The Songkhram River in northeast Thailand is a tributary of the Mekong River. The Lower Songkhram Basin comprises the largest area of flooded forest in the northeast region of Thailand providing a key habitat for more than 180 species of fish with at least 58 species migrate between the basin and the Mekong River. Of these, seven fish species are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species.
Every rainy season from July to August, the Mekong River floods into the Songkhram River, inundating the Songkhram Basin’s streams, lakes and creeks with sediment and fish. After the rains, the Songkhram River drains back into the Mekong River in September and October. This unique ebb and flow of flood waters between the two rivers has resulted in creating the Songkhram wetlands and seasonally flooded forests ecosystems rich in fish, animal and plant biodiversity. The Lower Songkhram Basin is called the “womb” of the Mekong Basin, similar to Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, and is now recognized under the Ramsar Convention as a wetlands of international importance.
Given the wetlands serve as feeding and breeding grounds for many local and migratory fish, the Lower Songkhram Basin is a rich source of fisheries for local communities in the region providing both protein and supporting local livelihoods. The lake ecosystems and flooded conditions are also suitable for rice cultivation. Rice farming and fisheries are an integral part of the culture of local communities.
In the last two decades, hydrological changes in the Mekong River, especially due to large-scale water resources development in the upstream such as hydropower and extreme climate events, has affected the water levels and flows of the Mekong River that bring water, sediments, fertilizer and nutrients to the Songkhram River and disrupt seasonal fish migration. At the same time, the size and quality of the wetland areas in the Lower Songkhram Basin also decrease due to changes in land use around the wetlands, increase in agriculture and encroaching urbanization. The people most affected by these changes are local fishers and farmers.
Culture of fish and rice
Along the Lower Songkhram River, local fishers use a range of fishing gears to catch fish for local consumption and spend hours on their long-tailed boats.
During the wet season, wider mesh nets are used so that the nets are not torn by strong currents and floating debris. During the dry season, smaller mesh nets are used to catch smaller fish species. On a good fishing day, a local fisherman can catch around 70–80 kg of fish. Most of the catch is either consumed locally or sold in local markets. The smaller fish species are usually processed into pla ra, a form of fermented fish paste that is a popular delicacy in northeast Thailand.
While the Songkhram River is still abundant in number and types of fish species including the Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigs) and Mekong Giant stingray (Dasyatis laosensis/Hemitrygon laosensis), the local fishers believe that the variety of fish species has declined in recent years. Some of the older fishers said that they have not seen “Pla Suea Tor” (Datnioides undecimradiatus) in recent years.
With the declaration of Ramsar sites in May 2020, Thailand’s Department of Fisheries has announced many conservation efforts including multiple fish conservation zones where fishing is monitored and usage of large mesh nets and other highly efficient fishing gear is prohibited. There is also greater awareness in the basin about fish habitat conservation, using proper gears and preventing overfishing.
Along with fisheries, rice farming is also crucial for the livelihoods of the communities living in the basin. Rice is generally cultivated twice per year in the wet and dry seasons. The wet season rice cultivation is the main crop during June to November and the dry season rice is cultivated during December to April, where water is available.
“Rice farming is a key livelihood activity here, followed by fisheries”, said Darunee Signhkaek, a local resident of Yang Ngoi village in Sri Songkhram district, located near the Lower Songkhram River.
She is also the village head of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Volunteer Network, a network that joins together with three other village representatives to conserve the Lower Songkhram wetlands.
“If the rains are normal, the yield is roughly around 300 kilograms per rai [1600 m²]. If we have a good year with more rain, the yield may be even 350–400 kilograms, whereas if there is less rain than normal, yield may shrink to 250 kilograms per rai. Local people harvest rice during the months of November and December. After the harvest, when the river water level drops, we can grow vegetables in the sediment-laid riverbank to consume and sell.”
— Darunee Signhkaek, local resident
Most of the locally produced rice is consumed by the locals and only some of it goes to regional markets. Small irrigation systems have been developed in the community area by installing solar pumps to divert water from the Lower Songkhram River to the wetland areas to store water for the dry season crops. The community has devised rules to distribute water among the farmers based on water availability, demand and equitable sharing.
While rain brings enough water for wet season rice farming, water shortages are more frequent during the dry summer months. Moreover, sudden storms and floods can sometimes wipe out a farmer’s rice crop.
“We have recommended some high-value crops instead of rice that are resistant to both floods and drought as well as use less water. But the farmers continue to plant traditional rice varieties since it is not only their livelihood, but also part of their culture”, said Chatchawan Aesuwan, Director of the Provincial Office of Natural Resources and Environment, Nakhon Phanom Province.
“Even when farmers go to work outside their hometowns, they always come back during their cultivation period to plant rice. Rice farming connects deeply with them, not only in economic ways but with the local culture”, he added.
This insistence of local farmers to plant rice in their farms also limits the possibility of having other crops in neighboring areas hood as water drains from the rice farms and floods other fields.
Community wetlands forest management
The wetlands are also protected as a “community forest” on both sides of the Songkhram River. The community forests were set up by Thailand’s Royal Forest Department for the local community to make use of while also take part in conserving the forest ecosystem.
When the water levels are high, the water inundates the wetland forest, or paa bung, paa tham, nourishing it with sediments and nutrients. The wetland forest is an invaluable source of firewood, mushroom, root vegetables, bamboo and medicinal plants for the local communities. More recently, certain parts of the community forest have been affected by encroachment and fires.
Cultural values of wetland ecosystem
The locals have a strong spiritual belief about river deities, including the Naga, the snake-like mythical creature. The locals of both Thai-Lao ethnicities believe and revere it. The large monument of the Naga is one of the landmark and tourist attraction of Nakhon Phanom as it lies on the riverbank of Mekong. This cultural spirit is part of community-based conservation practices to sustainable use of natural resources and respect values of ecosystem services.
Impacts of Ramsar declaration
The declaration of the Ramsar site has resulted in many conservation activities and projects within the wetlands of the Lower Songkhram River. Governmental offices have identified and announced conservation zones for wild animals, fish, and forests in the region. Such definition of conservation zones has restricted the locals from using the ecosystems. While the government and civil societies are elated with the declaration, they also believe that the locals might not be aware how the Ramsar site helps them and provide additional services. The Provincial Office of Natural Resources and Environment in Nakhon Phanom Province has a plan to develop a comprehensive wetland management plan in this Ramsar Site in 2023. They believe that there is a need to conduct research and improve communication to provide evidence and clear information on the direct and indirect services of the ecosystem services in the Ramsar site to the local people.
SEI’s work on water resources and resilient ecosystems in the Lower Songkhram Basin
SEI’s Initiative on Water Beyond Boundaries (WBB) aims to develop and implement a new way of thinking about sustainable water resources and ecosystem management by considering the actors and processes within and beyond boundaries. The four main boundaries that SEI is trying to break are geophysical, human-centric water planning, institutions and authorities, and participation and knowledge access boundaries which aim to improve sustainable use water resources and degradation of ecosystem services.
The WBB initiative emphasizes three new pillars including teleconnections, early ecosystem consideration, multi-interest and multi-participatory approaches. We have applied this concept in the Lower Songkhram River Basin and the Magdalena Basin in Colombia, Latin America.
The Lower Songkhram wetlands located in northeast Thailand was declared as the 15th Ramsar wetlands site of international importance in Thailand in 2020.