An inquisitive journal into costs and benefits of dam project in Thailand
Case study: Thailand's Pak Mun Dam
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.
Author unknown, Traditional nursery rhyme
River is the source of life since the dawn of mankind. We have all come to depend on it for so long that for many people river have become their way of life. Many rural communities have been form around the river bank for so long that one cannot exist without the other.
Therefore, it is natural to think that anything that effect the river would also effect the live of people who lives along its bank. Then what if something causes the change in the river flow, its ecosystem or even makes it disappeared all together, dry up. Will such communities be able to survive? What about other similar village? This question is important because now million of people are being affected by this change in their livelihood caused by the construction of the so-called development project that claims to help alleviate their poverty, I’m of course referring to a dam.
Dam, what it is
Dam, as define by Webster’s Dictionary is “A barrier to prevent the flow of a liquid; esp., a bank of earth, or wall of any kind, as of masonry or wood, built across a water course, to confine and keep back flowing water.” (Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, 1913), although by now most of the material used in construction of the dam have evolve with time making dam stronger and more sophisticated, the above definition is still quite an adequate description of a dam.
There are many way to classify a dam, by its structure, intended purposes or its height. Most people tends to classify a dam by its intended purpose for simplicity.
Many things can be say about dam's benefits, be it economical or social. Dam, it supporters say, help to stimulate the economy by creating jobs during and after the construction phase, thereby creating income for local people and hence reduce poverty.
Another benefit of the dam project is agriculture; dam reserve can be use to store water for use in dry season and help irrigate local farmland in time of need. Also during rainy season dam could help prevent flooding in many areas.
But one of the main benefit of the dam is its ability to produce power. Hydropower, created by dam is one of the most efficient and less polluted source of power in the world.
Costs of the dam
As in the case of its benefits, dam can also be cited as the cause of many environmental, economic and social problems. In order to construct a dam, huge amount of land must be recalled and then flooded, stripping people of their land and destroy many natural resources in the area. The dam also causes the flow of the river to change, disrupting the river ecosystem and, as in the case of Pak Mun Dam, reduced population of fish in the river.
Dislocated people whose land were confiscated to build a dam is the responsibility of the government. Government must pay compensation to these people, help them find new place to live. This is a burden on the nation as a whole, as the money government uses to pay these people are all comes from taxes, in other word, it is our money. Also in many cases the life quality of the dislocated people are worsened after they were forced to move. Many former members of self-sufficient community that before the dam were built live as a farmer with their own land and their own house were forced to sold their labour as a construction worker and live in a slump in the city to sustain themself and their families.
Last impact a dam has on the local community is the effect it has on local people's way of life. As we know, many rural communites especially those that formed around the river side have a very strong tie with it. River is a place where people in the community get together and interact with each other. Without the river, which act like a center of such communites, these communites cannot continue their existence, their way of life.
Does dam's benefits justify its costs?
Now that we have an understanding of what a dam is, we can now consider the key question: does dam's benefits in Thailand outweight it costs enough to warrant it use?
Take for example a case of Pak Mun Dam: Pak Mun Dam is one of the major dam in Thailand, which according to the World Commission on Dams (WCD) case study, is located “…On the Mun River, 5.5km upstream from its confluence with the Mekong, in the province of Ubon Ratchathani, in Northeast Thailand.”
Since the project inception the purpose of the project was to provide hydropower during peak hour and to help the development of the local villagers. Its creator, the World Bank and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) also want to preserve local fishery and, to a certain extend, irrigation.
But many problems plague the project; from government’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) that due to lack of adequate information, lack of proper understanding in project evaluation procedure and lack of long-term study on environmental impact, fail to represent the true impact the project will have on the country. Not only this, but EGAT also overestimate the dam's power generating capability as the dam was unable to provide enough amount of power during the peak hours as previously estimated, thus eliminating the dam's main purpose. The last problem is the lack of people participation in the decision-making process, causing many protest and unrest in the area.
As we see in the case of Pak Mun Dam, good intention does not necessarily translate into a result. The failure of government to properly account for all of the project impacts and benefits have led to a construction of the project that ended up neither help the nation's economy nor alleviate the local villagers poverty, in a word of WCD report “One of the key lessons emerging from the study is that if all the benefits and costs were adequately assessed, it is unlikely that the project would have been built in the current context.”
For Thailand the main problem lies in how to correctly asserted the benefit and cost of such project, for not just Pak Mun Dam but many other dams in Thailand share a simillar problems: the benefits they provides does not add up to the costs, result in the lost of welfare for the whole nation. In my opinion, the problem is not whether there should be more dam built in Thailand, it is how we can justify the construction of a new one. At current state we are looking only at the benefit of the dam more than its cost, result in too many dam being constructed, causing many negative impact on economy, social and local communites.
But this is not to say that we should forbidden all dam relate project. Dam has it use as we have just seen. It is the matter of choosing the right kind of tools for the job. Dam project is just one of many tools government have in order to stimulate economy, develop rural communites and providing power for the industry. Weather to construct a dam or not should depend on the nations' economy & social condition as well as its pressing needs. If a dam is the best solution we have then by all means use it! But in order to do that we must have better analytical tools and more thorough information to use in the decision-making process. Somethings that I think we still lack in Thailand.
There is no clear-cut solution to this problem. For many people dam is their salvation, while others see them as their damnation. Until the government agency in Thailand can find a way to better approximate such project costs & benefits then it is too risky to have more dam in Thailand.
WCD. 2000. WCD case study Pak Mun Dam Mekong River Basin Thailand, Final Report: November 2000
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://wikipedia.org
International Rivers Network. http://www.irn.org
South East Asia Rivers Network. http://www.searin.org
The World Commission on Dams. http://dams.org