Mekong Youth Program: Compiled from “Elders Storytelling Activity: The Youth Paint their Dreams”
“The Mekong River or Mae Nam Khong is a great and mighty river, flowing through the homelands of hundreds of ethnic groups from the upstream to the downstream. There are a great variety of languages, cultures and traditions that call its basin home. It can be said that the Mekong civilization is one of the most important civilizations in Asia.”
The Mekong River originates in the upper Himalayas, from the so-called ‘roof of the world’ in the Tibetan Plateau, formed by melting Tibetan snow as it begins its journey in China. In Tibet, the Mekong River is called ‘Ta-Ju’, and when it flows to China, it is called ‘Lancang Jiang’, which means turbulent river. To the north, near the headwaters, the river is very steep and rapid as it flows down through Lancang, Xishuangbanna, and Chiang Rung in the land of our Tai Lue brethren. The ancient city of our ancestors is called the Lancang River. When it flows into Laos, it is called Mae Khong – from which Chiang Khong gets its name. In the northeastern region of Thailand, from Nong Khai to Ubon Ratchathani and through another seven Thai provinces, it is called MaeKhong as well. When the water finally flows past the Thai-Lao border and enters Laos, on its way to Cambodia, its’ name is ‘Tonle Thom’, which means a great river that flows. Down on through Vietnam, the river is divided into several distributary channels, called ‘Kiu Long’ or ‘Kao Long’, which means nine-tailed dragon, as it goes out and meets the South China Sea. That area is called the Mekong Delta, which has a great importance as it is one of the most productive rice planting areas in all of Southeast Asia.
This picture of greatness reflects the importance of the Mekong River according to Niwat Roykaew, or Khru Tee, who is one of the people who has been affiliated to the river since birth. Khru Tee has said that the Mekong River is a river that feeds the people. It is very rich in food, there are more than 1,200 species of fish in the Mekong Basin. Not only that, there are birds, plants and many other resources it provides the people. The fertility and abundance of the river demonstrates its might, and that it is very important to the people of the Mekong River Basin who live in close relation with it.
From the past to the present, the Mekong River has changed a lot. There are many causes of this change, whether it is the building of dams, expanding islands, the use of chemicals in agriculture, commercial shipping, or dumping garbage into the river. Of these, the biggest problem that has had an impact on people’s lives and the ecosystem is the construction of dams. In 1995, the first dam was built in the Mekong River, the ‘Manwan Dam’. When this happened, The Mekong River started to flow abnormally according to the season. Usually the flow of the water will follow the season – in April it is dry, in May the rains come and the water will start to rise. In August the water rises again, and by the time November comes, it will decrease. For millennia it has continued like this, in an annual cycle.
Chaiwat Duangthida or ‘Pan’, a fisherman from Ban Huai Luek, Wiang Kaen District, Chiang Rai came to talk and exchange with Teacher Tee in the activity we call ‘Elders tell Stories of Their Children’s Dreams’. He told us that he grew up along the Mekong River, and had been fishing since childhood. In the years leading up to 1995, there were many fish in the Mekong River until the Manwan Dam opened in China. That was the event that signaled the beginning of the Mekong River crisis.
“Now, there aren’t many fish. In addition, our brothers and sisters on the Lao side also fish a lot. It used to be that using a rod and bait, you could still catch fish. But now, I really have to use my skills to find the fish, because there are fewer and fewer left.
Today, fishing to sell and make a living is no longer worth the investment. How could I afford to buy a net? One set of nets costs four to five thousand baht and even then, you are still at risk from unpredictable tides, which can sweep away your nets downstream, posing a high risk.”
“In the dry season, (the dams) release water. That’s what sounds best to people who live outside of the Mekong River. But people who make a living on the Mekong River will understand that this way of thinking is unnatural.”
Khru Tee talks about how the dams store water in ways that adversely affect people and nature.
When the flood season arrives, the water level must increase, the rising tide of the Mekong River is important. Water will flood into all of the river’s tributaries, which will allow over 90 species of fish to spawn in wetlands or flood-prone areas, called ‘Kam Ling’, or monkey cheek in Thai Language. When the fish grow, they will swim back to the Mekong River again.
But today, the Mekong River water level is no longer elevated in the flooding season because the dams store such a large amount of water. The release of water is unseasonal, and water does not flow into the tributaries any more. As a result, many types of fish cannot spawn, and their numbers are gradually decreasing, with some species reaching the point of extinction. That is why it can be indicated that the wealth, fertility, and abundance of the Mekong River is about to disappear.
That being said, the drying of the Mekong River in the dry season also has its benefits to the ecosystem. When it is naturally dry, the Mekong River has ecosystems such as groves, lagoons, swamps, beaches, cliffs, islands, and Dons, which are sub-ecosystems that depend on the dry season as well. When the water dries up, ‘Don’ or Islands, ‘Kaeng’ or rapids, and ‘Hat’ or Beaches appear. These are areas for birds to lay eggs and raise their babies. When the dam releases water, it floods these ecosystems which are the home of birds that migrate from the upper reaches of the continent to lay eggs here. As a result, the birds are unable to lay eggs and sometimes the birds’ eggs are swept away. Over the years, the birds also began to decline. This is what happens and is a big deal for living things as well.
And one thing that appears is, The occurrence of ‘Kai’, or Mekong River weed, a type of algae. The Kai will appear on stones in the river, in places where the water is clear, and there is sunlight. The weed is the food of fish that eat plants, such as the giant catfish. Certain times of year, when the weed occurs, the dam releases water and the water level rises. In this case, the sunlight doesn’t reach the Kai and it is unable to photosynthesize. It falls off the rocks and dies. As a result, fish and human food disappears, and villagers along the Mekong basin suffer a loss of income. However, luckily in the beginning of 2022, villagers have had a lot of income from Kai, because the Mekong River did not fluctuate much that year. Because there was no commercial shipping on the river due to the COVID-19 situation, the dam did not release as much water, which caused the Gai to still flourish.
Another big problem with the Mekong River is the dumping of garbage. Clearly, the Mekong River has a lot of trash, and especially microplastics that may get into the fish. It’s a big problem that some villagers still don’t understand. Large cargo ships also dump garbage into the river. In addition, the encroachment of wetlands in tributaries by filling in soil and building, has resulted in the disappearance of fish breeding areas. This is happening now, and we want youth and villagers to be aware of the increasing problems that the Mekong River is facing. Academics themselves say that if another dam is built, in less than 20 years, approximately 97% of the sediment will disappear from the Mekong River, and the wealth of resources that once existed will follow.
Khru Tee has said that all of this is something that everyone must be aware of and work together to help take care of the river. The youth are an important force in helping people know what is happening to the Mekong River. But, it takes some time. This is what the Rak Chiang Khong group is trying to push forward – connecting young people to see the stories of the world, and to see the importance of and protect natural resources as a worldly citizen.
“Imagine if one day the river that used to exist disappeared. Water that used to be drinkable is no longer drinkable. The air that was once breathed was toxic. The future of the youth depends on these matters. Environmental resources are the four factors in our lives. The youth are such an important force in the matter of preserving the environment.”
By : Panicha Panklang, Ratana Kumphorn