Mekong is half-dead

If the Mekong were a human, she would be half-dead, because everything has completely changed,” said Niwat Roykaew, a Goldman Environmental Prize recipient who has been leading the movement for river conservation for over 20 years.

This is big. The change of water level, the disappearance of sediments and the increasing level of waste. These are things that impact the river.”

Niwat founded the Chiang Kong Conservation group in 1999with the aim of protecting local water resources and strengthening people’s networks in the river basin.

A transboundary issue

When it’s about water, however, everywhere in the world is connected. Niwat realises that water issues are transnational. So, to be able to solve anything effectively, all stakeholders need to be involved. That includes the communities and governments which are connected to the river.

The Mekong is an international river. We can’t just talk about Thailand.

Niwat talked about the dams built upstream, which have impacted Thai communities downstream. He said there must be an urgent review of any megaprojects which could have a negative impact on the Mekong River, especially dams. There are 12 dams in the upper Mekong, another two in the lower Mekong and more to come.

The environment and nature, it can’t be a fight for resources like in the past. It has to be collaboration only,” said Niwat.

Marc Yaggi, Waterkeeper Alliance CEO, the global network that connects communities around the world on water conservation, has the same concern that, when dealing issueswith more than one country involved.

Countries need to recognise that the future, the health of their people, their economy and their livelihoods are really going to depend on how they treat their shared resources. If those resources go away, there is no future.”

“I think, at the end of the day, it’s the matter of recognising that water is the most important natural resource. We drink it or we die. We bath in it. We wash with it. We can’t grow crops without water. We have to recognise it in all its forms, rain, sleet or snow. It is critical to the atmosphere and the air we breathe. We can’t live without it. So, we have to learn how to treat it as an economic driver, instead of something we can sacrifice.”

Niwat has seen the Mekong change over time, and not for the better. While climate change plays a part in that, he thinks the dams upstream are an even bigger factor. He sees them as accelerators of the change.

He said he looked at the Salween River, which is also fed with runoff from the Himalayas. When Mekong began to dry up, the Salween was still rich, not dry and free flowing. For him, that’s enough evidence to say the dams have a bigger part to play in these changes than climate change.

Urgent review that includes more local study

There must be open discussions about the river that (we) share,” said a concerned Niwat.

He thinks that, if there is no more study and review, there will just be more construction, which will have an even more severe impact and it may, eventually, be too late to solve anything at all.

Local wisdom and studies should be included. These community-based studies are usually done with the objective of learning about nature and finding the best ways to co-exist. Something Niwat thinks is totally different from a study, such as an EIA, which was done based on the intention to build anyway.

So far, the Mekong lacks a participatory process. Decisionmaking on development has been in the hands of governmentsand investors. There is a lot of new construction, but the main stakeholders, which is the local people, haven’t been included in decisions affecting the future of the Mekong River,” Niwat explained

How can we be sure that authorities in different countries hear these concerns and suggestion? Marc Yaggi said that is the challenge and that is what Waterkeeper had been trying to do, build support for local communities and amplify their voices.

It is essential that all stakeholders are included in the decision making process. At the end of the day, nature does not pick and choose who will be affected. Everyone will be effected.

By Tulip Naksompop Blauw


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