For Thai fishermen facing dwindling catches, a dam in Laos looms on the horizon

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  • Laos plans to build a $2 billion, 684 megawatt dam on the Mekong, just 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) from the Thai border.
  • The proposed Sanakham Dam is the latest in a cascade of more than a dozen dams operating on the main current of the Mekong in China and Laos.
  • Thai fishermen say they have already seen their catch decimated with each new dam built upstream, including the Xayaburi dam commissioned in Laos in 2019.
  • The Sanakham project is still in a “prior consultation” process with the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental advisory agency.

CHIANG KHAN, Thailand – In the rustic old town of Chiang Khan on the Mekong River, a tourist haven in Thailand’s northeast Isaan region, local fishing communities now live in fear of a proposed dam that threatens to devastate their livelihoods.

The $2 billion, 684 megawatt dam is believed to be located just 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) upstream from the Thai border in Laos and has sparked outrage over its potential cross-border impacts.

“The Sanakham dam will be a disaster for ecology and fish, it will also cause more severe flooding followed by drought, Thanusilp Inda, the village chief of Ban Klang in Chiang Khan, tells Mongabay.

The Lao government already has two dams in operation on the Mekong and seven other major dams planned for construction. Further upstream in China, 11 other dams are already in service on the river.

Thai fishermen say they have already seen their catch decimated with each new dam built upstream of the planned Sanakham dam, especially the Xayaburi dam which went live in Laos in 2019. Image by Shannon1 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY- SA 2.0).

Fishermen downstream in the Thai provinces of Loei and Nong Khai, both in the Isaan region, have already been hit hard by this relentless succession of dams.

Rasamy, the wife of a fisherman from Nong Khai who gave only one name, says the proliferation of dams has made life a misery. “The Chinese dams made fishing difficult, but after building the Xayaburi dam [in Laos], now it’s much more difficult,” she says. “Last week we had almost no fish.”

The 1,285 MW Xayaburi Dam, completed in 2019, was financed by Thailand’s four largest banks and built by Thailand’s CH. Karnchang.

Prayoon Saen-ae, the leader of the Chiang Khan fishermen’s group, points to the damage inflicted by the Xayaburi dam, 314 km (195 mi) upstream. “After the Xayaburi opened, we had huge impacts,” he says. “[T]The erratic ups and downs of the water created confusion for the fish. Before the start of the dam, a fisherman could take 10 kilos [22 pounds] of fish a day, but now we are lucky to have 4-5 kilos [9-11 lbs] a week and a few weeks nothing.

Now Prayoon describes the specter of another dam on the horizon: “The Sanakham is so close it’s under my nose.”

In Nong Khai province, Chaiwat Parakun, deputy village chief and former fisherman from Ban Muang, tells a similar story: “We have so few fish to catch that only 20 out of 100 fishermen are still working. Before the Xayaburi dam, a fisherman could catch an average of 10 kilos a day, now if he is lucky 5 kilos a week. But some weeks no fish at all. He adds that 60 to 70% of fish species “are no more”.

The sun sets over the Mekong in Nong Khai, Laos.
The sun sets over the Mekong at Nong Khai, where the Mekong River forms the border between Laos and Thailand. Image by Tom Fawthrop.

Chainarong Settachua, an environmental expert at Mahasarakham University in Maha Sarakham Province, also in the Isaan region, presents a broader picture of northeast Thailand. “If the tributaries of the Mekong are included, the losses could be well over 70%. Many [people] obtain fish from the tributaries of the Mekong, also depleted by the loss of the normal impulse of the floods of the rainy season.

Fed by these floods, the floodplains of the Mekong are a source of biodiversity of global importance. The Songkhram River, in particular, has provided such rich spawning grounds that the tributary is locally known as the “belly of the Mekong”. But that is changing. Chainarong said he has seen wide-ranging impacts from declining fishing in northeast Thailand. “In the past, fish was plentiful and it was the cheapest protein,” he says. “Now the people of Loei province and other provinces of [the] the northeast suffer from fish scarcity, lack of food security and poorer diets.

An analysis by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental agency that works with Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, admits there has been a significant decline in fish biodiversity at the sites of the province of Xayaburi in Laos and Loei in Thailand. But its 15 Laos-based monitoring stations have only seen a 20% decline in species richness. This does not match the experience of many Thai fishermen, who report having suffered losses of up to 80% compared to before 2019, when the Xayaburi dam came into operation.

Dam developers

The main investor in the Sanakham dam, China Datang Overseas Investment Co., is a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned company China Datang Corporation, which is also the main investor in the Pak Beng and Pak Lay dams on the Mekong. It refers to all of its hydropower projects on the Mekong as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the country’s global infrastructure development strategy.

More recently, the booming Thai company Gulf Energy has become its partner, seeking a 30-35% stake in Datang’s Mekong dam projects. Gulf Energy declined to comment specifically on the Sanakham project, but has previously told media that it “recognizes the importance of climate change and decarbonization” and emphasizes investments in renewable energy.

Senior Datang officials travel to Chiang Khong Mekong to meet with Mekong conservation activists opposed to the Pak Beng dam.
Senior Datang officials travel to Chiang Khong Mekong to meet with Mekong conservation activists opposed to the Pak Beng dam. Image courtesy of Andrew Stone.

Consultation process in limbo

The Sanakham is the sixth major dam to be submitted to the MRC for a ‘prior consultation’ process, which allows the four member states and other stakeholders to consider how best to mitigate impacts on the environment, fisheries and the communities. This is a purely advisory process and the MRC has no regulatory powers.

The MRC consultation began in 2020, but was delayed well beyond its normal six-month period. Surasi Kittimonton, secretary general of the Thai government’s Office of National Water Resources (ONWR), told Thai media that “we have insisted on our position that we must first have sufficient information”. He said the delay is because “what we are doing is protecting the interests of the country.”

Datang and his Thai partner have already obtained a promise from the Thai electricity company EGAT and the Thai government to buy 90% of the electricity from the Pak Beng and Pak Lay dams. The decision to also buy from Sanakham will rest with the Ministry of Energy and Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwon.

Despite calls for the Thai government to take a stand and refuse to buy power from the Sanakham project, fishers and civil society activists have expressed doubts that their voices will be heard by decision makers. .

View of the Mekong upstream towards the Sanakham dam site behind the hill on the right.
View of the Mekong upstream towards the site of the Sanakham dam, which is behind the hill on the right. Image by Tom Fawthrop.

For many years, Mekong leaders, the MRC and the World Bank have all argued that fish ladders and sediment flows can effectively mitigate environmental damage caused by dams and promoted the so-called good dams.

In the same vein, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who chairs the Thailand Committee of the MRC, called on the ONWR to find ways to mitigate the impacts of the dam rather than blocking the project.

Despite experiments with fish mitigation technology, there is almost no evidence that it has worked in tropical rivers. Channarong Wongla of the conservation group Rak Chiang Khan (“Love Chiang Khan”) calls the fish passes at Xayaburi Dam a bad joke. “We laugh at fish ladders,” says Channarong, a dam design graduate. “Xayaburi had some but we still lost most of our fish. We used to have over 100 different species of fish, but since the Xayaburi Dam started operating, there are only 20 species left here. [in Chiang Khan]. He is 100% sure that fish mitigation does not work.

In response to questions about the impacts of the Xayaburi dam, MRC headquarters in Laos’ capital, Vientiane, said: “We have no data to prove that the loss or extinction of fish is directly or indirectly the result of the Xayaburi dam”.

But Channarong says the evidence in northeast Thailand clearly shows that “Xayaburi fish mitigation is a complete failure”. He adds: “The time has come for the MRC to call for the suspension of all major dam projects on the main Mekong”.

So far, only Cambodia has stopped two dams on the Mekong, declaring a 10-year moratorium on the development of traditional dams to protect the ecosystem. But given the Thai government’s energy priorities, it seems unlikely that it will follow Cambodia’s lead.

Banner image: A fisherman and an old rice barge on the Mekong River in Chiang Khan, Thailand, courtesy of Saranya Senaves.

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Conservation, Dams, Environment, Environmental Law, Environmental Policy, Fish, Fisheries, Freshwater Fish, Governance, Government, Infrastructure, Mekong Dams, Rivers

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