"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
"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.
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
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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