Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT-THAILAND: Fish, Not Dams

Sutthida Malikaew

UBON RATCHATHANI, Thailand, Dec 17 2009 (IPS) - Seventy-one-year old Kham, a woman from Napho Klang, left home early in the morning of Dec. 14 to join a ritual to revitalise the Mekong River, which passes through this part of north-eastern Thailand.

She had heard that there would be a dam constructed at Koum village between the Thai-Lao border of Khong Chiem, Ubon Ratchathani and Xanasomboun, Champasak province in Lao PDR. Worried that the dam would bring floods and destroy their fishing livelihoods, she felt that taking part in the ceremony would help.

“I’m not so sure when it will be built, but I’m afraid there will be a flood in my area. I joined this ceremony because I pay respect to the river and ask the river protect our lives by giving us food,” said Kham.

Some 400 villagers, including Kham, took part in the ceremony, which is meant to sustain the life of the Mekong river by invoking the help of the spirits like the Naga or the Mekong dragon. The ceremony was held in Samphanbok (which means ‘three thousand holes’), also known as the Grand Canyon of Thailand.

The community is worried about the Koum village dam, which would be a 1,872-megawatt hydropower dam on the Mekong mainstream. In March 2008, Laos and Thailand signed an agreement to develop this dam with the aim of benefiting communities on the Lao and Thai sides of the Mekong river.

This dam is just one of several that have been making news in the Mekong region, given a long list of hydropower projects that several countries, ranging from China, Laos and Thailand, plan for the mainstream section of the 4,880-kilometre river.


For Thailand, in particular, reports of more dams bring to mind the well- known and painful experience of communities around the Pak Moon dam, which stands on a Mekong tributary here in Ubon Ratchathani province. Communities protested the dam project after their livelihoods were wrecked by it, prompting them to pressure the Thai government to open the sluice gates in order to get part of their fish resources back.

Locals who fear the impact of the Ban Koum dam recall how fish could not navigate the Pak Moon dam, and say the same thing might happen here.

More than 200 families in four villages on the Thai and Lao sides of the river would be directly affected by the dam construction and its impact on the environment, although they may not have to leave their homes.

Sungthong from Songkorn village has been earning a living by catching fish in the Mekong since his father’s generation and fears that the life they know will go if the dam project destroys the fish environment.

He and other villagers in the ceremony insist that no villager would want the dam built, even if the government compensates them.

“Compensation? How much do we get? Even if the government gives us a million (baht), which we would actually not get, I don’t think it will cover our losses from the dam,” Sungthong pointed out. “As a fisherman myself, I need to catch fish. I need my life to be like this, rather than taking some money, and having my life changed.”

Some also fear that with a dam in the vicinity, they might no longer see the Naga fireballs phenomenon, which communities on both the Thai and Lao sides of the river enjoy each year during Buddhist Lent. Hordes of visitors come to witness this event each year, marked by fireballs that appear to come out of the river water.

Local non-government organisations have also issued statements asking the governments to halt the dam project. A group of senators, including Prasarn Marukpitak and Kamnoon Sidhisamarn and a few more, also attended the river ceremony and local discussions here, promising to pressure the government to give up the project,

Already, villagers say, they can see people doing surveys along the target project site.

Apart from Ban Koum, under a similar agreement the Thai and Lao governments have planned another dam on the Mekong river at Pak Chom district, Loei and Sungthong districts, Vientiane prefecture in Laos, with a capacity to produce 1,079 megawatts of electricity.

According to research by the non-government organisation TERRA, or Foundation for Ecology Recovery in Bangkok, there are 11 planned dams on the lower basin of the Mekong mainstream. Apart from the one planned for Koum village, there are projects slated for Pak Beng, Luang Prabang, Xayabouri, Pak Lay, Xanakham, Pak Chom, Lat Sua, Don Sahong in Laos, and Stung Treng and Sambor in Cambodia, it said.

 
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