18 November 2012

Who’s Got the Power?

One of the greatest problems facing our generation is continuing to supply our global energy demands. Thailand is no exception to this issue, and the problem accompanies both social and environmental inequalities. Especially in Isaan.
Over the past 20 years, energy use in Thailand has grown rapidly to accommodate the dramatic development throughout the country. Private investors dominate the energy business in Thailand and hold an enormous amount of power, both literally and figuratively. 66% of energy use in Thailand is dominated by natural gas, however in Isaan biofuel is largely produced.
Our lecturer, Professor Santiparp Siriwattanapaiboon explained to us that despite being a large producer of energy, Isaan only consumes 8.92% of the total energy used in Thailand, while central and eastern Thailand (Bangkok) guzzles 74.14%. These numbers become staggering when you consider that Isaan comprises 30% of the total land in Thailand. Essentially, Isaan produces a majority of the energy in Thailand, while the rest of the country consumes it.
So herein lies the injustice, the people of Isaan are surrounded by the facilities of private energy companies; dams, biofuel production, nuclear power plants and all the environmental and health consequences that accompany these sites. However, they reap none of the employment or economic benefits of these facilities, nor do they really consume a sizeable portion of the energy produced. The people of Isaan are displaced, their livelihoods threatened, and their safety at risk. They are exploited and sacrificed for the economic benefit of private investors, while unable to profit from the presence of these facilities.
            While on unit we met with NGO worker Sodsai Sang-Sok. Her work challenges the presence of a nuclear power plant in a small village in Isaan. During our exchange, Sodsai explained how nuclear power plants were initially proposed to be built in southern Thailand, but when met with opposition, private companies decided to relocate their sites to Isaan, because the people have less power, and companies therefore met less resistance. So, a biofuel plant capable of producing up to 10,000 megawatts was constructed smack-dab in the middle of this small village. No Environmental Impact Assessment was conducted, nor were the villagers given knowledge or any form of public participation prior to the construction of the plant. Additionally, these villagers do not benefit from any employment with the presence of this plant. All but two jobs on site required degrees in physics, something your average Thai-rural villager tends to lack.
            Whether or not you agree with nuclear power, the presence of this plant (and dozens of other energy production sites in Isaan) presents several injustices. As Sodai Sang-Sok suggested, “I’m not protesting the presence of all nuclear power plants, I’m protesting the ideologies of large scale projects.” While talking to the people during Unit 4, it seemed as though the villagers were more offended by the way in which the government and private companies went about pursuing these projects, as opposed to the presence of the projects themselves. A serious lack of public participation and any sort of transparency insults the villagers, their way of life, and their economic independence.
            The amount of unregulated power these companies hold is really quite frightening. But perhaps what is most frightening, is a short comment Sodai presented, almost in passing, “there is a great possibility there is oil under Isaan.” The devastating amount of exploitation and social conflict this would produce is difficult to imagine. But, what’s another war over oil? With power comes power I suppose.

Hannah Palkowitz
Whitman College


Marissa Lowe said...

So where do you place big energy projects? How and who decides where they should go? These questions are a few of the ones of been struggling with that came to mind as I read this blog post. I do not have an established opinion on nuclear power plants in general. Same thing goes for my opinion on the plant that was placed in Sodai’s village. However, I find situations like these difficult because nobody wants a nuclear power plant next to their home. If the villagers had been asked and allowed to make the decision as to whether or not the plant could be built in their village, they would not have said yes. So where do we place power plants, or any large-scale power projects for that matter, if nobody wants them near their homes, but most people want the benefits of the project? Someone has to get stuck with the project, even if it’s not fair; it shouldn’t have to always be the same people though (i.e. isaan).

Sydney said...

I think it is important to note that Thailand does not currently produce its own energy – instead it gets it from Laos. Knowing this, there is definitely a large problem here. Thailand NEEDS a source of energy of its own. No one wants nuclear power plants, but it seems that Thailand will need to head in this direction. I suppose the question would be where to put them. Isaan would, of course, be a logical choice because of the large amount of undeveloped land. This is another case of measuring cost and benefits. Is it fair to uproot a community for the greater good of the nation? Is there a way to become energy independent without disturbing the lives of Thai citizens? And if the problem is HOW these projects are conducted, how can that be fixed? If it was fixed would the villagers be in favor of these projects?

Gargi said...

As stated in your conclusion, the level of Thailand's exploitation is truly frightening. Energy is only one aspect of it, and Isaan's potential for oil only calls for further issues. Thailand does produce energy, however, it is sold to neighboring countries. The impact these dams have on surrounding villagers and the environment does not seem like a valid trade off. Marissa, the question really does come down to, where do we place the power plants if no one wants them near their homes? What is the greater good? Also, energy is a source that can be obtained in other methods besides dams. Thailand could thrive in solar energy if maintained properly. In an ideal world, energy sources would be localized. Produce enough energy for your own town/city.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything that you mentioned. What I most interested about what you briefly mentioned is the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Isaan region. A well planned and built nuclear power plant or two in the region I think would be better than the continued construction of dams. The down side of the nuclear power plants is that they will be build near water sources for cooling purposes. The Meh Kong River comes to mind as the most obvious water source. Even a small leak from the power plant or storage facilities into the river would pose serious risks to the millions of people that depend not the river for food and transportation.

I wonder if the dams are part of the nuclear master plan. All the extra backed up water could provide a nuclear power plant with the water needed for cooling. But what happens if that dam breaks, is blown up, etc.

The past and current projects have been built unfairly. But, it's really hard to compare how the U.S. goes about building and dam and how Thailand goes about it. Thailand is still trying to establish itself as a real economic player within the ASEAN community. Some people will have to be moved, but Thailand needs to do it in a more transparent and fair way. At least, the government is violent when compared to Cambodia or Burma. Maybe that's because people in Thailand have more to lose if they protest.

Sam Carlson said...

This was very interesting and I actually wrote some of my op-ed on this topic. I agree that these are injustices and the people of the Isaan region should not have to be surrounded by facilities while reaping none of their benefits. But since I don't have any better solution, it is hard for me to argue against it. Anywhere you put these sites, someone will be seeing the negative side of it. And if you don't put them anywhere, no one will have energy. It is hard to say what the right decision is, especially when you look at the big picture and how many people benefit from that energy.

Ashley said...

The amount of power that EGAD thinks Thailand needs is absurd. And it's crazy that houses (which comprise 92% of consumers) only use 21% of the energy in the entire country of Thailand. While it's true that Thailand is rapidly becoming industrialized and large companies are consuming the vast majority of power, there is still plenty of energy left over. What reason could EGAD possibly have to justify the continuous building of new dams and nuclear power plants? I would agree with Sam in that some people have to be displaced for the country to have power, but Thailand has excess power, what’s the need to keep building?

The lecturer said that 12 out of the past 13 energy need assessments conducted by EGAD were overestimates, sometimes by as much as 40%. A hydroelectric dam, the Xayaburi, is being built in Laos. It is funded by Thailand, who will buy 95% of energy coming from it after completion. What could Thailand possibly want all of this extra energy for?