Mekong Communities Speak Out for Their Natural Heritage

Sophie Ironside

More than 500 people gathered along the banks of the Mekong River in Chiang Khong, Thailand on February 5 to take a stand against plans to blast away the Khon Pi Luang rapids just a few kilometers upstream. The blasting is part of a large-scale plan to expand the navigability of the Mekong River between Yunnan and Luang Prabang. The project, which was approved through a Thai Cabinet Resolution in December 2016, would irreversibly alter the Mekong River’s vibrant ecosystem and the lives of the many communities that depend on it.

A diverse group of individuals from throughout the country joined the event, including community members, artists, musicians and fishermen.

One such person was Chalin Chieblem, a boat driver from Chiang Khong. He spoke of the importance of the river’s unique ecosystem and in particular the rapids: "The Mekong rapids are home for fish, that migrate up here to spawn. The islets and sand dunes are home for migratory birds that lay their eggs. All the complex ecosystems on the Upper Mekong here have been disturbed by the dams upstream. But we still have the rapids and these islets,” he said. “If the Mekong is cleared and canalized for large ships to navigate to Luang Prabang, we will be left behind. Our access to the Mekong for foods, transportation, and culture will vanish.”

Many who gathered along the Mekong that day share this feeling, and have been fighting against this project for more than a decade. First proposed in 2000, the rapid blasting was quickly suspended in 2002 due to widespread concerns over the transboundary impacts. The decision to renew the project has been met with a surge of resistance from Mekong communities who rely on the river, and for whom the rapids are an invaluable natural heritage.

The proposed rapid blasting has been widely criticized as shortsighted. Thailand’s Development Research Institute has warned that Thailand stands to loose much more than it will gain from the project. The rapid blasting will cause significant ecological losses while the value of goods crossing the border between Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong is worth only 3% of Thailand’s total border trade.

Communities in Thailand have not been consulted and have received little information regarding the project. In response to the Cabinet Resolution, the Thai Network of Eight Mekong Provinces released a statement calling on the government of Thailand to halt the project and protect Thailand’s territory and its invaluable ecology. “Dismantling the rapids would be tantamount to dismantling the habitat of fish, birds and food source of communities along the Mekong in the two countries,” read the statement.
Many families joined in the event, and throughout the day children were playing and dancing on the banks of the Mekong River. It would be a tragic loss if the Mekong they inherit is no longer a rich and vibrant ecosystem, but instead a degraded navigation channel.

The event in Chiang Khong was a powerful demonstration of the strength of Mekong communities who stand united in opposing the harmful interests of large-scale businesses. Together, they strive to protect the long-term health of the Mekong for the benefit of future generations.
Under the intense sun, local musicians played spirited songs from Northern Thailand, and the ethnic minority Lahu performed a dance in their colorful dress.

Many people wore t-shirts and held signs that read, “The Mekong is not for sale, as the Mekong is the mother of our 6 countries.” The Thai word for river is “mae nam” meaning mother of water, and the Mekong River is seen as a mother to many. Local peoples have depended on the Mekong for thousands of years, and the ecosystem is already under intense pressure by dams on the mainstream and tributaries, with further projects planned. If the rapid blasting goes ahead it will greatly undermine the ability of communities to rely on the Mekong’s resources.

The Mekong's rich, abundant natural resources support communities throughout the Mekong region.

A local artist displayed pictures he had painted of the Mekong River. As he lay them out on the ground, he turned towards the river and pointed at one of the Khon Pi Luang rapids. “Look at how beautiful it is,” he said. “And the plans are for it to be blown up.”

This guest blog is written by Sophie Ironside, Southeast Asia Program Intern.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017