Harnessing the Mekong or Killing It?

Dams are rising all along the Mekong. The people of Southeast Asia need the clean electricity—but also the fish and rice that an undammed river provides.

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.

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