CHIANG KHONG, Thailand — For Pianporn Deetes, the Mekong is more than a river.
“This is not just liquid, but this is the entire life-supporting system,” Deetes, a local activist, said recently on a wooden long-tail boat heading upstream in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai province.
The Mekong, one of the world’s longest waterways, runs about 2,500 miles from its source in the heights of the Tibetan Plateau. Its sinuous path takes it through six countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it flows into the South China Sea. Tens of millions of people rely on the river, whose name is sometimes translated as the “mother of waters,” for food, water, energy and income.
Now Deetes, who calls herself a “child of the Mekong,” is battling to save the river she grew up with.
The banks of the fast-moving river are lined with crops, grazing livestock and pontoons for fishing villages. But the fish have been disappearing: The Mekong River Commission — an intergovernmental group made up of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam — estimated that this stretch of river has 40 percent fewer fish than it did 10 years ago.
Environmentalists and experts blame 11 dams China has built on the Upper Mekong within its borders, which they say are contributing to historic flooding and droughts that have damaged fish spawning areas and upended people’s lives. They say water levels could be further disrupted by another 11 dams — many of them financed by Chinese companies — that are planned for the Lower Mekong, including two that Laos has opened since 2019.
“We’re not talking about one or two people or one or two problems,” said Deetes, 42, the regional campaigns and communications director for Southeast Asia at International Rivers, a nonprofit group based in California. “What we are talking about is a large number of people and the regional economy.”
A fishing village in the district of Chiang Saen was nearly deserted on a recent visit, with 18 pontoons for boats but only five fishermen. Singkham Wantanam, 64, has been fishing since he was 12. Once, he made enough money to put his children through college, he said, but now the fish are gone, and so is his livelihood. He said he had caught no fish that day.
“It’s been like this every two or three days,” he said.
Environmentalist Niwat Roykaew, 61, lives beside the river in Chiang Khong district.
“When the river has problems, the people beside the river have problems,” said Roykaew, the founder of the Rak Chiang Khong Conservation Group, which has opposed the proposed Pak Beng dam on the Mekong in Laos. “You don’t have the food because you don’t have the fish.”
As for the existing dams in China, Roykaew said, it is important to address how to reduce their negative impact.
“There must be discussion on how much water will be released, when it will be released, how it will be released,” he said.
China says climate change and reduced rainfall are to blame for the Mekong’s water levels, which the Mekong River Commission says are at their lowest in more than 60 years. Beijing also denies that its dams have caused a collapse in fishing stocks downstream or that it fails to inform other Mekong countries about dam activity. In late 2020, it launched an online platform to share hydrological data year-round.
“As the most upstream country, China has always given full consideration to the concerns of the downstream countries,” E Jingping, then the Chinese minister of water resources, said at the time, according to Chinese state media.
The Ministry of Water Resources did not respond to a request for comment.
The other Mekong countries, which are dependent on China for trade and investment and reluctant to offend Beijing, have criticized the dams but often struggled to present a united front. Laos in particular has welcomed Chinese investment in hydropower projects as the landlocked country ramps up energy production in hope of becoming the “battery of Southeast Asia.” Cambodia, by contrast, has said it will suspend all work on Mekong dams until 2030.
The tensions over development on the Mekong are gaining more attention regionally and globally, drawing comparisons to China’s territorial disputes with multiple Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea. Last year, the Mekong River Commission held its first formal meeting about water security with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes all the Mekong countries except China.
The dams have also become another flashpoint in China’s relations with the U.S., which in 2020 launched the Mekong-U.S. Partnership to counter Chinese influence in the region.
There are signs that China, faced with regional backlash, has been trying to revise its approach. Roykaew said he had met twice with senior executives from China Datang Corp., the state-owned power company behind the Pak Beng project in Laos, which would be the northernmost of the 11 new dams.
“They came to ask why we didn’t want the dam construction. I explained to them, and they didn’t know how to argue with us,” he said.
China Datang Corp. did not respond to a request for comment; the Pak Beng dam is still poised to begin construction. But Roykaew said he drew hope from Thai activists’ 2020 defeat of a Chinese plan to turn parts of the Mekong into a canal for huge containerships.
“I believe China has ears, but when will their ears open up to listen to our voice?” Roykaew said. “I believe one day they will listen.”