A Development Distaster: The Pak Mun Dan In Thailand

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For the past half-decade Thailand’s Pak Mun Dam has been recognized by environmental and human rights groups as a posterchild of insensitive, inequitable, top-down development strategy. Despite civil society’s criticism, however, thousands of local villagers still squat in a makeshift, shantytown protest village only yards from the dam. They eat, sleep and commune in protest of the dam that has stolen their own livelihoods, their families’ food source and their children’s playground. Still today their demands to permanently decommission the dam, restore the river ecology and revitalize community health remain unmet.

I recently had the opportunity to study about, work for, and live with this group of dispossessed villagers.

Pak Mun Dam is situated 5.5 kilometers upstream from the confluence of the Mun and the Mekong Rivers. Above the dam, the Mun’s waters are fed by a basin three times the size of the Netherlands.
Because of such an expansive ecological base, environmental groups and biologists were concerned how the dam would affect migratory fish from the Mekong, one of the planet’s most diverse waterways. Doctors raised the issue of schistosomiasis, a deadly worm that resides in stagnant water. Human rights organizations questioned how resettlement and compensation plans could prove effective if no topographical map of water level was released. Civil society fumed at the lack of participatory process, as countless villagers were told of their soon-to-be neighbor. After all, villagers had never requested the electricity or irrigation the dam was to provide.

In 1990 the resolution to build the Pak Mun Dam passed the Thai parliament. The only environmental and social impact assessment performed for this project was completed seven years before. The study assessed a dam of different proportions than what was actually built and assumed it to be several kilometers downstream from its eventual site. Despite several dramatic displays of protest, including villagers strapping themselves to rocks slated for explosive removal, the project barreled forward. A thirteen percent budgetary boost from the World Bank buoyed the monster, and in 1994, voila, a dam was born.

Eight years later, it’s apparent the only factor keeping the dam in place is a fear of losing political face. It can safely be said, the project has been a failure on all fronts; project costs nearly doubled, ballooning from an expected 3.88 billion Baht to and eventual 6.6 billion. Power generation, estimated at 136 MW in the project proposal, barely scratches 21 MW, enough to power one Wal-Mart. Irrigation is non-existent. And tourism, the Thailand fallback? Well, remember that shantytown protest village? That’s positioned on the ‘scenic overlook.’ Even more unfortunate have been the effects unforeseen, at least by the government and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). According to the 1998 World Bank Operation and Evaluation Report, fish catch and income decreased by 50% from 1994. A study by the Thai NGO, Project for Ecological Recovery, found upwards of 75% reductions in incomes only a year later.. Vegetation has been destroyed. The dry-season riverbank, usually a fertile area for local agriculture, is inundated year-round.

Mitigation efforts have proved obsolete. A fish ladder, unwisely modeled after the designs of the Columbia River and customized for the sleek-swimming Pacific Northwest Salmon has, not surprisingly, flopped. Said Dr. Pladprasop Suraswasdi, former director of the Royal Fisheries Department, “We know nothing about the pattern and behavior of fish migration.” Prawns were introduced to the reservoir in hopes of reviving local fishing incomes but are unable to reproduce. Local, small-scale, subsistence fisherman, accustomed to the shallow rapids, have no equipment for the style of fishing the reservoir necessitates. Communities and families have suffered the brunt of the load, as children and women have been forced to seek low-pay work in Bangkok.

The final judgment broke when the World Commission on Dams (WCD), a panel of NGOs, businessmen, politicians and engineers assembled by the World Bank, deemed Pak Mun a tragedy. Their case study of Pak Mun, released in 2000, states, “If all the benefits and costs were adequately assessed, it is unlikely that the project would have been built.”

Pak Mun is a textbook example of development projects that lack necessity and, for most persons, desirability. Large dam projects are especially prone to this tendency. Together with the WCD report, Patrick McCully’s “Silenced Rivers” throws light on the inequities and drawbacks of dams which usually go unreported. Most often a dam is built, then justified, not vice versa. Those that lose out are those most dependent on and responsible for a healthy local environment: poorly represented, traditional communities. Those that win are transnational corporations, which are brought in for construction, financing and consulting. These companies benefit most from surplus electricity and suffer least from heightened water costs. After large chunks of profit and benefits flow over the border, what’s left is a dam that typically fails to meet expected benefits and exceeds expected costs.

The global anti-dam movement reflects a growing sentiment among many human rights and earth rights organizations who have watched this pattern repeat itself again and again in the South. Supported by NGOs such as the International Rivers Network and by committed political activists such as Arundhati Roy in India, local communities in the South are able to further strengthen their fight.

Twelve years after a handful of villagers strapped themselves to the rivers’ rocks, the protestor’s resolve has remained undeterred. Pak Mun villagers have joined forces with other dispossessed of Thailand to create the Assembly of the Poor, a large people’s organization that has limited but undeniable influence in national politics. They have organized a 2,000-mile protest march and raised more than ten protest villages throughout the nation including one in front of Bangkok’s Government House. In 2001 they were successful in lobbying the government to open the eight sluice gates of the dam in order to perform studies on the natural river ecology and the communities it supports. Released last month, this study notes the social and ecological damage far outweighs the benefits from electricity. Moreover, it illustrates the communities’ and ecosystem’s regenerative ability. Regardless, the Thai government is threatening to once again ignore the plight of villagers and reasoning of academics. Surely, as long as Thailand’s powerful continue to take their cues from Western political, economic and corporate paradigms, the villagers’ fight to stay afloat will still remain.

A video and in-depth presentation regarding the Pak Mun Dam was be held Thursday, November 7th at 7pm at the Illinois Disciples Foundation, 610 E. Springfield Ave, Champaign. Opportunities for attendees to write and sign letters followed the presentation.

Joe Rupp is a student at the U of I majoring in Agriculture and Consumer Economics with a focus on International Trade, Policy and Development. This past year he spent over seven months in Thailand, first as a student and then as an informal correspondent between the study abroad program, the villagers of Pak Mun and several local and international NGOs. Joe says the experience really lit a fire inside him: “Thailand not only exposed me to a different way of life, culturally, economically and politically, it also clearly showed me the connection between them and us, the United States and the rest of the world. You can’t understand that and not want to do anything.”

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