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A Life That Flows – Or Doesn’t Flow – With the River

By Manivone Luangsombath, Lao Women’s Union Magazine, Laos

Tongcharoen Sihatham uses a slow voice to speak of the river he has known since childhood, “I feel very sad and lonely when I look at where I used to live along the Moon, a river I have depended on since I was a boy.
A lifelong resident of Khong Chiam district in Ubol Ratchathani Province, Tongcharoen used to depend for his entire living on the fish he caught – eating what he and his family needed, then selling the rest to buy rice and commercial goods.
That all changed with the construction of The Pak Moon dam, which began in 1991 and was completed in 1994. While the dam was being built, the villagers staged several protests out of concern for their future. Even though the conflict at one point turned violent, Tongcharoen says that the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) still ignored their opposition.
"When the Pak Moon Dam was built on the river, it destroyed many rapids – which form spawning grounds for fish – and prevented migration along the river, killing many fish species. It seems the dam also kills us, because now we can’t catch fish anymore,"  he said.
"Before the construction, there were more than 200 fish species in the river. Everyday, we were able to catch lots of fish. We always celebrated full-moon days and the Lao New Year on the Kaeng Tana rapids, until they were blasted to pave the way for water to flow out of the dam reservoir.

"Nowadays, the water is mostly still and there are no more rapids. What’s more there are now only ten types of fish found in the river. The fish catch has dropped almost 90%,” he said. “The blasting of the rapids caused a decline in fish where they live and spawn. The dam also blocks fish migration to river upstream [where fish used to breed on flooded riverbanks],” he said.
"The fish ladder built by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) does not help, it’s not effective at all," he complained. "We’ve never seen any fish jumping the ladder. So that means fish cannot migrate.
"Even when the water gates are opened, the fish can’t migrate because the flow of water is very strong,” he explained, adding that he has seen many dead fish when the gate is opened from tome to time.
Tongcharoen, 55, said he is very upset with EGAT for building the fish ladder without enough prior study.
A leader of the protests against dam construction, Tongcharoen says that hundred of houses and thousand of rai of farmland upstream have also been destroyed by floodwaters. "The dam has completely changed the life of people here," he said.
They [EGAT] only know about electricity, "he concluded. “They don’t know anything about fish or the way people live here."

Copyright 2009 IMMF.