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NONG KHAI, THAILAND – The Mekong is one of the largest rivers in the world – a 5,000 kilometer long waterway that runs from China through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. < However, dams have undermined the ecosystem, bringing drought and flooding in the monsoon season when it should be dry. This forever changed the lives of the people in northeast Thailand who depend on the river's water for food and work.
Rodjana Thepwong searches for gold stains on the banks of the Mekong in northeast Thailand and says the waterway has been her playground, source of food and source of income during her 64 years.
But it’s changing at a rate she can hardly believe. She says when she was younger the water was so low in the dry season that she could walk to the Laotian side a few hundred meters away. Now the water rises in the dry season so she stays on the Thai side of the river looking for tiny amounts of gold.
Upstream dams – many of them built by China – have changed the natural cycles of the river, a waterway that is home to 60 million people as it meanders through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam.
The river bank provided the poorest Mekong villagers with farmland. Now the water level rises and falls without warning when the dams are closed to generate electricity and the land brings little.
Activists say fish species have been decimated as the river now lacks vital sediment downstream, sending a shock to the entire ecosystem.
Locals fear a new $ 2 billion China-backed hydropower plant slated for Sanakham on the Mekong River in Laos – less than 2 kilometers away – will be the end of the living river in northern Thailand – giving it nutrients and there is a lack of sediment that provides nutrients for fish.
The dam is currently in a consultation process, but it is widely viewed as a formality.
The local researcher Apisit Soontrawirat maps the destruction of the river from a rare nature reserve on the Thai bank, a few kilometers downstream of the planned dam.
He says the Chinese and Laotian dams have ruined the ecosystem and dozens of species of fish have disappeared due to lack of sediment.
Dam operators say they have taken every precaution to mitigate environmental damage, including creating a “fish ladder” to use it for species can migrate during the spawning season.
From his riverside perspective, Apisit says big business – in China, Laos and Thailand – is wrestling money from a common natural resource.
He says the villagers are not taking advantage of the dams. Instead, the profit goes to the big companies behind hydropower.
From a small hut, a network of fishermen defends the river from the large hydroelectric plants.
Chaiwat, one of the fishermen, says the locals call the Mekong the river of life and all they want is for it to be returned to them so that they can live on its premium, even if it’s not the same as before.
With fish stocks depleted, many fishermen have left the waterway to work in rubber fields or in factories in the city.
For those who make a living from the river, another proposed dam in Pak Chom, the first across the Thai waters, would render destitute the people who still eat, live and work by its waters.
The fisherman Sudta Insamran has a simple plea.
It is time to stop building dams, he says and give the Mekong back to the people.