Mekong overflew, he was unable to cultivate from his rubber plantation because it stayed inundated for the following 3 months; consequently he had lost his income and 60 Rai of his agricultural land has been totally damaged. Apart from his rubber plantation, there are many rice paddies of other villagers which have been severely damaged from the flood.

“More dams are being built. Every country are planning mega-projects. It is obvious that everyone is doing whatever for themselves and not thinking of common goods.”

Chief of a village from Khai Si subdistrict of Mueng Bueng Kan added that: during the flood, villagers had to deal with massive volume of water; In contrast, they don’t have enough water to use in the dry season. These are all consequences of dams which contradict what were advertised of dams’ benefits.

Jintana Gadepimol summarises impacts on agriculture from data provided by the Provincial Agriculture Office (government agency). The total number of agricultural land affected were not yet concluded but so far the Office had inspected and found over 400,000 Rai of farmland damaged – Bueng Kan was affected both in rainy and dry seasons. The people network had requested assistance from Council of Isaan People Organizations but the council also has limited resources, mainly from citizen personal contributions; therefore the aids received could not cover the vast damage. At the moment, the people network is trying to verify number of affected land (verify the 400,000 Rai figure) and how they are affected so as to contribute more accurate data to the government agency.

A member of Ubon Ratchathani Provincial Council contributed information regarding damages in his area that local tourism industry in Ubon Ratchathani has been severely impaired for the last 4-5 years. Originally they thought [the changes of the Mekong river] were caused by nature, however they started to observe more and more severe changes and impacts during the past 3 years. The abnormal rise of Mekong river during the dry season has damaged vegetable gardens that people planted along the riverbank, fishing and working equipments were washed away and lost, natural touristic sites were diminished due to changes of the river ecosystem. Consequently, the level of debts among locals has been rising.

Weera, a villager representative from Amnat Charoen province contributed that his hometown is in Chanuman District which has 5 subdistricts – 3 of which (Khok San, Khok Kong, and Chanuman subdistricts) have been affected by the abnormal behaviours of the Mekong. The three subdistricts have in total 38 kilometres of riverbank areas. Whenever water level in the Mekong rise, the tributaries would also rise thus flooding over 300 Rai of agricultural lands. The floods were observed two times per year, in August and September, totally damaging the rice paddies causing villagers to lost all their investment on the crop. The locals are mostly farmers; Unable to farm the rice, they would not know what else to do. This situation has added mental stresses on the villagers on top of already severe economic impacts.

“The floods of Mekong are not natural but rather man-made disaster. It is caused by capitalism. If dams in China and Laos break, what shall we do? When the government say these are natural disaster, no one is held accountable; Thus we have no way and no one to demand compensation from. Nevertheless, there should be compensation and remediation for the impacts that already occurred.”

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Premrudee Daoroung as a representative of People Network for Laos Dams Investment Monitoring (LDIM) concluded that people want to know what happened in Laos; and people want to know who are responsible and should be held accountable for all the damages caused by dams in China and Laos all these time. What can we, the people do, and how can we do it? Ultimately we are interested in responsibility, however much, there should be someones accountable and there should be systems in place to deal with the impacts. Particularly the companies who own these projects, they have been silent and ignorant. On the other hand, knowledges and skills in monitoring the river situation that the people have gained are perhaps the most efficient available in ASEAN. One of the thing we can do is to manage the data as best as we can and use it to push for changes at policy level – e.g. in terms of prevention, remediation, and mitigation. Contributions from the people in this forum are very interesting – because people’s voices are the most important and should be heard in order for real changes to take effect.

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