Why the Planning Phase of a Dam Matters: The Case of Thailand’s Kaeng Suea Ten Dam

Julian Kirchherr
A village wall at Kaeng Sua Ten.
A village wall at Kaeng Sua Ten.
Credit: Julian Kirchherr

Developers and governments usually overlook how dams impact communities during the planning phase, before the dam is actually built. Yet these impacts can be adverse and severe; dam developers must account for them in future social safeguard policies.

Globally, the rate of large dam construction has declined from around 1,000 per year in the 1950s to approximately 250 per year in the 1990s. However, several regions – primarily South America, Africa and Southeast Asia – have recently seen a significant surge in dam construction. For instance, Brazil commissioned 2,500 MW of capacity in 2015, Ethiopia 370 MW and Laos 600 MW

Constructing a dam is a long and tedious endeavor. On average, it takes 8.6 years from the initial groundbreaking ceremony until project completion. Yet dam developers may spend many more years – sometimes decades – on planning. For instance, Ghana’s Bui Dam was first proposed in 1925, yet its construction only started in 2008. Similarly, China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest dam, was first proposed in 1919, but initial construction work did not commence until 1993.

Thailand’s Kaeng Suea Ten Dam is a case in point: The project is likely the most-delayed dam project in Southeast Asia. The dam’s plan was originally outlined in 1980, but the project’s construction remains stalled to this day. It’s well-known in Thailand thanks to the efforts of a coalition of project-affected communities and various NGOs, including Living River Siam Association and the Assembly of the Poor, which have opposed the dam for decades. 

The project, with an envisaged height of 72 meters, is proposed for the Song District in the Phrae Province on the upstream of the Yom River in Northern Thailand near the Mae Yom National Park. Besides irrigation, the dam’s key purpose is flood control. If built, it would require the relocation of four villages, with a total population of almost 3,000 people, and would also destroy large areas of forest, including many valuable teak trees. 

Academics have researched the negative impacts of dams on resettled communities since the 1960s. Two-thirds of all scholarly studies on this topic focus on the impacts on communities during post-construction and resettlement phases. The most comprehensive study on the topic investigated resettlement outcomes in 44 dam projects. It found that living standards for those resettled improved in only 7% of the projects, while 82% of the communities were further impoverished due to resettlement.  

However, very few studies have been published to date on how a dam project’s planning phase impacts communities. My colleagues at the University of Oxford and the Mekong Community Institute and I have therefore studied the communities close to the envisaged Kaeng Sue Ten Dam project over the past two years to understand the impacts of a dam’s planning phase. We identified significant negative cultural, social and economic impacts resulting from the proposal to construct a dam in this area.  

Experience from Kaeng Suea Ten

Signs of the villagers’ struggle against the Kaeng Suea Ten Dam could be found all around the villages we visited. Several movement leaders wore t-shirts with anti-dam-slogans. Furthermore, pink graffiti saying “NO DAM – NO WAR” was sprayed on walls in the community. In the evening, we would drink locally produced “No Dam”-branded rum with the movement leaders. The head of the movement, whom we stayed with, even had several anti-dam-stickers on the mirror in his bathroom.

Puppet burning ceremony at Kaeng Sua Ten.
Puppet burning ceremony at Kaeng Sua Ten.
Credit: P'Noi, local activist

Fully 34 of 35 villagers we interviewed reported taking part in protest activities against the dam. Villagers would undertake various ritual activities centered around the dam project, such as tree ordination ceremonies, river ceremonies and puppet burning. “Only three weeks ago, we burnt the puppets of officials from the Royal Irrigation Department to curse them,” a movement leader told us. Villagers would also travel frequently to Bangkok and Chiang Mai for demonstrations.  

The villagers even launched an anti-dam “police” force. Every night, eight volunteers go to the potential dam site to monitor for activity by the government. When suspicious activities are observed, all villagers join the volunteers to defend the site. Villagers have also repeatedly blocked the roads if potentially threatening outsiders approach. Even the Google Street View Car was not allowed to enter the villages initially.   

While the permanent protests have strengthened solidarity in the villages researched, they have also caused enormous anxiety and stress. The protests remind villagers daily that they may soon be displaced. Villagers described suffering from sleeping disorders, and one villager even reported that his father took pills to cope with the stress of the looming project. Another villager attributed the worsening of her hypertension to the planned dam.

The villagers’ anxieties also negatively affect the local economy. 60% of villagers asked reported delaying their investments because of concern that the dam would be built. For instance, one villager told us he would not build a house, despite sufficient savings, because he feared it would be flooded once the dam is constructed. But a planned dam can also discourage outside investment: The local economy was further hampered when the government – anticipating that the dam would be constructed soon – blacklisted the villages for public infrastructure investment.  

“Damocles Projects”  

The implementation is still uncertain for planned projects such as Thailand’s Kaeng Suea Ten Dam. Upon finishing our research in the Song District, we decided to call such projects “Damocles projects.” This term reflects the constant threat that hangs over the villagers: the fear of resettlement. The sword of Damocles may strike at any time and without warning. 

“Damocles projects” create tangible negative impacts on communities, and dam builders need to account for them in future best practice social safeguard policies. If a project such as the Kaeng Suea Ten Dam is built, dam developers must compensate villagers not only for their lost land and houses, but also for the negative impacts that occurred during the project’s planning phase. Furthermore, developers must compensate villagers for negative impacts even if a project such as Kaeng Suea Ten Dam is never built. 

No large dam has been constructed in Thailand since the completion of the Pak Mun Dam in 1994, due to the significant resistance of project-affected communities and various NGOs against large dams. Yet many large dams are being built or planned in neighboring countries, where it’s more difficult to stage protests. These include the Mong Ton Dam in Myanmar, the Don Sahong Dam in Laos and the Lower Sesan 2 Dam in Cambodia. The negative planning phase impacts of these projects are likely to be vast. 

Our research has mapped the negative cultural, social and economic planning phase impacts of dams on communities. Our research indicates that communities lose more during the planning phase of a project than any other project stakeholder. Hence, it’s essential to revise current social safeguard policies. The revised safeguards must consider planning phase impacts; dam developers must recognize the planning phase costs and reimburse communities for any negative planning phase impacts. Recognizing these costs will help empower communities who are living under the proverbial sword of Damocles. 

This guest blog is written by Julian Kirchherr, assistant professor for sustainable business and innovation studies at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. It is based on a peer-reviewed paper on dams’ planning phase impacts that can be accessed here. A free-of-charge pre-print version of the paper is available here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017