September 4, 2002
The Pak Mun dam has disrupted the lives of more than 25,000 villagers in Thailand. NGOs and local communities have campaigned to close the dam’s gates permanently. So far, their ongoing protests have achieved partial success.
San Kamphaeng mountain range northeast of Bangkok. It flows east for 418 miles (673 km), receiving the Chi River, its main tributary, and entering the Mekong River at Thailand’s border with Laos. Extensive damage to communities, the fishing industry and the environment has become the hallmark of many hydro-electric dam projects in the region.
The Pak Moon Dam – Pak Moon means ‘mouth of the Moon River’ – has disrupted the lives of more than twenty-five thousand villagers. NGOs have been working with the local communities. They are campaigning for its gates to be permanently opened. Only then will fish migration in the Moon River be restored. The villagers affected by the dam have watched their homes being destroyed and the abundant fisheries of the Moon River decimated, destroying their livelihoods. When I went to witness the protests outside Government House in Bangkok the villagers were camping out on the main street. This is also where they demonstrated for 99 days four years ago. And the protests are still going on.
So far, their ongoing protests have achieved partial success – the dam gates were temporarily opened in June 2001. This June’s deadline for them to be closed again has been extended until a number of environmental research projects are completed and assessed by the Thai government. Already more than half of the 156 species found in the Moon River have disappeared, but they are now slowly returning. This includes one of the most prized of fish, the Mekong Giant Catfish. When the project was first mooted, local fisherfolk mounted an international campaign to prevent the World Bank from financing it. However, EGAT, the Energy Generating Authority of Thailand, and the bank dismissed the villagers’ concerns. A fish ladder was installed, to appease them, but unfortunately the ladder’s design was based on the habits of Pacific salmon, not Mekong River fish, and is therefore useless. In protest and in a “quest for justice,” over 3,000 villagers occupied the area adjacent to the dam for more than 17 months – and moved in May 2000 to occupy the dam itself. At that time 472 people were on an indefinite hunger strike outside Government House in Bangkok. Inspired in part by the growing US dam-decommissioning movement, the villagers believe the only way to recover their lost livelihoods is through restoring the Moon River to its original condition. Completed in 1994, the Pak Moon dam cost $233 million, almost twice as much as originally estimated. The outstanding costs of $177 million will most likely be passed on to ratepayers in the form of a special charge on their electricity bill, regardless of whether the dam continues to operate or not. In the meantime the cost of maintenance, and compensation for damage to fisheries and other economic losses keeps going up.
The World Commission on Dams (WCD), an independent international agency established to review the effectiveness of large dams, recently completed its Pak Moon Dam study. The WCD recorded that 56 species of fish in the Moon River have completely disappeared since the dam was built. It was estimated that the actual catch in the reservoir and upstream is 60 to 80 per cent less than in the pre-dam era, resulting in an economic loss to villagers of about $1.4 million per annum. The WCD also confirmed that the fish ladder “has not been performing and is not allowing upstream fish migration.” “Economically, the WCD found the project isn’t performing well, and that it contributes only marginal amounts of power,” said the report. “The dam was supposed to generate 136 megawatts, but barely generates 40 megawatts in high-demand
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