Cover photo: A community leader celebrates the government’s decision in 2000 to open the gates of the Pak Mun Dam for one year. International Rivers / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Six decades of dam building, from the dawn of the Cold War to the tenure of the latest military junta are proof of the failure of water management in Isaan. It’s time to dismantle the dams and turn to sustainable approaches, writes environmental expert Chainarong Setthachua.

By Chainarong Setthachua

A challenging environmental issue in Northeast Thailand is the increasing occurrence of floods. These are caused by a long-standing water management policy that views the issue through the prism of engineering solutions. The fruits of this approach are dams, weirs and dikes, which have proven unable to hold rainfall in the rainy season and ultimately contribute to increasingly severe floods.

It is worth noting that many countries which used to lean on engineering solutions to address water management have reconsidered their methods. These include countries like the United States, which supplied engineering plans and construction plans for almost all of Isaan’s dams.

But the Thai government is still moving forward with outdated water management concepts, even as the countries which first tried them out have long since abandoned this approach.

Instead, Thailand should decommission its dams and preserve and restore wetlands, which would not be expensive.

The Isaan region is a large plateau on the right bank of the Mekong River. It covers the Sakon Nakhon and Khorat tributary streams, with the former mainly consisting of the Songkhram River as the main tributary, as well as the Loei and Kam rivers. The Khorat stream is where the Chi and Mun rivers flow before meeting the Mekong River in Ubon Ratchathani province.

When Isaan was incorporated into the Thai nation state, the government relied upon western water management know-how of the time, beginning in the reign of King Rama V in the 19th century.

Thai government initially focused on modern, engineering-based water management in the central region, which is an area that grows rice for exports. That led to setting up of the Irrigation Department, the country’s main water management agency.

Meanwhile, farmers in Isaan were still using traditional water management techniques to produce rice, including rain irrigation and water wheels which can still be found in the Phrom and Lam Takhong river basin areas.

Communities along the Mekong River in the Northeast are seeing the impact of hydroelectric dams upstream in Laos and China. Once abundant in aquatic life , the nets of fishermen are now often empty. Photo by Panumas Sanguanwong.

Changes to water management in Isaan started in the 1950s. As the Cold War got into full swing, the country received support from various western countries, with the US chiefly among them. As the colonial era drew to a close with first Britain and then France’s departure from the region, US influence gained ascendancy.

Water resource development cannot be separated from the US influence in politics in the Mekong River basin because dam construction formed the heart of US support through its largest dam construction agency called the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). Dam construction was expensive, often requiring developing countries such as Thailand to seek significant loans from the World Bank, an institution where US influence was prominent.

The USBR played a role in mapping out the construction of dams throughout Isaan. The USBR planned the construction of Pa Mong Dam in Pak Chom district of Loei province, with hopes that the dam would be larger than the Hoover dam–a monumental symbol of engineering prowess that was named as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World–located on the border between the US states of Arizona and Nevada.

The US also planned the power grids of the Mekong River basin.

The planning and construction of dams in Isaan went hand-in-hand with the US war effort in Indochina.

This is because many dams were constructed at the same time as the creation of US military bases to provide water and energy for US forces. These include the Huai Luang Dam in Udon Thani province, Lam Takhong Dam in Nakhon Ratchasima and Lam Dom Noi Dam in Ubon Ratchathani, all of which hosted a large US military presence.

The construction of Lumpao Dam in Kalasin province in 1956 resulted in the relocation of over 5,500 families and contributed to the cancellation of the ambitious Pa Mong Dam project. The Pa Mong Dam would have been the very first dam across the Mekong River. Had it gone ahead, the Pa Mong Dam was expected to have displaced a quarter of a million people, a number that gave even the planners some pause for thought.

The US retreat from the Second Indochina War in 1975 finally drove the final nail into the coffin for the Pa Mong Dam, and many dam projects planned by the USBR were passed on to the Thai government. They include the Pak Mun Dam in Ubon Ratchathani province, Pong Khun Phet Dam in Chaiyaphum and most recently the Chi Bon Dam in Chaiyaphum that was approved by the 2014 coup junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), at the beginning of this year.

Violating the rights of dam opposers

Those who oppose dams raise the issue of relocation as a problem. However, it was difficult for those affected to protest during the previous dictatorship periods. In the 1960s, there were serious human rights violations against locals opposing dams, such as the assassination of a leader who protested the Huai Luang Dam in Udon Thani province in 1975.

In the 1980s, the Khong-Chi-Mun water diversion project consisted of a plan to construct 22 dams worth 228 billion baht ($746 million USD), with a project duration of 47 years that aimed to solve the water shortage in 14 Isaan provinces. The Thai government approved the project in 1989, with the first phase consisting of the construction of 13 dams on the Chi and Mun rivers, while the later phases included the diversion of water from the Mekong River to the Chi and Mun river basins.

Locals in many areas said officials told them that rubber weirs would be built to store water for the dry season, when they actually ended up being large concrete dams.

The Khong-Chi-Mun water diversion project was promoted and used for vote canvassing by politicians ever since the government of General Chatichai Choonhavan (1988-91). However, it was opposed by locals, especially those affected by the Rasi Salai and Hua Na dams in Sisaket province, as well as the Yasothon-Panomorai Dam in Roi Et province.

The epic Khong-Chi-Mun water diversion project

Dams under the Khong-Chi-Mun (river) water diversion project had serious social and environmental effects. This is because the dams, especially those in the Mun basin and lower Chi River, were built on wetlands which are considered as areas with the best ecosystems in Isaan.

The construction of these dams would destroy the biodiversity that, among other things, makes Thailand’s rice varieties so good. Meanwhile, the benefits of some dams in the Khong-Chi-Mun water diversion scheme have been equal to zero, especially dams of the lower Chi River, the Rasi Salai, and Hua Na dams, because the water isn’t used for irrigation at all.

Apart from that, closing watergates during the high water season causes upstream communities to be flooded. Local communities have for years been calling for the opening of the gates during the rainy season, so as to avoid the yearly man-made flooding in the lower Chi River basin.

The dams have been a source of conflict between locals and the government for decades.

Amidst these problems, the government has had to suspend the second phase of the project that would divert water from the Mekong River. This is because the environmental impact assessment (EIA) was not approved by the National Environment Board, particularly due to its likelihood of increased salianation of the region.

The Pak Mun Dam, a project developed in cooperation with the French government in 1967, was incorporated into the Khong-Chi-Mun water diversion project and approved in the 1970s along with other dams. It was met with the longest and most determined resistance from locals.

Apart from the Khong-Chi-Mun water diversion scheme, Japan’s develop agencies in the 1980s proposed plans to divert water from tributaries in Laos to the Mun River basin. However, the plan was opposed due to, especially, fears of increased salianation, resulting in the suspension of the project.

Since government construction of new dams became increasingly difficult due to public opposition, dam builders and Thai government agencies in the 1990s turned towards dam construction in neighboring countries, especially Laos, to generate electricity for consumption in Thailand.

Lacking public participation

Dredging waterways has damaged riverine ecosystems and led to protests in many areas. Some instances resulted in complaints to the National Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights violations, such as bully-boy tactics to limit and discourage local participation.

The construction of dikes to prevent flooding has actually resulted in more severe flooding, such as those in Ubon Ratchathani province, because the water is forced not allowed to flow naturally.

In many instances, poorly maintained dikes have collapsed, resulting in severe flooding, as happened in the Chi River basin. But these floods have been labelled as natural disasters and victims have been provided assistance accordingly.

The results of the past five decades is clear. The water management policies, which hinged on engineering mega-projects, have failed at their objectives. Yet the government still doggedly persists with this approach, as evidenced by the NCPO’s recent approvals of dams and watergate projects worth billions of baht.

Isaan’s water management problem is ultimately a problem of an over-centralized government that is afflicted by Maslow’s hammer: when you’re holding a hammer in your hands, everything looks like a nail. To the Thai government, every water management problem seems to look like an engineering project.

This overreliance on relatively simple engineering solutions rather than more sophisticated, long-term ecological solutions has resulted in much damage. Case in point: The collapse of the Huai Sai Kamin dam in 2017 resulted in the most severe floods that Sakon Nakhon province has ever experienced.

Water management policies must be revamped. The government must solve problems from a more holistic perspective which ought to include the restoration of communities affected by dams, such as the Pak Mun and Rasi Salai dams.

Dams that have proven to be unbeneficial, such as the Pak Mun Dam and dams under the Khong-Chi-Mun water diversion project, should be decommissioned, and the gates left permanently opened to allow the ecosystem to recover. Small-scale projects must be reconsidered or suspended.

The government must stop with its mega-project myopia. It must unlearn what has proven not to work, and learn new ways of water management, such as by encouraging farmers to have small water reserves on their own land and lowering the use of water in agriculture.

Most importantly, the government must draw from public participation and move away from centralized water management.

This story was first published in Thai on August 20, 2019. Translated by The Isaan Record.