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Citizens’ report on impacts of opening gates at Thailand’s Pak Mun dam

(May 26, 2002) Executive Summary of a Report on the opening of the gates of the Pak Mun dam, conducted by Assembly of the Poor and SEARIN.



Fisheries are flourishing along the Mun River and people’s livelihoods are starting to recover since the Thai government opened the gates of the Pak Mun Dam in June 2001. People affected by Pak Mun initiated a villager research program, known as Ngan Wijai Thai Baan, to investigate the effects of opening the dam’s gates and to empower communities by promoting local knowledge on resource management. This report presents the preliminary findings of this research, which will be completed in August.

The Pak Mun Dam was built in 1994 by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, with financing from the World Bank. After a decade of resistance by local villagers, the government opened the gates for one year and commissioned studies, carried out by Ubon Ratchathani University, on fisheries, social impacts and the impact of the dam on electricity supply.

Fisheries improving Since the opening of the dam’s gates, villagers found that 152 species of fish have returned to the Mun River. This includes 145 fish species indigenous to the Mun and Mekong Rivers, such as the rare and endangered Mekong Giant Catfish. Most of the fish are migratory. 134 are migratory species that travel from the Mekong River to the Mun to live, feed and spawn; 18 species primarily live in the Mun River and are only temporarily migratory.

Physical features of ecosystem recovering Many physical features of the Mun River were submerged when the dam was built and have started to recover since the dam’s gates were opened. Examples show the community’s knowledge of the complex ecosystem and intertwined relationship with the river. For example, fishermen perform “sao luang” ceremonies before each fishing season at clay pools, which are very productive fishing spots. Humps or islands play an important role in the food security of villagers. They are used to grow vegetables, collect naturally-occurring vegetables and herbs and provide spawning areas for fish. When the dam was built, the diverse ecosystems vanished along with people’s rights to use natural resources.

Fishing gear returning to use Fishing gear has considerable significance to local communities. It does not only have practical use for catching fish, but also reflects the fishermen’s knowledge of the Mun River ecosystem. Fishing gear also guarantees that there will be food for the family and the community, represents the passing down of knowledge to future generations and is a source of honor and dignity for fishermen.

Fishermen use at least 74 different types of fishing gear. After the building of the dam, at least 22 types of fishing gear were never used, particularly in the flooded area. The dam shut out the knowledge and wisdom that had been collected for many generations and made it almost obsolete within a few years. Fishing gear was left to deteriorate. The dam destroyed relationships in the fishing communities and diminished the honor and dignity of fishermen.

Since the opening of the dam’s gates, the 22 types of fishing gear that were made obsolete by the dam are now being used again. The river is once again full of boats. Traps are set along the length of the river. The fishermen are putting their knowledge to use. The fertility of the river has returned along the honor and dignity of the fishermen. Hunger has vanished from the fishing communities.

Vegetation and riverbank vegetable gardens growing Vegetation along the Mun River has started to recover over the last year. Villagers now have access to plants that grow in the rapids, islands and riverbanks. The villager research team found 50 plant species in the rapids after the dam gates were opened and 266 plant species on the larger islands and riverbanks. These plants are utilized in many ways. 112 species are used as herbs and food. Some are used for fish food, fishing gear, livestock, rope, timber, household appliances and for practicing their beliefs.

The opening of the dam gates has restored water levels to their original levels. About 50% of the land is now being utilized for growing riverbank vegetable gardens compared to before the dam was built. Approximately 700 households have recovered their land. Villagers estimate that this number will keep growing if the dam is permanently opened.

Positive social and cultural impacts Many people have benefited from the opening of the dam gates. Villagers on the riverbanks upstream and downstream from the dam and tributaries of the Mun river can once again catch fish, cultivate vegetables in riverbank gardens and collect food plants and herbs on islands, riverbanks and rapids. Water is available for daily use. The villagers use the rapids and riverbanks to hold ceremonies such as the songkran festival and the wan now , which has not been conducted since the closing of the dam gates. Villagers of Ban Kok or upland communities have returned to fishing along with many other villagers. Small businesses, tourists and travel-related businesses have also profited from the opening of the dam’s gates.

The opening of the dam is changing the social and cultural side of the communities in a very positive way. The number of conflicts between the communities along the banks of the Mun River has significantly decreased compared to when the dam gates were closed. The opening of the dam gates has stabilized food security needs since villagers can catch fish and collect vegetables. Produce from riverbank vegetable gardens has reduced the need for food products from traveling merchants. Knowledge of the river is being passed from parents to their children. Opening of the dam gates has also tightened the bond between the baan rim Mun community (river-based community) and the baan kok (land-based community), which disappeared when the dam was built.

This research is a confirmation that crises and disputes in managing the Mun River basin can be turned into opportunities if the power of managing resources is shared with all people rather than having one group of people monopolizing this power. The use of fishing gear, in particular, represents local knowledge and wisdom over the management of natural resources along the Mun River and has a greater meaning to the entire nation of Thailand.

Conducted by Assembly of the Poor; Organized by Southeast Asia Rivers Network (Thailand Chapter), May 26, 2002

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