The farming village of Sa-iab in Phrae province has been known for its staunch anti-dam protests. A visit to the village gives one a sense of entering a quasi-autonomous area. At the entrance, strangers are regularly asked to present their identity cards and sometimes questioned, but the obvious sign is a banner warning that officials and those who support the Kaeng Sua Ten Dam _ now the Northern Yom Dam and Lower Yom Dam _ are not allowed to enter the community.
Locals in Sa-iab on the Yom River have been protesting against a dam for over two decades.
All-out vigilance has lasted for almost two decades after Sa-iab and part of Mae Yom National Park were chosen as the location for the Kaeng Sua Ten Dam. The project was initiated in 1973 and endorsed by the cabinet in 1989. The project has been put on hold for more than two decades, a result of vociferous protests by villagers and conservationists.
A combination of other factors has also stalled the project, from risks of earthquakes, suspicion about vested interest regarding the felling of the golden teak forest, which is abundant in the area, and doubt about the merit of large dams.
According to the plan, the dam will be built at the upper section of Yom River, at the 115th kilometre of the 735km-long waterway. The Yom is one of the four major rivers in Thailand that supply water to the central region and Chao Phraya River.
In the past two decades, the planned dam's function has been modified several times to suit changing governments and political parties. At first, it was a dam to generate electricity, then it was to help the irrigation system, and most recently it has been lauded as part of the flood prevention measures to save the Central Plains and Bangkok.
The cost of the project has risen to 11 billion baht, from the original 3.5 billion baht in 1989.
This past Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi said that the government has decided to build two dams along the Yom River instead of reviving the Kaeng Suan Ten Dam. The project will be split into two dams _ Yom Bon Dam (Upper Yom Dam) and Yom Larng Dam (Lower Yom Dam). The proposed dams are slightly smaller and believed to be slightly less detrimental to the environment, but the location remains almost the same, with just a slight adjustment of around 10 to 30km northward.
The two dams are now part of the Yingluck government's high-profile 350 billion baht water management scheme. The government awarded winning contractors the scheme last month, but was ordered by the court to halt construction until environmental studies and public hearings are held first.
The latest move, however, failed to pacify local dam protesters. With the construction, the teak forest in Mae Yom National Park would still be flooded, along with several villages. The flooded area will be reduced from 45,000 rai to 37,000 rai. Moreover, the location of the dams are on an active fault line, meaning risks in case of earthquakes.
Construction of dams will ruin the last golden teak forest in Mae Yom National Park. Approximately 37,000 rai of land will be submerged.
The villages that will be affected by the project have existed for more than 200 years, according to Assoc Prof Srisakara Vallibhothama, an anthropologist and archaeologist, who is doing research funded by the Thailand Research Fund (TRF) on the cultural landscape of the community in the area. The study will be used as a reference for academics and experts on the social and environmental impact of the dam projects.
This area was a former hotspot for the country's commercial teak industry. The government first granted a logging concessions to the Copenhagen-based East Asiatic Company in 1937, and then to local company Chartpaiboon in 1957. After two intensive commercial logging periods, the forest was depleted and wild animals disappeared. The natural environment only returned after the land was declared Mae Yom National Park in 1986.
The teak wood forest in Mae Yom National Park is a precious commodity. According to a study on the environmental impact of the construction conducted in 1997 by economist Khunying Suthawan Sathirathai, the teak wood forest, worth 4 billion baht, is expected to suffer from the dam project.
When the project was announced decades ago, villagers welcomed it because dams were perceived as a symbol of prosperity and development, said Vichai Ramsaphol, a 64-year-old local of Sa-iab village. But people soon started questioning the merit of the dam.
"Our doubts began when villagers who were forced to relocate for the construction of Sirikit Dam visited our village and asked to barter fish with rice. They neither looked rich nor happy, and they had become migrant labourers. So we started thinking about our destiny and asking questions."
Questions led to answers. After visiting and talking with communities affected by other dam projects such as Sirikit Dam, Sirindhorn Dam and Pak Moon Dam, Sa-iab farmers decided to oppose the project.
"Most villagers affected by dam projects received compensation and moved elsewhere. Few have their own land or live in an area with natural resources to make sustainable living and hence have become migrant labourers, or have to rent land to farm," said Vichai.
It takes courage and force to launch a sustainable dam protest. Bricks were hauled at state officials and company consultants trying to enter the community. A public hearing organised by state agencies to complete projects were upset and derailed. In May, Sa-iab villagers overthrew a public hearing on the project. For them, public participation arranged by governments are used as a tactic to justify the process, not a means to address real problems.
Such aggressive reaction contradicts the traditional lifestyle of Sa-iab village. For ordinary visitors, the Sa-iab community is a peaceful traditional farm village. Elders are respected and children follow their parents' examples. The temple is still the centre of life _ and also the centre of the community's anti-dam campaign.
To ensure the dam protest continues, parents have taught their children about forest conservation. Over a decade ago, Sa-iab youth formed a conservation club called "Takorn Yom", which means "Sediments of Yom River".
Somming Muengrong, leader of the Sa-iab Community Conservation Group, admitted the rapacious anti-dam campaign might make villagers look selfish.
"People now say that our protest has prevented the construction of a flood-preventing dam. They hardly care that our villages will be submerged and that we will be forced out of our homes," he said. But the real point is that the dam projects will not prevent flooding downstream. The location of the project, on the upper part of Yom River, means it would be impossible to prevent overflowing water from downstream tributaries.
"It is time for society to realise that floods do not occur because of the lack of dams," says Somming. "Cities face more floods because natural water-absorbing areas, such as wetlands and water channels, which once served as flood draining tools are being developed."
In the last 23 years, there are many respected institutes such as the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) and Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) who have conducted studies on the project. For example, an FAO report stated that the Kaeng Sua Ten Dam could prevent floods only in a limited area.
Sa-iab villages and conservation groups such as Sueb Nakhasathien Foundation have proposed that the government study alternative water management plans. For instance, they have come up with the idea of constructing 77 small reservoirs along the 735km river, since they are more cost effective and can collect more water from the Yom River.
And if the state insists on building a big dam, they propose the study of a new site further downstream, near big cities, to block floodwaters at more strategic points. Somming said the authorities should consider new ways of modern waste water management, which include natural watersheds to absorb water, small reservoirs to stock water and appropriate land use that allows natural draining of the water. The dam projects in Mae Yom National Park will pose a threat to natural water management in the long term, he insisted.
"The world is changing and we need forest ecology to protect us from climate change. Forests also help supply water during drought and absorb water, when it's in excess. Society and government need to look at ecology and environment as part of water management, too,"said Somming.
"There is a myth that big dams can solve anything. But if there is an alternative that is cheaper, more environmentally-friendly and suits the locals, why doesn't the government and society study and consider new options?"
About the author
- Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: News Reporter