Local livelihood in the Lower Songkhram Basin, Thailand



  • Ministry of Natural and Resources and Environment, Thailand


  • 27/12/2011

  • REGION :

  • South-Eastern Asia


  • Thailand (Lower Songkhram River Basin)


  • Wetlands play a key role in helping to sustain river systems health. They have important hydrological functions such as recharge of groundwater, improvement of water quality and flood alleviation. The main challenge in the relationship between wetlands and water is to find ways in which to integrate the conservation and wise use of wetlands into the management of river basins. The seasonally flooded forest in the Lower Songkhram Basin is a wetland type in northeastern Thailand. Wetland ecosystems provide the local people with a variety of goods and services upon which they all depend, including food, fuel, clean water and protection from natural hazards. Unfortunately, wetlands are under increasing pressure from unsustainable use and other threats such as pollution and land conversion. As all cultures gain inspiration from or attach spiritual and religious values to wetland ecosystems or their components – e.g. landscapes, trees, hills, rivers or particular species - biodiversity loss also strongly influences our social relations. The strengthening of local communities’ participation in the management of wetlands; allocation and management of water for maintaining the ecological functions of wetlands will support their livelihood. The ecology and history of the seasonally-flooded forest in the lower Songkhram basin research using the Thai Baan research methodology, was undertaken by 240 villages from 4 villages – Baan Tha Bor, Baa Pak Yaam, Baan Uan, and Baan Yang Ngoy in Sri Songkhram District, Nakorn Phanom Province in Northeast Thailand. The research methodology utilizes the situated knowledge of local communities on ecology, management of natural resources, local history, socio-economy and livelihoods


  • Thai Baan Research, Wetland

Map Location:


The Lower Songkhram River Basin encompasses a broad range of wetland habitat types associated with a functional floodplain ecosystem, linked to the Mekong River. Annual extensive flooding phenomena are dependent on in-basin precipitation and a backwater effect from the Mekong which in some years shows a marked backflow. The river supports a remarkably productive capture fishery, which peaks each year during the flood recession period, supporting the livelihoods of numerous families locally. The site is notable for holding one of the last extensive areas of seasonally-inundated riverine forests in the Mekong Basin.
The floodplain wetland site supports several rare and threatened fish species, including five species on the IUCN Red List, and is an important resting and feeding site for migratory birds on the East Asian Flyway. The area is generally poorly studied for most major taxa and data is sparse.

The Lower Songkhram River Basin encompasses a broad range of wetland habitat types associated with a functional floodplain ecosystem, linked to the Mekong River. Annual extensive flooding phenomena are dependent on in-basin precipitation and a backwater effect from the Mekong which in some years shows a marked backflow. The river supports a remarkably productive capture fishery, which peaks each year during the flood recession period, supporting the livelihoods of numerous families locally. The site is notable for holding one of the last extensive areas of seasonally-inundated riverine forests in the Mekong Basin.
The floodplain wetland site supports several rare and threatened fish species, including five species on the IUCN Red List, and is an important resting and feeding site for migratory birds on the East Asian Flyway. The area is generally poorly studied for most major taxa and data is sparse.

Wetland Livelihoods in the Lower Songkhram River Basin

Communities located on or near the Songkhram floodplain exhibit a high degree of reliance on wetland-derived products for their livelihoods. Villagers generally are engaged in multi-component livelihoods, which vary by season and availability of particular wetland products. Agriculture is of less importance locally than is generally assumed by outside agencies, thus leading to inappropriate development priorities and misallocation of resources. In particular, local people are engaged in a mix of the following wetland dependent activities:

  • Capture fisheries: Large numbers of families are dependent on fishing for both subsistence and income. Up to 90% of households in some villages have members who are involved in fishing to a greater or lesser extent, with most being part-time or seasonal fishers. At certain times of year, when fish are migrating upstream or downstream off the floodplain following the rainy season, a significant artisanal fishery exists, which generates significant local wealth. Up to 85 different fishing gears were used in the past, many of which were made locally, supporting a secondary industry. High value fish are sold fresh, while lower value fish are processed.
  • Fish processing: Because of the surplus of fish at certain seasons and the difficulties with transporting fresh fish to market, there is a healthy fish processing industry developed in riverside villages, although not all of the raw material is derived from the Songkhram River these days, with much of the fish being used in pla som (fermented sour fish) being derived from the Central Plains. Some villagers process large amounts of salted fermented fish in clay jars (pla daek) or dried fish (pla haeng), both of which have a reputation for quality from the Songkhram communities.
  • Harvesting wetland products: A vast range of wetland products, both terrestrial and aquatic, are harvested on a seasonal basis by local villagers and people from outside the basin who travel in to take advantage of the abundance of natural resources. Villagers from as far away as Khon Kaen and Kalasin are reported to come and gather mushrooms and bamboo shoots from the paa boong paa thaam during the early rainy season for sale in their home provinces. Other commonly harvested products include wild vegetables, red ant eggs, tubers, fuel wood, wood or vines for making household implements or fish traps, medicinal herbs and reeds for making mats.
  • Agriculture: Traditional forms of agriculture are now increasingly scarce, as more intensive forms oriented towards external markets have taken over from subsistence farming. Wet paddy rice is the most commonly grown crop (principally glutinous rice varieties), plus smaller areas of cash crops such as sugar cane, tomato, melon and maize. Rice is mostly grown in the wet season without irrigation, but significant areas may be lost due to flooding when grown on the floodplain or lower terraces. Dry season rice cultivation has long been promoted by the government using centralized irrigation systems, but the majority of these systems has failed and they are now abandoned. However, small scale systems using farmers’ own pumps or flood recession trap ponds have proven sustainable over the last 20 years. There are still instances of traditional mixed crop farming systems using terraces on riverbanks or small cleared areas in the paa boong paa thaam, but they are increasingly rare.
  • Livestock Raising: This is a livelihood activity of great importance to households in the Lower Songkhram Basin, especially raising cattle and buffalo. In the dry season the livestock are driven into the flooded forest or areas of open grassland to graze, while in the rainy season when these areas are inundated, the livestock are taken to higher areas of dipterocarp forest known as “dawn” to feed. The buffalo are superbly adapted to the wetland conditions, having splayed hooves for walking on marshy land and being good swimmers. In the past they were used as draft animals, but nowadays are used as a source of animal manure and sold for ready cash when the family is in need e.g. a member requires medical treatment. In this sense, they are a form of insurance and social security for local villagers, who are less likely to fall into debt than villagers who have sold all their large livestock.

History of the Lower Songkhram River Basin

The ecology and local history of the seasonally flooded forest in the Lower Songkhram Basin research has found that the Lower Songkhram area has been the home of many different ethnic groups for a long time, as a consequence of the rich natural resources and the location, which has long been a transport route between the extensive Sakon Nakhorn Basin and the Mekong River.
The first groups that traveled to the area were the Khmer (called by the local as Khom) and the Laos. The Khmer traveled by Kra Sang boat along the Mekong and its tributaries for trading items of silver ware, gold ware, and swords, while the Lao from Savannaket and Khammuan traded their rice in exchange for salt from the SongKhram valley.

During World War II, Vietnamese people moved to some of the large towns along the Mekong in Thailand. Some of them worked with trading boats traveling along the Mekong and its tributaries, including the Songkhram.
There have been many other ethnic groups from Northeast Thailand and Laos who have relocated to the area such as the So, Lao, Nyaw, and Chinese. These groups moved either to the existing communities or established new communities. They fished, farmed in the flooded forest, traded and worked on commercial boats.

Accordingly, the communities where the research has been conducted are historically linked to the different ethnic groups who moved to the area at various times. The summary of each community is as below:

  • Baan Pak Yaam a stop for the Lao from Kammuan who traveled upstream to buy salt to take back to Laos. Later groups that moved to the community, such as the Vietnamese, settled during World War II, Thai from Ubon Ratchathani and Nakorn Phanom. These settlers made Baan Pak Yaam an important trading site on the Songkhram River.
  • Baan Tha Bor community was built by merchants and fishers originating from Khammuan and Champasak provinces in Laos. During World War II Vietnamese who worked with the trading boats also moved to the community. Later Thai people from Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Phanom, and Yasothorn, together with Chinese merchant settled down, making Baan Tha Bor a large community and a center of trading in the Songkhram Basin. Presently Baan Tha Bor hosts 6 ethnic groups: Thai, Lao, Nyaw, Soe, Chinese, and Vietnamese.
  • Baan Yang Ngoy was built by Khmer merchants who sold silverware and swords. They traveled by boat along the Mekong and by foot. It was reported that the villager’s first location was called “Sopamiatra” (locally pronounced as “som pa mid”). However, the old community disintegrated due to war and disease. Later on the Nyaw from Pong and Sa towns in Laos came to the area for trading and fishing, they relocated in the village from the old Khmer graveyard. Presently villagers in Baan Yang Ngoy still speak the Nyaw language.
  • Baan Uan was built by people from the confluence of the Nam Songkhram and Mekong rivers at the mouth of Chai Buri river, and Thai people from Ubon Ratchathani who relocated to the area for farming and fishing. Later villagers from parts of Yasothorn and Mukdahan provinces arrived, who came to purchase fermented fish, dried fish, and fermented bamboo shoots also moved to the community.

The economy of communities in the Songkhram basin has been connected to communities in other areas for a long time, through merchants who traveled along the Mekong and its tributaries. Local Songkhram villagers in the seasonally flooded forest have traded their products such as fermented fish and dried fish with rice, salt and chili from upland communities. They also sold dried fish at some festivals and ceremonies such as annual Thay Phanom pagoda festival.
In the early 1940s, there were Chinese sailing ships plying the river selling rice and chili, and purchasing fermented fish from the area to sell in communities along the Mekong in Nong Khai, Mukdahan, Ubon Ratchathani, and on the Lao banks of the river and even as far as Srisaket province on the River Mun.
In 1950 a new road was built connecting Sri Song Khram and Tha Utane districts, minimizing the role of river navigation. More and more merchants started using the road for their trading activities. Later, as roads improved and trucks were introduced, it became possible for buy fresh fish, vegetables, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms from the Nam Songkhram basin for selling in many other areas.
Apart from fish, cattle and buffalo have long been important for the local economy. The seasonally flooded forest and surroundings of the lower Songkhram have served as the largest grazing plains in Sakon Nakhon basin. Villagers in the lower Songkhram basin have traded cattle with Thai people in Central and Eastern Thailand for over a century. Presently, they trade cattle and buffalo in the local livestock markets only, but large livestock remain a vital possession for the villagers.

Ecology of the Lower Song Khram River Basin

The 420 kilometers of Songkhram River is a most fertile river basin. In the lower reaches, stretching up to 200 kilometers from the mouth of the river, there is a seasonal flood forest where annual floods cover an area of approximately 500,000-600,000 rai for three to four mouths during the rainy season. Very similar to the Tonle Sap of Cambodia, in the rainy season the lower Songkhram receives floods derived from upstream runoff and backflow of the Mekong River.
Part of the unique nature of the lower Songkhram river basin is the flood resistant forest (Known in Thai as Pa bung Pa Thaam) comprising many tree and shrub species, including a dominant pioneer bamboo species called Pai Gasa, in the flood area and on the banks.
The complex wetland ecosystem of the lower Songkhram river basin consists of 28 different sub-ecosystems, hosting diverse plants and aquatic organisms. These sub-ecosystems are only revealed in the dry season as the flood waters recede. The sub-ecosystems provide important fish habitats particularly for spawning, such as the flooded forest, creeks (Known in Thai as “Huay”), oxbow lakes (Known in Thai as “Gut”) ponds, pools (Known in Thai as “Wang”) and rapids (Known in Thai as “Gaeng”). The abundance of fish in the Songkhram depends largely on the complex interacting relationships between annual floods, recession and natural flow patterns, the extent and quality of flooded forest and the variety of local sub ecosystems.
The Thai Baan researchers identify 208 kinds of plants and fungi, 124 fish species, 6 turtle species, 4 shrimp species, 10 mollusk species, 4 crabs, and 6 aquatic insects.
Out of 124 fish species, 115 species are native fish. There are 58 fish species that can be found in the Songkhram River all year round. There are an additional 57 species of migratory fish that migrate from the Mekong River, including the Mekong Giant Catfish. The species migrated to the Songkhram River during the flood season to feed on aquatic weeds, invertebrates and saline clay soil in the flood forest. According to a community note, a number of Mekong Giant Catfish were caught at Kud Takla on the Songkhram River in 1952 and 1953, with a maximum weight of 270 kilograms and have been caught in decreasing numbers ever since. The last Giant Catfish caught was recorded in 2003.
The relationship between the Songkhram and the wider Mekong ecosystem, for example 2 specimens of the White-eared Eel were found during the Tai Baan Research. This is a species of eel that migrates to inland waters along the Mekong from the ocean where it spawns, and has also been found by Tai Baan researchers in the Mun River Basin and Chiang Khong in northern Thailand.

The current situation of the Lower Songkhram Basin

The local economy is still heavily dependent on products originating from the seasonal-flooded forest including fresh and fermented fish, wild plants and cultivated vegetables and large livestock. The number of families who own cattle or buffalo has increased; while the number of animals per household has decreased due to communal grazing plains often being occupied by agribusiness ventures. In the last three decades several large agribusiness ventures have established a presence in the area, buying up large amounts of land at cheap prices and occasionally encroaching on common land, which had led to many instances of conflicts between local communities and the companies, some of which have ended up in the courts.

There are 79 kinds of traditional fishing gears, but eight of them are no longer in use. A number of large scale commercial fishing gears were introduced by the newcomers to the communities and widely adopted over the last 40 years or more.
For agriculture in the seasonal flooded forest and surroundings, there are various kinds of rice cultivation including lowland paddy fields and terraced rice fields. The rice is produced mainly for household consumption. In some years if conditions are right, high yields are possible and villagers can get a reasonably high income from selling rice.

There were once 47 different varieties of rice grown by villagers. Following introduction and promotion of commercial high yielding rice varieties by state agencies the number of varieties has fallen. Currently there are only seven varieties of native rice grown in the area. The villagers also grow various kinds of vegetables for household consumption in upland fields and along the river banks during the dry season.

An important concern coming out of the research is the decline in productivity of the seasonal flood forest as the result of the use of destructive commercial fishing gear, coal making, and commercial farming operations owned by agribusiness companies. They use significant amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in their farming practices leading to reported instances of fish kills around the intensive farming plantations and concerns about human health risks.

At sub-district level there is a fishing auction system run by local administrative organizations to raise funds for community development locally, reflecting insufficient funds provided by the state. This may lead to over-fishing in the area. The productivity of the lower Songkhram River has been further impacted by dam construction upstream. The dam head ponds created have raised water tables that may cause salinization around the surrounding area and kill riparian vegetation.

Importantly for the last 3 years unusual water fluctuation has been observed in the Songkhram basin. Such unusual water fluctuation has only ever been observed within the last 3 years, and has been reported in many parts of the Mekong. While the exact causes may be in some doubt, such unusual water fluctuations are consistent with the development and operation of dams in the upper reaches. When the river ecosystem is affected by unusual water fluctuations, migration patterns of fish may also be affected. There are widespread invasions of aquatic weeds such as Giant Mimosa. The villages complained they could not organize a ceremony on the riverbanks due to the unusual water fluctuations at Baan Pak Yaam.

The degradation of the seasonal flood forest is affirmed by the increasing number of local fish species that are becoming rare, or that might even already be extinct. There are 41 fish species that are nowadays considered to be rare and 11 fish in the Songkhram River for over 50 years. These locally extinct species are migratory fish that migrate between the Songkhram and the Mekong.
Amidst the environmental crisis in the Songkhram basin, the villagers have tried to solve the various problems that have arisen. For instance, they have set up many fish conservation zones, establishing community rules prohibiting destructive fishing gears, and building habitats for fish. Local communities have taken on these management responsibilities themselves. These activities have been supported by district state agencies and temples.

Local community management activities have ensured equity with poorer people being allowed to fish in conservation zones on some occasions. Importantly, it was found that a type of fish conservation by the community has been practices for a long time in the form of “sacred areas” where access to fishing is restricted, but is still respected by villagers.

The research in this area has generated a wealth of information on the ecology and livelihoods in the basin. Local people have led and carried out every step of the research-identifying research issues and questions, gathering and analyzing data, and producing final reports. The research is based on local knowledge and experience, and displays local people’s sophisticated understanding of the area’s ecology, as well as their capacity to manage their natural resources.

Implemented organisations: IUCN-The World Conservation Union, The Nakhon Phanom Environmental Conservation Club (NECC), Southeast Asia River Network (SEARIN) and Mekong Wetland Biodiversity Programme (MWBP), Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP).


  1. Sethachur, C and Pitakthepsombat, R. (editor). Ecology and History of seasonal flood forest in Songkhram Basin, Mekong River Basin Wetland biodiversity for Sustainable Used programme Songkhram River Basin, 2003.
  2. Sethachur, C, Niyomchart, W and Pitakthepsombat, R. (editor). Fish species in the Paa Bung Paa Thaam-Local knowledge of fishers in the lower Songkhram River Basin, Mekong River Basin Wetland biodiversity for Sustainable Used programme Songkhram River Basin (MWBP), 2003.
  3. Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning. The Biodiversity in the Lower Songkhram Basin, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, 2007.