Dams are barriers built across rivers and streams to confine and regulate water flow for irrigation and hydroelectricity. However, in recent years, the social, economic, and environmental impacts of these constructions have become a pressing concern. While dams are integral to agricultural irrigation, and can help control floods, the construction causes mass displacement, increases risks of earthquakes and landslides. Along the Mekong in China, the people need clean electricity but also the fish and rice that and undammed river provides.
Ban Pak Ing may be a vision of the future for many Mekong villages. Five more dams are under construction in China. Downstream, in Laos and Cambodia, 11 major dams—the first on the main stem of the lower Mekong—are either proposed or already being built. By disrupting fish migration and spawning, the new dams are expected to threaten the food supply of an estimated 60 million people—most of whom live in villages much like Ban Pak Ing. The electric power generated by the lower Mekong dams is destined largely for booming urban centers in Thailand and Vietnam. Kraisak Choonhavan, a Thai activist and former senator, calls the lower Mekong dams “a disaster of epic proportions.”
Pumee Boontom lives in northern Thailand, but he tunes his television to the Chinese weather forecast. A big storm in southern China means a big release of water from the Chinese dams upstream—and, in turn, a good chance his village will be flooded. The Chinese government is supposed to warn downstream countries. In Boontom’s experience, that warning tends to arrive too late or not at all.
“Before the dams, the water would go up and down gradually, with the seasons,” he says. “Now the water goes up and down drastically, and we don’t know when it’s going to change—unless we watch the storms.”
Boontom is the leader of Ban Pak Ing, a scattering of cinder block houses and unpaved streets that reach from the precipitous west bank of the Mekong toward a quiet, well-cared-for Buddhist temple. Twenty years ago, like many of his neighbors, Boontom caught fish for a living. But as China completed one, then two, and then seven dams upstream, the few hundred residents of Ban Pak Ing saw the Mekong change. The sudden fluctuations in water levels interfere with fish migration and spawning. Though the village has protected local spawning grounds, there are no longer enough fish to go around.
In recent years Boontom and many others here have sold their fishing boats and switched to farming corn, tobacco, and beans. It’s a chancy living, and not the one they know best—and it’s made even more challenging by the frequent flooding. In 2008 some homes were flooded to the second floor. The temple was inundated too.
Nationl Geographic Magazine brings you a detailed report.