In recent weeks, the Mekong River, one of the world’s longest and largest rivers, which has been under peril due to a confluence of development, demographic, and geopolitical pressures, has been at its lowest levels in a century. Dams upstream are holding back much needed water amid an ongoing drought. The development has highlighted the sobering state of the Mekong and the effects on the livelihoods of the people who depend on it.
Varying sources have gotten the blame for the stress on the Mekong. For some, it is dams, in particular Xayaburi in Laos – the first to block the mainstream of the Mekong River. Others such as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have lashed out at China, where up to seven dams now obstruct seasonal water flows.
“We have seen a spree in upstream dam building that concentrates control over downstream flows,” he said at a recent summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok.
Pompeo said China was taking control of the world’s 12th longest river and Southeast Asia’s most important waterway through a dam-building spree and its plans to blast and dredge waterbeds were “troubling trends.”
To date, by one count, 11 dams are planned for the mainstream of the Mekong River and another 123 are in the works for its tributaries. Xayaburi is the biggest by far and widely criticized by fishermen in the delta, where up to 70 million people rely on the Mekong as their chief source of food.
Scientists and environmentalists have consistently warned of trouble since the go-ahead of the $3.8 billion Xayaburi dam was given in 2012. But others have followed as well nonetheless, including the Don Sahong dam and the Pak Beng Dam. Scientists have noted that many of the river’s 850 fish species, including the Irrawaddy dolphin and the giant catfish, are endangered.
Shang Nane, 46, said the drought and the loss of fish stocks were hurting and he was struggling to make ends meet.
“So all the people have to relocate to some place else. Many people are not happy with this and it means increased spending just to move,” he said.
Som Nang, 32, was blunt, saying plans by Laos to construct the hydropower dam at Xayaburi and to sell electricity into Thailand had increased water shortages and depleted food supplies.
“Before Xayaburi there was a lot of fish,” she bemoaned.
“It’s a real worry, the shortage of food, and we have lost a lot of natural resources and that’s not good for the future,” she said. “In Stung Treng province there is the hydropower Sambor dam and the Stung Treng dam, and there is a plan to dam the Sesan River.”
“It’s too much.”
Their sentiments were echoed across the Lower Mekong Region. Even in better times fishermen complained of poor catches when compared with 20 years ago, before dam construction began.
Back then, fisherman told The Diplomat that one day’s fishing would fill an ordinary two-man boat to its brim, but now a day’s catches might be as little as 3 kilograms – a huge decrease relatively speaking.
And its not just dams that have changed the river’s dynamics.
Climate change and salt contamination, caused by rising sea levels and low water levels in the river itself, and illegal electric fishing nets are among the other threats that are also hurting communities.
Muslim Chams, whose pork-free diet makes fish all the more important, have been punished badly.
Cham elders say that a transition out of fishing has begun, which has resulted in better educated people finding better paid jobs.
But as one Muslim cleric said: “It’s also sad. We are seeing the end of an era and we really don’t know yet what this will mean for our food supplies, for feeding our people and for our way of life.”
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt. Ah Ny contributed to this story.