What's Happening to the Mekong River?
-Survey of Cross-border Environmental Impacts in Northern Laos-
May 21, 2007
In April 2007, I visited Houay Xay District, Bokeo Province located in Northern Laos to observe environmental changes along the Mekong River, particularly cross-border environmental problems (Note 1). Our survey indicates that there have been major environmental changes such as abnormal fluctuations in water levels, especially over the past several years. These changes have caused large-scale riverbank erosion and depletions of fish stocks, threatening the local residents' livelihoods. There have not yet been sufficient scientific studies of the causes of the water level fluctuations, riverbank erosion, and decrease in fish populations. However, according to those who live among the Mekong River, these abnormal environmental changes may be the result of problems caused by the development operations and commercial activities of other countries, including dam development and commercial shipping from China, previous revetment construction conducted by Thailand to prevent riverbank erosion, and blast fishing by Chinese commercial vessels or people in Thailand and Burma.
< Singkham Village, Tonpheung District> sandbar was formed in the Mekong River 2 to 3
"In the past, I could stand on the riverbank and years ago. As the slope of the riverbank
throw rocks into Thailand (on the opposite became steep due to the erosion, villagers no
bank) and we could watch pretty girls bathing longer are able to bathe in the river by the
on the other side." riverbank. They now go to the sandbar with a
small boat to take baths.
Khamsan, an elder of Singkham Village, Asked about the causes of such riverbank
jokes when he speaks of the changes to the erosion and the formation of the sandbar, a
river, but this village has been hit hard by villager responded: “I’m not sure but it could be
serious riverbank erosion, to the point where a result of the bank protection work on the Thai
some residents have been forced to leave. side. It was after the work that the sandbar was
formed and the riverbank erosion became
Riverbank Erosion and the Formation of severe.” “It may also be an impact from waves
Sandbars created when Chinese ships pass by”, said
Erosion is particularly bad during the rainy another villager.
season, but even during the dry season the
riverbanks are receding little by little each day.
Singkham ;s across the Mekong River from
H Village in Chiang Kong District, Chiang Rai
In 2003, bank protection work was carried out
at a point a bit upstream of Had Pai Village.
Starting around that time, riverbank erosion
became severe. “Thailand has the money for
protective measures, but all Laos can do is take
the damage” said a villager.
According to Khamsan, a corn fields
which until few years ago measured about 50
meters from the river is now less than 20 A corn field erodes a bit each day meters away. The difference, of about 30 (Singkham Village, Tonpheung District) meters, has eroded away. Furthermore, a
Fluctuation of the Mekong River’s Water < Donesavane Village, Tonpheung District> Level Singkham Village's fears became reality for In the past 2-3 years, the river’s water level Donesavane Village in Tonpheung District. fluctuates greatly throughout the day. “In the According to the Tonpheung District Office, of past, volume of water never changed this much the 52 villages in the district, 36 are located on in the morning and in the evening”, said a the Mekong River. More than 20 of those have villager. been affected by riverbank erosion. Riverbank In addition, fishing has become difficult due erosion has been noticeable since the 1980s to the lack of water. Villagers conclude that the and became a serious problem starting around cause of the problem “may be due to erosion 2002. The worst-affected areas have seen filling up the bottom of the river.” In the past, erosion destroy the land several hundred about 2 to 3 Chinese commercial ships a month meters from the original banks. Residents of 7 passed by even during the dry season. villages have had to move because of the However, no such ships have come this year riverbank erosion, and in hardest-hit because the water level is so low. Donesavane village all 146 households
relocated in 2002.
“The river is now only 40 meters away form the Riverbank Erosion and Relocation
village temple. If [riverbank erosion] reaches Large Chinese commercial ships began the temple and residential area, we will have to running along the Mekong River starting in relocate the village.” 1999. The destruction of riverbanks began in