Don Chan Beach: A Fragile Waterscape
Updated: Apr 25, 2019
Authors: Dr Thong Anh Tran and Dr Michelle Ann Miller
We visited Don Chan Beach one afternoon in early May during our scoping trip to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. The “beach”, a seasonal island in the middle of the Mekong River, attracts tourists who come to celebrate annual events such as Pi Mai Lao or Lao New Year. The island only appears and comes to life every dry season, which typically extends from October to April. Specifically, it is a hub of entertainment activities taking place in the dry season such as swimming, barbecuing, sand castle building, and sports events. Visitors pay for tickets to enter the beach and enjoy other entertaining services at the beach (e.g., pony riding). We found riverbank vegetables and other short-term crops on which local inhabitants depend for their livelihoods in the dry season. These social-natural interactions establish the everyday practices of those living around the beach and the river-water edges of Vientiane city. By the time of our visit, at the end of the dry season, the beach was already turning to thick, black mud and had commenced its wet season descent back into the heart of the Mekong.
What makes Don Chan Beach special is the complex array of livelihoods and social bonds that this small patch of sand seasonally sustains. Straddling the borders of southern Laos and northeastern Thailand, the beach is located in central Vientiane on the Laos side of the border but supports agrarian livelihoods for farmers and fishing communities on both sides of the river. Attuned to the seasonal flows of the Mekong River, the beach is deeply engaged with the everyday lives of the local inhabitants. It is a bridge of connectivity for mostly rural poor Isan (Laos speaking) ethnic minorities from northeastern Thailand, bound to Laos (and vice versa) by complex familial and cultural ties.
Don Chan Beach also sits at the forefront of rural-urban intersections in development along the Mekong River. Despite the pervasive poverty along this section of the Mekong, Chinese funded dams have ushered in a wave of commercial development and hotel construction along the river. Riverfront skyscrapers, largely funded by China, aim to bring modernity to Vientiane.
From Don Chan Beach, the most imposing building on the Laos side of the river is the headquarters of the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Despite its impressive quarters, the MRC has experienced funding shortages in recent years, reducing its capacity to fulfil its transboundary environmental governance obligations and to effectively respond to downstream impacts of hydropower developments that are fundamentally altering the Mekong’s hydrology. In many parts of the river, the river’s flood pulse has stopped moving entirely, meaning that sediment and nutrients vital for the river’s regeneration are no longer able to flow easily downstream to support dry-season livelihoods like those on Don Chan Beach. Blockages caused by dams are also causing irregular flooding, coastal erosion and impeding the smooth movements of around 130 species of migratory fish.
We heard numerous narratives of seasonal Laos migrants who attempted to cross the border to Thailand to seek better employment opportunities. As reported in the Mekong Commons, migrant remittances constitute a key component in Lao economy. Thailand seems to be the most preferred destination country for migrant workers from Laos and other neighboring countries. These reflect inherent complexities of development, resilience and adaptation that shape the fluidity of labor across this highly porous border. Similarly, cross-border labor migration is a prevalent phenomenon for the poor who live around Don Chan Beach.
The seasonal activities that bring Don Chan Beach to life are being threatened by the hydrological systems of the Mekong River and by future planned construction of dams in the upper stretch of the river. There is an increase in daily accounts of unseasonal and irregular fluctuations in the water flows of the river associated with hydropower developments and the regional impacts of climate change. Some 350 kilometers upstream of Vientiane, the construction of the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi hydropower mainstream dams in the mountainous province of Xayaburi is currently underway. This project, scheduled to commence commercial operations in 2019, aims to export hydroelectric power to neighboring Thailand. Set against its projected revenue-generating capacity, the Xayaburi dam will force the resettlement of over 2,000 residents in the dam’s immediate proximity and disrupt the livelihoods of over 200,000 people who subsist on downstream agricultural lands and river gardens like those on Don Chan Beach. Eleven other mainstream and tributary dams are projected to compound the diversion of water for irrigation schemes in the Mekong basin and significantly transform riverbank landscapes, with adverse impacts to millions of people in the Lower Mekong Basin. In Cambodia and the Vietnamese Mekong Delta in particular, concerns over the transboundary impacts of dams to common resources and river ecosystem services, as well as the cultural values of riparian countries, have not been adequately taken into account. Urgent action needs to be taken by China in collaboration with member countries of the MRC to provide redress for the adverse transboundary impacts of hydropower developments and to preserve places like Don Chan Beach that are integral to the social, economic and cultural life of the Mekong Commons.