17 April 2010

Invisible Irony

We left the building with a sense of paradox and confusion after an exchange with the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) in the Srisaket Province in southeastern Thailand. The second you exit the office where the engineer of a few extremely detrimental dams works, a fluorescent green lawn flashes in front of your eyes during the current dry season. Next you see flooded wetlands and then the massive Rasi Salai dam that was built for irrigation.

The engineer reaffirmed our knowledge that Isaan (large region of northeast Thailand) is an agricultural area overcome with drought and poverty, with problems concerning water management and food production. Even though it is true that Isaan has difficulties with water scarcity and management, we also learned that the government and private companies have exaggerated the drought in northeastern Thailand. There are many proposed dams along major rivers in Thailand to help irrigate the country and also create electricity through hydropower in order to rely less on Laos for power importation.

The enormous concrete structures that interrupt the flow of natural water systems cost millions and millions of dollars and leave the thousands of villagers who live upstream and downstream from them with major tribulations and life-altering transformations. The ecosystems in the rivers are always jeopardized, upstream villages and lives are flooded and downstream residents are left with scarce and stagnant water. Who decides what actually is for “the betterment of the community”? Say that a dam actually follows through with its promise of providing electricity throughout a large area, is that worth the thousands of displaced residents along the river? Maybe it is, maybe its not, but no matter what it seems that Thailand and many other emerging countries are following in the footsteps of development by constructing dams.

One truth is that our world is in a water crisis, and the construction of dams is doing nothing but provoking the predicament even more. Water is extremely difficult to transport to countries that do not have safe water to drink yet the ones who do have the luxury tend to take advantage of it. In the United States, you would never know we were in a water crisis. Our lawns stay healthy all summer long with sprinkler systems and we have plenty of golf courses that have never seen a brown spot in their life. Americans consume half a billion bottles of water every week yet it is generally safe to drink right out of the faucet in our kitchens for free.1

Here in Thailand, the greatest irony for us students emerged once we arrived home after unit four where we stayed with dam-affected communities for a week. We were well informed about the water crisis, electricity issues and irrigation concerns. However, the day after we returned was the start of our “spring break” and also one of Thailand’s famous national holidays: Songkran. This festival consists of everyone off of work, baby powder slapped on your face everywhere you walk, a lot of drinking and…water throwing. You absolutely cannot walk down the street without getting soaked by your neighbors and friends but mostly complete strangers. The second you start to dry in the sweltering heat, a truck drives by and drowns you in ice water where you then find yourself gasping for air followed by more people pasting baby powder on your cheeks. The festival is intense for around three days but playful water throwing lasts for up to a week.

But then there is reality – Isaan is in drought for the majority of every year. It is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day; many people cannot afford drinking water, nonetheless water to nourish their crops. While being slapped in the face with water all week, I was also slapped with these harsh realities that I have been learning about all semester. It is hard to think about confronting the water crisis, while also being confronted by such contradicting ideas on water allocation.

Are you confronted with the water crisis in Mexico, and if so, in what way?

1 (http://storyofstuff.org/bottledwater/)

Maggie McLagan
University of Colorado at Boulder


Ann Kam said...


I absolutely agree with many of the points made in your post.

First, the Thai government’s contradictory attitude towards the water situation in Isaan was discomforting. In our exchanges with the Royal Irrigation Department and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, we would often hear about the drought-like weather in the region. But then, we would step out of their facilities and be surrounded by plush, green lawns. Similarly, the government sectors that supported the dams argued that such infrastructure would bring water and electricity to nearby villages and far away cities. However, we read that the villages closest to the dams, the very same villages that had to sacrifice their land for the construction of these dams, were the last ones to receive electricity.

Second, your commentary about how Americans are unaware of the water shortage in the world stuck with me. I am from Los Angeles where water shortages are also a problem. My city pumps most of its water from Northern California. However, in Los Angeles, in a city that symbolizes modernity, you will often see sprinklers watering cement sidewalks and consumers who guzzle from hundreds of bottles a year.

Third, I felt the same way about how water was used during Songkran. At one point, I jokingly yelled, “Stop! The world is suffering from a water shortage!” The contradictory nature of Songkran was most apparent when I went to visit the Nong Waeng slum community. The residents there have to buy their water. So, when I arrived and saw everyone throwing water I was confused because I thought that residents would be more frugal with their resources.

Ann Kam
Claremont McKenna College

steph said...


I really like your post because I think the same thoughts crossed all of our minds during Songkran. We had just learned about the global water crisis, and here we were throwing gallons upon gallons of water (possibly free of charge? I heard a rumor that the government provides water for free for the week). It was pretty absurd.

Also absurd is the fact that we have the capability to change the course of entire rivers. I remember walking across the Rasi Salai Dam and being blown away, not by the engineering genius of the dam, but by the high level of destruction we are apparently capable of. The many gates of the Pak Mun Dam that had sprung pretty serious leaks were further proof that rivers are not supposed to be held back and controlled.

What frustrates me most about the dams are that they don’t address the real issue – that people are over-consuming electricity and water to the point where electricity is imported from Laos and water is held in reservoirs. Dams are a short term solution (if they can even be called that) and will never be capable of meeting consumer demand. To think that more dams will fix the problem is ignorant, and to ignore the issue of over-consumption is foolish and dangerous.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your article and am very glad you wrote on this contradicting issue. After reading through some of our articles the one that struck me the most was about the water scarcity issues in Las Vegas. To me reading that article I was in utter disbelief that Las Vegas was sucking up tons of water out of the Colorado River and it makes sense considering Las Vegas is in the middle of a giant dessert. But still when I think of Las Vegas I think of luscious green plants and pools on every corner, and in reality water is the main attraction of almost every hotel whether you are talking about the pirate fights shooting cannons of water at each other, or the fountains that “dance” to the music. Even though I already had a large dislike for Las Vegas, this ridiculous water problem makes me wonder why Las Vegas is still a city.

Liam said...

Nice post, Maggie. Indeed, the world is in a water crisis. You say in your post that dams are doing nothing but provoking the predicament even more. I agree, but I would like to explore the why of that a little bit. From what I can tell, the most obvious reason for a world water shortage is people--overpopulation. Water is a non-elastic good. That is to say it is a necessity. Alternatives do not exist. Furthermore, the amount of fresh water on the planet at any given time is finite. So, with more mouths in the world, there are more mouths needing water. As population rises the available fresh water declines. Pretty clear stuff.

This is what I find interesting: Dams are constructed primarily for irrigation purposes. That is to say, the water from behind dams is used mainly for agriculture, but not just any type of agriculture. We’re talking industrial, mono-cropping, chemical-using style agriculture. The reason is because this form of agriculture requires tons and tons of water. In Thailand, the whole idea of a “second crop” is only possible with the irrigated water that is meant to simulate a similar environment to the wet season.

The point of this mono-cropping style is to produce a lot of crops that can later be manufactured into foods. (Now the following is just an idea, and I understand there may be holes, but I am going to propose it anyway) This food is then provided for people to consume. In doing so, a growing population is fed, which allows for the creation of more people. However, in creating more people more consumers are also created, which means less water. And so you see the downward spiral.

CIEE Thailand said...

Maggie (grim reaper)-
One of the main things your post brought up for me was contradictions that we see in communities, and contradictions that I see within myself and other members of our group. For instance, you talk about communities concerned with water shortage using copious amounts of water for three days of fun. I also relate this to the experience some of us had at the landfill where we watched our families use many plastic bags, etc.
My immediate reaction is to be upset at the contradiction within these communities. I want to say- how can you expect anyone else to care about this issue when you can't even show full commitment to it? How can you expect the government to care about water shortage or waste problems when you (the communities most affected by these issues), do things to add to these problems? But, I then relate this back to myself and our group. I think of what Liam said the other night about being disappointed in ourselves when we go to 7-11 or do other things we know are wrong. Why do we do these things? Why is it so hard to break these habits? And if communities can't be steadfast in their commitment to these issues, and we can't be steadfast in our commitment to these issues, how do we expect the rest of the world to be?
One side of me wants to be disappointed in humans because we always seem to take the easy way out, and sacrifice long-term benefits for short-term pleasures. It also makes me think that maybe development is inevitable if it is this hard to fight against...
I really hesitate to end this post with the idea that development is inevitable... but thats just where I am at right now in understanding these issues. I still have much more to think about.... in the mean time... bring on the water and baby powder?