Loss of kai riverweed

January 15, 2021
The bright green colors of the river weed are turning brown in a mass die-off apparently caused by low water and fluctuating river levels. Photos: Chainarong Settachua and Saman Puangkeaw

The low Mekong water levels have claimed a new casualty in Thailand. 

Kai riverweed, sometimes referred to as rock algae, is a tasty seasonal snackม food and full of nutrients, often eaten with sticky rice. The weed appears on river rocks in the cooler and summer months of the year. There are two kinds of kai, the ‘hard’ kind and the ‘soft.' The latter is referred to as 'tao.’ 'Local people harvest and season the nutritious weed, which is then bagged, sold, and flash-fried for the table. 

Until this year. 

Erratic fluctuation in Mekong river levels in Thailand's northeastern Isaan region appear to have caused a mass die-off this week, to the dismay of locals who would normally earn some income for collecting and drying the bright green weed for sale. 

At Ban Muang village in Nongkhai province, villagers say the low water levels are unusual. Fishers have been affected by the clumps of dead kai weed becoming trapped in their fishing gear. The die-off also alters the natural habitat that is important for fish feeding and spawning. 

The low water conditions may relate to the the maintenance of Jinghong hydropower dams upstream in China, and from the Xayaburi dam in Lao PDR. Local communities downstream in Thailand are requesting better management of these dams, so as to protect the Mekong’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems. 

But for now, the loss of kai is something that they live with—another indicator of the disaster that is unfolding for the Mekong ecosystem. 

Thanks to Chainarong Settachua and Saman Puangkeaw for the information and photos. 

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