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 “In 2003, we raised money and installed 1987, but it only started becoming a serious electricity on our own. I don’t want to move now problem after 1999. Village Chief Sukhanthong that our lives have become more convenient. emphasized the scale of the damage: "The Also, we still have to pay back our debt for the District Office was once 2km from the riverbank electricity installation.” but now it is only 500m away." He claimed that
the village has lost 200m of land in the past Concerns were voiced by the villagers of year alone and was uncertain about the future: Singkham one after the other. Villagers have "This will continue unless some measures are requested the government to take measures to taken. There are plans to undertake revetment deal with these problems. However, there is no construction in 7 areas of the district, but it is clear vision for the future. uncertain whether it will actually take place." About a half of the households in Singkham When asked about the causes of the Village own paddy fields. Those without paddy riverbank erosion, one villager responded, "It's field raise corn or provide labor to the families probably an effect of the Chinese dams. When with paddy fields. Almost all the rice necessary Chinese commercial ships pass through, they to feed every family in the village is produced open the dam and increase the water level to within the village. The village seems relatively make it easier for ships to pass." economically stable, but if the village continues The residents of Donesavane Village were to suffer, it may be forced to relocate within few forced to relocate in 2002 when the impact of years. Together with damage to farmland, erosion became too much to withstand, and the villagers’ living conditions may worsen. relocation was completed in September 2002.
In addition to their residences, agricultural land
has also been damaged. A 6-7 hectare corn
farm was lost to the erosion, affecting 15 (272.2km) to the Chinese border.
households. Here, I spoke with Pheng (not his real name),
Reflecting on the relocation, the Village Chief who makes his living as a boat operator and explained, "It was good that electricity and fisherman in addition to working on rice plumbing were installed. Also, we are no longer paddies.
impacted by flooding since we are now far from Pheng hails from another province of Laos the banks." However, he admitted that the but has worked in the area as a boat operator villagers bore a substantial burden for the since 1970. Seven ships operate out of the pier, relocation. Their present location was and Pheng operates them on a rotation of once agricultural land owned by the people of every 5 days.
Donesavane Village, so they had to pay 4,000 Fishing is carried out in groups of 3 between baht apiece (approximately 15,200 yen) to buy December and May. Pheng claims to catch it from the villagers. The national government anywhere between 10-20kg of Pa Phia, Pa Kot,
built a school along with the relocation, but the Pa Khao (a local species of carp) and Pa Khe
villagers paid other relocation costs per day. Pa Khe sells for 180 baht (about 700 themselves. yen) per kilogram, and together the 3 make as
much as 1,000 baht (about 3,800 yen) per day. Impact on the Fishing Industry
Currently, it is possible to catch 20kg of fish in The Decline in Fish and River Kelp and a day on the Mekong, but there were even Causes
more fish in the past, villagers report. The Pheng commented, "There are fewer fish Village Chief claims that fish supplies began to than there were in the past" and noted that Pa
decline in 2000. Stocks of Pa Sagoua (a local Man muu (a local species of loach) and Pa Fa
relative of the catfish), Pa Khe, Pa Kot and Pa Lai (batoideas) have declined to the point Nai have declined, he said. where he can only catch one per year if he is Also, there have been cases of fishing boats, lucky.
anchored on the water, being washed away by The primary reason for the decline is the sudden surges in the water level. increase in the number of people who use
I was told that the primary reason for the electric shock and blast fishing. He says the decline in fish population was the use of electric some people continue despite the ban. There is shock and blast fishing by villagers. They say actually a village that continues blast fishing that the methods are often used on the Thai upstream from Tonpheung Village. A second side. Blast fishing was banned in Laos as of reason is the change in water levels. The water 2005, and as a result the fish population has level rises midday and recedes at night. Some bounced back slightly. A second reason given days the water level fluctuates by 20-50cm. He was the dynamiting of rapids in China. blames Chinese dams.
There is also impact from Khai (river kelp). If
the water levels rise and fall naturally there is <Tonpheung Village, Tonpheung District> no problem, but sudden changes to the water Tonpheung Village has a small pier for boats level bring Khai to the surface and dry it out. crossing the river into Thailand, through which
pass small boats carrying agricultural products
and other goods. Chinese ships do not anchor
here, but there is a sign indicating the distance
Passage of Chinese Ships
Chinese ships began passing through these
waters in the late 1980s, and from the late
1990s onward 80-ton ships and larger began
Currently, 300-ton ships are reported to pass
through the area during the rainy season, and
more than 10 ships navigate the river each
month in that period. The Chinese ships
observe regulations during the day, but at night
they take advantage of the fact that no one is
watching and traverse the river at higher
speeds. Villagers suspect that the intense A woman processing Khai (river kelp) waves caused by the vessels traveling at high (Houay Tang Village, Tonpheung District) speeds contribute to the erosion.
A second port is currently being planned for Riverbed Erosion and the Expansion of Chiang Khong, and Pheng noted that if 500-ton Sandbars ships begin passing through the impacts will
When Pheng moved to the village in 1970, grow even worse.
the sandbar in the front of the village "was not According to him, when 5 or more Chinese this big" he says. commercial ships pass, the ships contact
Back then, there was land 200m inland from authorities in China who release water from the current riverbank. Riverbank erosion began dams. He claimed that this is causing the in 1985, he said. irregular water level fluctuations.
He cited the revetment construction that took
place on the Thai side and changes to the river A Protected Area for the Fish
flow as causes of this problem. Pheng Efforts to protect their dwindling maritime explained that revetment construction resources have begun at Tonpheung Village. A undertaken by the Japan International no-fishing zone was established in 2006. The Cooperation Agency (JICA) to stop the village is following the example of efforts on the riverbank erosion has had some effect, but four Thai side, which have succeeded in restoring years ago the villagers took the initiative in fish populations by creating a no-fishing zone planting Mai Ya Lap (Mimosa pigra) to stop the that protects the fish’s hatching and feeding erosion. The plant is effective in stopping grounds. The no-fishing zone extends for erosion, but it also has a high level of fecundity approximately 150 meters and the villagers are and has already become a destroyer of natural waiting to test the results.
ecosystems in Thailand. The International
Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
has listed the plant as a dangerous alien <Ban Mom Port>
species. In fact, I confirmed that the plant has Ban Mom Port is located near the Golden been growing in areas around the village even Triangle. Built in 2001 with funding from the in areas quite far from the riverbank. Laotian government, it only recently opened in
February 2007 as an international port at which
Chinese ships can anchor. I spoke with
Somphong, the manager of the port. fact it is nothing more than a stop on the way Somphong notes that at busy times around between Thailand and China. Except for the 15-20 Chinese ships pass through per month. tiny amount of forestry products that are Most ships are 150-200 tons, but 300-ton ships exported to Thailand, it serves little purpose also pass through. Almost no Thai ships pass other than as a place to collect tolls. through.
The main exports from Laos are non-lumber
forestry goods, such as mak tao (gourd), and <Tang Or Village, Tonpheung District> corn, of which a total of 100 tons are exported I next took a speed boat 50 minutes from Ban to Thailand. There are two Laotian corporations Mom Port to visit Tang Or Village, where the in Luang Namtha Province and Bakeo Province Lue people live.
that conduct the exports.
Though it opened as an international port, Decline in Fish Population and Changes to most Chinese and Thai ships only pass through the Local Fishing Industry
Ban Mom. The port does almost no business Only around 12 households make their with Burma. livings fishing in this village. They go out in
teams of 3 or 4 and spend about 5 days out
fishing at a time. Each trip earns a team around
15,000-20,000 baht (approximately
Fish caught in the area include Pa Khe and
Pa Nai (a member of the carp family), but
fishermen report that the fish populations have
declined compared to what they were. In the
past, 4-5 kg of fish could be caught with each
casting net, but now casting nets are almost
never used anymore since they have become
ineffective. Instead, fixed nets are now most
commonly used. One villager told me, “Chinese The view of Burma from Ban Mom Port, on the other ships have been causing waves since they side of the Mekong started passing by, and now fishing has Somphong explains, “We have a new port, become more difficult.
but the roads are inconvenient and there is no Chinese ships started traveling through the electricity.” However, based on agreement area in 1985, and large ships started coming in between countries in the region, commercial 1999. The ships once came each week even in ships passing through must anchor at the port the dry season, but people have not seen ships and pay a 500-yuan (approximately 8,000 yen) in this year’s dry season because there is not toll. enough water for them.
According to a report from UNESCAP, Ban Blast fishing is common. Chinese ships are Mom Port is one part of the Laotian the main culprit, using blast fishing to feed their government’s new economic development crews, but some people in this village have zone (See: bought explosives from the Chinese and do
their own blast fishing. People say they hear http://www.unescap.org/ttdw/Publications/TPT
S_pubs/pub_2307/pub_2307_ch11.pdf), but in the sound of explosions every day.
Fishermen showing off a freshly caught Pa Jook. We saw dead fish floating in the water on the way to
Tang Or Village. The boat operator explained that they
“We need to make money for Lao New Year” most likely died from the impact of blast fishing.
Si said. According to him, they can earn
7,000-8,000 baht apiece in a week. <Fishermen Pitching Tents on the Sandbar> They sell fish to middlemen who come to the On the way back from Tang Or Village to the sandbar by speed boats. They sell Pa Jok for
Ban Mom Port, we met fishermen who were 150 baht/ kg, Pa Ket (a genetic name of some catching fish while living in tents patched on a species which have scales, mainly the carp sandbar near Houay Lom Village. family) for 100 baht/ kg, and Pa Nan (a general
We interviewed Si (not his real name) from term for some species of fish with no scales, Houay Tap Village, Houay Xay District. He and mainly the catfish family) for 15 baht/ kg. his 5 teammates spent 7 hours to come here They use Mong (a gill net) and Bet (a fishing
from Houay Lom Village by motorboat. Since 2 hook) for fishing. They come to catch fish in weeks before our visit, they had been catching April-May and July-August, and cultivate upland fish and sleeping in tents pitched on the rice and vegetables in other season. sandbar. Si had been fishing here for more than
15 years. He said he came here to catch fish Decline in the Fish Population and Causes
because there are too many people in Houay Si said there had been more fish before and Xay District and the current of the river around he had been able to earn about 10,000 baht his village is too fast to for fishing. (about 38,000 yen) by fishing for 2-3 days.
When we asked him its causes, he said “some
people do blast fishing. It causes decline of
fish.” They themselves have never engaged in
blast fishing. Moreover, he said that irregular
fluctuation in water level is also one factor in the
decline of fish stocks. “China raises water
levels to make Chinese commercial ships
navigate easily.” According to him, 3-10
Chinese ships pass about 3 times a month.
“We cannot catch fish when Chinese ships
come. So the only thing to do is let the ships
pass,” he said.
<Si Mouang Ngam Tai Village, Thonepheun
Si Mouang Mouang Ngam Tai Village is
located on the opposite side of Chiang Khong
District, Chiang Rai Province of Thailand,
across the Mekong River. We interviewed
Maisam, a resident of the village.
According to Maisam, villagers go fishing
from March to May. A group of 3-4 villagers can catch about 15kg of fish in a day. Villagers use This bamboo, now submerged in the river, was growing on fishing nets, and blast fishing is banned in the the riverbank the year before. (Si Mouang Ngam Tai village. Village, Thonepheun District)
Riverbank Erosion and the Formation of
Sandbars Chinese Commercial Shipping
Si Mouang Mouang Ngam Tai Village is also Many Chinese commercial ships run through affected by serious land erosion. The land the area when water levels are high, with 4-5 where a elementary school and a playground passing per day, according to the people we were located has fallen down into the river and talked to. The ships bring asphalt and rubber 11 rai (1 rai = 1600 square meters) of orange from China to Thailand.
grove has also disappeared. According to Chinese ships ran through the area at this time Maisam, the impact of land erosion has been of year last year, but they have not come this serious since river-protection works began in year because there is not enough water. the opposite side of the village. Maisam noted that the ships cause large Water level changes unnaturally, increasing waves as they pass and claimed that they have in the morning and decreasing in the evening. even overturned smaller boats.
Especially, it has become remarkably in these
two years. In rainy season (September to
November), the impact is very serious. < Pak Ngao Village, Houay Xay District> Sandbars in the front of the village appeared I paid a visit to Sangkhom, said to be the best in 1980s and has become bigger since 1995. fisherman in Pak Ngao Village at the mouth of
the Ngao River, a tributary of the Mekong.
40-50 of the more than 120 households in
Pak Ngao Village make their living fishing.
Fishing goes on year round on both sides of
the N and Mekong Rivers using both casting
and fixed nets. Since the fish population has
declined compared to before, people now use
nets with finer thread to make it easier to catch
Decline in Fish Population and Causes plant is somewhat effective in fighting erosion, it In the past, it was possible to catch 20kg of is also a dangerous destroyer of ecosystems.
fish per day close to the village, but population When we asked villagers what they growth and the receding water level have taken understood the cause of the riverbank erosion a toll on fish populations. Fish species Pa Waa to be, they gave the following replies: (1); and Pa Kaeng have almost completely Irregular fluctuations in water levels due to disappeared, villagers said. Pa Fa Lai still impact from Chinese dams; (2) Waves caused exists in the Mekong, but it is no longer caught by Chinese ships; and (3) Revetment in the Ngao River. construction in Thailand. What I heard several In addition, it seems that blast fishing by times in each village I visited was “When Chinese ships in the Mekong is a major cause Chinese ships pass, China opens dams and of the decline in fish population. One villager adjusts the water level to make it easier for noted, “We saw Chinese ships doing blast them to sail.” This has not yet been confirmed, fishing just last month, but we villagers can say but I heard complaints in several places that nothing.” “water levels rise only when Chinese ships
pass.” If the rumors are true, this would present
a major problem: China has been prioritizing its
-------------------- own economic development and as a result is
causing enormous damage to the
Observations environments of Laos and Thailand and
On this trip to northern Laos, I saw that the Another new problem that we observed was environmental changes to the Mekong River that the revetment construction in Thailand is are having an even bigger impact on the Laos having a major impact on Laos. Chiang Khong landscape and people’s lives than I expected. District in Thailand reportedly gave no In my interviews with villagers and government explanation to Bokeo Province and Tonpheung officials, the main problems cited that are District when it undertook the revetment. caused by the changes to the Mekong River Laotian villagers note that “Thailand has money that directly affect people are riverbank erosion so they can take countermeasures, but all Laos and the decline of fish populations. can do is take the damage.” The issue has led
me to appreciate the need for
Riverbank Erosion information-sharing between countries on Serious damage from riverbank erosion has ecological management.
been reported in Thailand as well, but in Laos
erosion is occurring at a pace of tens to Decline of Fish Populations
hundreds of meters per year. People have lost According to villagers, fish populations are in agricultural land and homes to erosion, and relative decline. Reasons cited for this included: there have even been cases such as (1) Irregular fluctuations in water levels; (2) Donesavane Village in which all residents were Dynamiting of rapids; and (3) Blast fishing. forced to relocate. Blast fishing is used by residents of villages Specific measures are not being taken in in Laos, Thailand, and Burma, and is one cause most areas. People in Tonpheung Village have of the decline in the number of fish, but Chinese planted Mai Ya Lap (Mimosa pigra) around the commercial ships are using blast fishing to feed riverbank as a countermeasure. Though the their crews. This has developed into a major
problem as they use a large amount of which is planning 14 dams in the upper Mekong explosive, and it is hard for people to request (of which two are operational and another two improvement since because it is impossible to are under construction) and has dynamited
monitor. rapids to allow commercial ships to pass,
Meanwhile, we also found that some sharing seems to have little interest in the effect their of experiences for the sake of environmental efforts are having on downstream nations. A protection has been taking place among citizens’ group operating in northern Thailand neighboring villages separated by national has begun a movement to demand
borders. For instance, Tonpheung Village has compensation from the Chinese government,
followed the example of Thai villages and is but the outlook for that remains uncertain
testing out a no-fishing zone. indeed. If each country sees only to its own
interests when carrying out development
In order to lessen environmental impacts that projects, these cross-border economic
cross national borders, it is crucial for countries problems will continue to worsen and threaten in the region to dialogue with one another as the livelihoods of the people who live either well as for studies in the natural and social along the Mekong River or depend on its
sciences to be undertaken. However, China, natural resources for sustenance.
Note 1: This survey was conducted between April 3-6, 2007 with the accompaniment of Dean Dr. Somkiat and Deputy Dean Dr. Somchanh of the Laos National University Faculty of Science. The areas visited are as follows: Technology and Environment Office of Bokeo / Tonpheung District Office/ 8 villages in Thonepheun District (Singkham, Donesavane, Tonpheung, Houay Tang, Tang Or, Houay Lom, Luang Singchai and Si Mouang Ngam Tai) / Ban Mom Port and a banana plantation owned by a Chinese company / 1 village in Houay Xay District (Pak Ngao).
Written by Satomi Higashi
2F Maruko Building 1-20-6 Higashi-ueno Taitou-ku Tokyo 110-0015 Tel: +81-3-3832-5034