On 7 February 2013, thousands of villagers impacted by the Rasi Salai Dam on the Mun River in Northeast Thailand gathered near the dam site to demand that the Thai government provide compensation for both lost land and income. These claims date back to the time the dam was built in the mid-1990s. They attest that the dam 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 past years, 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 now dissolved Department of Energy Development and Promotion (DEDP), as part of an ambitious pan-regional 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 advanced under the auspices of the Royal Irrigation Department even though there was a backlog of unresolved claims and local conflicts resulting from the early years of the project under DEDP.
Local communities affected by Rasi Salai hosted the Second International Meeting of Dam Affected Persons in late November 2003. This was a time of hope anongst some villagers because the dam gates were opened 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, that optimism did not turn into a reality. The original plan to close the dam gates each dry season to store water for irrigation in a shallow, ecologically impoverished reservoir has been followed, resulting in the flooding of the remaining stands of forest and former paddy fields.
Where approximately 300 grassroots activists and their allies from 62 countries met to exchange views and lessons on opposing destructive large-scale dam development globally a decade ago, the site is now inundated by the still waters of the reservoir. There is nothing remaining today 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 and the poor soil quality.
David JH Blake has worked and conducted research in the Lower Mekong Basin for the past two decades on concerns related to water resources governance, has recently completed his PhD at the School of International Development, Unversity of East Anglia, U.K., and is currently an M-POWER research fellow at the Mekong Sub-region Social Research Centre (MSSRC) at Ubon Ratchatani University, Thailand.