The waters of the mighty Mekong River have sustained generations of families, but nowadays its fishermen often find their nets empty and fear hydropower mega-dams will destroy their livelihoods.
Pat Chaiwong has fished the Mekong in northern Thailand for three decades, but good days are increasingly rare.
“Some days I can catch fish. Some days I don’t catch any,” lamented the 67-year-old, one of about two dozen fishermen in the community of Wiang Kaen in the northern province of Chiang Rai.
For many in the community, the reason lies upriver in the Chinese province of Yunnan where dams on the upper reaches of the river disturb the delicate cycle of nature.
“Usually the water would rise [and fall] with the seasons,” said fisherman Decha Chaiwong, 48.
Now it ebbs and flows depending on whether the dams are open or closed, he said. “That’s why the fish have decreased.”
Today a new threat looms downstream in neighboring Laos.
The Xayaburi hydropower project is one of 11 planned on the lower Mekong, raising worries for the future of the 60 million people in the region estimated to depend on the river in some way.
The 4,800km-long waterway, the longest in Southeast Asia, is home to hundreds of species of freshwater fish including the endangered giant Mekong catfish, according to WWF, a conservation group.
Environmentalists warn that damming the lower Mekong would trap vital nutrients, increase algae growth and prevent dozens of species of migratory fish — including the giant catfish — swimming upstream to spawning grounds.
“If there is the Xayaburi dam, fish cannot lay eggs and the numbers of fish and their breeds decrease. There will definitely be a big impact,” said Niwat Roykaew, president of the Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network in Chiang Rai province.
Many of the roughly 200 species in the lower Mekong swim upriver to spawn — one of the most important mass river migrations in the world, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC).
The hydroelectric project at Xayaburi, led by Thai group CH Karnchang, has sharply divided four Mekong nations — Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand — who formed the MRC, an intergovernmental group.
Communist Laos, one the world’s most under-developed nations, believes the planned 1,285 megawatt dam — which will cost US$3.5 billion according to state media — will help it become “the battery of Southeast Asia.”
Thailand has agreed to buy most of the electricity generated by the project, but Cambodia and Vietnam fear the dam could seriously affect fish migration and sediment flows, hitting their farming and fishing industries.
Despite the concerns, construction on the main part of the dam began in November with Laos predicting completion by the end of 2019.
Niwat described the decision to go ahead without listening to people’s concerns as “a coup d’etat against the Mekong River.”
“We’re the children of the Mekong River. We were born and grew up on the Mekong. It has taken care of us and provided for us. Then one day the dams came,” he added.
His association has filed a lawsuit against the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and the Thai government in an attempt to block the project.
Neither EGAT nor developer CH Karnchang responded to request for comment.
Laos has modified the design to try to minimize the impact, said Hans Guttman, chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat.
The changes include a system to flush sediment through the dams and allow fish to migrate through fish passages, he said.
“It is still obviously up for question whether this sediment flushing will work as envisaged because it has never been tested, and there is also concern about whether the fish passages will work on a structure this big,” he added.
In a study published in 2011, the MRC warned that the construction of 11 dams on the river in Laos and Cambodia as well as dozens more on tributaries could cause fish catch to drop by at least 25 percent by 2030.
Thai villagers are fighting “on behalf of the Mekong” and also for people in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia who have less freedom of speech, said Pianporn Deetes with campaign group International Rivers.
“There are many festivals and traditions connected to the Mekong River,” she said, such as the mythical Naga snake that protects the Mekong.
“But if the dams are blocking the river, this means the Naga cannot move upstream,” she added.
The same goes for the Mekong giant cat fish, one of the world’s biggest freshwater fish which can reach three meters in length and 300kg in weight.
Already threatened by overfishing, only about 200 are estimated to remain, according to a recent study by WWF, which fears that dam construction will drive the iconic creature to extinction.
It has been years since one ended up in fisherman Pat’s net.” In the past, I caught a lot of them but now not at all,” he said. “I don’t know where they all went.”
The media reported this week on another government stimulus program to make the birth rate rise. Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) said that the budget for the government’s programs would reach NT$85 billion (US$3.05 billion) by 2023, and said that the government’s monthly subsidy for child support would rise from NT$3,500 to NT$5,000. These measures are a well-meaning attempt to address Taiwan’s globally low fertility and birth rates, but they are rather like poking a heart attack victim with a stick in the hope of reviving him. The problems driving the low birth rates are well known: the lack and cost of
May 3 to May 9 The Japanese soldiers thought they had already subjugated the Atayal when they set out toward the mountains of today’s eastern Taoyuan on May 5, 1907. The two brigades, one from the north and one from the south, were tasked with pushing the colonial government’s frontier defense lines deeper into Aboriginal territory to gain access to valuable camphor. “The defense lines were used to protect the economic activities, mainly camphor production, on the [Japanese] side of the line,” writes Wu Cheng-hsien (吳政憲) in the paper, “The Principle and Utilization of the Mortars on the Frontier Defense Lines”
Who would have thought that Taiwan — just over 100km from China and a few hundred kilometers away from Vietnam, which are the world’s first and second biggest consumers of pangolin scales — would become the last beacon of hope for this imperiled species? In fact, pangolins — from sub-species in Africa all the way down to Indonesia — are the world’s most highly trafficked mammal. Thought to cure anything from HIV to hangovers, ground pangolin scales and pangolin soup (the photos online are difficult to stomach) are expensive delicacies in Vietnam and China, and the rarer the species becomes,
Chu Mu-kun (朱木崑) carefully inspects a large boulder hauled from further up the Daniuci OId Trail (打牛崎古道). “This might work,” he says, rotating and repositioning it against the slope until it fits snugly. It takes two hours to manually make three steps using simple tools on the ancient trail, which has been rendered inaccessible due to the collapse of a wooden elevated walkway. “You have to transport goods up here to repair this walkway, which looks jarring against its surroundings to begin with,” Chu says. “Hand-built trails using readily available materials are easier to maintain and are better for the environment.