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03/20/2014

What’s the Catch?, Sara Diaz

One of our recent units in the Development and Globalization program focused on water and dams.  Specifically, we focused on the Pak Mun Dam, a controversial dam on the Mun River, a main tributary to the Mekong.  We spent five days in a village called Khan Puai in Ubon Ratchathani province.  We met with the Energy Generating Authority of Thailand, the local subdistrict governmental office (TAO), villagers, and NGOs. To boil the issue down to a few sentences, the dam, originally intended for electricity generation, has taken away the villagers’ former fishing centered livelihood since fish can no longer swim upstream.  The construction of and flooding caused by the dam also stripped villagers of their land and damaged their homes.  The government is now trying to shift the goal of the dam to providing irrigation for villagers in order to aid them in their transition to an agrarian lifestyle.

EGAT has installed two different kinds of irrigation pumps in communities along the Mun River effected by the dam.  The first is a standard stationary pump.  It is constructed on a platform above the surface of the water, and has a long pipe which brings water from the river and distributes it to the nearby fields.  The second type of pump is a floating pump.  It is build on a platform which rests on the surface of the water, therefor rising and falling with the water level.  There are currently pumps either in construction, already built, or planning to be built along the Mun River.  

In theory, providing irrigation for local villagers seems like an altruistic and socially conscious move by EGAT. But here’s the catch—actually there are a few catches. 

The first catch is that, while providing 61 pumps may seem incredibly generous, this number was arrived at simple by asking communities if they would like pumps or not (61 said yes), and then mandating that these pumps be built, regardless of whether or not they are effective in their location or if they are well managed.

 Catch number two is that, despite the fact that standing pumps cost almost 20 times what floating pumps cost and that the villagers prefer the easier-to-maintain floating pumps, the government is adamant that standing pumps are better.  When standing pumps break, villagers have no idea how to fix them and the government fixes them in “no less than three months” according to a TAO official.  Villagers have a better understanding of floating pumps and find them to be more effective.

Catch number three is that, regardless of the effectiveness of irrigation pumps, most of the land in the effected area is not suitable for farming, and the villagers who inhabit it are not interested in being farmers.  EGAT built a dam that destroyed the livelihood of entire communities without giving them any say in the matter, and essentially decided that these fishless fishermen were to then become farmers.  It was then that they decided, out of the kindness of their hearts, to give them something they never wanted for land that was never meant for that purpose. 

I think we can agree that these are pretty significant catches. 

It seems to me that the problem at the root of this issue is a disconnect between governmental bodies and villagers.  When we went to speak with the TAO, they informed us that, “sometimes, villagers don’t understand what is best for them.”  While the TAO works with villages to create a committee of representative from each village in the sub district,  the people who are formally employed by the TAO are not the same people who are living in these effected communities.  How can they claim to know better when these decisions are not affecting their day-to-day lives?  Both the TAO and EGAT spoke passionately of the countless benefits that the dam brought to local communities.  An official at EGAT even said that their relationship with villagers was like that between “brothers and sisters.”  However, the villagers who we lived with and talked to had nothing to say to this effect.  When asked about benefits of the dam, they said they had seen none.  When asked about their relationship with EGAT, they said there was none. 

For what the opinion of a 20 year old college student is worth, in order to address the needs of the villagers (who are supposedly the intended beneficiaries) there needs to be much more effective communication between villagers and governmental bodies.  Most importantly, the government needs to trust that the villagers at least have the capacity to know what is best for them. 

2014Spring_SaraD

The portion of this stationary pump which connects it to its water source is broken, rendering it completely useless to villagers. 

Comments

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As Sarah writes, there indeed is a huge disconnect in communication between the villagers and the governmental bodies.
For example, while the spokesman for EGAT seemed sincere in saying that their relationship with villagers was close and that they helped out communities regularly, in reality the villagers told a different story. Yes, EGAT would maybe give away the prize at the local festival held once a year. But that was really it.
When we students visited the dam, the fish ladder appeared broken and was clearly not in use. In the distance, the turbines generated less than the expected generating capacity. The shrimp that EGAT raised and then said they released every year to provide something for fishermen to catch, the villagers said they had a hard time catching anything.
Hailed as a tourist attraction on the glistening pamphlet EGAT gave us during our exchange at their headquarters, this dam’s gray reality struck me as incredibly ironic. The Tai Baan Center, one of the main opposition groups against the dam, told us at the small, wonderfully mural painted museum about the rapids that had used to be the real tourist attraction, as well as a great place for the locals.
In addition, the villagers had replaced fishing with sending their children to labor in a far off city, leaving in turn their own children for their parents to raise, and sending money back home. Or to try farming, but as Sarah explains very well, with an unreliable supply due to broken pumps and other unsuitable local conditions. The latest thing the villagers had success with had been making wooden funeral flowers, which they said in a few years they thought would end because the supply of wood would run out. Before, they had made brooms, but then the materials they had used to make it had run out. The TAO then began to import grass, but then it got too expensive, so the entire process was halted.
To me, it seems so sad that these villagers lives, which had once been so sustainable in catching fish to sell, having enough to eat themselves, and then being able to collect vegetables in the wetlands or grow food on the riverbanks with the natural flood process, lose not only their way to make money, but the way they had so easily and sustainably been living so well, when now they must send their families far from home, or try yet another new livelihood attempt which they know will be unsustainable.
While Sarah was much better at covering at only a few important things, unlike me, she especially hits the nail on the head about how this dam, what these former fishing people didn’t even want, has really messed up their lives.

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