10 April 2009

Both Sides of Dams, on Both Sides of the World

Even before I came to Thailand and began studying human rights violations in Thailand, I was excited for the Water Unit. My dad works in the power industry in the US, and I grew up hearing about dams. I visited them, toured them, knew people who worked in them, took numerous vacations on reservoirs, and even had several mugs in my kitchen emblazoned with pictures of the different dams my dad has worked at. I grew up hearing him sing the praises of dams, and so I was excited to discover that my program in Thailand would be examining dams from a different standpoint. While I knew the ways dams benefitted society, I has heard little about their impacts apart from how they interrupt salmon spawning pathways. Needless to say, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when my van left the CIEE office and began the long drive to Ubon Ratchathani and the Mun River.
Our group stayed in two villages while in Ubon. The first was Ban Kum, a beautiful fishing village on the high banks of the Mekong River which did not yet have a dam but was preparing for one to be built. The second was Rasi Salai, a larger village surrounded by farmland and located farther a distance from the Mun River which has been experiencing the effects of dams since the early 1990s when the Rasi Salai dam was built. While in these villages, I hunted for red ants with my Mae, watched my Paw fish in the Mekong, helped irrigate my family’s rice field with water from the Mun River, and experienced a small part of the lives of the people in these villages. Through several dam tours, exchanges, and a boat tour down the Mekong River, I learned how the dams impacted the livelihoods those living in fishing villages, how it flooded fields and precious wetlands behind the dam, and decreased water flow downstream making it hard for villagers to irrigate their fields.
As someone who was interested in understanding the negative impacts of dams, this experience was very enlightening for me. But what struck me the most was actually different than I had anticipated. The hardships of the villagers touched me, which is why I was almost more angered by the information I discovered about the productivity of the dams in the region. As it turns out, the Pak Mun and Rasi Salai dams produce far less electricity than their projected capacity. These huge, multibillion baht projects that have ruined the lives of hundreds of villagers in the region don’t even work, and the government has big plans to increase the number of dams in the Mekong and Mun River area!
I appreciate the benefit of dams because I see the way they do benefit people in the area of the US that I live in. In the Pacific Northwest there are over 150 dams, but they are built in regions with low populations where people do not rely solely on the river for their livelihoods. Before the dams were built there were careful EIAs. After completion, the productivity of the dams are regulated. Protests about environmental impacts, especially salmon spawning, have been received and new legislation and projects like fishladders have been established as a result. While I certainly don’t think that these dams are the best way to produce power in the region, they do work. But in areas such as northeast Thailand, where population density is high, livelihoods are linked to the rivers, EIA and SIA research is maybe not done as well as it could be, and villagers have to protest for years before the government will listen to their concerns, I think that dams are not a good way to provide the region with electricity. More dams in the region will just worsen the problems that already exist. I think it has been interesting for me to see how dams can be effective in one area and incredibly destructive in another.

Melissa Munz -- Whitman College


Margo Silverman said...

Last semester, I took microeconomics 101. It filled a space in my otherwise humanities-laden schedule and my dad always told me that studying economics would be relevant and useful for the rest of my life.I pictured myself crunching numbers in a powersuit, but I didn't see it coming into play in a boat on the Mun River.
Just like Melissa, I was struck by the relative uselessness of the Pak Mun Dam while doing the pre-trip readings. What shocked me most about it was the insistence of the government and power companies to keep the dam running despite the fact that they were actively losing money. I instantly thought of the first thing we learned on the first day of econ: sunk costs.
When debating the viableness of any option, costs already paid should not factor in. The fact that millions of baht was fed into the creation of this dam is not a good enough reason to let a project that is economically damaging to all investors, let alone the fact that it is destroying the livelihood of the villagers on the river.

Elizabeth said...

I am from Pasadena, California where dams are a part of my daily life. In fact within Los Angeles County there are over 115 active dams that help with water flow, irrigation, and provide electricity to a lot of the city. As well as create reservoirs that I have played in and spent many a vacation at. Before this trip the extent of my knowledge on dams was from the movie “Chinatown” and the memory of visiting the Hoover Dam when I was ten. My story sounds much like Melissa’s who has little knowledge of the negatives effects of dams and just assumed them to be a part of life.
However, after this unit I see the detrimental effects development can have on local population who directly use the river in an effort to maintain their culture and ways of life. The first thing said by the villagers of Bankum during our exchange was their love for the Naga and the yearly phenomena of fireballs flying from the water. This comment and in depth description that followed, allowed me to see that this mythical creature is ingrained in the Thai people. This creature is as much apart of their daily life as eating and fishing.
In building a dam these stories and beliefs fall away and the culture of Thailand is lost. The exotic place that attracts thousands of tourists each year becomes the mall of the US with tract stores. By saying one dam will cause Thailand to lose its culture may seem to be a far stretch, however it is not impossible. In the states very few people know that Native Americans and various indigenous people were forced off their land because they have become invisible in American culture and are simply a part of the past. The dams helped me to see this connection, that no matter the development there will always be a price to pay, but who is paying that price.

Jenny said...

Hmm, that’s a really important point: dams are effective in the Pacific Northwest, while destructive in Isaan. I think this stems from trying to apply a particular model of development/energy generation in an area that is culturally and geographically insensitive. In this past Unit (5), the Asia Pacific Potash Corporation had never built a mine before, and all of their information about potash mines came from projects in Canada! Governments and corporations tend to think that what’s successful in one area will work in another area, with some minor tweaking. (False!)

It’s a byproduct of globalization. Just like we find 7-11, McDonalds, and KFC on the other side of the world, we’ll also find replicas of development projects, even when they don’t make sense like Pak Mun Dam. It’s frustrating because development isn’t a one size fits all kind of deal. Ultimately, I think it’s about validating and preserving local wisdom and cultures. I don’t think we can stop development projects, but maybe we can at least make sure they are culturally inclusive, as our vision currently says.