As the Mekong becomes a political battleground, one woman is determined to turn the tide

By Nicha Wachpanich

Photography by Peerapon Boonyakiat

The Mekong is changing rapidly due to a series of infrastructure projects that turned the river into an international political battleground. One woman is determined to make a change from the ground to save the “bloodline” of millions of people.

 

When the sky turns blue in April, there is nothing better than sharing a plate of papaya salad with friends and family at the Mekong River. Like many of Thailand’s freshwater beaches, Ban A-ya beach was a stretch of sand that appeared yearly in the hot season when the water level dropped low enough.

Ormbun Tipsuna knew this nature cycle well. Her family laid out tables and served meals down at the Mekong River in Nong Khai province, which marks the border between Thailand and Laos. Songkran, the water festival, was the best opportunity to welcome tourists on the beach. But in 2011 a flash flood appeared out of nowhere sweeping the whole beach away.

Ormbun was shocked. Her restaurant lost a fortune because of the unseasonal flood in the summer. Then, in the rainy season, the river dried up instead of rising high. It was two years after the Jinghong Dam, a 1,750-megawatt hydropower dam upstream in China, started operating.

Since then, people downstream have noticed the river’s ecosystem changing. They also became alert about the series of concrete infrastructures planned on this great river that is a “bloodline” for 300 million people across six countries in Southeast Asia.  

Ban A-ya beach now only exists in Ormbun’s memory which she recounted many times to the Administrative Court and policymakers wearing suits to get them interested in the negative impacts of dams. Joined by thousands of people living along the Mekong, Ormbun leads a network of communities in northeastern Thailand that has become a strong voice of resistance to the slow destruction of the Mekong River.

Growing up sceptical

Growing up in a farmer’s family during the 1970s, Ormbun read everything she could find in the small border town village in Tha bo district of Nong Khai province. Sometimes they were leftwing political books her older sister hid in the box during the students’ uprising, but the book that changed her life was a romance novel.

The heroine was a determined young lady who worked as a social development officer in the Deep South, a long-troubled region on the border of Thailand and Malaysia, where she met a handsome police officer. Reaching the final page of the book, the high schooler decided to devote herself to better the lives of others, just like her favourite character.

In the late 20th century, at the end of the Cold War, Thailand was chasing the dream of turning the cross-continent battlegrounds into trade zones. The Thai government focuses on industrialising the country. As a result, myriads of infrastructure projects were launched in the Northeast, the so-called “least developed” region where many people were poor farmers.

One of that period’s most well-known development projects is the Pak Mun Dam, 5.5 kilometres west of the confluence of the Mun and Mekong Rivers in Ubon Ratchathani province. It was there where many young students like Ormbun learned to be sceptical of the state’s official development agenda.

“I didn’t know about the downsides of the dams back then,” Ormbun, 55, recalled. “I just knew that how the government carried out the project wasn’t right. The locals weren’t informed. Nobody answered their concerns.”

The Pak Mun movement grew powerful at the national level. Yet, the dam was built, altering the ecosystem and the livelihood of the surrounding communities. The case sparked a great awakening for many communities in the region, and young minds across the country grew up critical of the potentially destructive nature of hydroelectric dams.

A northeasterner herself, Ormbun easily connected with her folks in other areas. After school, she worked with communities on many development issues, from promoting education and raising questions about mining to researching irrigation projects.

“I don’t consider myself a so-called social development officer,” said Ormbun. “I’m just a local who got the opportunity to study.”

 

Finding answers to the changing current

In 2008, Thailand created a new law to empower community groups. Ormbun was involved in forming “ComNet”, a network of seven provinces along the Mekong River in the northeastern region. In her free time, she helped her family with the restaurant on the Mekong beach in Nong Khai.

But the 2011 unseasonal flood destroyed her family’s business. She found that it was not just an unlucky year; the river’s flow continued to fluctuate in the following years. The incident set her on a long journey to save the Mekong. 

It was not just people in the tourism sector like Ormbun’s family who bore the brunt of the changing current. It was even worse for the fisherfolk and the riverbank farmers whose livelihood relies on the delicate river ecosystem.

“We tried to make sense of what was happening.” The reason for the unpredictable water flow became the main question for the people in the network. Initially, they did not aim to advocate for river preservation, but as the Mekong forms the centre of their livelihood, the group has become a strong voice on the issue.

The main suspects were the newly built dams on the upper stream of the Mekong. By 2011, China had already built at least eight hydropower dams within the border to supply its electricity and agricultural irrigation demand. 

Many people blame climate change for the Mekong’s inconsistent flow in recent years. But, while Ormbun and her peers partly agree, they believe that there also is another major factor involved. The impact of dams became most apparent when in 2019, the usually brown-coloured Mekong river changed its shade to a clear blue.

Working alongside researchers, volunteers at different locations along the Mekong tested the water every week. They found that the river’s sediment significantly dropped, turning the cloudy water clear downstream of the dam.

Built in 2012, Xayaburi Dam, the first hydropower dam of eleven planned dams on the Lower Mekong, risks blockading the river’s sediment. This is a finding that the authorities in Thailand have known for many years but rarely acknowledge in public, according to Chanang Umparak, a researcher from The Mekong Butterfly, an NGO that works closely with Mekong communities. 

“The officials never confirmed this fact so we need the local efforts to prove this,” explained Chanang. “Our research has helped empower the locals to confidently speak out against the dams and confront the policymakers.” 

The findings were used in the landmark lawsuit in 2012 joined by Thai Mekong communities against the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, the main electricity buyer from this hydropower dam in Laos. It was Thailand’s first transboundary legal action involving this international river.

The power of Mekong women

In the search communities wanting to join the legal case against the Xayaburi Dam, Ormbun met Sorn Jampadok, a 65-year-old woman in a remote village in Ubon Ratchathani.

In a small gathering at the provincial administrative office in 2011, Ormbun invited the community to join the legal action. Only a few hands rose up, one of them was Sorn’s, who was determined to save the Mekong.

In 2022, the Thai Consumer’s Council reported that Thailand’s electricity reserve stands at 40-60 percent, three times more than it needs, even considering the growing demand in the future. But Thailand continues to buy electricity from hydropower plants in Laos, citing the need to safeguard its energy security.

To counter this argument, Ormbun empowers local communities to document the slowly disappearing natural resources in their area ranging from species of fish, and plants to cultural practices. Sorn is one of the locals who has been keeping track of the natural resources in her home before joining ComNet.

Visiting her small house by the Mekong, Ormbun found that Sorn had been jotting down her daily income from fishing and farming on the riverbank of the Mekong on a calendar. 

“We use this information of how the Mekong benefits the communities to challenge the benefits claimed for electricity generation,” explained Ormbun, who quit her career as a civil servant to become a full-time activist. “I think the supporters of dams are afraid to know the real value of the Mekong.”

Official public hearings for infrastructure projects are usually held in urban centres often excluding women from rural areas who cannot join due to their duty to take care of the house. Meanwhile, Ormbun found that the women of Mekong communities are the first ones to feel the impact of a changing ecosystem that affects their riverbank farming, a traditional farming method that relies on Mekong’s natural flow to feed the crops.

“Women are the ones who manage the Mekong resources for everyday use,” Ormbun said. “People who are strongly attached to the river will never abandon the Mekong.”

With encouragement from Ormbun and the other activists, Sorn became an outspoken plaintiff in the Xayaburi legal case. A decade later, the Supreme Court dismissed the case arguing the transboundary dam was beyond Thailand’s authority. However, Sorn and the other Mekong women are confident to continue speaking out about the issue.

“I am just a local. I am not good at speaking in public but I witnessed the changes with my own eyes,” recalled Sorn about the day she stood up to inform the judges. “It’s good to have a network. We are not alone to talk about how the river has changed.”

There are more than a thousand communities in northeastern Thailand whose livelihoods depend on the Mekong. Fascinated by the people like Sorn, Ormbun always takes note of their personal stories with the river and shares them on social media, including her thirty messaging group chats with hundreds of members from diverse backgrounds who want to preserve the Mekong.


Local fight on a global battleground

Trying to save the Mekong seems like a monumental task, and some locals who worked with Ormbun told her that it is a useless struggle. Eventually, the planned dams will be built.

Are they fighting an impossible fight? With the more intense geopolitics, many nations compete over influence over the Mekong. China is building more dams on the mainstream, and the U.S. has invested millions of dollars on the initiatives on the Mekong. Meanwhile, Laos is aiming to become the “Battery of Asia” through seven new hydropower dams and with Thailand as the primary electricity buyer.

A battle takes place over the Mekong, home to Ormbun and many others. When it comes to wrestling with the dam proponents, the network of Mekong communities seems very small. But the Mekong rights defender believes their efforts are not in vain. “We have to voice out to our government to do something.”

Since the beginning of ComNet in 2009, Ormbun says some of their efforts have paid off. At first, the Thai authorities never accepted that the changing Mekong is a result of the infrastructures but now “They accept that dams are one of the reasons for the fluctuating Mekong.”

In 2021, ComNet took the streets of Bangkok with their fishing gear. They gathered all the related authorities, from the Ministry of Finance to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to come to the table and find concrete solutions to help communities adapt their livelihood with the dams. 

They agreed to set up a messaging group chat, an accessible platform for the locals, to notify the public about changing water levels in different parts of the Mekong, so the communities can prepare themselves. Moreover, many communities are working with the Department of Fisheries to breed fish species and set up preservation zones, building on the insights of their research.

Soon a grandmother, Ormbun works in the small office on the second floor of her townhouse where her daughter is working side by side to run the network.

After struggling with equipping local fishermen with Zoom meetings and smartphones during the COVID-19 outbreak, ComNet arranges a meeting among the local communities once a week. Ormbun has no intention of stopping her work, not just for her, but for all the people along the Mekong who are deeply connected to the river.

“Saying no to dams doesn’t mean we are resisting development,” said Ormbun “We will gather all the data and prove how much the Mekong means to the people.”

 

Edited by Fabian Drahmoune

This story was supported with a grant from the Earth Journalism Network

Nicha Wachpanich is a Bangkok-based journalist covering stories from a rights-based and human-interest perspective. She previously worked with a local environmental news agency under Thai Society of Environmental Journalists. 

Peerapon Boonyakiat is a freelance photojournalist based in Bangkok and works for Hong Kong based SOPA Images. He is interested in political stories involving conflict between the people and the government. His work can be found on Instagram @peerapon_boonyakiat.