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Pak Mun Dam Trade Offs, Holden Bussey


Some of the Mun’s former fish species can only be found in the Thai Baan Center Museum

In development there are always trade-offs. The need for increased power generation to support a modernizing society is a reality faced by every developing nation around the world. For much of the globe, the 21st century was the ‘century of dams’, leading to hydropower providing 1/5th of the world’s energy[1]. Much of Southeast Asia was a little late to the party however, with dams currently being planned all over the Mekong sub-region. Over the past week we were able to study the Pak Mun dam, which over the past 20 years has drawn intense criticism both from local residents and the international community.

While originally planned under the Electricity Development Project by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the dam has not lived up to its initial expectations of power generation. Currently producing 84 MW, a far cry from its stated 136 MW capacity[2], the dam is viewed by many to be an abject failure[3]. The Pak Mun dam is continuously described as ‘run-of-the-river’, though upon our arrival it was very clear that this river was not running anywhere. With the gates closed 8 months out of the year, the Mun River is effectively turned into a reservoir, altering the natural ecosystem and drastically impacted the lifestyles of villagers[4].

In Thai, “Meh Mun” or Mun River, means “Mother of inheritance” and for generations, this river has supplied villagers with not only food, but fostered a way of life. Staying in Khan Puay village, 5 km upstream from the dam, the impacts of the dam are seen everywhere. No longer can they rely on fishing to support them. No longer can they farm on the nutrient rich flood plain in the dry season – for with the dam, seasonality is controlled by EGAT. No longer do they trade with neighboring farming communities – fish for vegetables. No longer can they pass their knowledge and craft onto younger generations, leading them to seek labor outside the community, eroding family structures. As my host mother put it, “The dam changed our way of life – it changed everything.”

In our discussion with EGAT’s head of public relations, he described a “brother-sister” relationship between EGAT and villagers, and spoke glowingly of the efforts EGAT has taken to compensate the villagers for their lost livelihood. The villagers, on the other hand, describe EGAT in a more villainous role, as they claim EGAT’s efforts have simply paint a pretty picture to hide the truth of the dam.

EGAT has also taken a decided turn in how they represent the dam. The first benefit listed on our glitzy brochure situated at each student’s seat was ‘Irrigation’; as the dam claims to supply water to 150 km up the river. While I’ll get to the trouble with that in a moment, it was laughable to me that the next benefit was ‘Fishery’. The dam managed in just a few years to destroy one of Thailand’s most abundant freshwater fisheries[1], yet EGAT’s claim to fame is a Breeding Center spawning saltwater shrimp that cannot breed in the freshwater that villagers have said they have not seen or caught since the first year of the project. In fact, even ‘Tourism’ – the beauty of the dam attracting more visitors than the stretch of rapids bordering a National park – was listed before ‘Power Generation’[2]. This echoed the TAO’s (Local Government) engineer’s statement that the dam “helps stabilize the electricity supply of the Northeast”[3].


One of the most devastating impacts of the dam has been loss of wetlands, which are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems of the planet.

In terms of irrigation, there have indeed been 61 irrigation pumps constructed along the Mun River[4]. Though EGAT didn’t pay a penny for them, as the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) built the facilities. Upon completion however, the RID dumped the complicated pumps on the TAO and have no management strategy for them. In Kuhn Puay’s district, of the 5 pumps installed, 2 are currently functioning[5]. The agricultural land around the river is not fertile to begin with. A lack of water in the dry season and every farmer that invested in the planting of second season rice, which is under 20% of farmers in the district will lose their entire crop and a huge financial hit[6]. At this time, 65% of Isaan’s rice farmers are in debt, many relying on each crop for survival[7].

The TAO openly admitted they don’t have the equipment or budget to maintain the pumps. The irrigation system in Kuan Puay, which has been broken for years, cost a reported 31 Million baht ($330,000)[8]. Like many projects in Thailand, corruption has been suggested. However, the real trickiness of the dam – at least in the mind of a local NGO P’Pat – is that a trough has been dug in the riverbank to get to it, meaning it can only operate with the high water level provided by the dam. This is further influencing the gates being shut, despite a strong local opposition and an agreement with the previous government to have the gates open for 5 years[9].

The governmental break down is one of the biggest obstacles surrounding the dam. While nothing substantial can happen until a new government is in power, the different governmental bodies that are involved in the project – EGAT, the RID and the TAO – have acted as individual entities with little to no collaboration between them. This has resulted in the irrigation system being inconsistent and poorly managed, and overall missing the mark of compensating for the villagers lost livelihoods from fishing.

EGAT puts a great deal of effort into maintain a good image, yet after talking with villagers and understanding in more detail how this dam has affected them, its impossible to believe the benefits outweigh the costs. Development projects always involve trade offs, but in this instance the desire to develop blindly has resulted in a great deal of capital invested in a project that is hurting the environment, the people and not providing the intended benefits.

[1] “Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams” Zed Books in assoc. with International Rivers, London 2001

[2] “Pak Mun Dam” Public Relations Division, Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, November 2006

[3] CIEE Exchange with Taoban Administrative Organization

[4] CIEE Exchange with P’Pat, Local NGO

[5] CIEE Exchange with Taoban Administrative Organization

[6] CIEE Exchange with Taoban Administrative Organization

[7] “Fairtrade FAQs” Transfair USA

[8] CIEE Exchange with P’Pat, Local NGO

[9] “Lessons Overlooked” Engage 2004

[1] “Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams” Zed Books in assoc. with International Rivers, London 2001

[2] “Lessons Overlooked” Engage, 2004

[3] “Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams” Zed Books in assoc. with International Rivers, London 2001

[4] “Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams” Zed Books in assoc. with International Rivers, London 2001



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