The Chinese freighters moored along the riverbank in the northern Thai town of Chiang Saen are testimony to the rapid change coming to this area of the upper Mekong.

Chiang Saen was once a sleepy frontier outpost known mainly for its proximity to the Golden Triangle, the remote and forbidden opium-growing regions of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. In recent years, however, the town has opened to traffic from China’s southern Yunnan province. The freighters carry a burgeoning trade in manufactured goods and farm products. Chiang Saen’s Thai residents have even mastered a few phrases of Chinese. 

More profound and subtle changes are also underway thanks to the construction of dams upstream in China and the blasting of river rapids to accommodate bigger ships. The once timeless rhythms of the Mekong have given way to a more mercurial river. Locals say their fish catches are falling, farming is riskier and the river’s erratic waters are chewing away at the shoreline. 

To determine the extent of these changes, IUCN and the government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic launched a three-year program to assess conditions on the upper Mekong. While the results are not yet conclusive, officials in Laos already consider them an important step toward what they hope will be more regular and comprehensive efforts to monitor the area and the poor communities that depend on it. “We have to continue our monitoring and get more people involved,” said Monemany Nhoybouakong, Director General of the Lao government’s Environment Research Institute in Vientiane. 

The upper Mekong is a bellweather for sustainable development in Asia. Rich in natural resources, it links China’s fast-growing economy to three of its southern neighbors -- Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. Yet its potential for hydropower is still largely untapped and it remains relatively unpolluted. If the development of the Mekong River Basin mainstream and tributaries can be balanced with the needs of the environment and those whose traditional livelihoods depend on it, it could serve as a model. “What’s happening here is important to the rest of the world,” said Kate Lazarus, WANI’s Senior Programme Officer in Vientiane.

Economic growth in the region already holds out the promise of new jobs and higher incomes for the communities of the upper Mekong. But in most cases, the poorest river dwellers – most of them in Laos – lack the education and skills to benefit from these new opportunities. For them, the river is still sustenance and changes to it pose a dire threat.

Fish catches have been declining for a decade now, they say. Growing demand from the rising human population is partly to blame. But just as apparent is the impact from development. Upstream in China, and elsewhere on many Mekong tributaries in Laos, many hydropower dams are being built. While the Mekong River Commission estimates the dams will have little overall impact on water levels, locals say the dams are already wreaking havoc. Water levels on the mainstream in Chiang Saen can fluctuate as much as a meter a day, they say. Most frightening are dry season floods caused when dams release water suddenly. In the dry season, villagers typically take advantage of exposed land to plant crops, harvest edible algae and pan for gold. Unpredictable floodwaters can be catastrophic.

Locals say fish have also become confused, and changing water levels are affecting spawning and filling in of the deep pools fish rely on for refuge.  

Increased shipping poses another menace. Slender fishing boats can easily elude the big Chinese freighters, but not their wakes. “Once the wave comes they can’t do anything but hope they don’t fall out of the boat,” said Latsamay Sylavong, the IUCN’s Lao Programme Manager in Vientiane. 

The wakes accelerate erosion along the riverbank, helping to sweep precious soil downstream. “Erosion in the area is really very serious, said Monemany Nhoybouakong . Perhaps no one knows the problems of erosion better than the villagers of Ban Don Savan. A few years ago the Mekong began eating the land from beneath their feet. Slowly but surely, houses and the village temple succumbed to the rising water. By last year, the entire village was gone.
Written by Wayne Arnold