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"Life After Dam" Almost as Uncertain as Life after Death

By Uamdao Noikorn, The Bangkok Post, Thailand

Khong Chiam – Having survived deadly malaria and even a landmine accident that took his leg, 48-year-old fisherman Chan Roobsoong realizes he is now facing a much bigger threat – the loss of his lifelong job.

"Before I could easily make 35,000 baht from simply working during the fishing season. Now it takes one to two weeks to earn enough for two litres of fuel that costs 13 baht a litre," says Chan, pointing at a handful of fish no bigger than the little finger. "That’s been my daily catch the past two years."
 
Similar stories are told by hundreds of other fishermen from Khong Chiam, Phibool Mangsaharn and Sirindhorn districts along the Moon River in Ubon Ratchathani Province following the construction of Pak Moon Dam in 1994.
 
In fact, Chan is quite lucky. With the help of his 15-year-old son, Botan, the family catches about 3-4 kilograms of fish every day. Most young people of Botan’s age prefer to work in Bangkok as a factory or construction worker so they can earn more money.

"I don’t want to go to school. I learned fishing three years ago and I like it. All my friends live here," Botan explains in a soft tone while pulling the net up from the water. "Besides, it’s more fun being in the water than in the city."
 
Botan’s happiness might not last long. Fishermen say their fish catch has steadily gone down every few years, from over 10 kilograms a day before the dam construction to 1-2 kilograms today. Botan confirms the trend.
 
Initiated by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) in 1989, the Pak Moon dam was aimed at producing 136 megawatts of power for the industrial sector in the eastern and northeastern part of Thailand. The locals had strongly opposed the project, fearing its negative impacts on the life cycles of fish, many of which are migratory species that move up tributaries from the Mekong River.
 
Environmentalists and academics also warned against the scheme, while EGAT claimed its plan to build a fish ladder would solve the fish migration problem.
 
However, Jorgen Jensen, an expert on inland fisheries at the Mekong River Commission explains that fish ladders only work for certain species – and then only if they are designed for that species. The ladder at the Pak Moon Dam, meanwhile, seems to have been based on North American designs.
 
By reducing fish stocks, thus causing a decline in catches and fishermen’s income, the dam has also gradually torn apart family ties and ruined the community’s traditions. Poor and armed with only six years in school and no other skills, Botan is likely to end up in a factory or at a construction site like other village youngsters.

"Dam construction really ruins a culture, especially fishing culture because fishing had led to the birth of social traditions here," says 55-year-old Mr. Tongcharoen Sihatham, who has led affected villagers in protests against the project and fought for justice in compensation for two decades.
 
Tongchareon is now a farmer. Of his four sons, one is a security guard and another a construction worker in Bangkok, while the remaining two are still students. Tongcharoen says they used to be fishermen until three years ago when the catch became unbearably low.
 
"Families were the nucleus and they fell apart. Children now live with their grandparents because parents have to go to work in the city. People are no longer friendly and only care about themselves." He notes sadly.
 
"People used to invite everyone to annual ordaining ceremonies and celebrations for the building of new houses. Now we don’t dare to do that because we have become poorer. Nobody wants to spend his hard-earned money on unnecessary things," he says.
 
His statements are borne out by a visit to the area’s Buddhist temples. This year, only a few hundred people were spotted celebrating Visakha Bucha Day, the Lord Buddha’s birthday, a major holy day – and also a national holiday – in a Buddhist country like Thailand. “There used to be over 3,000 people coming to the ceremony in our community,” Tongcharoen points out.
 
According to a study by the Project for Ecological Recovery, a non-governmental organisation, which works closely with the locals, about 20% of the 3,064 affected families have permanently moved out of the province.
 
The organisation expects more and more fishermen will have to find a sideline job or even switch to another job to be able to survive. "They have no choice although most know nothing other than the Moon River and the names of fish," worries Tongcharoen.
 
The figure of temporary relocation is unknown but so high that, "they need to sleep on top of the train in order to come home and celebrate New Year’s here. The existing train and bus schedule is never enough," he says.
 
Tongcharoen adds that the government and EGAT have never given any vocational help to them at all so most villagers, including himself, learned their new jobs from relatives or other vocational projects.
 
Mr. Subhin Panyamag, EGAT’s Senior Public Affairs Coordinator, dismissed the accusation, saying it had offered to help affected villagers to find new jobs with a training course. "We ever set up an info center at the project site. I was there and talking with them," he says.
 
But another affected villager, 33-year-old Ms. Chanphen Chaiyasatra, explains she learned her new weaving skills from Royal Projects. Chanphen has also taken up raising cattle, since there is plenty of vegetation around her house.
 
Chanphen chose to stay in Khong Chiam believing life could be the same and that she could make as much money as she used to from fishing. But she was wrong.
 
Although she has taken up dairy farming, weaving, and odd construction jobs, and sometimes still even goes fishing, her current 8,500-baht-a-year income pales in comparison to what she used to make before the dam was built, when she could earn at least 20,000 baht a year from fishing alone.
 
Villagers who have invested their compensation funds in other businesses such as farming, growing fruit orchards, and setting up grocery shops also say their income has declined.

"We planned to expand the house for my children, and send them to study in Bangkok for a good education. But with an income this low, nothing is possible. No way,"
 
Asked if she still would love a career in fishing, Chanphen laughs coyly and says: "Not anymore. I’m afraid of getting killed when the floodgates open."

Copyright 2009 IMMF.