Thursday, October 1, 2009

I'll be DAMed!

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Rasi Salai Dam protest village with a small group of students. Rasi Salai Dam was built by the Thai government in 1992 to provide agricultural irrigation for the surrounding area. However, the government did not take into account the traditional farming practices of the local people and did not conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) before constructing the dam.

The results were devastating. The dam distrupted the natural flooding patterns of the river, flooded the wetlands that people depended on for their livlihoods and resulted in an over-salinated water supply. It is estimated that 17,000 Rasi Salai villagers have been negatively impacted by the dam. As mentioned before, the dam was supposed to provide irrigation, but the reservoir water was too salty to be used for agriculture, and the surrounding villages did not want to relocate in order for an irrigation canal to be built. The irrigation cannal was therefore never finished. Furthermore, the dam is not used to generate power, so it did not benefit the villagers in any way. Had an EIA been conducted prior to the construction of the dam, researchers could have predicted that the water supply would be too salty for agricultural production.

Instead of conducting an EIA or SIA, the government forged ahead with the project, spending six times as much as projected to construct the dam. When the gates of the dam are closed fish resources in the river are depleted and the wetlands are flooded. It is estimated that 15 species of fish, 30,000 rai of wetlands and 10 traditional varieties of rice have been lost from flooding. These are resources that the local people depend on for their daily survival. The negative effects of the dam motivated villagers to protest the government and spread awareness about their situation to prevent the same thing from happening in other regions.
Currently, 2,700 villagers are living outside the gates of the dam in a temporary protest village. They have been there for 3 months and 28 days, and will not leave until they recieve compensation for their land and lost livlihood. In addition they are demanding that an environmental recovery plan be carried out and that they are able to have representatives on the committee that determines when the dam is open and when it is closed.

We visited the community to see what we may be able to help them with. They asked us for two things. (1) To spread awareness nationally and internationally about their struggle and (2) to raise funds to support their specific cause, and a larger network of dam victims.

Prior to visiting the community I did not have a pressing interest in the effects that dams have on local communities, so I was surprised when I immediately felt drawn in to their situation and wanted to help in any way possible. I felt needed, but it would be really hard to not feel that way. As our van navigated the winding road towards the dam there was water on either side of the road. Water, which we were told should not be there, but is because of the construction of the dam. As we approached the end of the road the protest camp came into sight. Row after row of shanty-like tarps were pitched as make-shift tents. It resembled the closest thing I have ever seen to a refugee camp (although it is important to note that these people do have homes, they came to live in the camp to protest because much of their land has been flooded).

As we trudged through the rain and mud to a meeting area I could not help but think how greatly the dam must have impacted these peoples' way of life to motivate them to protest under such conditions, for so long. It was stormy, windy and muddy and they had nothing more than a tarp over their heads, and sometimes, a raised platform to sit and sleep on. They fish off the side of the dam, scavenge in the wetlands and rely on remittances from family members. Before the dam was built they were able to grow and collect everything they needed to eat and sell from the wetlands. Now, many of their family members had to move to Bangkok to make a living. The rest of them are left back in the villages to grow and collect what little they can.

Inspired to help the Rasi Salai villagers reclaim their way of life we came up with project ideas to spread awareness and obtain funding to support their cause. Right now we are working on a photo essay to tell their story, which I will be sure to post on the blog when its finished. I'll also post updates on other projects we start related to their protest.

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