Pak Mun Dam: A struggle of fishers, an epic of river protection

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  • From December 2014 World Rivers Review
Boats at the Pak Mun Dam

Boats at the Pak Mun Dam

“Mun” means life. The Mun River has always been the richest source of life in this part of Thailand, and people’s lives depended on its rich fisheries.

At over 700 kms, the Mun River is the largest and longest river in Northeast Thailand. It empties into the Mekong River in Khong Chiam District, near the city of Ubon Ratchathani. It used to be a hub for many fish species. Fish migration up and down the river happened all year long. It became an enormous source of natural food and a major draw for settlers, who established their houses and communities on both sides of the river.

The stretch of the Mun River from Phibun Mangsahan to Khong Chiam teemed with diversity, and supported complex ecological systems. Many rapids in the area help to oxygenate the water. The area was a natural “fish home,” with everything fish need: habitats, food, spawning grounds and natural refuges for fish. All these areas are intricately linked with the livelihood of the fishers. They also become a place for recreation and a sanctuary to perform traditional ceremonies by community.

The End of Rich Fisheries

The Pak Mun Dam Project, approved in 1989, was a project of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), with funding by the World Bank. Situated just 5.5 kms from the Mekong River’s mainstream, the dam blocked the mouth of the Mun River to produce 136 megawatts of power as well as support irrigation, tourism and, ironically, fisheries.

The Pak Mun Dam was built amid protests and outcries from affected villagers. The government was asked to review its decision and to conduct a comprehensive impact study prior to the implementation of the project. EGAT to reveal actual information regarding the level of the reservoir, the size of the area to be flooded, and the number of villagers to be relocated. There was a public call for EGAT to compensate for damages to communities, the ecology, destruction of rapids, impact on fish migration in the Mekong, and more. All these concerns prompted local villagers to rise up to demand a stoppage of the project.

Villagers began to mobilize and demonstrate in various sites including at the Provincial Hall, Government House, and others. They occupied the rapids to prevent rock blasting by EGAT and make the site inaccessible to construction crews. They held marches throughout Thailand to raise people’s awareness of the problem. As their network grew, they formed an organization, called the Assembly of the Poor. Their struggles for the affected people sometimes made them a target of violence. Some were arrested and charged. Still, the Pak Mun villagers remained determined to demand just solutions to their problems.

Their unwavering mobilization did force a number of concessions from the authorities. Proposals were made that lead to the construction of a fish ladder, as well as a hatchery, to make fisheries in the Mun River possible. EGAT claimed that the measures would help to restore the rich population of fish in the river. However these mitigation measures failed completely.

Pak Mun Dam began operating in 1994. After the dam sluice gates shut, local villagers began to realize how their income and food from the river had dwindled. Many had to find new ways to survive.

Despite a long list of costly efforts by the state to address problems from the Pak Moon Dam – including compensation for the loss of land and livelihoods, expansion of irrigated areas for local farmers, construction of a fish ladder, income generating projects and occupational skill training, release of fish fry, and other efforts – the villagers’ livelihood has been left in tatters.

In 1999, the Pak Mun villagers mobilized and established a symbolic village at the dam site called “Mae Mun Mun Yuen” to demand permanent opening of Pak Mun Dam’s sluice gates to allow fish from the Mekong to migrate into the Mun, to restore the livelihood of people in river basin. The government instead made a concession by opening the dam sluice gates during the pilot years of 2001-2002 while research was conducted to document the dam’s impacts.  The study covered the restoration of the ecology, livelihood, and culture of people in the Mun basin, their income from fishery, and habits of key species of migratory fish from Mekong. According to the findings, all this natural abundance can be restored if the government opens the dam’s gates all year round. This would have minimal impact on power production, which is the main purpose of the dam.

After 14 Prime Ministers and 17 governments, after countless struggles to demand justice for the Mun River, the problems have never been concretely resolved.

Despite that, the villagers are still determined to carry on their struggle to let the Mun River run freely again.

What I have witnessed in the past two decades is the total destruction of one of the richest rivers along with the complex ecological system, a lot of fish species and tens of thousand of people whose livelihood used to depend upon the “mother” Mun River.

Regrettably, no lessons have been learned from these losses and no effective solutions have been put in place. Now, many more dams are being proposed and built all over the Mekong River Basin, placing the river and its resources in greater jeopardy.  By continuing to follow this ill-conceived path and not learning from past lessons, what lies ahead is a sad legend of fishers whose lives were cruelly terminated, and a river that no longer lives.