'Nothing about the Mekong is normal now’: Anger along Southeast Asia’s great river as water levels become unpredictable
NAKHON PHANOM, Thailand: From a distance, it is hard to make sense of the small patches of green emerging from the cracking mud flats of the Mekong River.
They are not oases, nor sprouts of river grass along dusty channels where water normally flows; they are golf greens.
Recently, an unusual golf tournament was held here, in the border city of Nakhon Phanom, with players taking aim along a makeshift nine-hole course carved into the river bank itself. Water was a shifting hazard and the rough was impenetrable mud.
The event was held in the hope of attracting tourists to experience the “unseen” sights of Thailand and boost local communities. It also - inadvertently - illustrated the critical condition of Southeast Asia’s great river.
Just days after the event was held, rising water levels had swamped the tee-off area, turning fairways back to local fishermen, who resumed searching for a catch in the slow-moving shallows.
Dry conditions are an annual phenomenon along Southeast Asia’s great river, but they have changed. Over the past two years especially, seasons on the Mekong have become confused and untrustworthy. The normal flow conditions of the river are becoming a memory.
“It’s either that the water isn’t enough or water comes too much and floods. Nothing about the Mekong is normal now,” said local village head and river watch volunteer Attapon Nakhon.
“I haven’t seen the Mekong change so fast before. I am angry about the unnatural changes and the dams but what else can I do?”
People living along the Mekong have always been in its grip, but now they are hostages to unsettling shifts, blamed on the operations of large hydropower dams further upriver in China and Laos.
In recent years, 11 mainstream dams in China have held back massive quantities of water, before releasing them at unexpected intervals, leading to crop failure, ecosystem breakdown, bank erosion and general unpredictability in the countries downstream.
Laos also operates dozens of dams on the Mekong and its subsidiary rivers. They are mostly financed by China.
READ: 'The colour is blue’ - Strange changes to Mekong River as hydropower dams and climate change make their mark
Satellite imagery has shown China’s dams withholding water, as its neighbours endured difficult drought periods. Releasing water helps the run-of-river dams generate electricity in periods when the natural flow is diminished while holding water can slow the fast pulse of the river during the monsoon season and help upstream reservoirs fill up their storage.
The impacts of the dams, in addition to worsening climate change conditions in the region, have imperiled the Mekong, which supports around 60 million people.
Increasingly, the downstream populations in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are at the mercy of what happens up north.
In this part of eastern Thailand, fishing, farming and tourism have all been severely impacted, leaving local officials concerned.
“I saw the Mekong in a time when it had so much water and diversity in its ecosystem but it has changed now. Most of the changes have happened in the last two years,” said Apichai Ritthigun, the chief of Nakhon Phanom environment office at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
The changes he refers to are both to the function and visual appearance of the river. The Mekong is often defined by its deep ochre colour, reflecting the rich nutrients that are essential for life along its path.
For the first time, Apichai’s department has begun doing specific tests measuring the turbidity of the river - essentially how much of those important nutrients are left. In three different sites in the province, they have recorded “barely any” sediment.
“The Mekong has abnormality in terms of fluctuations of the water level and the sediments have gone. The river is very clear and turns blue,” he said. “The water level is now in a state of crisis. The river is dry this month every year but what makes it different is that the water is clear.”
READ: When the rain doesn’t come - Thailand in grip of severe drought as monsoon season fails to deliver
"A DISASTER FOR THE MEKONG"
The unusual appearance of the Mekong in recent times has been a tourist attraction, with people flocking to view the apparent beauty of the river.
The dry river economy has all along been important to the Thai communities along the Mekong. For some locals, these months provide income that can help see them through the quiet months.
Further downriver from the city, a sand island has formed over during the dry season in the middle of the river, attracting visitors to wade around the sandbars. Loud Thai music blasts from speakers brought over from the land, and squadrons of food servers bring snacks and drinks to customers on wooden platforms, perched above the water.
The clear water has proven to be a curiosity, but with recent water level fluctuations of up to 1m in 48 hours, these small businesses need to be constantly on edge. Rising water in the dry season is an abnormality, but now it is something they need to plan for.
“This stall is very important to us because we mostly make money from selling food during this period,” said Kanokwan Chumla, who helps her mother run a restaurant during holiday periods.
“I’m a bit worried about water level fluctuations. We learn how to adapt ourselves to the changes. If water comes fast, we need to make sand bunkers to protect our stall,” she said.
Amnart Traijak, a river monitor and activist from the Network of Council of Mekong River Community in Seven Northeastern Provinces, is wary about what he is witnessing.
The network he is with tries to give early warning to people along the river, notifying communities when water levels dramatically change. He blames the construction of dams - some of which are still ongoing - for the issues they now face.
“We started facing problems when the dams were constructed, in China and thousands of kilometres away from us,” he said.
“Some people are happy seeing the blue water so they don’t have to go see blue water in the sea. But that is a disaster for the Mekong.”
HEAT AND UNCERTAINTY
Suphat Kudju has been fishing on the Mekong his entire life. For the 64-year-old, it’s all he really knows. What he sees now from his house and small farm alongside the river bank makes him emotional.
“Sometimes, when speaking with my friends, I come to tears, seeing how dry the river has become,” he said. “It’s sad. Very sad. My children and grandchildren came and asked what could be done. I said that we cannot do anything.”
Fishermen like Suphat have reason to worry about their livelihoods and future on the Mekong.
Small fish rely on river sediment to feed and that food source is now mostly absent. With seasons confused, fish lay eggs at the wrong time and in the wrong places, resulting in breeding failure when the river dries up. Water surface temperatures increase when the river is shallow, another factor made worse by climate change.
Meanwhile in fish farm operations, during periods of increasingly common drought where seasonal rain is low, oxygen levels drop in the slow moving water. This causes fishes to die.
“We think this is a huge issue. I think this is out of our control. It’s an international issue,” said Tossapol Kaewngam, the chief of fishery management at the Nakhon Phanom Provincial Fishery Office.
“Now, we have to look at ourselves and see what we can do and adapt so we can survive this,” he said.
Impacts on fish populations are being felt along the Mekong. In Cambodia’s Tonle Sap - the world’s largest inland source of fish - catches in 2019 were reported to have dropped by up to 75 per cent.
The total sediment now reaching the crucial food bowl of the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam is predicted to be just a third of what it was less than 15 years ago.
Meanwhile, farmers in Nakhon Phanom and elsewhere have watched the foundations of the banks where they grow vegetables shift and deteriorate. The banks are starving for sediment, and as a consequence, agriculture in the normally fertile soil is a struggle.
“People used to grow vegetables along the Mekong banks but many don’t do it now. Why? Because they cannot get good production,” Amnart said.
“When water comes in the flooding season, water doesn’t flood the banks and bring sediments. So, there’s no fertility.”
Rows of tomato crops along the riverside land belonging to Suphat have withered. His family abandoned them when they realised there was not enough water to sustain growth.
They can feel the heat, more than ever. While local farmers say they used to head to the banks of the Mekong to linger in the cool temperatures it provided, these days the conditions are unbearable from mid morning until late afternoon.
“I think it is scary. I think if it keeps continuing like this, it will be a struggle to make a living and to feed ourselves,” Suphat said.
“People ask me to move with them somewhere else but I won’t go. I am very bonded with this place. I have raised my own children and my grandchildren here. If I leave this place, what could I do?"
Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat.