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Insights into Activism: Meeting at the Mekong

By Christine Ow

In the second edition of Insights into Activism, we go across the world to Thailand where we meet Niwat Roykaew, also known as Kru Tee or Teacher Tee to his little river community in Thailand. Niwat is an educator and a grassroots activist who has played a significant role in mobilizing locals in activism efforts against political and commercial interests who are threatening their ways of life by drastically affecting the water flows in the Mekong River. This article explores the complex history of the Mekong River, the effects it has had on the over 60 million people who rely on it for survival, and how indigenous groups are fighting to be included in what Niwat describes as “sustainable and participatory development.” 

About the Mekong River

The Mekong River is the tenth longest river globally, and the seventh-largest in terms of discharge, which runs through five countries. Starting in China the river flows through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, parts of Vietnam, and finally deposits into the South China Sea via Cambodia. For centuries the river has been the lifeline for riparian communities who rely on the river for everything from agriculture, fish farms, and other daily essentials. However, with a resource as abundant as this, it should not come as a surprise that human instinct has driven countries to try and tame the river for political and financial gain. 

Conflicts over the Mekong River have typically surrounded the construction of dams that are used to generate hydroelectricity. The country that has gotten the most scrutiny is China as of 2019 has constructed eleven dams with plans for another eight in the coming years. Since most of the Mekong’s origins are in China the fact that the country is rapidly building dams upstream has severely affected the other countries downstream who share the Mekong. Blocking the water up top has led to water shortages in the lower riparian states which have resulted in flow alternations, sediment trapping, and habitat destruction, there are also severe human impacts such as impacting agriculture and fisheries which will be explored further later. But China is not the only country trying to harness the flows of the Mekong for hydropower. In 2012, Laos put into motion plans to construct a hydroelectric dam of their own known as the Xayaburi Dam to enhance their position as a regional energy provider. The dam sparked backlash and widespread concern from local communities at the purported irreversible ecological damages and potential displacement to local communities. Yet, despite push back the dam was completed in 2019 and 95 percent of the power produced is currently purchased by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. Countries like Thailand and Cambodia have also constructed various water diversion projects which makes them similarly implicated in the over-exploitation of the Mekong. 

Overall, the Mekong is a massive collective action problem where individual countries are vying to take the fullest advantage of the river’s resources with little regard to its literal downstream effects on other countries. There have been attempts at cooperation such as the Mekong River Commission founded in 1957 by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam with the help of the United Nations, and even the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation which is a separate regional cooperation mechanism including all Mekong states. Climate change has made effective cooperation along the Mekong especially imperative as radical weather changes and an increased frequency of droughts have led to the river drying up which starts a cycle of even more intensive water extraction leaving indigenous riparian communities with little resources left for their survival. However, given the highly political nature of the problem, there is a lot of skepticism on how much progress truly can be made. 

Is the United States involved in some way? In a strange way, yes. While the US does not have a direct territorial stake in the Mekong there are a lot of political factors which has pushed the country to get involved in the conflict. Trade with the Mekong countries amounts to around $116.6 billion and billions have also been spent on assistance projects to the Lower Mekong countries. Furthermore, with the strategic position of Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, the region has become one of geopolitical interest to the United States much like the conflict in the South China Sea. Tensions between the US and China about the Mekong reached a new high in 2019 when a US-commissions study asserted that China’s dams upstream blocked water flows which led to severe droughts in the lower Mekong countries. This led to a diplomatic “war of words” which effectively represents the ever-tense relationship between China and the United States. 

The Human Impacts

Conflicts surrounding the Mekong River coupled with climate change have resulted in three distinct impacts on the indigenous communities who rely on the Mekong for their livelihoods: displacement, less productive agriculture, and threats to local fisheries.

The invention of the hydroelectric dam signaled a huge step in our ability to pivot away from our reliance on fossil fuels. However, the now widely known reality of these dams is that while they help solve one environmental problem they often are the cause of other environmental problems along with social problems. One prominent example is population displacement. The Xayaburi Dam in Laos, for example, was estimated to displace over 2,000 people to make way for the dam’s construction. The Laotian government did provide compensation but experts raised concerns about the insufficiency of those funds, and recent reports have surfaced highlighting how these displaced families have struggled to re-establish their social and economic lives after resettlement. Since most of these families moved to other communities along the Mekong, the sustenance problems have remained and only gotten worse over time.

The damming up of the Mekong has severely affected local agriculture and aquaculture which is a threat not only to the indigenous peoples but also to the region’s economy. Farming communities along the nutrient-rich banks of the river rely on predictable annual floodings that replenish the soil for growing seasons. However, a combination of climate change and water held back by the hydroelectric dams has led to flooding seasons that are less predictable and less frequent. This in turn has caused once thriving river banks to dry up making them completely unviable for local agriculture. More severely affected still is the local fish population which is the main source of protein for indigenous groups who live along the Mekong. The river’s natural ebbs and flows affect everything in the fish’s life cycle and the severe disruptions to it have in turn led to a decrease in productivity in local fishing zones and fish farming. According to some findings, 70% of the Mekong’s commercial fishing could be blocked by hydroelectric dams which will severely impact the local economy. All of these amount to severe threats to the local, indigenous population whose livelihoods have become collateral damage to the geopolitical and economic struggle over the Mekong’s resources. 

Indigenous Activism

The local people along the Mekong have organized for years protesting the construction of new dam projects that have devastating impacts on their lives. Unfortunately, in the past, while there has been limited success nowadays we are seeing an upswing in aggressive activism from the organization of protests to even bringing companies to court to slow down the rapid development of the Mekong. In 2020, a major development occurred in the Mekong activism space and that was the launching of the Mekong People’s Forum which brings together various stakeholders from developers, politicians, conservationists, activists, even local villagers for the sake of multilateral conversations about the future of the Mekong. The Forum is an attempt by civic groups to democratize development along the river and to expand participation especially to locals who are oftentimes excluded and ignored despite bearing the largest burden of these projects. The Forum is a step in elevating the voices of activists but there is much progress that will need to be made seeing that China was notably absent from these events in 2020. 

This brings us to the work of Niwat Roykaew who played a defining role in the organization of the Mekong People’s Forum as one of the more prominent activists and educators in the region. Niwat was once a school teacher (an eventual headmaster) in rural indigenous schools in his home state of Chiang Rai, Thailand where he witnessed firsthand the impacts hydroelectric dams have on the lives of riparian communities in the Lower Mekong regions. Frustrated by this Niwat founded the Rak Chiang Khong, a conservation group representing villagers from eight riverside communities to demand action and accountability from the Thai government. To this day, Niwat represents one of the most notable voices in the indigenous Mekong River protests but he is by no means the only one fighting an upstream battle against powerful political and economic interests.

Concluding Thoughts

The conflicts and consequences at the Mekong River are a matter of human rights and justice, and it once again shows how indigenous, minority livelihoods are negated for the picture gains of geopolitics and economic gain. While there is not much we can do here in the United States it is important to recognize the violence that surrounds water bodies all over the world both in a literal and social sense. Water is an unsuspecting resource, one that is treated with almost impressive carelessness, but where it matters it is worth its weight in gold and the people who suffer for it almost never had a stake in the fights, to begin with. 

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