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Hieng Chantarasee, a 70-year-old gold panner in Loei province of Thailand, a few kilometres downstream from the proposed Sanakham dam in Laos. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

Thailand’s gold panners blame Mekong dams in China, Laos as fortune dries up

  • ‘I used to find pieces of gold the size of a tamarind seed,’ says Rodjana Thepwong, 64. ‘Now there are only tiny amounts’
  • It is not only gold that is disappearing. Activists say the diets, livelihoods and environment of 60 million people have been jeopardised by the dams, and that effects are getting starker
Under a peeling sun, two Thai grandmothers pan for gold along the Mekong River, sifting both through its muddy shale banks and their own memories of happier times for a waterway which has been changed forever by upstream hydropower dams.
By the time the Mekong reaches them in Loei, on the Thai-Laos border, the water has already been strained through a dozen dams – 11 of them in China and one in Laos.

The dams, say locals and experts, have decimated fish habitats and changed the natural seasonal flow of the water, and even its colour.

Rodjana Thepwong with jars containing tiny flecks of gold. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

Rodjana Thepwong, a tough 64-year-old with an easy laugh, said gold panners used to wade to the middle of the river in the dry season.

“The sediment was full of gold, I used to find pieces the size of a tamarind seed,” she said, hacking into the river bank with a pickaxe and removing clumps of mud and stone.

“Since the dams were built the river water rises and falls randomly and the ecosystem is off balance, we have to pan on the edge of the river where there are only tiny amounts of gold.”

US claims China’s ‘manipulation’ of Mekong is ‘urgent challenge’

On a lucky day Rodjana and her childhood friend Hieng Chantarasee, 70, can make 500 baht (US$15) from collecting flecks of gold that can be fashioned into one thumbnail size piece.

They are just two of the 60 million people who depend on the Mekong as it flows from China, through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before emptying into Vietnam’s delta.

Activists say the protein-laden fish diets, livelihoods and environment of those millions have been put in jeopardy as mainly Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese companies tap the river for hydroelectric power.

The Dachaoshan dam on the upper Mekong in Yunnan province, China. Photo: AP

“I realised things were changing when the fish died and the water rose suddenly,” said Hieng, sitting on a foot-high plastic stool semi-submerged in the water.

The changes are getting starker. Further downstream, in February this year, the river suddenly turned aquamarine, a new seasonal phenomenon that shows the vital nutrient-carrying silt is leaving the waterway, experts say. Climate change is also playing a role with heavier monsoons and longer droughts.

But Rodjana and Hieng feel sure the dams are to blame for the deteriorating health of a river that has been their families’ playground and source of food and income for generations.

“It’s distressing. But what can we do?” Rodjana said. “All we ask is please don’t build any more dams.”

But it is a forlorn hope.

Hieng Chantarasee, a 70-year-old gold panner in Loei province, Thailand, a few kilometres downstream from the proposed Sanakham dam in Laos. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

A new dam is already planned 2km upstream from their panning site in Laos.

The Sanakham is a US$2 billion scheme developed by a subsidiary of China’s Datang International Power Generation Company. Construction was set to begin late last year and finish in 2028, according to the Mekong River Commission, with the power generated to be exported mainly to Thailand.

Of the US$2 billion price tag, only around US$28 million (or 1.4 per cent) has been set aside for environmental and social mitigation measures, according to the commission, a forum for Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to discuss their water worries.

Thailand is slowly turning against the dams, with river communities lobbying for a pause in development and officials beginning to openly debate the need for the electricity generated by hydropower and set to be sold to the kingdom.

A drone shot of gold panners in the Mekong River, Loei province, Thailand. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

“The development of the Mekong has reached the point of no return,” said Tosapol Wongwan, assistant to the Secretary General, Thailand’s Office of the National Water Resources.

“All we can really do right now is to focus on how we can reduce the impact which will probably take at least 15 years.”

Gradually, upstream countries – China and Laos – have begun sharing data on water flows and forewarning of dam closures and release to the downstream neighbours.

But full transparency is hard to achieve between countries with competing strategic, economic and national security demands.

Satellites to track Chinese dams on Mekong, as US likens ‘threat’ to South China Sea

Laos holds the key. Poor and landlocked, the country’s communist government is seeking to become the “Battery of Asia” using its dominant share of the Mekong.

It has two dams in operation – the Thai-developed Xayaburi in the north and Don Sahong near the Cambodia border. But there are another seven planned for the Laos stretch of the Mekong and many more on its tributaries.

Critics say there is little oversight of deals with Laos’ authoritarian government, or transparent assessments of the need for, or environmental impact of, the dams.

On a good day the two women might collect US$15 worth of gold. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

China, which is driving the dam-building spree, insists hydropower is an environmentally friendly resource to drive the economies of the Mekong, and says claims to the contrary are groundless and politicised.

But as the dam-building continues the forecast for the river is ominous, according to Songrit Kirk Pongern, a Mekong researcher and academic at Thailand’s Kasetsart University.

“In five years’ time the impact will be seen more clearly,” he said. “The fish population will continue to decline; downstream will be starved of sediment, riparian and local fishing will vanish and food security for 60 million people will be depleted.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Dams blamed for turning gold dreams of Mekong panners into dust