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Fishing for power

Bangkok Post Outlook
May 2, 2000

The losses brought on by the Pak Moon Dam are more universal and less tangible than they appear.

Were the Pak Moon Dam to continue its existence, subsequent generations of Northeastern villagers may grow up with a tale like this one:

Once upon a time, an executive from the World Bank decided to check out the Pak Moon Dam-a multi-billion-baht project that materialised thanks to his organisation’s loan programmes.

Stepping out of his air-conditioned car, the visitor was greeted by an anxious crowd of Isan villagers. Facing the majestic blocks of concrete that span the Moon River, he took a closer look at the famous fish ladder, touted to bring a year-round supply of fish to the villagers’ doorsteps.

The World Bank official managed to climb the steep ladder with little sweat. There, he may have seen that very few fish would be able to swim up and across such a huge structure, unlike the image in advertisements for the project.

Seeing the incident an opportune moment to tell the World Bank representative of their woes, the Pak Moon folks asked him what he personally thought of the efficacy of the ladder. But the executive was not the kind of man to be caught off guard for long. After a brief pause, he came back with a shrewd reply: “I’m sorry I can’t make any comments. I’m a vegetarian.”

A funny twist ending-but the story is, unfortunately, no fairy tale. The episode did take place not so long ago, and the Northeastern villagers continue their protest against the Pak Moon Dam.

In fact, the World Bank official’s answer reflects the indifference of society at large to the plight of villagers affected by the dam. It suggests why their decade-long protests have so far yielded little success in drawing the public’s sympathy, let alone understanding.

The mainstream perception is that the only victims are Ubon Ratchathani’s rural people. For city dwellers, the Pak Moon Dam seems to bring in only positive results, or so it is believed.

And why shouldn’t it be? Without the hydroelectric power generated by the dam, could urbanites continue to enjoy round-the-clock TV programmes as they do?

Indeed, the list of benefits seems endless-air-conditioned shopping malls, 24-hour convenience stores, and entertainment complexes. To adapt Jawaharlal Nehru’s much-cited statement, dams have emerged as the “Temples of Modern Thailand”.

Moreover, the Pak Moon Dam, the country’s first run-of-river type, was designed to minimise impact on the environment, and authorities have long argued that hydroelectricity is the least polluting means of generating power.

Upon closer scrutiny, however, one discovers that the list of merits is not that long, and the prices are unusually high.

The construction alone cost $233 million (8.85 billion baht at the current exchange rate). Add to that another $32 million (1.22 billion baht) for compensating the thousands of people uprooted by the dam, and the limited amount of time it can sustain its peak output of 136 megawatts (MW), and the project begins to pale.

According to the World Commission on Dams, the real April and May output of Pak Moon was around 40 MW, far short of the 136 MW target (see graphic on the left). The commission recently issued a report that concluded: “It is unlikely the project would have been built if actual benefits had been used in the economic analyses.” What about other losses that cannot be measured in numbers?

It is an irony of modern times: While fish dishes are gaining popularity among health-conscious urbanites, fish themselves are becoming more and more scarce in natural waterways.

Such scenarios have become a fact of life along the 700-kilometre-long Moon River, once the bloodline that fed the entire lower Isan region. The construction of the Pak Moon Dam has blocked the migration route of fish from the Mekong River into the Moon-Chi watershed, sealing off a catchment area three times the size of the Netherlands.

A saunter through the fresh markets of Ubon Ratchathani today reveals the dramatic changes the dam has brought to the local economy.

There are no more scenes of buckets brimming with giant fish caught from the Moon. A large number of stalls now sell mostly imports from the Mekong or farm-raised fish supplied by well-to-do operators.

Gone are the thepo (black-eared catfish), sawai (striped catfish), krabane (freshwater stingray)-formerly the pride of the Moon. In their place is a small repertoire of mass-produced fish from large-scale farms: pla duk (catfish), pla nil (Nile tilapia), tapian khao (common silver barb), and yisok thet (rohu).

A few years ago, Sanom Harnthonglarng switched to selling farmed fish. The farms, she explained, require huge investments that most villagers cannot afford. Moreover, the operators have to rely on fry and feed from agro-conglomerates, who also act as the main distributors.

“The raised fish have rounder heads than naturally caught ones,” Mrs Sanom observed.

“We used to sell a variety of fish. Now I feel like an employee of Charoen Phokpand (the agro-conglomerate). The profit margin is small-every kilogramme brings me a profit of five baht-so I have to sell in mass volume.”Tawee Sa-ngaddong, a fisherman and vendor, said since the construction began, his catch has become noticeably smaller, both in terms of the number and the size of fish.

At a bigger stall a stone’s throw away, vendor Boonma Sutthikul said she supplies seafood restaurants in Ubon with giant pla buek from the Mekong. Fish from the Moon River, Mrs Boonma added, are no longer big enough to please her customers.

“You can’t even make a decent pla rad prik (fish with chilli sauce) with the catch from the Moon. They are too small.

“Every day I have to go to Khong Chiam district to buy the Mekong fish from Laotian people. The whole pla buek costs 110 baht a kilogramme, but if both the head and tail are removed, the price rises to 200 baht,” said the middle-aged fishmonger.

Such low regard for the Moon River’s fish would have been unthinkable in the old days. For fishery veterans like Sompong Wiangjand, catching fish weighing from six to 50 kilogrammes was not uncommon. Other villagers recalled the joy of munching on roasted fish roe the size of a man’s arm.

But to Phorn Sawangjai, a 42-year-old villager of Ban Ta Phae, those glorious descriptions sound more like a joke. One night, Mrs Phorn managed to catch only two small fish between midnight and the following morning. Together they earned her 15 baht.

“I just have to make do with this amount of money. At least it’s better than nothing,” she said, looking tired.

Mrs Sompong added that the situation is much worse upstream. Villagers there have to gulp down their bitterness when buying fish they used to be able to catch themselves.

The World Commission on Dams found a drastic 60 to 80 percent decline in the Moon’s fish yield since 1994, when the dam was finished. Of the 265 species found in the river’s watershed area, 169 had disappeared.

“The government accuses us of overfishing,” Mrs Sompong lamented. “They say even if the dam was not built, the Moon would have been depleted anyway. But that shows their complete ignorance.

“We’ve never quarrelled over who’s entering whose turf. The Moon’s topography and the villagers’ customs were such that nobody would be able to monopolise the resources,” the seasoned fisherwoman explained.

On the other hand, modern fishery technologies, applied on farms, seem to encourage monopolistic businesses. Social activist Akkanit Pongphai raised concerns that small-scale fisherfolk are increasingly being excluded from the field. Artificial breeding may alleviate the burden on scarce natural resources, but under improper care, crowded fish farms may inadvertently contribute to the pollution of waterways, Mr Akkanit added.

Fish expert Dr Chavalit Wittayanont, of the Department of Fisheries, mentioned that exports of raised fish have occasionally been rejected on suspicion of being contaminated.

He admitted that research on the health impact of raised fish is not available. However, the business itself is very competitive, Dr Chavalit said. Daily operating costs are high, and yet there is very little guarantee of returns.

“I’m wondering who actually benefits from the Department of Fisheries’ promotion of fish raising-the villagers, or the fry-and-feed suppliers,” Mr Akkanit said.

Thongcharoen Sihatham can recite the names of hundreds of fish species right off the top of his head. Now, however, his knowledge lies useless, gathering dust as thick as that forming on his fishing gear.

Swept away with the fish are also the yarns villagers used to tell their children about their generous “mother”-the Mae Moon River.

One such tale described how a seasoned fisherman offered his catch to the king, and was rewarded with loads of jewels. Another was about an orphan boy whose compassion for the fish led him to discover a great treasure.

But today, Mae Moon has gone barren, her hands almost empty. Even the name-originally meaning “heritage of abundance”-has been referred to in official documents (for no apparent reason) as “Mool”, a word for waste.

Perhaps the story of that World Bank vegetarian describes how the times have changed for the Moon River.

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