Mekong Utility Watch

Pak Mun Dam: 25 years after World Bank’s loan, problems remain

The Pak Mun Dam is the only case in the whole Mekong Basin where dam affected people have demanded the decommissioning of the dam.

Pak Mun Dam opens its gates on 28th October 2015. (Photo by Mekong Watch.)


English translation by Rena Sugita, published by Mekong Commons

The Pak Mun Dam was constructed on the Mun River, a tributary of the Mekong River, in Ubon Ratchathani Province, Thailand. Preliminary construction of the dam began in mid-1990. The dam was met by intense opposition not only by the local communities but also international and Thai NGOs. In December 1991, the World Bank approved financing for the Thailand’s Third Power System Development Project, which included the construction cost for the Pak Mun Dam. As suspected by the local communities and NGOs, the dam has brought significant negative impacts on the natural and social environment, destroying the local fisheries and leaving the local communities impoverished. Twenty-five years after the World Bank funded the project, local communities still suffer from the dam’s impacts and continue to demand that the dam be decommissioned.

Resettlement houses built, owners gone

When you visit Huahew village, which is the village located closest to the dam, you will see stacks of brooms in front of many of the houses. “Broom making used to be supplementary to fishing but now it is our only source of income,” says 59 year-old Lamphai Khamlap, who wears prickly heat powder applied to her face and body to help avoid discomfort from the hot weather. She continued to make brooms without any break even as she spoke. “Profit from one broom is 3 baht. I can make 30 in a day”. A simple calculation suggests that her daily income is 90 baht, which is less than a third of Thailand’s minimum wage.

“I still fish but the catch is minimal – sometimes I’m able to catch fish for our meal, sometimes not. In the past, we were able to catch enough to feed my entire family with three gill nets and one cast net. Today, even if you invest 5,000 baht in fishing gears, you still cannot make a living by fishing. Instead, all of my five children go to Bangkok for work,” says Lamphai.

Huahew village, where she currently resides, was relocated at the time of the dam construction. The project’s original plan indicated 262 households would be displaced in the project area. However, a study by the World Commission on Dams in 2000 revealed that 912 households have actually been displaced and a further 780 households have lost all or part of their land as a result of the dam project. Inadequate surveys during the project planning stage, in other words, underestimated the compensation cost and therefore overstated the economic appeal of the dam project. As a result, the financial burden was imposed on the displaced families themselves like Lamphai’s who were excluded from the scope of the original resettlement plan but who had to relocate anyway, and were left without any support or compensation.

Lamphai explained that before her village was relocated, “students and NGOs [who were opposed to the dam] visited us and told us that we would not be able to continue living in our village since it was too close to the dam site. It was true. During the blasting operation for the dam construction, pieces of rocks rained on our village. We had to negotiate for 3 years to receive 70,000 baht to relocate my house and my children’s house, but it was not enough.”

Although she rebuilt her family’s houses at the relocation village, fish in the river declined dramatically due to the impacts of the dam, and all her children who were fishers have left the village to find work elsewhere. Even though over 20 years have passed since their houses were rebuilt, her children are able to return to visit only a few days a year.

Lamphai Khamlap making a broom in front of her house. (Photo by Mekong Watch.)

Lamphai Khamlap making a broom in front of her house. (Photo by Mekong Watch.)

Asked what does the Pak Mun Dam mean to her, Lamphai stopped making a broom for a brief moment and responded immediately, “hell”.

She continued, “they promised that the dam would bring prosperity and progress. But as I suspected from the very beginning, the fish are gone and nothing good came of it. My five children had to stop going to school after sixth grade. They had to complete middle school by distance learning while working. Our lives are getting harder and harder.”

Since fishing was no longer a stable livelihood for them, Lamphai’s children had no choice but to take on jobs in the city that were available for non-skilled workers without education. In this situation, it was impossible for them to raise their standard of living as Thailand’s economy developed.

A village heroine

In Khanpuay village, located next to Huahew village, houses and the school near the river had to relocate. On the wall of the abandoned school one can still read a slogan “Devote Yourself in Study and Sports, and Lead the Community”. Today, however, most of the former students have left the village to find work elsewhere.

The abandoned Khanpuay school building. (Photo by Mekong Watch.)

The abandoned Khanpuay school building. (Photo by Mekong Watch.)

Aranya Huagoen is 41 years old. She has opposed the dam since the age of 20. She says, “since the dam was built, we can no longer catch fish. We now have to buy all our food.” She explained that not only the river but also the forest environment in the area also changed, and bamboo shoots and mushrooms that villagers used to collect freely have disappeared.

“In the past, we invited monks to hold festivals called ‘Nao’ at the rapids, which is now under the dam reservoir” Aranya says. “For the festival, everyone gathered at the riverside. Women brought bamboo shoots and wild plants, and men threw cast nets. We cooked at the festival site and offered to the monks. That’s a fond memory. The dam destroyed our culture too.”

She recalls that, during the time of the protest as the dam construction was underway, “To stop the dam construction, women in our village entered and occupied the holes where there were blasting operations. My mother was one of them. She is a heroine in our village.” Her 78 year-old mother, Thoangmuang, and her 67 year-old relative, Nusin, are sitting next to her as we talk.

About 40 women who were determined to stop the dam construction occupied the holes and even sat on the dynamite. Concerned that if men joined it may lead to violent conflict with the construction workers, it was only women who took on this role. The remaining villagers occupied the construction machinery and delivered meals to the women. For over a month, the women occupied the construction site under the fierce heat of the sun. In 1993, a female villager was even shot and injured during a demonstration against the dam.

Despite their brave protests, the dam was still built. After the fish disappeared, Aranya had her parents take care of her children, and she went to Bangkok with her husband where they worked as a housekeeper and a taxi driver.

“We demand that the dam gate be opened to restore our lives”, says Aranya. Today, she lives in the village and works on her farm. She has not given up her hope for a life without the dam.

Opening the dam gates

Out of the estimated 1,100 species existing in the Mekong River, approximately 100 species follow a migration cycle of moving up the Mun River between February and June for spawning and feeding, and then migrating back to the Mekong between October and November to deeper pools for the dry season. The Pak Mun Dam, built approximately 5.5km from the confluence of the Mun and Mekong rivers, blocks these migration of fish, thus reducing the fishery resources of the Mun River drastically. As the downstream area of the Mun River basin is generally rocky and unsuitable for agriculture, the communities living along the River had depended on wild capture fisheries for their livelihoods.

The Pak Mun Dam destroyed the fishery resources that about 60 communities living along the river depended on for their livelihood. The affected communities held countless protests, demonstrations and negotiations with the government, and finally in 1995, won 90,000 baht compensation per family for the loss of fishery during the dam construction period of 3 years.

Although the communities were told that the fish would return after the construction was completed, the fishery has never recovered. Since 1999, therefore, the communities began demanding that the dam gate be opened to recover the ecosystem in the area. Communities protested by occupying the Pak Mun dam site and in March 1999 established a “village” for 3 years and 8 month, attracting worldwide attention.

During this period, in 2001, the former Prime Minister Thaksin had won the election by an overwhelming majority with an election campaign message that strongly emphasized poverty reduction. Immediately after his inauguration, Thaksin had meals on the street with the affected communities of the Pak Mun Dam, who had been protesting in front of the Office of the Prime Minister. He ordered Ubon Rachathani University to study the impacts of the dam.

At the same time, the government opened the dam gates temporarily for 1 year from June 2001. Studies conducted both by the local communities and the University agreed that the ecosystem of the Mun River and the economic situation of the local communities greatly recovered during this period.

As soon as he became confident of his political power, however, Thaksin rejected the subsequent recommendation made by the University to keep the dam gates open for five more years. Instead, a Cabinet decision was made to open the gate for only 4 months per year from July to October, which was an option not even considered by the University study team.

Not enough water?

In practice, the dam gates have not been opened as set by the Cabinet decision. The only year the gates were opened on schedule was 2005. Instead, the Cabinet decision was later revoked.

Since then, every year, the affected communities have expended considerable time and effort protesting and demanding that the dam gates be opened, as the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), who own the dam, and the provincial government, who manage the river, attempt to keep the gates shut. EGAT and the provincial government claim that opening the dam gate will result in water insufficiency. In actuality, however, the Pak Mun Dam is a hydropower dam that was not designed for – and is barely used for – the purpose of irrigation. In other words, the water level in the Pak Mun dam’s reservoir has no impact on water supply upstream.

Last year, using drought as an excuse, the dam gates were kept closed until August 16th. Stagnant water kept in the reservoir deteriorated the water quality of the river and caused damage to aquaculture in the area. At the same time, villagers observed an acute decline in fish resources, especially in the upstream area of the dam.

Disappearing knowledge

“If the dam gates are closed until late August again, most fish won’t be able to migrate back to the Mun River from the Mekong,” says Withaya Thongnoy, a 32 year old fisherman from Don Samrang village. He knows that Mekong fish migrate into the tributaries, including the Mun River, between the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season.

After the dam’s construction, Withaya had to stop fishing, which he had been doing with his parents since he was a child. He found a job at a factory, but suffered a severe injury to his head in a traffic accident. He could not continue working, and returned to his village. He said that he can catch fish if he works hard. However, there is barely anyone in his generation who remained in his village to do fishing, because the fishery alone can no longer provide a stable livelihood.

Withaya showing one of his fishing gears. (Photo by Mekong Watch.)

Withaya showing one of his fishing gears. (Photo by Mekong Watch.)

Withaya and his father have many kinds of fishing gears. Just in front of his house, he hangs a fishing gear made of gourd, which you rarely see nowadays. It is used to catch fish near the surface by floating it on the rapids with hooks and baits. In 2015, he was not able to use it since the dam gate opened too late and there were no fish to catch.

Khotay village is especially known for mysterious looking fishing gears called Toum Yai. Woven with bamboo, the 7m long fishing gear is used to catch a kind of catfish called Pla Yon using rice as a bait. Villagers have their bait recipes and lure fish into the gear using sound. Various knowledge about this fishing method has been passed on in this village for generations.

Udom Saengpong is a 56 years old skilled fisherman, but has not had the chance to show off his skills in the past years. When the dam gate opening is delayed, there are hardly any fish to catch upstream of the dam.

Udom Saengpong. (Photo by Mekong Watch.)

Udom Saengpong. (Photo by Mekong Watch.)

A few fishers tried the Toum Yai fishery in 2015, but stopped after a few days as they realized that there was not much to fish. Udom also prepared his Toum Yai, but did not have the chance to use it. “Best is when the dam gate opens between April and May. August is too late for fish to come up the river,” says Udom.

Toum Yai kept in front of house in Khotai village in need of repair. It was not used in 2015. (Photo by Mekong Watch.)

Toum Yai kept in front of a house in Khotai village. It was not used in 2015. (Photo by Mekong Watch.)

Last year, Khotay villagers began fish conservation efforts that had stopped a long time ago, and set a conservation area next to the village’s pier. The villagers have a strong sense of crisis that fish will soon completely disappear around the village if nothing is done. Many villagers including Udom wish to restore their lives as fishermen. They feel that it is important to show the public that they are able to use the fishery resources in a sustainable manner, and therefore they started the conservation effort.

Although fish catch is still low, Udom speaks happily that fish have begun to show up again in the area. He also recognizes the significance of what is disappearing in the village. He says, “if the World Bank did not finance the project, the Pak Mun Dam would not have been built. Twenty-five years is enough for a baby to grow up into adulthood. Youngsters in the villages do not know the river or fish. The skill for Toum Yai is on its way to becoming lost.”

The myth surrounding dams in the Mekong

In 1991, following such strong opposition, the World Bank’s decision to fund the Pak Mun dam could not follow the standard approval process. Instead, the final decision was carried over to the Bank’s Board of Governors meeting. While the U.S., Germany, and Australia opposed and Canada abstained, Japan and many developing countries supported the project, leading to the Bank approving the project. The media reported that the Bank’s decision to finance this controversial project was influenced by the Japanese government’s concern that if the project were rejected, future dam development in the Mekong River watershed would become difficult.

Twenty-five years later, the discourse around dam development is changing. In the United States, where large-scale dam development first began, dams that have large environmental impacts are being decommissioned. As dams’ impacts on the natural and social environment have become apparent, even the World Bank, which led dam development in the Mekong Basin since the 1960’s together with the Asian Development Bank and the Japanese government, are gradually withdrawing their support for dam construction projects.

However, Mekong country governments still claim that dams are one of the foundations of their economic development, and therefore dam development in the region continues. Today, the main financiers of dam developments are the private and public sector from China, Thailand and Vietnam. Concerns over dams’ adverse impacts on the natural and social environment is increasingly neglected.

China continues to develop dams on the Upper Mekong (Lancang) River, treating it as a domestic rather than a transnational river. In the Lower Mekong Basin, which consists of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, furthermore, since the World Bank’s decision to finance the Nam Theun 2 Dam in 2004 in Laos, dam development has accelerated. At the Nam Theun 2, fish are also declining along the Xe Bang Fai River that once was known for its rich fish resources like the Mun River.

On the mainstream of the Mekong River, Laos is currently building the Xayaburi dam, ignoring the concerns of downstream Cambodia and Vietnam. Furthermore, Laos is proceeding with the Don Sahong Dam in the Siphandone area of Southern Laos, which is also known for its rich fish resources. While complaining about the Mekong mainstream dams, Vietnam has also implemented dam development on the Mekong’s major tributaries, namely Sekong, Se San, and Srepok Rivers. Negative impacts on the fisheries in the lower stream of these three tributaries in Cambodia have been reported.

Accountability of the World Bank and its future role

Twenty-five years after the World Bank’s loan approval, the Pak Mun Dam affected people are still negotiating with the Thai government, demanding that the gates be opened and compensation be provided for the years since the dam’s construction. As with all of the previous administrations, however, the current military administration is not sympathetic to the affected communities.

Asked what she would like to say to the World Bank, Aranya answers, “please tell the Thai government to open up the dam gate for five years and compensate us for all those past years. I ask for nothing more.”

Based on the rate of previous compensation of 30,000 baht per year per household for loss of fisheries, the losses that Aranya has suffered for the last 25 years would total 750,000 baht. There are more than 2,600 households who are still complaining about the damages that they faced as a result of the dam’s construction. It can be said that the impoverished villagers lost a total of 1.95 billion baht due to the loss of fishing opportunities, in exchange for electricity generation.

Compensation could be paid from the profits of the Pak Mun Dam project if the dam were economically successful, but the story is not that simple. The Pak Mun Dam construction cost double its original budget, and a large amount was also spent on additional compensation. At the same time, the dam’s capacity to generate electricity is considerably lower during the dry season when the electricity demand is high. The Pak Mun Dam is a flawed project not only for the grave damages it caused to the local communities and the environment, but also for its economic failure.

The Pak Mun Dam is the only case in the whole Mekong Basin where the dam affected people have demanded the decommissioning of the dam. The communities offer invaluable lessons to the world about the drawbacks of dams. Today, they are still forced to expend considerable efforts to demand just compensation for the period of the dam’s operation. They also seek to recover the ecosystems and thus to restore their livelihoods. They consider that the world must see the grave threats that the dam continues to pose to the Mekong’s River’s biodiversity. To solve this problem, the solution proposed by the communities are very simple and the effect is guaranteed. All 8 gates of the dam must be opened.

The local communities have the right to compensation for the losses that they have suffered. Not only the Thai government but also the World Bank should take responsibility for the compensation. If the World Bank is sincere about its mission to reduce poverty, the Bank should not be allowed to remain silent about the poverty that the Bank itself has created.

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