Under the shadow of China’s mega dams, millions in Southeast Asia face a fight for survival
China plans to build the world’s biggest dam in its bid to become carbon-neutral by 2060. But its hydropower ambitions are already having an adverse effect on the rivers and livelihoods of downstream communities, the programme Insight finds out.
CHIANG RAI, Thailand: Anusorn Nantharak has known no other occupation.
Born and raised in a fishing village along the Mekong River, the 37-year-old joined his family-owned fishing business at the age of 17. Back then, they had more than 10 fishing boats and could fish all day.
But 15 years ago, everything started changing.
“We used to find so many big fish … The population of fish has decreased, and their size has gotten smaller,” he said. His family now owns just two or three fishing boats.
Far upstream from where he lives, the hydroelectric dams China built along the Mekong have turned his life upside down by ruining the water system, he said, and thus resulting in fewer fish.
“The flood seasons aren’t following the same pattern any more,” he said. “When it’s supposed to be high tide, the river becomes dry. And when the river should become dry, the water level rises.
“With the damage to the ecosystem, soon some fish will go extinct.”
The Mekong, which passes through, Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, is one of the world’s most complex river systems, second only to the Amazon River in terms of fish biodiversity.
But all this is threatened anew by China’s efforts to be carbon-neutral by 2060. As the programme Insight finds out, the mega dams China has been constructing come at a cost to the environment and the livelihoods of those, like Anusorn, who live downstream and a world apart.
WHY CHINA NEEDS DAMS
China completed its first hydroelectric dam on the Mekong, the Manwan dam in Yunnan province, in 1995. Since then, it has built 10 more on the main river, along with hundreds of dams on the Mekong’s tributaries.
Harvesting water in dams and creating hydroelectricity are “high on the agenda in the Chinese government”, noted Elizabeth Lai from the University of Hong Kong.
“It’s very important politically for China to provide security in water supply,” said Lai, an honorary lecturer at the university’s Centre for Civil Society and Governance. “Another importance is in terms of providing clean energy.”
With reference to China’s pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2060, she said building dams is “one of the most efficient ways” of providing that clean energy for the country.
Hydroelectricity is China’s second-biggest source of energy, after coal; it makes up close to a fifth of the total energy production.
And the development of hydropower resources in “international and cross-border rivers” in particular is “very important” for China’s realisation of its carbon goals, according to Tian Fuqiang of Tsinghua University’s Department of Hydraulic Engineering.
This gives transboundary rivers an “overall strategic significance” for China, he said, noting that most of the border areas these rivers flow through tend to be mountainous, where “the local economy and society are relatively backward”.
“So the development of cross-border rivers to benefit communities along the banks is very important for China.”
IMPACT ON THE MEKONG
But the dams have altered the Mekong River’s traditional flow, fragmented natural habitats and caused water levels to plunge to dangerous lows downstream.
“In the past 20 years, we can see that the Mekong River’s been affected in many ways,” said Thai environmental activist Niwat Roykaew. “A lot of living things have gone extinct, the environment’s been destroyed — all these issues are a result of those big projects, like the dams being built.
“Building dams isn’t environmentally friendly.”
According to a 2017 report from Unesco and the Stockholm Environment Institute, the hydroelectric dams, along with other large-scale infrastructure developments on the river, are responsible for trapping nutrient-rich sediment and preventing the river’s natural flow downstream.
The report said the average sediment load in parts of the Mekong in Thailand declined by as much as 83 per cent between 2003 and 2009.
The adverse effects have been exacerbated by climate change and a lack of transboundary communication.
Pianporn Deetes remembers that when the first two dams were built, downstream communities “didn’t get any notification”. “We had no idea what was going on in the upper reaches,” said the International Rivers regional campaigns and communications director for Southeast Asia.
“(But) people downstream here … experienced the change of water level. We witnessed the unusual water fluctuation that drastically changed the ecosystem of the Mekong River.
“We’re not against China … but we’re talking about the existing problems on the Mekong River. The dams over there are generating electricity, but with the cost borne by the downstream communities.”
WATCH: People of the Mekong fight for survival, in the shadow of China’s mega dams (4:56)
Besides fishermen like Anusorn, there are others whose livelihoods are affected, like farmer Nipon Wutthikorn, who grows bean sprouts on the banks of the Mekong.
“The amount of (fertile) land has decreased … and the sand bar is higher than before,” he said. “The water levels aren’t predictable (any more).”
A POLITICAL TOOL?
Activists like Niwat worry that the Mekong is a testing ground for Chinese hegemony in East Asia and beyond, given that China’s dams have been holding back massive quantities of water over the last two years.
“Keeping in all the water during the rainy season and letting it out during the dry season is wrong,” he said. “It’s going against nature.”
It has also threatened the livelihoods of the 60 million people living downstream by causing crop failure and depleting fish catches.
This, noted Niwat, is a topic for negotiation with China. “They keep saying, ‘Hey, we’re not keeping that much water. There’s only 13.5 per cent of the Mekong River held in our dams,’” he said.
To China, it’s only 13.5 per cent, but … if you choose whenever you want to open or close it, it causes huge effects.”
This is something Tian the university professor described as an “exaggeration of the situation”.
“Many people think that China is upstream, and the water comes from upstream, so building this dam is equal to shutting off the tap water, and then you can do whatever you want,” he said.
“This statement doesn’t consider the area that such a water resource is distributed across.”
He added that storing water in a reservoir “just regulates the seasonality”.
“It increases the water flow across the seasons by reducing floods and storing water for the dry seasons,” he said. “To a certain extent, this is conducive to downstream flood control and drought relief as well.”
He sees it as a “very complicated” problem requiring lots of data, modelling and “detailed research to reach scientific conclusions”.
“Usually, there are various factors that affect irrigation. The reservoirs on the tributaries and sand mining may all play a role in changing the topography of a river,” he said.
“We need to build this understanding based on science to improve the mutual trust between upstream and downstream areas.”
Ultimately, said Lai, who is also an environmental engineer, the engineering behind dam projects is “there for the good of mankind but needs to be properly managed instead of manipulated to become a political tool”.
“It’s all up to the mentality of … the transboundary countries to have that sort of a broader perspective,” she added.
Pianporn agrees on the importance of the relevant governments having a “strong political will” to recognise these issues as “important transboundary issues in mainland Southeast Asia”.
She also advocates that rural communities should have equal participation in decision-making in the resource planning for the Mekong.
“We’re not asking for cash compensation or anything like that,” she said. “We’d just like to see the mighty Mekong once again free-flowing, in a healthy manner, and that she can feed our livelihoods, migratory fish and our agricultural land.”
WATCH: The full episode — China’s mega dams: The threat to Asia’s river communities (45:48)
WHAT’S NEXT FOR CHINA?
Meanwhile, China has turned its focus on another river for its biggest project yet: A mega dam in Tibet’s Medog county, on the Yarlung Tsangpo river. This transboundary river, known as the Brahmaputra in India, flows about 3,000 kilometres from its source in the Himalayas through Tibet, India and Bangladesh.
This hydropower project is set to be the world’s largest dam, generating 300 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. It is estimated the dam could produce about thrice the power of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.
The location of the mega dam offers “very good conditions for hydropower development”, said Tian. And the river is “relatively undeveloped” in China.
But the impact on India and Bangladesh could be huge.
In 1975, India constructed the Farakka Barrage across the transboundary river Ganges. This created water stress in Bangladesh and a multitude of environmental and social consequences.
“Earlier, you’d hear its roars from two, three kilometres away,” said Bangladeshi water activist Mizanur Rahman. “How did that river become a graveyard in the last 30, 40 years? The reason is the Farakka Barrage.”
It is likely to get worse with the new dam. “As China will store water for the mega dam, the downstream countries, India and Bangladesh, will get less water,” said Partha Pratim Biswas, a professor at India’s Jadavpur University.
“If India is compelled to produce power with a lesser amount of water, India will also have to build storage dams … The more storage dams you build in the course of the river, the more you’re interrupting its flow — so the country at the very bottom will (suffer) the worst.”
Already, fisherman Zahangir Alom has seen how the river has dried up and become narrower. The 26-year-old now worries that his community will have even more trouble catching fish.
The same goes for boatman Masud Rana Shomrat. “If the dam is constructed, the entire area would become a desert,” he said. “The northern part of Bangladesh runs along the river; if it turns into a desert, the supply of a lot of goods would stop.”
In March, the Chinese parliament adopted the country’s 14th five-year plan, which contained the plan to construct the dam as part of China’s strategy for achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.
It is those who live downstream, like Zahangir and Masud, who will have to pay a high price.
“My life will be finished, since I’m a boatman,” said Masud. “Our whole family is dependent on the river for survival.
“There’s no other way of survival — we’d die.”
Watch this episode of Insight here. The programme airs on Thursdays at 9pm.