NONG KHAI, THAILAND - It’s been more than 40 years since Bula Tawan first cast his fishing net out across the Mekong River when the waterway was rich in marine life.
But the days of big catches have disappeared for most fishermen like Tawan, who once relied on the big hauls to earn a living and feed his family.
“The water and the color have changed because when the water was natural it was not clear like this and it would have sediments and nutrients in there,” explained the lean 66-year-old father, as he scooped up a handful of transparent river water.
“The water is clear, but the sediments and nutrients have gone.”
The Thai government’s view of the matter is somewhat different.
“The water’s change to a blue color has made the tourists more excited for the color and it has gone on social media making it more popular so that more tourists want to visit,” said Tanaporn Sriyamoon from the Thai government’s Planning Policy office.
The timing of the water’s transformation, along with extreme fluctuations in river levels, coincide with the upstream Lao government-owned Xayaburi dam, which began generating hydropower last October.
According to the Xayaburi website, the $3.8 billion dam is “a run of river barrage which will trap substantially less sediment than conventional storage schemes,” but new evidence indicates that major blockages still occur.
Now, the Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces has gone to court to try and slow down the generators and sale of electric power to Thai companies, 95% of which will be purchased by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, or EGAT.
“The people who set the limit to sell the power to Thailand is EGAT so it has an impact on the ecosystem of the Mekong River,” said Network spokesperson Ormbun Thipsuna.
Ormbun Thipsuna says that recent reports from the Ministry of Energy indicate that Thailand has enough electricity to supply the country’s needs.
In February, the network submitted evidence to the Thai Supreme Administrative Court in an ongoing lawsuit that pinpoints five Thai state agencies including EGAT.
EGAT did not respond to questions submitted by VOA.
Suspend power agreement
In addition to the evidence of environmental damage caused by the dam, the plaintiffs also request that the court issue an injunction to suspend the power purchase agreement until new information can be checked regarding the dam’s impact on the river’s ecosystem.
One analyst sees the network’s new approach as shining much needed light on the fact that “power from Mekong mainstream dams in Laos is not needed in Thailand because the country’s energy reserve is set artificially high at around 40-50% above peak needs.”
“Many countries do not have reserve requirements but those that do are in the middle- or upper-income categories and set reserve margins around 20%,” says Brian Eyler, an expert on transboundary issues in the Mekong region.
But Eyler is less optimistic that changes can be made, based on that argument.
“Thailand’s EGAT would have to cancel or renegotiate its power purchase agreement with the Xayaburi Dam in order to change operations of the Xayaburi Dam. Such cancellations or renegotiations rarely happen because investors will mobilize all their resources to prevent this outcome.”
One of the most contentious issues concerning the dam’s construction is the lack of transparency regarding the project’s impact assessment report.
“We can’t get access to the information and get access to the public hearing events that have been organized by the Natural Resources department,” Ormbun Thipsuna explained.
Less water for crops
For farmers like Sanit Khun, who rely heavily on the river to irrigate crops during the dry season, these concerns are now a reality.
“The water is so shallow it is difficult for the pump to suck the water out to distribute the water evenly to the rice and corn fields; it has gone down from 100% to 40%,” said Khun, as he adjusted a pump hose on the dried out riverbed.
“Water is our life because in our community 80% is an agriculture area where we plant crops all year-round,” he said.
This year, the Thai government has declared a drought disaster in 23 provinces, including Nong Khai, the province adjacent to the Lao border that is heavily affected by the upstream dam.
In October, the Xayaburi Power Co. Ltd. said the project has spent more than 19.4 billion baht ($640 million) to mitigate negative impacts on the environment, including the building of outlets for sediment passage and flow and facilities to allow the passage of fish.
Local village leader Apinan Uttama says that the changing water levels can only be solved by cooperation among affected countries, especially during the drought season, which has worsened in recent years.
“We have to find a way how we can live together because right now the villagers have no choice and don’t know what to do anymore,” said the 52-year-old, who was born in the riverside village of Ban Maw.
“We only can ask help from the government to be our voice to talk to organizations involved in the dams and negotiate between countries,” Uttama said.
Representatives from the Thai prime minister’s office say that they will meet with the Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces in Nong Khai in April to assess the situation.
“Now the government has put this issue to the planning policy office to study and go to the location and give a full report directly to the prime minister’s office,” said Tanaporn Sriyamoon. “Now we have set up a team to work on the Mekong River to find solutions and make a plan to restore the Mekong River.”