[Marxism] Damming the Lower Mekong, Devastating the Ways and Means of Life

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 16 09:15:01 MST 2020

NY Times, Feb. 16, 2020
Damming the Lower Mekong, Devastating the Ways and Means of Life
By Hannah Beech

NONG KHAI, Thailand — The water is so clear on the Mekong River in 
northeastern Thailand that the sunlight pierces through to the riverbed, 
transforming the waterway into a glinting, empty aquarium. It is 
beautiful but it means death.

At this time of year in Thailand, this stretch of the world’s most 
productive river should be brown and swollen with silt. Instead, a 
prolonged drought and a huge new dam over the border in Laos, the first 
on the lower Mekong, have stolen the nutrients needed to sustain life.

On another bend, the Mekong almost disappears entirely, a trickle of 
stagnant water surrounded by a lunar landscape of sere hillocks and 
desiccated roots. This is the season that fish normally spawn here, but 
there is no water.

“Our nets are almost empty,” said Buorot Chaokhao, who has fished the 
Mekong’s waters in Nong Khai, just across the riverine border from Laos, 
for nearly five decades. “Maybe our way of life on the river is finished.”

In October, the turbines of the first lower Mekong dam, the Xayaburi, 
began churning upstream from Nong Khai in Laos, after a series of test 
runs last summer. The effect of the Thai-funded dam was almost 
immediate, residents said.

The Mekong ran clear and depleted, appearing an eerie, luminescent blue 
on sunny days. Algae bloomed, choking nets. Now, a monthslong drought 
has pushed the water level even lower so that parts of the river are no 
longer a waterway at all but a desert of dead plants and dried-out 

With about 10 more dams planned for the mainstream Mekong’s lower 
reaches and hundreds more on its tributaries, a lifeline for 60 million 
people is being choked. Tens of millions more will be affected as farms 
and fisheries are compromised, even as the rich and powerful across the 
region profit from the hydropower business.

“We’re asking the question: Is this the breaking point for the Mekong?” 
said Brian Eyler, the director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia 
program and the author of “Last Days of the Mighty Mekong.” “The 
Mekong’s ecosystem is adaptable and resilient but the worry is that the 
river’s massive resource base won’t be able to overcome all these dams 
and extreme weather.”

The Mekong has been so exhausted that the Thai government, long 
lackadaisical about environmental protection, announced on Feb. 5 that 
it had rejected long-held Chinese ambitions to blast rocks in the river 
to allow for bigger boats and more trade. Environmental groups warned 
that further manipulation of the river could be catastrophic.

Ever since China, where the headwaters of the Mekong are fed by glacial 
melt, began damming the river early this century, the river has been 
producing less fish. For a population downstream that could once count 
on the world’s most abundant inland fishery for much of its protein 
intake, this change has been devastating.

Amkha Janlong, 69, remembers how, not that long ago, she would go to a 
pier in Nong Khai and watch men heave in catches of fish taller and 
heavier than they were. The biggest of all, the Mekong giant catfish, 
weighs more than a tiger and used to feed entire villages.

In some places, fishers are resorting to dynamite fishing to capture 
dwindling stocks.

“The fish are getting smaller and smaller,” Ms. Amkha said. When she was 
young, she said, they were this big, opening her arms wide. Now they are 
tiny, the size of her little finger.

Since the Xayaburi dam began operations in October, Wittaya Thongnet, 
Ms. Amkha’s son-in-law, has given up fishing altogether.

“There’s nothing to catch,” he said.

Still, Mr. Wittaya hasn’t been able to admit to his mother-in-law that 
the fish she still eats every day are no longer caught by him but bought 
at the market instead.

“She doesn’t understand how much the river has changed,” he said.

The fishers of Nong Khai used to farm to supplement their income, but 
the Mekong’s vagaries have upended agriculture, too. As the water 
recedes from the riverbank, Mr. Buorot has been forced to use pumps to 
nourish his riverside fields.

Then in December, a sudden discharge from the Xayaburi drowned his 
lettuces, he said. “Too little water, too much water,” he said, shaking 
his head. “We don’t know what is going on.”

Nearly four months after the dam’s turbines began, people downstream are 
in the dark about its operations, even though the opening and closing of 
its gates affects millions of people. The Laotian government has said 
publicizing the dam’s schedule isn’t its duty and has hinted that the 
Mekong River Commission might be better suited to provide updates.

But the commission — which counts the governments of Laos, Thailand, 
Vietnam and Cambodia as its members — can only disseminate news if 
someone informs it. One rights group in Nong Khai was told that the Thai 
department of irrigation is the body in charge of notifying villagers 
about the dam’s flow, but government officials denied that.

The Thai electrical authority, which is buying Xayaburi’s power, and the 
dam operator, which is backed by Thai investment, have pointed fingers 
at each other. Neither answered questions about the dam’s operations.

“The Mekong had dried up and still no information has been provided 
until today,” said Chainarong Setthachua, a lecturer at Mahasarakham 
University in northeastern Thailand, who has been studying the Mekong 
for 25 years

Mr. Eyler, the author, said the silence is probably intentional. “It’s 
likely that this lack of communication is purposely designed,” he said.

With the Mekong’s nutrients diminished and water flows unpredictable, 
farmers have increased their use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, 
which are costly and harmful when used in excess, agricultural groups said.

Mr. Buorot said he used to reserve chemicals for the tobacco that he 
sells but now must douse even the vegetables his family eats.

“I’m worried about our health, but it’s the only way to get things to 
grow,” he said.

Last year, a Thai sand mining company approached officials in Ban Nam 
Phrai, Mr. Buorot’s village, asking for permission to scoop out the 
riverbed. Sand from the Mekong, used for land reclamation and as an 
ingredient for concrete and asphalt, has helped build Asian 
metropolises, from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City, further eroding the 
river’s ecosystem.

The electricity that Xayaburi produces is not needed for this area. 
Thailand’s electricity grid is amply powered already, with a 30 percent 
surplus at certain times of the year, according to Thai researchers. But 
dams, whether built by Thai, Vietnamese or, most of all, Chinese 
companies, mostly benefit urban residents and elites. Fishers and 
farmers suffer.

Because of the compounded effects of dams, climate change and sand 
mining, 300,000 people have left the Mekong Delta in southwestern 
Vietnam each year over the past few years, Mr. Eyler said, because the 
river there can no longer sustain their lives. Parts of the delta, where 
20 percent of Vietnam’s population lives, are collapsing into the sea.

Back in Thailand, at the Hai Sok Buddhist temple on the Mekong’s banks, 
Phitakchai Jaruthammo, a monk, said that 28 species of fish once thrived 
in these waters, which are a critical breeding ground for the entire 
riverine system.

A long tail boat puttered by on an abbreviated journey, its rudder 
pulled high to avoid hitting the bottom. The river runs nearly dry a 
couple bends away.

“When you build dams and steal sand,” the monk said, “you change the 
course of a river and you change the course of life.”

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