When big is not always beautiful

When big is not always beautiful

About 3,000 people near the Ping River battle floods and droughts every year

A big government-designed dam is causing bother to about 3,000 people because their communities are either flooded or parched.

An old man hammers wooden sticks into the ground to build a weir in Ban Dong Dam village in Hot district, Chiang Mai. WASSAYOS NGAMKHAM

A small villager-built dam, on the other hand, is providing locals with water for their farm and harmonious living in the community.

Conservationists say this picture of contrasts, in Chiang Mai and Phayao provinces respectively, could serve as a lesson for those state departments thinking about embarking on dam mega-projects. Things do not always work out as planned, especially when villagers who agree to move out to make way for such dams end up moving back to the area later - and then ask for help from the state.

About 3,400 people in Ban Dong Dam village of tambon Hot in Hot district of Chiang Mai province live upstream of the Ping River, about 200km from the large Bhumibol dam in Tak province.

Their community is flooded for 5-6 months a year and they receive little assistance from the government.

In 1964 the government expropriated land in the village to build the country's first hydroelectric dam. The villagers were paid 400-700 baht per rai (1,600 sq m).

One year after construction, the expropriated area was flooded by water from the reservoir. Afterwards the water receded and the villagers returned to the land.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), which runs the hydropower dam, did not block their return and let the people resume their rice and fruit cultivation.

The revived community soon expanded and filled the area.

Jongkol Noja, vice-president of the Tambon Hot administrative organisation, said Ban Dong Dam village is now inundated for 5-6 months every year from June.

In the rainy season, the village is flooded before other areas because it is located near the reservoir. In the dry season, the village suffers from drought because the dam must discharge water.

Villagers have sought help from the Egat and the state enterprise provides them with bags of necessities.

They are not eligible for other forms of compensation because they live on land which was expropriated for the dam.

Mr Jongkol said the villagers deserve better because their problems result from the dam. "Because of the dam, the villagers have no land on which to make a living," he said.

Niphan Thongkham, president of the Tambon Hot administrative organisation, said the annual flood-and-drought cycle chews up the organisation's budget. As a result, it cannot afford any development projects. Villagers lodge complaints and receive only relief bags.

The villagers ask the Egat to inform them of water levels in the dam so they can prevent losses from their farming and prepare for floods and drought.

They want title deeds for part of the area that was earlier expropriated but has never been used for the operation of the dam.

They also want local roads to be elevated to avoid flooding.

Meanwhile, people in Ban Nam Puk village of Pong district in Phayao province live happily with their wooden overflow dam that their ancestors built 120 years ago.

Conservationist Techapat Manowong said the Nam Puk dam prevents flooding in the village and enables villagers to grow rice in a combined area of over 150 rai or 240,000 sq m twice a year.

Local people help one another maintain the dam.

This helps strengthen a sense of unity in the village and local people rarely fight over water allocation as a village committee regulates it.

"Such small-scale check dams are environmentally friendly," Mr Techapat said. "Fish, crabs and snails can lay eggs upstream. Big concrete dams, by contrast, hold up sand sediment. Their reservoirs end up filling with sand and it is difficult to dredge them.

"The wooden dam does not build up sediment because sediment can flow right through it."

Flood factors is an occasional series looking at lessons learned from last year's floods.

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