The Bend in the River
Chiang Sean, Kilometre 10:
A short drift downstream, Kome Wilai and his friends putter out midstream on long boats, returning to polish off beers and measure the river’s changes in their nets.
The catch has been pitiful for a fortnight, says the 38-year-old Kome, after a sudden drop in water level in the middle of the monsoon season.
“I’ve laid my nets twice today and got nothing. It’s the Chinese dam…. there is no water for the fish to swim or lay their eggs,” he explains.
The dam — the Jinghong — is one of 11 in China’s portion of the river, established as part of a hydro-electric power drive to help wean the country off coal.
Laos, through which a third of Mekong flows, plans many more across key tributaries.
A thicket of agreements encourage upstream countries to announce when they plan to store or discharge large amounts of water from their dams.
Still, in Chiang Saen the water often drops by 1.5-3 meters without warning.
“When they close the gate at the dam it affects everyone along the river,” says Prasong La-on, Chiang Sean district chief. “We have to accept it.”
The Chinese Embassy in Bangkok insists it does not hold back water for its farmers or turbines and “pays great attention” to the needs of its neighbors.
Meanwhile other analysts say the finger is pointing in the wrong direction.
“The reality is that China only accounts for 12 percent of the Mekong’s surface water,” says China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based consultancy.
The “Western press has a pre-determined view of China which has spilled into how it approaches transboundary water,” it says, arguing downstream dams including in Laos, where the Thai-owned Xayaburi has just come online, cause the biggest impacts.
Whoever is behind the fluctuations, river communities fear the worst as each year brings unwanted records… the lowest monsoon water levels, the highest unseasonal floods.
“When the river is gone, it will be gone forever,” warns Grandpa Nart, a toothless 72-year-old boat driver, who has mapped the waters over a lifetime.