China dams blamed for worsening S.E. Asia drought

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — As China opened one of its six dams on the upper Mekong River last month to help parched Southeast Asian countries down river cope with a record drought, it was hailed as benevolent water diplomacy.

But to critics of hydroelectric dams built on the Mekong over the concerns of governments and activists, it was the self-serving act of a country that, along with hydropower-exporting Laos, has helped worsen the region’s water and environmental problems.

Much of Southeast Asia is suffering its worst drought in 20 or more years. Tens of millions of people in the region are affected by the low level of the Mekong, a rice-bowl-sustaining river system that flows into Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Fresh water is running short for hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam and Cambodia, and reduced water for irrigation has hurt agriculture, particularly rice growing in Thailand, where land under cultivation is being cut significantly this year.

Vietnam estimates that 400,000 hectares have been affected by saltwater intrusion, with about 166,000 hectares rendered infertile. The affected land accounts for nearly 10 percent of the country’s paddy cultivation area in the Mekong Delta, its main rice-growing region.

The water level in the Tonle Sap River as it passes the royal palace in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, has fallen to a 50-year low.

Fingers are mainly pointed at the El Nino climate phenomenon, which produces drier and hotter-than-usual weather globally. But environmentalists and some officials say the situation is worsened by the 10 dams on the Mekong’s mainstream built over the past two decades, at least partly because they reduce rainy-season flooding and trap sediments, making the downstream delta more vulnerable to seawater intrusion.

“I’ve lost all my investment. My family was left with nothing,” said Thach Tai, a farmer from Ngoc Bien village in the southern Vietnamese province of Tra Vinh, as he surveyed his 2,000 square meters of dead, dry paddies.

The current El Nino is one of the strongest climate events in the past 60 years “that is not over yet,” said Kundhavi Kadiresan, assistant director general at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. It is the main factor in the drought, but “dams along the Mekong can and certainly do cause some problems,” she said.

Vietnam says the saltwater intrusion into its southern Mekong Delta is unprecedented. In mid-March, it asked China to double the amount of water discharged from its Jinghong dam in Yunnan Province. China agreed and the increased water flow is expected to continue until April 10.

Pham Tuan Phan, chief executive of the Mekong River Commission, a body set up to mediate the conflicting priorities of upstream and downstream Mekong countries, called the Chinese move a “gesture of goodwill.”

China was embarking on unprecedented water diplomacy, declared Thailand’s English-language Nation newspaper. China’s Foreign Ministry said the government had decided to “overcome its own difficulties to offer emergency water flows.”

The Chinese move was hailed as progress because it was the first time it had notified downstream countries of its plans for the Mekong’s water level. But it also underlined the power China holds over a shared life-sustaining resource and the Mekong environment overall.

Ma Quang Trung, a department director at Vietnam’s Agriculture Ministry, said discharges from the Jinghong dam might help reduce fresh water shortages for 575,000 Vietnamese, but are unlikely to ease the drought overall. Vietnam is so far downstream that only a small portion of the discharged water will reach it. He blames the drought on El Nino and Mekong dams.

Many more dams are planned for the Mekong, including by China and landlocked Laos, which with Chinese support sees hydropower exports becoming the mainstay of its economy, one of Asia’s least developed.

Piaporn Deetes, a campaigner in Thailand for Rivers International, an advocacy group, scoffs at the idea that the Jinghong discharge was a selfless act by China to help its neighbors. She said China gets benefits such as electricity generation, and the temporarily higher water level makes for easier navigation on its section of the river.

The discharge also had disastrous consequences that were inevitable because millions who live along the Mekong and depend on it for their livelihoods were unaware water levels would suddenly rise.

River bank vegetable gardens were submerged and boats and fishing equipment swept away, said Deetes. Harvests of kaipen, a freshwater weed exported to Japan that is a large source of income for river communities, were destroyed.

Statement on The Youth’s Dream for Future Mekong

We, The Mekong Youth Assembly, a network of young environmental advocate groups and individuals from six Mekong countries, get together beside the Mekong River today. We witness challenges and difficulties our fellow youth advocates are facing to protect the environment and our beloved communities. We seek for like-minded friends to join the journey of the following dreams to reality:

1. We dream that we are encouraged to express our opinions freely in all aspects of any given development project. Our movement to stand up for responsible development, justice, non-discrimination, peace and equality are protected by law.

2. We dream that our right to participation in any decision making toward the fate of our rivers, our communities and our future must be respected.

3. We dream that today’s adults, especially those in power, would bear in mind that “you do not inherit the Earth from ancestors, you borrow it from us, your children”. Make sure our mother earth shall be returned to us with prosperous life elements. In this regard, always respectfully consider our lives.

We will put all efforts to protect the Mekong River which unites us here today spiritually and physically. We will continue on this journey together until our dreams come true.

In solidarity,

Mekong Youth Assembly
31 March 2016

Leaders of 6 Mekong Countries Must Listen to the People!

Statement of the Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

Listen to Downstream Communities
Stop All Mekong Dams
Implement Transboundary Impacts Studies

Mekong River is the mother of lives and the giver of local economies in 8 provinces of Thailand, from the Golden Triangle in Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai Province to Chiang Khan, Loei Province and Khong Chiam, Ubonratchatani Province. But the construction of hydropower dams in Yunnan, China—since the first dam and now a total of 6 completed dams out of the 15 planned projects—Mekong River has lost its nature to cascade hydropower dams and navigation of large cargo ships for the past 20 years and counting.

Today, the leaders of all Mekong countries gather together in China for the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation meeting—an initiative led by China. We, The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces who have been monitoring development projects in the Mekong River with Thai communities, call the Thai and the Mekong governments to:

  • Admit and immediately mitigate impacts caused by China’s totalitarian water management on the upper Mekong River/Lancang that have happened already for many years, especially transboundary impacts posed by hydropower projects and water release for Chinese large cargo ships navigation. These development projects fail to recognize local communities’ rights and unprecedented environmental impacts downstream.
  • Immediately find resolutions for existing transboundary impacts and mitigation measures for damages and losses caused by unseasonal abrupt water level fluctuations—including flooding due to dam discharge and dry water level and rapids blasting during the development of Mekong Navigation Project.
  • Stop and suspend all dam projects in the lower Mekong basin. These projects have ignored to respect participations of the Mekong people who dependent on the river to sustain their livelihoods and economies. Public participation must be implemented and enforced to prevent grave environmental and social impacts on downstream communities.
  • Create an accountable and participatory water management mechanism that foster inclusive public participation especially from riparian communities who are directly affected by the projects.

Mekong River is the Mother River of Southeast Asia. We have coexisted and relied on her since the ancestral time. We do not want anyone to take our Mother River away and use it simply for political interests.

The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces
23 March 2016

Mekong Galery

Suthep Krisanavarin is one of Thailand’s leading photojournalists who has covered environment, social and humanitarian issues in Southeast Asia for almost two decades. His award-winning photographs have been published world-wide, including in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, National Geographic Thailand, the Japan Times, Geographical and Aera. Suthep’s work is founded on his firm belief that a photojournalist must act as a conscientious observer of society and culture, and contribute towards social change at a local and global level. He achieves these goals by working on projects over a long duration, thus establishing trust with the communities he works with and building a deep understanding about the issues that he is documenting.

Suthep has exhibited his photography in Thailand, Cambodia, China, Japan, Germany and France. His exhibitions have included: Kuay and Elephants – Struggling for Survival; Life in Xinjiang, China; Hunters and Monks in Thailand; and Siphandon – Mekong Fishing under Threat. In May 2008, a week after Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma, Suthep visited areas affected by the cyclone and chronicled the suffering of the people. His images bore witness to the destruction, torment and despair caused by the cyclone that have been exacerbated by the actions of the military government.

After the 2004 Asian tsunami, Suthep co-founded the InSIGHT Out! Photography Project and worked as the project’s Photography Director. The project teaches children from the tsunami-affected areas of Banda Aceh, Indonesia and Phang Nga, Thailand how to document their lives through photography. Suthep is also the only Asian tutor for young Asian photographers who participate in the Angkor Photography Festival.

Suthep’s photo essay about the Siphandon area on the Mekong River in Southern Laos, shot over a three-year period, is a vital documentation that draws attention to the threats posed by large hydropower dams to traditional fishing communities and wildlife. These images have been used by international and regional organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, International Rivers and Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), to raise public awareness about the impacts of the proposed dams on the Mekong mainstream.

Suthep’s powerful images create in-depth documentary essays that are shot over protracted periods of time on his own funding and initiative. His Mekong River photo documentary has now been awarded a grant by the Blue Earth Alliance. In 2008, Suthep was awarded a Best of Photojournalism award from the US National Press Photographers Association and a Days Japan International Photojournalism Special Prize.

Dam Locations and Status

The Mekong River is under threat. The governments of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand are planning eleven big hydropower dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream. If built, the dams would block major fish migrations and disrupt this vitally important river, placing at risk millions of people who depend upon the Mekong for their food security and income.


List of mainstream dams

[to be updated]

Reports, Briefings and Websites

Fisheries, Food Security and Livelihoods

The Mekong River supports one of the world’s most productive inland fisheries, which feeds over sixty million people. Official estimates put its value at more than US$3 billion annually. Yet, even this staggering figure understates the true value, as fisheries are also central to peoples’ nutrition and food security. Experience around the world points to the fact there is no way of mitigating such large dams’ impacts on fisheries.

Reports, Briefings and Websites


The undammed Mekong River has an extraordinary aquatic biodiversity, second only to the Amazon. Building mainstream dams would push the endangered species such as the Irrawaddy Dolphin, the Mekong Giant Catfish, and countless other migratory fish species to the brink of extinction. Losing this ecological wealth would be a tragedy of global proportions.

Reports, Briefings and Websites


World’s Largest Catfish Species Threatened by Dam, Stefan Lovgren, National Geographic News, 8 April, 2008

Mekong Mainstream Dams in China

China’s dam construction on the Upper Mekong mainstream (Lancang) has already caused serious environmental problems on downstream Burma, northern Thailand and northern Lao PDR. Declining fish stocks and unpredictable water levels made life more difficult for downstream communities, pointing towards the damage that mainstream dams will inflict.

Reports, Briefings and Websites

Visit Living Rivers Siam website

Better Energy Solutions

The bulk of electricity generated by the Mekong mainstream dams is destined for distant energy-hungry cities in Thailand and Vietnam. Yet the region’s urban electricity needs could be better met by improving energy efficiency and deploying recent innovations in decentralized energy technologies. By adopting policies that encourage investment in new energy technologies, Mekong governments could leapfrog 1950s-era big hydro and start growing sustainable, modern economies. Securing electricity supply in this peaceful way would also avoid cross-border disputes arising from these dams’ cross-border impacts.

Reports, Briefings and Websites

Visit Mekong Utility Watch’s webpage.