Thursday, November 5, 2009

In pursuit of something more sustainable...

In unit 3 we studied water issues in Thailand, specifically looking at the affects of dams on local communities. For the unit we lived and exchanged with two communities that have been dramatically impacted by a dam: Rasi Salai and Pak Mun. Upon arriving in Rasi Salai we were split into pairs and matched up with a family that we stayed with for four days. Jenny and I paired up and were met at the vans by Meena, our 15 year-old "younger sister."

Meena was so excited to meet us and was very patient with our limited Thai language abilities. She led us back to the house, and overwhelmed with the excitement of having visitors she clumsily scrambled to serve us dinner. At first, Jenny and I were a little bit confused about where the rest of the Meena’s family was. Meena's Yie (grandmother) was perched on the front porch, but her meh (mom) and paw (dad) were nowhere to be found. When Meena brought the food out and sat down with us I began to ask her questions about her family.

Me: "Cropcrewa con coon me cry bang ka (Who is in your family)?"

Meena: "Meh, Paw, Yie gop Chan (My mom, dad, grandma and I)"

Me: "Pawmeh con Coon yu tee nie ka (Where are your mom and dad)?"

Meena: "Pawmeh con Chane tom nyoung tee Bangkok" (My mom and dad work in Bangkok)"

Interested to learn more about Meena's living situation, but limited by our thai language abilities, the following day we sat down with Meena, her Yie and a translator to get to know her better. During our exchange we discovered that the land that Meena's family had farmed on for generations flooded when the Rasi Salai Dam was built in 1993. As a result, Meena's parents left when Meena was 3 months old to find work in Bangkok, and to be close to a hospital because Meena's mother has diabetes.

Meena's Yie raised her, but now that she is older, Meena is responsible for taking care of the house and cooking. Meena's daily routine consists of waking up around 5 a.m., cleaning the house, cooking breakfast, going to school, cooking dinner and doing homework. Although Meena has a lot of responsibility as a 15-year-old girl, she is still young, enthusiastic and loves to have a good time. She enjoys going to school, studying Thai literature and reading. She also expressed that she hopes to study at a university when she graduates from high school, but that ultimately she would like to return and live in Rasi Salai.

I really enjoyed hanging out with Meena and helping with her English homework, but my experiences living with her and Pak Mun villagers opened my eyes to the impacts that dams can have on local communities. Taking a step back to look at the big picture I have come to question the sustainability of my lifestyle, and of the society that I live in. In general dams are built to either provide irrigation for farming or to generate power for electricity. But, the average lifespan of an electricity generating dam is only about 50 years. In addition a large number of dams are constructed without environmental impact assessments (EIA), social impact assessments (SIA), or the participation and consent of the local people that are negatively affected by the dam’s construction. After working closely with communities affected by dams I cannot help but think that the costs associated with building dams greatly outweigh the benefits.

When I first visited the Pak Mun Dam, a project that has received international attention as being one of the World Bank’s greatest investment failures, I was struck by how out-of-place it looked. A giant concrete eye soar obstructing the flow of the Mun River and drawing attention away from the otherwise natural landscape. The Pak Mun dam was constructed between 1990 and 1994 to generate power for the region; however, in 2000 the 136-megawatt dam was barely generating 40 megawatts of electricity. The story is not much different today, as the dam, which cost US$233 million to build (almost twice as much as originally projected), still has not recovered its investment costs.

The failures of Pak Mun, sadly, are not an isolated case. The Rasi Salai dam was constructed in 1993 to provide local farmers with irrigation; however, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was never conducted, and the villagers were not included in the planning process. In fact, the villagers were originally told by the government that a rubber weir was going to be built to help with flooding, only to find out later that a large concrete dam was being constructed. Sixteen years later the dam does not provide any irrigation to local farmers. Why? The reservoir that the dam was built on sits above a large salt deposit, resulting in over-salinated water that is not suitable for agricultural use. Had an EIA been conducted this would have been discovered and the disastrous project may have been avoided.

Villagers in both Pak Mun and Rasi Salai have been deprived of their land, livelihoods and way of life. Some villagers have been partially compensated, yet many more have not. The fight for justice continues, 16 years after the construction of both dams.

So is it worth it? Is there a more sustainable way to go about development? Are we willing to make the changes? It’s easy to overlook the consequences of development projects when we are far removed from their impacts, but my experiences during our unit on dams makes me want to make some changes.

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