The Mekong Butterfly had a heart-to-heart talk with 6 people of the Mekong — they are from 6 different communities in Thailand located on the Mekong riverbank. Despite informal atmosphere, topics of the discussion were very earnest around problems they have been facing from irregular changes of the Mekong river over the past decade — flood disasters, irregular water fluctuations, etc. Three questions were put forward: what is the problem, what causes the problem, and how communities are addressing or adapting to the current situation.
There was a general agreement that dams on the Mekong mainstream and its tributaries seem to be the root cause of problems affecting their communities; consequently pointing toward ‘hidden costs’ of the many Mekong dams which are being controlled by “the ones upstream” while “the ones downstream” don’t have such power. Ultimately, the knowledge these people of the Mekong need to acquire today has changed from ‘understanding nature of the river’ to ‘understanding how those dams work so that they could understand the ongoing unnatural changes’ which could help their communities to adapt to the current situation in various aspects.
Sorn Jampadok, Baan Sam Rong Moo 5, Phosai District, Ubon Ratchathani Province
What’s the problem/irregularity of the Mekong river right now?
“Main irregularity right now is the abnormal fluctuation of the Mekong river. For example, it is now dry season but the water is rising; So, vegetable gardens on the riverbank are affected — yams, peanuts, corns, etc. Usually, those who have a lot would plant a lot; and those who have little would plant a little. We eat the produces and sell the excess. But right now we cannot plant on the riverbank. We are affected a lot. The crops would be inundated by rising flow before they could be harvested.”
“For (impacts on) local fishery, the water usually recede during this season but now that the flows have become irregular, fish in different habitats (creeks, submerged rocks, sand bars) are confused as to how the water is moving — they are shocked, like they are lost in the water, in the season.”
“When we laid Mong (a type of local fishing net) in the river and abnormal floods hit abruptly and strongly, the nets would get misplaced, damaged, or even carried away by the current. Seasonal fish such as Pla Khoi, Pla Kaew-Kai (Yasohikotakia morleti), Pla Raak-Kluy (horseface loach), Pla Sa-Ee (Mekongina erythrospila), Pla Paak, and Pla Plean (Sharp-mouth barb) arrive here in dry season. Usually, during this period so many people would be here to catch fish; But now that seasonal fish population decreased, the number of fisherfolks consequently decreased. It takes more days and more trips to get some fish. In irregular flows, fish would also miss Luang (a local fishing trap) because sometimes the water is clear but sometimes it’s muddy — so the fish would be shocked and wouldn’t enter the trap.”
What causes the irregularity?
“Main cause is the dams. Definitely the dams. I didn’t know about them before; But now that I know, I’m 100% confident that it’s those dams.”
How to solve the problems and adapt?
“I don’t think we can actually solve it – the river has become so irregular it seems impossible to fix it. We have to be constantly on the watch if we plant something on the riverbank, to watch out when the flood is coming. I wish it would return to normal, the Mekong to flow in patterns consistent with natural seasons – I want the water to remain low in this season/month. At the moment, we try to adapt by planting crops/vegetables higher up the riverbank and switching to perennial plants such as tamarind or rubber trees. Some people turn to wages jobs. Some people change to cassava plantation. Actually, we want to continue planting vegetables on the riverbank but it has become too risky. If these impacts persist, we want certain compensation and remediation by the government.”
“Vegetables we grow on the riverbank are natural, chemical-free. With the abundance of soil/sediment from the Mekong, we don’t need chemical fertilizer. Maintenance is low, the vegetables grow naturally. So, vegetables from the Mekong riverbank is a very important source of food — we have been practicing this since our ancestors.”
“For fishing, we continue what we do as much as we can. We are taking the risk. We don’t have so much adaptation plan. However, now in Sam Rong village, there is a project for fish conservation in Boong [local term for a kind of fish habitat in the Mekong — shallow pond seasonally submerged during the rainy season] so our children can take part in conserving the fish. We bring fish to the pond during the dry season, let the fish breed and spawn; then when the rainy season arrives, fish in the pond will be released to nature.”
Nichon Ponchan, Bung Khla District, Bueng Kan Province
What problem from the Mekong are you experiencing in Bung Khla right now?
“One major problem which has become evident over the past 4-5 years is the problem with water supply. The irregular fluctuation of the river has occurred much more frequently. In the past, it used to be once or twice a year; but now the irregularity occurs once or twice a month. It has clearly affected the water supply system for the local hospital. The sourcing point had to be shifted about one kilometer away from the original spot. And when the water system changes, the sand beaches change too — the sand beaches are receding into the river. When the water rises, hospital staffs would have to move the water supply sourcing system up [the riverbank]; when the water recedes, they would have to move it back down. Party to solve this problem, the hospital had to move the raft [carrying the water supply sourcing system] into the river where the water is deep enough. That required almost one million Baht which they didn’t have such budget, and it would be too late to request and wait for government budget, so they had to ask for donations from monks/local temples and communities. And this was only an ad hoc solution.”
“Vegetable gardening on the Mekong riverbank is clearly affected. This is much in evidence during the dry season. For example, at the beginning of last month, some vegetables had grown almost fully, they were blooming and bearing fruits – villagers were preparing to harvest. But then the river abruptly flooded and villagers had to rush the harvest; crops were severely damaged. Villagers now adapt by moving their gardens further away from the riverbank or planting on sand dunes. However, some people who were severely affected had to give up on the gardening practice entirely.”
“Local fishery has been evidently affected. It has become more arduous for local fisherfolks to catch fish. It used to take one trip to get enough fish they need; nowadays, they would have to make 2-3 trips to get the same amount. The fish population is declining, and so is the number of local fisherfolks on the Mekong River who have to find other ways to earn a living. For generations, the local fishery has fed their families and earned an adequate income to send their kids to schools and universities. But they cannot rely on the Mekong these days, they have to find other jobs. Some fisherfolks go to work in rubber plantation (harvesting rubber juice), others had left find wages jobs in other provinces. Despite the low price of rubber, many people opt to do it because it’s still better than labour jobs far away from home. Local fishery used to earn a living for families. It was the main source of income for people living on the Mekong — because vegetable gardening is seasonal but fishing is year-round and the earnings were considerably high. This is no longer the case today, everything has changed.
What causes the problem?
“Dams – nowadays locals start to realize about them. They didn’t know much about the dams before, but after some forums and discussions to share experiences between communities and agencies like local administration offices and the council of people organizations, people started to realize the impacts are definitely from the dams both in Laos and China.”
How do the communities know when the Mekong is rising (flooding)?
“Lately provincial agencies started to notify people when water from the dames is expected to arrive. Previously there was no such notification but civil society had already formed a network called Council of People Organizations of the Mekong. We would inform people when the water arrives in Chiang Khong and moving downstream; when the water (flood) arrives in Loei or other towns on the Mekong riverside, we would know and disseminate the information. This is the work of civil society without the involvement of the government. We use social media platform e.g. Facebook and LINE to send and receive information. People who are parts of the network in each area would share information with others in the network.
Lately, government agencies started to be more active — but they are much slower than the people. Moreover, information from government agencies tend to be inexplicit that the water masses were resulted from the dams. They don’t dare to say it. The recent past period was very obvious. The river flooded the longest period I ever experienced, the water mass was colossal, and the flood peaked three times. It was due to a storm hitting the region but at the same time water from the Mekong was advancing aggressively which was obviously a result of those dams releasing water [during the storm period]; we could see that water from canals was supposed to recede down the river but it could not because water from the mainstream river was advancing as well.”
“There are also problems related to compensation for flood disasters. For Bueng Kan province, we first have to wait until the provincial governor declares the province as a disaster zone [so that compensation budget and other related budgets could be approved]. Sometimes the province submitted incorrect information to the central government. And there is the wait to declare disaster zone. So the survey for compensation for disaster impacts is consequently delayed. Many agencies are involved and they don’t have clear data. Sometimes there are discrepancies between their data and what villagers reported. It would take them 3-4 times to get it right. There is an incongruity in data requested by different agencies. They had made many visits and many requests for community leaders to collect more or different data. Instructions have been very confusing as to what communities need to do when a disaster hits — how to prepare, how to gather and report data, how to make it work.
It’s also very difficult to dispatch disaster compensation. Leader group officials or agencies don’t understand the criteria for compensation. Dispatch at provincial level needs approval from the central government with lots of terms and conditions. The budget for compensation is also low, at approx 1,000 THB per Rai of land. The dispatches are often delayed. At the moment, many affected by the flood disasters in the past still received no compensation. Despite what I heard that the central government already approved the budget, it hasn’t been transferred to many who were affected. The people are still waiting. They are still waiting. I am not sure who had received it but most people haven’t. I myself haven’t. I have three fish ponds which were affected. I can say the government’s help and remediation has been very slow. There are many people whose rice farms were affected by the flood and it’s not even clear now if they can get compensation for their destroyed harvest.”
“Another problem is related to compensation rate. People started to compare between those whose land was not flooded but when the disaster hit, they get compensation more than those who were hit by the disaster. There is a comparison that those who were not hit by the disaster still have rice to eat but get more compensation; then people started to criticize and think it’s unfair. Actually, if you look, the people who were hit by disaster, they don’t even have rice to eat and they have to buy rice — but they get less compensation than those who were not hit by the disaster. Those who were hit by the disaster should be taken care of more than those who weren’t affected — this is the real concern voiced by people who were affected and should be reflected in policy changes.”
Pentham Thammada, Baan See-da Moo 2, Chanuman District, Amnat Charoen Province
What is the problem from the farmers’ perspective?
“The unseasonal rise and flow of the river has major impacts especially on vegetable gardening on the riverbank. The fishery is also affected, the unseasonal fluctuation of the river makes it impossible to catch fish and villagers lost their livelihood.
What causes the problem?
“Dams are the main cause of problems we are facing right now. They cause the water to rising and flood when it’s not the right season. Usually, the water should be quite low in this season but in January there was a very strong abrupt flood which damaged a lot of vegetable gardens on the riverbank.”
“We, farmers, plant vegetables on the riverbank in the dry season because usually, the water would recede during this season — that’s the case in the past when there was no dam. When there are dams, the water would rise during the dry season — it’s released from those dams upstream in China. So the vegetable gardens on the riverbank are affected — severely damaged. I can tell you that it’s caused by the dams, especially dams in upstream China — they would release water so that they can generate electricity and allow cargo or transport ships from China to navigate down the river conveniently.”
How do people adapt?
“Villagers have to change their occupation, their livelihood. Some people turn to wages jobs in Bangkok, like construction labour or any jobs.”
Thanya Maophawong, Pak Chom District, Loei Province
What problem from the Mekong are you experiencing in Chiang Khan – Pak Chom?
“Nowadays when the river rises, the water is muddy. The problem is we don’t know when it’s going to flood. In the dry season, villagers are planting vegetables all over the riverbank. When it’s time to harvest — peanuts or string beans — people didn’t know beforehand when that the water was rising. So when it flooded, the vegetables were inundated, the harvest damaged. It hadn’t been flooding for a long period, but then suddenly the water rose. People were shocked. The flood occurred from the end of January to beginning of February. And the flood water this time was very muddy. Usually, water in the dry season is clear. But this time it was strange, muddy water alternated with clear water. We looked down from the riverbank and had never seen anything like this before. In history, the way we’re used to, the water is not like this. So we are perplexed as to what is happening. Moreover, many parts of the riverbank had collapsed despite some barriers built to protect them. Why they collapsed, we don’t know the reason. And there are more sand than soil now, so the earthworms are gone. Usually, in our area, there are lots of healthy earthworms, they are very long like noodles because the soil is very fertile — people say the best soil is the soil from the Mekong river. Also, we can’t find many types of fish anymore, they start to go extinct. Many sub-ecosystems like Boong (seasonally submerged pond) are disappearing. The most severe problem is the massive amount of water flooding the area.”
What causes the problem?
“We think it’s because the dams are releasing water. We can’t really fix it now because the dams were already built. But we want the dam builders to at least inform us, notify us that the water is coming [flooding downstream] and when it is expected to reach us. This could mitigate the impacts on our parts. At least we would be able to adapt to the situation and make peace with it. In the old days, we could see beaches in the river, now we can’t see any beach because there is no real dry period; there are lots of water all the time; and the water is alternately clear and muddy, which has never happened before.”
Impacts on local tourism in Chiang Khan – Pak Chom
“Local tourism is 100% affected. In Chiang Khan we have Kang Kudkoo (rapids). In Pak Chom we have Don Kwak — very beautiful beach with the sand as beautiful as in Koh Samet island. We used to have events during Songkran Festival (Thai New Year) every year. But now in Chiang Khan things have changed. Tourists used to come to Pak Chom during the festival for many activities on the beach such as beach football competition, beach pageants contest, etc. But now it’s all gone. Everybody is very sorry for what we’ve lost. We feel slight and depressed. People come here to enjoy the beaches, because Mekong river beaches are unlike sea beaches — there are too much waves on sea beaches but our river beaches have clear water like those in the southern islands. But now the river has become muddy, alternate with some clear water, and the beaches and rapids disappeared, inundated under the water. As a result, now tourists are declining. Actually, you can observe it in this period of the year — the dry season when the Mekong river should be naturally low/dry until the beginning of May.”
“It’s sad to think about it. I still dream of the time when I was a kid, I would go to the Mekong to play on the beaches. We used and drank water from the Mekong. Our livelihood is bounded with the Mekong. We make our living through the river, we caught fish from the river. We would forage for food from the river, there were plenty of edible insects (cicadas, crickets), we never ran out of them. Today, this kind of livelihood is gone.”
How communities adapt?
“We need to survive because it’s already happening, we can’t turn it back. The government doesn’t care that our livelihood is destroyed. At the moment we, the villagers in Pak Chom, have to abandon activities related to Mekong river. We need to look for other jobs, like harvesting rubber juice or planting vegetables on higher land. In the past many people planted vegetables on the riverbank because the soil was very rich, there was no need for chemical fertilizer, no weeds, no need to use chemicals — but right now we have to abandon this practice. Also, during the Songkran Festival, we can only stay on land [can’t enjoy activities in the Mekong].”
Thongpua Muangkroat, Baan Pong Kham Moo 1, Kwan Yai District, Mukdahan Province.
What is the problem you are facing these days?
“The irregularity of the flow of the river makes it difficult to catch fish. When the river rises, there is no fish; When it recedes abruptly, water turns muddy and it’s difficult to catch fish. In the past, we used to catch an average of 4-5 kg of fish per day; today, it’s difficult to even get one kg.”
How do people adapt or tackle the problem?
“We resort to grow herbaceous plants in combination with animal farming. When we have excess time from planting and farming, we would go for fishing — just for family consumption. The number of fisherfolks is also declining. There used to be around 20-30 fisherfolks in every community, nowadays there are maximum 5-10 fisherfolks per community. For local fishery to adapt, we are now creating Wang-Pla or fish conservation zones in the river as breeding grounds to help increase fish population in the Mekong. We want to conserve the most scarce fish such as Pla Pon (Cirrhinuss) and Pla Hoo-Mhaad (black ear catfish) which are local to the area. There are seasonal fish which have entirely disappeared from this area such as Pla Moo (botia), Pla Kaew-Kai (Yasohikotakia morleti), Pla Raak-Kluy (horseface loach), and Pla Kod (bagrid catfish). With less fish, there’s less income. On the other hand, flood water might bring big fish such as Pla Chumchon, Pla Baan, Pla Khae (goonch).”
How do you think the government should help?
“They should control sand-mining from the river. The practice is damaging the sub-ecosystem of Wang Pla or the fish breeding grounds in the river. Sand-mining causes pebbles and sand to disappear — eliminating food sources and habitats of the fish.”
Chaiwat Parakhun, Baan Muang Moo 2, Sang Khom District, Nong Khai Province.
What problem from the Mekong is affecting everyday life?
“As someone who catches fish for a living, the main problem I encounter is changes in the ecosystem — the original sub-ecosystems of the river have disappeared. Man types of fish we used to catch for food have disappeared. For example, Pla Nai (carp), Pla Lerm (Chao Phaya giant catfish/Pangasius Sanitwongse), and Pla Buek (Mekong giant catfish/Pangasianodon gigas) — we hardly find them these days. For seasonal fish which migrate to lay eggs upstream, e.g. Pla Soi, Pla Raak-Kluy (horseface loach), Pla Wark, Pla Sa-ee (Mekongina erythrospila), Pla Mang — we rarely see them in the past two years. Ten years ago it was very easy to find these fish — usually they would swim upstream to lay eggs during the dry season. The past New Year, very few people managed to catch them — usually we would get at least 2-3 of them but now this year some people haven’t got even one of them. For myself, shortly after New Year I made four trips to cast fishing nets got only one Pla Ee-tu (Labeo chrysophekadion) weighed around 3 kg. Usually, I should get at least 3-5 fish. This means more than 80%-90% of the fish are gone.
Apart from fish, the changes also affect other animals in the Mekong which are our food sources e.g. crickets, tadpoles, dragonfly larvae. These animals live in still water. Usually, in January – February, the river should be drying and forming small ponds for varieties of frogs to start laying eggs which then become tadpoles. Tadpoles are great food. We make curry paste with them and steam in banana leaf — this is a common dish called Mok Huak which is even featured in a popular song (called ‘Take Mok Huak to visit aunty’). We used to eat Mok Huak not only in the rainy season but they were available in dry season too. Now there is no more.”
“Another worrisome change is the disappearing of some local plants which are food sources for human and aquatic lives. Particularly worrying is Krai-Nam (Homonoia riparid). Part of the Mekong river which runs from Sang Khom district in Nong Khai province to Pak Chom district in Loei is nicknamed locally as ‘thousands of reefs, hundred-thousands Krai’ because the river in this part has so many reefs hence plenty of Krai plants which grow on the rocks in the river. But now we have a crisis, the Krai plants are dying. Usually in the dry season when the water is low, these plants would emerge from underwater and start budding and blooming. But just the middle of last month, the river flooded abruptly. The water was also muddy comparing to the usually clear water. The mud that came with the flood got stuck onto plants leaves, blocking photosynthesis so the plants are dying. Not only Krai-Nam, other plants such as Wha-Nam (Eugenia oblata Roxb.) and Makok Nam (Elaeocarpus hygrophilus) are also dying en mass. With the abnormal fluctuation of the river and prolonged flood period, these seasonally-submerged plants lost the chance to propagate.”
What’s the main cause of the problem?
“The significant factor is how the dams release water. Ten years ago, the problem was not this severe — there were some problems but it wasn’t this bad. I’ve observed for the past five years, and especially between 2017-2019, impacts from dams releasing water appear much more severe and distinct.”
How do you and your community address and adapt to the situation?
“Today we can’t fix anything. We still try to make a living as we used to. But we can catch less fish. Many people need to find a second job(s). Some people take wages jobs in rubber plantation; or grow more vegetables in their lands (not on the riverbank) such as banana, galangal, lemongrass; and planting crops on their paddy fields such as sweet corn. We can’t invest in riverbank gardening because we will lose money. I have lost money on it too in the past period because the water rose unseasonally. Some people who have contracts with companies (contract farming) might get lucky if the company helped nullify their debt. For example, if they invested 50,000THB but could make the only 30,000THB from the harvest, the company might help compensate around 5,000THB for the labour cost and nullified the rest of the debt.”
“In Sang Khom district, we promote local tourism to support local communities. They have the advantage in beautiful environment — sea of fogs. They take tourists on traditional farm trucks to see the sea of fogs and visit communities to experience local livelihood. In Baan Muang where border control is more flexible, people start to do boat-ride activity for tourists — taking tourists to see the Mekong river. The river may not be as beautiful as it was but at least the activity generates additional income. Furthermore, on local tourism process, we established a coordination center with a clear work plan so that it can generate supporting incomes for communities in compensation for their lost earnings from fishing.
Moreover, the communities are now planning to create Wang Pla (fish conservation zones). We see that fishing with illegal and destructive methods (e.g. using electrical-shock or explosives or poisons) have become a major problem. On the Thai side, the communities could control such practices at a certain extent. There are community rules established that if someone is found catching fish with destructive illegal methods, he would be caught immediately even by community members. Communities have already organized watchmen to monitor the river. There are usually villagers who go fishing during the night, especially during the waning moon like tonight, so they would take turn to look after the river and the fish.
But the destructive fishing practice is not problematic only on the Thai side. There are people from the Laos side who engage in destructive fishing practices, not only the lay-people but sometimes it’s government officials. Especially government officials, it’s easy for them to find explosives to use with the fish. This happens almost every day and we can’t do anything about it. We went to talk with high ranking officials on that side; they said they would take care of it but nothing materialized; it still happens almost daily. Consequently, it has become more difficult to catch fish — the fish are afraid they won’t come to lay eggs or find food in the area, the local varieties are also gone.”
“If possible, we would like to see cross-border policy and cooperations to tackle this problem because laws and policy from only the Thai side are inadequate. It would be great if the international policy can issue regulations to control these destructive fishing practices. It would be easier for us to establish Wang Pla and do fish conservation which would benefit both sides of the Mekong river; because in Laos there are also groups of volunteers who work with us on this, they just don’t have the authority because those who do wrong are government staffs and soldiers, lay-people cannot tell them what to do.”