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Damming of the Mekong: Thai Villagers Lament a River in Crisis

NONG KHAI, THAILAND – The Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers – a 5,000-kilometer waterway which threads from China through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

However, dams have subverted the ecosystem, bringing drought in monsoon season and high water when it should be dry. That has forever changed the lives of those dependent on the river’s water for food and work in northeastern Thailand.

Panning for flecks of gold on the bank of the Mekong River in northeastern Thailand, Rodjana Thepwong says the waterway has been her playground, food supply and source of income throughout her 64 years.

But it is changing at a speed she can barely believe. She says that when she was younger, the water would be so low in the dry season that she could walk over to the Lao side, a few hundred meters away. Now the water rises in the dry season so she stays on the Thai side of the river and pans for tiny amounts of gold.

Upstream dams – many built by China – have upended the natural cycles of the river, a waterway that subsists 60 million people as it snakes through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam.

The riverbank used to provide farmland to the poorest Mekong villagers. Now water levels rise and fall without warning when the dams are closed to generate electricity, and the land yields little.

Campaigners say fish species have been decimated as the river downstream now lacks vital sediment, sending a shock through the entire ecosystem.

Locals fear a new $2 billion China-backed hydroelectric dam planned for Sanakham on the Mekong in Laos – less than 2 kilometers away – will be the end of the living river in northern Thailand — that it will lack nutrients and the sediment that provides nutrients for fish.

The dam is currently undergoing a consultation process, but that is widely seen as a formality.

From a rare conservation area on the Thai bank, a few kilometers downstream from the proposed dam, local researcher Apisit Soontrawirat maps the destruction of the river.

He says the Chinese and Lao dams have ruined the ecosystem and dozens of species of fish have vanished due to lack of sediment.

Source: Voice of America

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