Pak Moon dam still a dilemma 25 years on
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Pak Moon dam still a dilemma 25 years on

Impoverished residents of the region around Pak Moon dam have often brought their grievances to Government House but always futilely. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)
Impoverished residents of the region around Pak Moon dam have often brought their grievances to Government House but always futilely. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)

When dam proponents came to her house almost three decades ago and made promises that Pak Moon dam would bring prosperity and progress to surrounding villages, Lamphai Khamlap was immediately suspicious.

Today, her concerns are being realised. The dam which was completed in 1994 on the Moon River, a tributary of the Mekong River, has had a severe impact on the livelihood of the villagers in Ubon Ratchathani.

"Hell" was the terse response of Mrs Lamphai, now 59, when asked what the Pak Moon dam meant to her. Her harsh indictment was echoed by many others.

The mother of five, who now resides in Huahew, a relocated village that is closest to the dam, recalled that in the past she and other villagers could live by fishing. But because of the dam, the fish have mostly disappeared.   

"The fish are gone. Nothing good has come along," she said.

"In the past, we were able to catch enough to feed my entire family using three gill nets and one cast net. Today, even if you invest 5,000 baht in fishing gear, you still cannot make a living by fishing." Mrs Lamphai's five children now work in Bangkok and she makes brooms for a living.

The brooms -- once a supplementary revenue source to fishing -- are now the only source of income for villagers in Huahew. Visitors can see stacks of brooms in front of the villagers' houses.

"The profit from one broom is three baht. I can make 30 in a day," Mrs Lamphai said, not pausing as she completes yet another broom. Her daily income is 90 baht, just a third of the minimum wage.

"I still fish but the catch is usually minimal -- sometimes I'm able to catch fish for our meal, sometimes not." 

The controversial dam has been largely opposed by local communities and international NGOs since 1990.

In December 1991, the World Bank approved the financing of Thailand's Third Power System Development Project, which included the construction cost for the Pak Moon dam.

As suspected by the communities and NGOs, the dam has damaged the natural and social environments, destroying fisheries and leaving villagers impoverished. After 20 years, local communities continue to demand the dam be decommissioned.

Huahew village where Mrs Lamphai lives was relocated as the dam was being built. The project's original plan indicated 262 households would be displaced in the project area. However, a study by the World Commission on Dams in 2000 revealed that 912 households were actually displaced and 780 households have lost all or part of their land as a result of the dam.

Inadequate surveying during the project planning stage underestimated the compensation cost and therefore embellished the economic appeal of the dam project.

"We had to negotiate for three years to receive 70,000 baht for relocating my house and my children's houses, but it was not enough," Mrs Lamphai said. She has rebuilt her family's houses at the relocation village, but all her children who were involved in fishing have left to find work as unskilled labourers in Bangkok. They are able to return to their houses for only a few days a year.

In 1991, due to the strong opposition, the World Bank's decision to fund the dam project could not pass the standard approval process, and the final approval was carried over to a board of governors meeting.

Despite opposition by the US and others, Japan and many developing countries supported the project, leading to the bank's approval.

According to news reports, the decision to finance the controversial project was influenced by the Japanese government; if the project were rejected, future dam development in the Mekong River watershed would become difficult.

Today, the perception of the dam's development has changed. In the United States, where large-scale dam development originated, dams that have a large environmental impact are being decommissioned.

But Mekong country governments still claim the dams are the foundation of their economic development, and construction in the region is progressing.

The private and public sectors in the region continue to financially support dam development while concern over the adverse impact on natural and social environments is increasingly neglected.

China not only continues to develop dams on the Mekong, but also treats the river as a domestic resource. In the Lower Mekong Basin shared by Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, dam development accelerated after the World Bank's decision to finance the Laos' Nam Theun 2 dam in 2004.

Despite the decline of fish in Laos' Xe Banfai River, once known for its rich resources, the country is continuing with its Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams on the Mekong.

Vietnam implements dam development in the Mekong's major tributaries, namely the Sekong, Se San and Srepok rivers.

The Pak Moon dam is the only case in the whole of the Mekong Basin where people affected by a dam's construction are demanding decommissioning. As fish are not able to spawn in the Moon River, the dam continues to adversely affect the Mekong ecosystem.

The world must see the gravity of the threats the dam continues to pose on the Mekong's biodiversity. Solutions proposed by the local communities are simple and the effect is guaranteed: all eight gates of the dam must be opened.

The local communities have the right to compensation for the losses that they have suffered. It's not only the government but the World Bank which needs to take responsibility for the compensation.

If the World Bank is sincere about its mission to reduce poverty, it should not be allowed to remain silent about the poverty that it has created.

Yuka Kiguchi is director of Mekong Watch. She has been conducting field research on natural resources management and negative impacts of hydropower dams in the Mekong River Basin for many years.

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