10 October 2008

Same Mistake

At first glance, it seems as though Northeastern Thailand is learning how to deal with one of the regions primary problems: scarcity of water. Speckling the tributaries of the Mekong River, dams allegedly provide irrigation to Thailand’s driest parts. However, dam affected communities such as Ban Go and Thalong in the province of Ubon Ratchathani have a different side to share about what Dam’s bring—a side often ignored by those keen on development.

Ban Go is a community of fisherman, farmers, and clay pot makers in Northeastern Thailand. Proudly, the villagers live on the Mekong River, withdrawing fish, water, and clay as they please. Their livelihood depends on the Mekong. Downstream looms the Hua Na Dam, all 14 gates still open, but perhaps not for long. When the doors close parts of Ban Go community will flood, pouring many feet of water over their houses, fields, and clay banks. The sections of the village that do not flood will also lose their livelihoods. The fish will not be able to swim upstream to lay their eggs, and so the people must find another primary food source. The wetlands—an environment wealthy with herbs, food, fish, and grass for cows—will flood. Additionally, the water collected in the reservoir behind the dam may eventually become too salty to use for the Dam’s primary purpose—agricultural irrigation.  

One affected Bang Go villager explains the reality of losing his livelihood, “In Issan [the Northeast], people live off the wetlands. Since before my parents time, we have lived this way- we were taught that this is how you survive. If the wetlands flood, what will we do?” 

A short distance down the Mekong, Thalong is also a community of fisherman. Poor, but well fed by, their livelihoods are also sustained by the Mekong River. Plans for a possible dam named Ban Koum are in the works. If built, the Ban Koum dam would cost 100-billion-baht, span over 460 meters across the Mekong, and flood an estimated 280 households (Watershed Vol. 11, 4).

As a student group we visited Thalong village and spoke with the village headman about the future of his community as compared to the future of communities near Hua Na Dam. When the Thalong headman was asked about the negative effects of dams upstream, including the Hua Na Dam, he answered, “Yes, but we trust the government won’t make the same mistake twice”. 

Upon further research, it seems clear that the government may be on-track to making the same mistake again. Less than two months after the Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej cabinet took office, the Thai government adopted measures to turn plans for Ban Koum Dam into a reality. Many of the Prime Minister’s actions bypassed laws and regulations during this process including: signing an international agreement without parliaments consent, signing an agreement affecting the Mekong without the consent of other countries along the Mekong, failing to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), contracting a developing firm without getting it approved by the designated committee, and excluding civil society from participating in the planning process (Irregularities suspected over push for dam, Bangkok Post).

This sequence of actions by the Thai government only strengthens the opinion that some are willing to ignore a Dam’s size, cost, and impact for the sake of “development”. 
However, government officials argue Ban Koum Dam is meant to increase Thailand’s energy supply and contribute to Lao’s income. The Ban Go villagers ask, “at what price?” 

Dr. Carl Middleton, a Mekong Program Coordinator argues, “a healthy Mekong River is priceless” and suggests that “instead of choking the Mekong with dams, it is time that this tired old development model is replaced with one that celebrates the region’s rich cultural and ecological inheritance.” 

Allison Dulin - Davidson College


Lyndia said...

The Mekong River is deemed the second most biodiverse river in the world. As the largest and longest river in Southeast Asia, the Mekong supports an incredibly healthy riparian stream system. However, this could be damaged by the implementation more large-scale dam projects. At present, there aren’t any dams along the Mekong in Thailand, but dams in China have already affected downstream ecology.
As Allison pointed out, the Mekong River also supports the livelihood of many different traditional fisherman cultures in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are at risk if these dams are built.
Currently, the Thai government is supporting a large-scale plan to build approximately 30 more dams along the Mekong. Though the political situation in Thailand isn’t very stable, private investors have incentives to move along with these projects for both hydropower and irrigation.
The Assembly of the Poor, which immerged out of the Pak Mun Dam plight, is not as active as it was in the late 1990’s. Hopefully People’s Movement’s will learn from Pak Mun and challenge these projects before the effects are too grave to counter.

Sue said...

Damming the Mekong River in Northeast Thailand in an effort to improve irrigation in Isaan provinces by bringing water into the dry parts of Thailand and attempting to progress Thailand's efforts to further develop its country is not a unique issue in and of its own in retrospect to the world. The fact is, the same mistake has been made throughout the world in many different countries. Dams are threatening the ecology of rivers and the environment in almost every country in the world, whether they are developing countries or already developed countries. The biggest problem here is whether or not Thailand will continue to follow, not only the same mistakes that it has already made with previous dams, but the same mistakes as developed countries such as the United States have made in creating dams to “improve the live hood” of their people. Whose job is it to prevent them from making these mistakes?

Cloe said...

In terms of making the “same mistake” twice, it’s really interesting to note that the same issues of withholding information from villagers are occurring again as well. In the early 1990s, dams such as Rasi Salai and Pak Mun were built without divulging information to villagers of the effects the dams would likely have on their livelihoods and cultures. At the time, international human rights covenants such as ICCPR weren’t in place to require that information be given to villagers. Now, in relation to Ban Koum dam, information is being restricted from villagers through various other methods. First of all, villagers have heard rumors of dams from numerous other sources, but the actual dam builders have yet to meet with villagers and give direct information. Secondly, the head man made an announcement restricting villagers from discussing the potential dam with outsiders, so villagers have stopped sharing information and opinions with each other. It is very likely the head man made this announcement due to pressure from government officials above him or the two national security officers who have been stationed at the village watching over him lately. Since when is this included under the free sharing of information?

Max Weisman said...

It's plane to see the frustration that many of us feel about this issue has had a lasting effect on us. By putting it so well you really caught the essence of the group’s plight. It is extremely frustrating that this government is continually pursuing projects of such caliber in spite of the social, political, legal, and environmental ramifications of previous projects such as Pak Mun. The villagers say that the government won’t make the same mistake twice, but as an observer, I find it harder and harder to put the same faith in the Thai government that these villagers do. But what is important is that we don’t give up hope, by the simple act of going and talking to these villagers, we are giving them valuable insight into the challenges they may one day face, and we let the government know that the outside world is watching their actions carefully. Who knows, one day we might even convince them to partake in less destructive and more sustainable development projects one day.