Chinese dams on the Mekong River have begun releasing water during the river’s normal dry season, causing trouble for wildlife, farmers and fishermen in Laos, sources in the Southeast Asian country told RFA.
“The Mekong River water level is up 12 centimeters [4.7 inches] from yesterday,” an official of the Natural Resources and Environment Department of Laos’ northwestern Bokeo province told RFA’s Lao Service April 2.
According to the official, the water level in Bokeo was at 2.52 meters (99.2 inches) on April 2.
“I think the Chinese dams might be releasing water, but I’m not sure because I’ve not been officially informed,” the official said.
Fluctuating water levels in Southeast Asia’s most important waterway pose threats to aquatic plants and fish, which thousands of people living along the Mekong in Laos rely on for their livelihood.
A fisherman from Laos’ northwestern Xayaburi province told RFA that a sudden change in water level was bad for fish stocks.
“The Mekong River has risen about 10 centimeters [four inches]. I’m concerned that the rising water will affect aquatic vegetation and fish,” the fisherman said.
“Before, the water was thick and rich in sediment. Now it is clear and has fewer fish. The fish are reproducing less and less these days. During this time of year, the fish lay their eggs, but when the water rushes through, it washes them all away,” said the fisherman.
A farmer from the same province said the unpredictable water levels made his work difficult.
“The water level depends on Chinese dams, and the waterflow is not natural. It’s hard to make a living on the river these days,” the farmer said.
In the capital Vientiane, a vegetable garden owner told RFA that the increased water level was good for some industries but bad for others.
“The water level is up by about one ladder step over the past two days. That’s good for boat navigation, but bad for fishing and vegetable planting. I grow peanuts on a sand bed that is about to be flooded,” the gardener said.
Montree Chanthawong, a Thailand-based Mekong River expert, told RFA that the river’s water level is not supposed to rise during the dry season.
“The rising water could hurt aquatic species like fish and aquatic vegetation. Some of them could even die. Sparrows lay their eggs on the sand beds too, and when the water level rises these can become flooded,” he said.
Nowat Roykaew, the president of the Thailand-based Chiang Khong Conservation Group, told RFA that water levels in the Mekong have been fluctuating since January.
“Sometimes it goes up a lot like right now. I notice that the rising water is now clear. That means the water is coming from Chinese dams, because if it came from rain, it would be turbid. The water fluctuation has broken down the whole eco-system,” he said.
Data from the Washington-based Stimson Center’s Mekong Dam Monitor project indicated that during the week of March 29 to April 4, five Chinese dams released water. Don Sahong Dam in southern Laos also released water during the same period.
During its update for the week of March 22-28, the Monitor said that river levels at Chiang Saen, Thailand had continued to rise.
“This is not normal for this time of the year and is a result of significant upstream dam releases from China’s cascade,” the update said, adding that releases would likely continue in the coming months.
The update also reported that Thai conservationists had recently posted photos of migratory bird nests and eggs along the riverbanks to show that a 50 cm (20 inch) rise in the water level would submerge the nests.
“That rise is likely to come over the next month given upstream releases. This is just one example of how altering the river’s natural cycle of dry season lows and wet season highs is killing the river’s natural resource base,” the update said.
China has drawn criticism from its downstream neighbors for its cascade of 11 mega-dams on the Mekong River, with the lower Mekong basin experiencing severe drought over the past year and some stretches of the river even drying up entirely.
In October 2020, Beijing agreed to share data with the Mekong River Commission, as some 60 million people in MRC members Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam use the river for agriculture and fishing.
Neighbors of Laos have also complained about its nearly 80 dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries under the country’s controversial economic strategy to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” by selling hydropower to neighbors.
Radio Free Asia Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036