Thai Dam Casts Long Shadow Over Asia Dam Wars

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Pak Mun River, Thailand – Mekong fish don’t jump.

It was one of the many hard lessons learned at Thailand’s Pak Mun Dam, a minnow as dams go, but it casts a long and costly shadow over Asia’s water wars.
Built more than a decade ago on a tributary of the Mekong river, Pak Mun left a legacy of angry protests, damaged fish stocks and uprooted communities – and a fish ladder more suited to leaping Pacific salmon.

‘This is like a slow tsunami’
“It created huge conflicts in Thailand that last today and it produces very little power. When you consider all the lives disrupted, you have to ask was it worth it?,” said James Fahn, a journalist and author who covered the Pak Mun saga.

The furore over Pak Mun has blocked new dam construction in Thailand, prompting the state utility, Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), to back hydro-electric projects in neighbouring Laos and Myanmar out of the reach of Thai environmentalists.

Dam proponents such as the World Bank say future projects such as Nam Theun II in Laos, soon to be South-East Asia’s biggest dam, will benefit from lessons learned at Pak Mun.

But anti-dam campaigners, who fear more Pak Muns are in the making, want Thailand to seek alternative sources of power.

“Don’t let them build it,” advises Thongcharoen Srihadhamma, a fisherman-turned-protest leader in the 1990s when mass sit-ins against Pak Mun dominated newspaper headlines.

Thailand plans to buy power from its neighbours “This is like a slow tsunami. The destruction cannot be reversed. Nature cannot be rebuilt,” he told Reuters during a visit to the dam once touted as an economic driver for the poor northeast province of Ubon Ratchathani.

The 17m high dam, about five kilometres from the confluence of the Pak Mun and Mekong rivers, was beset by problems from the start.

Cost overruns pushed its price tag up 68 percent to 6,6-billion baht (about R1,2-billion), with nearly R118-million in unanticipated compensation payments for lost fisheries.

About 1 700 households were displaced, far higher than the 241 initially expected. Unable to adjust to life away from the river, some families abandoned the new homes they received as compensation and moved away to seek jobs or better land to grow crops.

“We call them spirit houses because nobody lives in them any more,” Thongcharoen said of a relocation programme that went awry because local people were not consulted properly.

The UN-backed World Commission on Dams said in its comprehensive 2000 study of Pak Mun: “It is unlikely that the project would have been built in the current context”.

It said that a failure to study the potential impact on fisheries – catches fell by 50-100 percent, affecting 6 000 fishermen – had been a “critical lapse” in Pak Mun’s planning.

Ubon Ratchathani University lecturer Kanokwan Manoram says more than 40 rapids were inundated on the Pak Mun, wiping out spawning and fishing grounds that once teemed with Mekong fish.

A tiered fish ladder, a series of stepped pools that allow fish to navigate around a dam, was added later. It proved a dismal failure and the butt of local jokes, she said.

“They’re not salmon so I guess they don’t want to jump.”

Of the 256 species found in the river before the dam, 100 have disappeared, say local fishermen who want the sluice gates opened all year round instead of the current 4 months.

“The rapids are gone and the fish from the Mekong don’t stop here any more,” said Samran Thiamthat, 41, pulling two wriggling fish from his net as he fished near the dam.

“Before the dam I found fish all year. Now I only fish for three or four months,” said Samran, who relies on 200 baht a day from odd jobs in the provincial capital to support his family of four.

“I want to cry. I don’t want to go away to work in the city,” he said, echoing complaints from other villagers who want their old, quiet way of life on the river back.

EGAT rejects talk of closing the dam despite its failure to meet an output target of 136 MW due to insufficient water flow.

“If they decommission this dam, they will have to decommission every dam in the world,” says Nipon Pienpucta, director of EGAT’s Hydropower Engineering Division, who was involved with Pak Mun from the start.

“Sometimes we can produce only maybe 30 MW because the water is high in the Mekong, but we can produce more than 100 MW a lot of times. That’s worth it,” he said.

EGAT had envisioned more dams, “but we had to stop” after Pak Mun, he said. Instead, Thailand plans to buy power from its neighbours and will be the main customer of Nam Theun II when the Lao dam is completed in 2009.

The World Bank says Nam Theun II will set a standard for hydro projects in a region hungry for electricity to power its growing economies, thanks to Pak Mun and other projects in Asia.

“This resulted in the development of extensive mitigation, compensation and contingency measures to address social and environmental impacts, including unforeseen ones,” the bank said of the preparations for Nam Theun II.

Environmentalists agree the planning for Nam Theun II has been extensive, but they fear the same standards will not be used at other projects in Laos.

There’s little hope that proposed dams on the Salween River in secretive military-ruled Myanmar, where thousands of people could be affected, will come under any serious scrutiny.

EGAT has declined to give details of its confidential power deal with Yangon and the junta has maintained its usual silence.

Pak Mun showed “how hard it is to build large dams in a democracy with an active civil society”, Fahn said, but Myanmar is a far bigger challenge.

“Whether NGOs can stop Thai-sponsored projects in Myanmar remains to be seen. It will be hard.”