Thai Dam-Affected Villagers Demand Fair Compensation

David J.H. Blake
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
The failed fish ladder at Pak Mun Dam.
The failed fish ladder at Pak Mun Dam.
Photo by David Blake

From World Rivers Review June 2013

Decades after several large dams were built in the lower Mun River Basin in northeastern Thailand, affected villagers continue to organize protest camps near the dam sites to demand just compensation for lost land and livelihoods. For years, people displaced by dams built on Mekong tributaries have organized protests, but some have recently stepped up their campaigns for justice. In fact, across Thailand, dam projects have long been resisted by peoples' movements demanding their rights to land, access to water and sustainable livelihoods. Coordinated actions were made possible through the networking of grassroots groups such as the Assembly of the Poor, the Northern Farmer Network and the Assembly of the Mun River Basin, all of which emerged in the 1990s. For example, in March 1999, more than 5,000 villagers from sites affected by existing and planned dams spanning eight provinces occupied the Pak Mun Dam site and established an encampment to pressure the authorities to meet their demands. The camp remained for three years until destroyed by forces alleged to be in the pay of the dam operators, the Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand (EGAT). The spirit of resistance to destructive development, however, lived on and has been mobilized on numerous occasions since. 

Faced with persistent protests and demands for reparations for past damage by the coordinated action of these groups, the Thai government has tended since to shy away from constructing domestic large-scale dams to instead encouraging state and private enterprises to build dams on the rivers of neighboring countries, such as Burma and Laos. The protesters’ tireless mobilizations to seek compensation, reparation and dam commissioning serve as a potential warning to Thailand's neighbors in the current context of rising regional tensions over damming the Mekong mainstream and its tributaries and calls for increased democratization. Here is a roundup of recent events from these peoples’ movements.

Rasi Salai Dam

In February, thousands of villagers impacted by the Rasi Salai Dam gathered near the dam site to protest a lack of state compensation. When the dam was built in the 1990s, the reservoir flooded productive land they used for both agriculture and wetlands-based livelihoods, and destroyed the seasonally flooded forest (known locally as paa boong paa thaam). In the past, this ecologically important forest covered much of the Mun River’s floodplain, providing a rich source of fish, aquatic animals, wild vegetables, herbal medicines, firewood, and a wide range of other benefits. 

The project was built under the former Thai Department of Energy Development and Promotion in the mid-1990s, as part of an ambitious regional irrigation development plan called the Khong-Chi-Mun Project (KCM). The KCM was supposed to transfer water from the Mekong River to irrigate large tracts of land in the Northeast. In the face of strong opposition from civil society and local villagers concerned about the project's socio-environmental impacts, the KCM was never completed. However, individual sub-projects such as the Rasi Salai Dam have since advanced.

Local communities affected by Rasi Salai hosted the Second International Meeting of Dam Affected People in late November 2003. This was a time of hope for the villagers because the dam gates were opened for a time and the river was allowed to flow freely. It seemed that it could be possible to rehabilitate some of the lost paa boong paa thaam habitat. However, the poorly conceived original plan to close the dam gates each dry season to store water for irrigation in a shallow, ecologically impoverished reservoir has instead been followed, resulting in the flooding of the remaining stands of forest and former paddy fields.

Where a decade ago approximately 300 grassroots activists from 62 countries met to exchange views and share lessons on opposing destructive large-scale dam development, the site is now inundated by the still waters of the reservoir. There is nothing to mark the spot where so much positive energy flowed from the participants gathered under the banner of “Rivers for life, not for death!” The ironic fact remains that far more productive land has been lost to the reservoir than has ever been irrigated by water from the dam. Even today, most land surrounding the reservoir is not irrigated, in part due to the low economic potential, salinity problems and poor soil quality.

Pak Mun Dam

Just 5 kilometers upstream of the confluence of the Mun’s confluence with the Mekong River at the site of one of the most productive fishery habitats in the whole Northeast region, the Pak Mun dam was constructed in the early 1990s. It is the most controversial dam built in the history of Thailand., and has been the subject of a protracted struggle for rights, resources, compensation for lost livelihoods and environmental justice. A World Commission on Dams case study on Pak Mun concluded  that the project was highly damaging to aquatic resources and fisheries-based livelihoods, but only marginally economic as a power producer. Other predicted benefits, such as irrigation and tourism, failed to materialize. During a recent visit to the site, the author found that the fish ladder built to mitigate the passage of migratory fish has essentially been abandoned by the state authorities. Similarly, the houses provided by the developers for resettled families have been largely abandoned. 

Meanwhile, local people who remain in the area have had to seek alternative means of livelihood or wait for remittances sent by relatives to survive. The bitter struggle for rights, compensation and justice has also taken its toll on Pak Mun communities. Some still fight on doggedly to demand the government open the dam gates permanently and allow the river to resume its natural seasonal ebb and flow. They claim that EGAT has reneged on an order from the Cabinet to open the gates for four months at the start of the rainy season to allow fish to swim upstream to spawn and feed. As a result, the demands for compensation, reparation and dam decommissioning continue to resonate with many affected people.

Sirindhorn Dam

South of Pak Mun, close to the border with Laos, lies Sirindhorn Dam. While the dam itself is relatively small, the reservoir area is very large, covering 280 km2. At the time it was constructed over four decades ago, this project required the resettlement of 1,365 households. The reservoir flooded ten schools, eight temples, and 6,880 ha of farmland. The affected families from dozens of small villages formerly made a living from subsistence farming, fishing, hunting and harvesting a vast array of forest products.

When the dam was built with financial support from the Japanese government, affected communities' self-sufficient way of life abruptly ended. They were forced to move into resettlement sites. Between 1969 and 1973, the Thai government reportedly spent a total of 18.8 million Thai Baht for resettlement and compensation (approximately US $560 per household). Unfortunately, the land in the resettlement villages has extremely shallow, infertile soil, making it almost impossible for households to earn a living. Most of the resettled villagers became dependent on state welfare to survive. Many ended up clearing land plots in upland forested areas of the Lam Dom Noi watershed or moving to Bangkok and living in slums where they could scrape together an income, working as waste pickers, factory laborers or petty traders.

Of the thousands of dam-affected people who remained behind, many became aware of their rights to seek fair compensation from the government, after they joined the Assembly of the Poor movement and were able to meet with other Thai villagers affected by dam-building. In joining the struggle for recognition of their rights and social justice, the villagers at both dams became more radicalized and prepared to make considerable personal sacrifices seek collective justice.

A protest encampment of affected families (numbering up to several hundred) is currently set up directly opposite the main entrance to the dam. The villagers are demanding the state provide each household with plots of good agricultural land and some financial compensation for lost livelihoods. They claim that the government has repeatedly ignored their demands and been selective in only partially compensating some affected households. In addition, the protesters are concerned that EGAT has plans to build a nuclear power station on forest land situated below the dam still relied upon by villagers for subsistence purposes. They are both vocal and visual in their demands to scrap the nuclear power plant plan and provide fair compensation for those people impoverished by the dam. 

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David Blake has worked and conducted research in the Lower Mekong Basin for the past two decades in water resources management. He is currently an M-POWER research fellow at the Mekong Sub-region Social Research Centre at Ubon Ratchatani University, Thailand.