Mekong dams and adverse impacts on riverine communities

The Mekong River is a vital food source for riverine communities along its route from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea in Vietnam. The river flows through eight provinces in Thailand and bordering with Laos including Chiang Rai (in the North), Loei, Nong Khai, Bueng Kan, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan, Amnat Charoen and Ubon Ratchathani (in the Northeast).

The dams built on the Mekong mainstreams in China and Laos have clearly sent adverse impacts on the local communities, which are dependent on the Mekong’s complex biodiversity. The water level in the Mekong is relatively much lower in the rainy season due to water stored in the dam reservoirs. The local fisheries decline as the water fluctuates unseasonably.

I witnessed the situation when working in the field during the past rainy season. I met a fisherman in Bung Kla District in Bueng Kan Province who has been fishing in the river for 20 years. He told me; “The water has become much lower than ever in this time of year. I catch some small fish but not the big ones like I used to years before.”

The unpredictable water fluctuations also affect the riverbank gardeners. They plant different kinds of vegetable for household consumption and for sale such as beans, long beans, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, corns, green onions, garlics, cabbages, lettuces, and tomatoes.

These vegetables are normally planted on the Mekong riverbanks in the dry season, from December to April. But as the Mekong water level became lower, farmers started planting vegetables since November.

The farmers use the water from the Mekong River to watering the plants. If the water in the Mekong gets drier, they are at risk of losing the plants. And when the upstream dams on the Mekong release the water from the reservoirs, the riverbank gardens will be flooded, the incident which has happened before.

The villagers along the Mekong river know about the dam impacts as they face the impacts daily. Still, many more dams are planned in Laos such as Pak Beng, Luang Prabang, Pak Lay, and Sanakham.

However, the community rights to participate in decision-making about these dams have not been taken into account. It is time that dam developers and policy makers demonstrate their willingness to listen to the local voices and ensure that their rights to the Mekong River as a transboundary commons is upheld.

This photo essay was originally featured in SEA Junction’s storytelling initiative at It will be showcased along with other visual stories in the Photo Exhibition “The Mekong is Blue and Dried” on 16-28 March 2021 at Corner Space, 1st Floor, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC).