A man fishes in the Songkram as the river unusually drops in spite of the wet season. Credit:ONWR

The last free flowing Mekong tributary in the Northeast, Songkram, subject to regulation: ONWR

Conservationists, however, have expressed concerns over possible adverse impacts on the complex freshwater river system as well as the status of the country’s latest international Ramsar Site

The Songkram River, one of the two prime Mekong tributaries in the Northeast, which is still free from any structures, is now subject to regulation with a set of over thousand non-structural and structural projects planned by the Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR), as part of its strategic environmental assessment to help tackle the chronic problem of severe flooding and drought regularly hitting the river basin.

Running eastward for over 400 kilometres in the upper north of the region, the river feeds six sub-basins of five provinces from Sakhon Nakhon, Udon Thani, Nong Khai, Buengkan, to Nakhon Phanom, with the total area accounting for over 13,000 square kilometres (8.125 million rai).

But the area along the river, classified as Zone 1 and 2 by the office, is regularly affected by severe flooding and drought, which sometimes cover as large as 300,000-400,000 rai, prompting the office to pick the area for the integrated study to solve the problem.

According to ONWR Secretary-General Dr. Somkiat Prajamwong, the study and pursuance of project implementation in the area are increasingly needed, considering the increasing challenge posed by various external factors including the unusual low flows of the Mekong River, which usually floods into the Songkram as far as over 300 km during the flood season, but has been absent for the second consecutive year now.

“We need to immune ourselves against such threats and prepare ourselves to any anomalies in the future including climate change,” said Dr. Somkiat.

Dr.Somkiat explains the situation of the Songkram basin.
Credit: ONWR

Under the plan, 1,644 projects, 1,550 are structural projects, are subject to development until the year of 2037 with the budget set around 14.873 billion baht.

Besides estimated 4,000-5,000 small or natural water storages in the area that are subject for development, large infrastructure projects like the two water regulators on the Songkram River itself are also planned along.

”We need tools to help us regulate and curtain impacts of the problem we have long been facing. They may not eliminate them all, but the tools can help us relieve the impacts,” said Dr. Somkait.

According to Sanit Piriyapongpun, managing director of Mahanakorn Consultants, which conducted the feasibility study for these two projects, which are planned in the middle section and at the river’s mouth, next to the Mekong in Nakhon Phanom’s Tha Uthen district, the regulators would act as the tools to help regulate the flows of the water in the river, especially during the dry season so that the inland water can be restored to allay drought in the area.

Concerned agencies, however, have acknowledged sensitivity and likely impacts that would occur by the regulator at the river’s mouth as it sits on the newly declared Ramsar site of Songkram Basin, so they have decided to push ahead with the one in the middle section first, which is over 130 km further inland.

Dr. Somkiat said the study for this regulator would be completed in the next few months and the environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been carried out alongside. The project would then be tabled for EIA approval, he said, assuring that new technology of irrigation infrastructure makes regulation of the river flows more environmental friendly than before, thus feasible for implementation.

The view of the Mekong where the Songkram meets around its mouth.
Credit: ONWR

Environmental concerns

The projects, however, have raised strong opposition among conservationists.

They fear that the projects will prompt adverse impacts on the complex freshwater ecological system of the river, especially the blockage of the barrages constructed across the river, which may block the fish passage to nursery grounds inland particularly the unique wetland called Pa Bung Pa Tham.

They are also concerned that the projects will cast negative impacts on the country’s latest Ramsar Site around the river’s mouth, which covers over 34, 000 rai, and homes over 124 freshwater fishes, 208 plant species, birds, reptiles, and others.

The area was announced as the Ramsar site under the Ramsar Site Convention in May this year. It is also a place for locals to make a living with an amount of catch around 45,000 tons per year, generating over 32,794 baht income per year, according to WWF Thailand, which conducted the study on the site.

“This is the only river left in the region that could run freely without any construction to stop its natural flows. It feeds over a million population living along the river, and their lives would never be the same if the mega projects of water management are made to the river,” said Yanyong Sricharoen, manager of WWF’s Community Management of Wetlands in the Mekong River Basin Project.

Mr. Yanyong also said that effective water management does not mean structural projects only. There are other options that could cause less harmful impacts on the sensitive ecological system and communities.

He called for a more precise study to make sure that the impacts on the environment are very limited, together with public hearings among the locals.

WWF and its alliance introduced a campaign of freshwater ecological system preservation and conservation by working with 49 communities living around the wetland during the time when it was critically damaged by encroachment.

With efforts for many years, the area has well been rehabilitated and eventually declared as the country’s latest Ramsar site, 15th.