China’s construction of dams along the upper Mekong River has upended the normal ebb and flow of life in Chiang Rai.

Throughout history, people – and animals – living along the mighty river in northern Thailand have been able to predict when the water will rise and fall. But China’s manipulation of the river has changed all that, with upstream dams opening flood gates during dry season and turning off the spigot during growing season.

The result has inundated animal-breeding areas, submerged crops and left farmers’ crops dying of thirst.

“After China built the dams, water levels started fluctuating,” said Nipon Wuttikorn, a beansprout farmer in Chiang Rai’s Chiang Khong District. “In the past, water flowed seasonally. When it’s wet season, the water rises, but that is no longer the case. For example, today, it’s March and April and the water levels were supposed to drop, but Chinese boats carrying freight are running.

“If the water rises too much, this area will be flooded. We have to move to higher ground.”

Nipon said, last year, off-season flooding caused him 10,000 baht in damage.

Villagers and farmers across Chiang Khong have expressed their dismay over the changes to the nature of the river, complaining it has become much more difficult for them to deal with the fluctuating nature of the river.

Moreover, environmentalists said that the dry season is crucial for animals and birds to reproduce as the water would recede under normal circumstances.

The dams, however, interrupt that process by releasing water into the river in the dry season, disrupting the circle of life and affecting wildlife.

“When it’s a dry season, the Mekong, naturally, will be dry as well. But the ecosystem will do its job,” said Niwat Roykaew of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group. “For example, when the water recedes, there will be islands and beaches. Wildlife depends on these islands to breed and grow. Migratory birds will lay their eggs on beaches, but when dams release water (in the dry season), it floods all the birds’ nests.”

Water fluctuation in the Mekong River also causes erosion of riverbanks. In response, the government is spending 117.6 million baht a kilometer to build dikes along the river.

Niwat said riverbanks and houses have been damaged and farming area lost to erosion.