Raiwan Anan-uea, 48, recalls a simple and happy adolescence in the district of Rasi Salai, where a dozen villages shared the abundant resources available in this remote corner of Isan, northeast Thailand.
“All year round we could grow rice, beans, cucumbers and potatoes. We could pick bamboo, catch catfish and water snails, cultivate honey, graze cattle, collect firewood and kenaf to make ropes," he said. "It was a natural pantry and a pharmacy where we just had to help ourselves. Then life became much harder.”
In the early 1990s, the Thai government initiated a series of 14 dam projects on the Chi and Mun, the country’s two longest rivers, including one in Rasi Salai district. Funded by the World Bank, these structures were supposed to generate electricity, regulate water flows during floods and droughts, improve irrigationn and create jobs.
But Ubon Yoowah, a volunteer advisor at the Rasi Salai Learning Centre, a group set up by local activists in 2010 to help those affected by the district's dam, says it has been a failure.
“Dams are not in the public interest. The construction cost €24 million [US$29 million], or five times the initial budget, not including maintenance," he said. "The amount of compensation to be paid to the villagers for the loss of their land is €55 million, half of which has still not been paid. All this and the farmers still do not have enough water. The country is full of examples of poorly designed mega-infrastructure imposed without consultation.”
According to the Environmental Justice Atlas, an open-source database created by researchers from the University of Barcelona and funded by environmental justice foundations, between 15,000 and 17,000 households have been directly impacted by the Rasi Salai operation.
Depending on the season, the dams along the Chi and Mun rivers exacerbate water shortages and flash floods, affecting villages, towns and cities throughout several provinces.
That's because the Rasi Salai reservoir was not built with pumping stations that would allow farmers to irrigate their fields at high elevations during times of droughts or drain water from fields in the lowlands during floods, said Yoowah. Additionally, by blocking the flow of the river for eight months of the year, the reservoir has contributed to increased salinity, which has polluted drinking water sources and caused rice plants to die.
The dams were met with fierce resistance from the start.
Along the 900 kilometres of the Mun River, a handful of protesters in each village secretly held nightly meetings in 1994, just after the dam opened, and they made their own assessment of the losses by interviewing their neighbours. One of the most famous rural protests in Thai history took place at the Pak Mun dam, just downstream from Rasi Salai, when locals occupied the structure there. The impact of this resistance movement resonated nationally, giving birth to the Assembly of the Poor, a network of communities affected by dams, mining operations and land expropriation.
“Before the age of social networks, it was the only way for them to be heard,” said Wattana Narkpradit, former secretary of the Assembly of the Poor.
"Even though the dams were built, the villagers learned not to be afraid of the officials and managed to get compensation," Narkpradit said. "Pak Mun has been important in making workers, farmers and ethnic minorities understand that they can fight for their rights in court and question the land policy.”
After years of protest, the government began a round of compensation in 1996, but only for the holders of land titles. Mae Nhoopeng, 60, lost everything.
“I lost 20 rai [eight acres] of rice fields. I had no title deed, so I only received a little money for the evacuation," she said. "Worst of all, I don’t have any land to give to my children and grandchildren."
Nhoopeng said even those who had land titles only received 32,000 baht (US$1,070) per rai (~0.4 acres), well below its value.
"Relatives fought for the same plots because hardly anyone had papers. Community leaders pocketed money for themselves. It was a big mess,” she recalled.
Professor Panya Khamlarp, a representative of the Association of Freshwater Fishing Communities of Isan, is part of a group of researchers coordinated by Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok who are investigating the loss of income caused by the destruction of wetlands in Rasi Salai.
The researchers are currently preparing a case set for a hearing this year that asks for compensation for income losses rather than land. It’s the first case of its kind among the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) demanding acknowledgment of the dams' broader socio-eco consequences in wetlands.
“When they closed the floodgates in the first year and everything was under water, people were very afraid. Since then, they have been living in uncertainty," Khamlarp said. "The government decides what it wants to give to the people, but it doesn’t understand what it is taking from them. Getting [further] compensation [for the destruction of wetlands] for the loss of their way of life would allow this psychological shock to be recognised.”
The director of the Royal Irrigation Department in Rasi Salai, Panari Panuphintu, said he is sensitive to the desperation of the farmers.
“We know that people want to stay here to make a living, so we are helping them to grow trees and to shift to crops that are better adapted to the changing environment,” he said.
Beyond these micro-projects, however, Panuphintu remains convinced that taming nature through infrastructure development is the future, as the government has announced its new plan to divert the course of the Mekong River as it enters Thailand to build a series of canals across the region.
"Dams are for public use and irrigation areas are necessary. Relying only on rainwater is not enough," Panuphintu said. "We have to use natural resources to provide water during the dry season and all we have is the Mekong River.”
Despite warnings from environmentalists alarmed by the loss of biodiversity and food sources in the region due to changes in water levels and quality caused by the dams obstructing the free flow of the river and its tributaries, hundreds of hydropower and irrigation dams have already wreaked havoc on the ecosystem of the mighty Mekong. This lifeline crossing six Southeast Asian countries, on which 60 million people depend for their daily survival, increasingly looks like a series of lifeless ponds.
In this new normal, the dry season brings low levels of water, thanks to China closing the tap of the upper part of the Mekong to fill its own reservoirs. During monsoon season, heavy rainfall and water released without notice by China causes reservoirs to overflow, sweeping away entire villages in northeast Thailand as well as in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
In March 2020, the Cambodian government finally reacted to the massive drop in fish volumes in Tonlé Sap Lake by postponing for the next decade the construction of all new dam projects on the parts of the Mekong within its borders, giving hope to communities that this window of time will allow them to convince officials to abandon dam projects in the Mekong region once and for all and focus on the development of sustainable energy, such as solar and wind power.
Yet politicians and other officials have often pushed for these giant infrastructure projects as a way to line their pockets, say watchdog groups.
“To get a position in government, from the Minister of Agriculture to the sub-district chief, politicians invest large sums,” said Yoowah. “To recover this money, they approve large contracts for roads or dams in exchange for bribes from various banks and construction companies, in addition to jobs or contracts for their relatives.”
Local activists founded the Rasi Salai Learning Centre with compensation money they won from the government for the loss of their land to the dam. Its main activities are educating people about how to replace their lost income by learning new means of livelihoods and fighting to revitalize the local ecology. It also handles court cases, gathers information for researchers, organises agricultural workshops and helps maintain the area’s remaining fragile social fabric.
Another programme, Thai Baan (Thai Village), has since 2000 helped turn local fisherman and farmers into citizen scientists who collect data on the environmental damage and loss of income caused by the Rasi Salai dam.
But it’s not just dams that have been detrimental to the region’s waterways and those who live along them. Since the early 2000s, Southeast Asia’s building boom has increased demand for sand from the Mekong River and its tributaries. New research by the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom has shown that sand mining drives erosion, leading to riverbank instability and potential collapse, which can damage infrastructure and cause the loss of housing and life.
When asked how much has been lost since the dam was built, local chief Apirat Suthawan sighs. “The dam destroyed trees, animals, people, so many things. From a Buddhist and animist point of view, building a dam is a sin because it does not respect the cycle of nature and kills life. We just want it to be taken down and get our life back.”
Suthawan is now calling on the new generation to learn about the difficult history of their land.
“Our young people don’t know what has happened to us because in school they learn that dams are good. I talk to them when I have the opportunity, or I broadcast information over the loudspeaker and tell them that they shouldn’t believe everything the government says," he explained. "If we don’t fight for our community, who will fight for us?”
A version of this story originally appeared on Equal Times on 29 Jan. 2021. It has been edited here for length and clarity and was funded by a special grant from Internews' Earth Journalism Network's Asia-Pacific program.