Saturday, April 10, 2010

Picture yourself in a boat on a reservoir

The Rasi Salai dam is sitting on top of, ruining and flooding 400,000 rai of wetlands. The Rasi Salai dam semi- successfully irrigates water to 10,000 rai of farmland. You can do the math. 

The wetlands were commonly dubbed a "supermarket" by the villagers living in the Rasi district in Sisaket province. They provided food, medicine, income, and livelihood for many communities living near the Mun River. However, the Thai government has this perception on Isaan as being dry, parched, and in need of water. Therefore, they initiated a ton of irrigation projects to help the poor, helpless farmers, who needed the government to help them sustain themselves. Unfortunately, the government did not realize that villagers in Isaan were self-sustainable, and needed nothing less than political intervention. The natural flooding cycles allowed farmers to take advantage of both the wet and dry seasons, and now the wetlands are always wet, stagnant, dirty, and inaccessible. 

Over and over this happens. The Pak Mun dam provides less than half of the electricity it was supposed to. However, villagers and NGOs have been able to community organize and protest against the government to some extent after very long fights. The Pak Mun dam is currently open 8 months of the year instead of 12 and Rasi villagers have received some compensation for lost land. Hua Na villagers have been able to keep the gates of their dam open completely (the dam has never actually been used) until a Social Impacts Analysis and Environmental Impacts Analysis is completed and the dam plans are modified accordingly. The Hua Na and Rasi communities work together to support one another. Rasi is a sort of mentor to Hua Na, so that Hua Na can prevent the harm that occurred in Rasi. In exchange, Hua Na villagers protest with Rasi villagers to show support and solidarity. People from each village set up a protest village together at the Royal Irrigation Department for 189- days in 2009. 

I spent three nights in Ban Puung, with a family, whose Paw was the village leader for the Rasi Salai dam group. He is in charge of bringing back information regarding the dam from meetings either locally or in other districts or Bangkok. I attended a whole village meeting, where some leaders and NGOs spread awareness regarding a group of people who are telling villagers that if they pay 1000 baht, this group will help them in their fight against the use of the dam. Instead, the scammers just take the 1000 baht, give the villagers a white t-shirt, and sayonara. After the whole village meeting, all the leaders get together to evaluate that meeting. The lack of village participation was a concern, and it was suggested that leaders should work to get more people involved and aware. Sounds like group process to me. 

We have already started working on our final project with Rasi, the project I have committed myself to for the last two weeks of our semester. The Rasi and Hua Na communities have received money and land to build a learning center, where they hope to promote awareness about their culture and struggles, and educate visitors and future generations. They hope we can help them come up with a long- term plan  for the Learning Center that incorporates environmental education (love it!), cultural preservation, historical background, environmental restoration, and agriculture. We researched some environmental and cultural LC around the world, and presented the ideas that we thought would best be applied to Rasi.  Now we need to concretely decide where things are going to go, when, and how this project will be completed. I am so excited about this project; I always knew I was going to be interested in water issues, so when we first visited Rasi and became aware of how they could best use our help, it was amazing that  Environmental Education was first on their list. After taking a class on EE at Bowdoin sophomore spring, I have realized the importance of hands- on, take control of your own education, that connects you to your own land and surroundings. I will be applying everything I learned with Kara for this project in the up-coming weeks, so more to come. 

Oh. P.S. got to go on a boat. and I caught an eel. so cool. 

After leaving Rasi, we left for beautiful Tamui village situated on the Mekhong. It was the most beautiful village we have been to yet. The river was clean and clear, and the rocks and sand that lined the shores were undisturbed. Tamui has not yet been affected by a dam, but six dams are planned to be built along the shores of the Mekhong between Thailand and Laos. (Yes, I was across the river from Laos, swam halfway across the Mekhong to Laos, and CIEE took us on a boat trip to Laos, no documentation required...) If these dams are built, this entire beautiful community will be flooded and the villagers would have to move off their land. Since they are all fisherman, continuing their livelihoods would be an impossibility. 

Even though the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand has no plans to build any more hydropower dams such as the one that would affect Tamui, the Thai- Italy Comany (a huge transnational corporation) got the Laos and Thai government to sign a secret contract allowing the construction of the dam. Who signed this contract? The Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs; seems a bit out of his area, no? The Thai- Italy Company was offering villagers 5M baht to sign a petition to allow the dam to be constructed; of course to be paid afterwards (so probably not at all). They bought the headman of the village over with 20M baht. 

Dams are being developed in China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, and Thailand as a part of the KhongChiMun project (the Mekhong, Chi, and Mun rivers are the three major rivers that run through that area.) These dams will attempt to divert water from the Mekhong in China to the Chi and the Mun and their tributaries. However, water scarcity is going to be a major problem. If all the water is blocked near the top of the river, no one is going to be able to get water downstream. Since China is the most powerful, developed country and at the head of the Mekhong, it will benefit much more than any of the other poorer, down stream countries.

I really connected to this unit above any other. Water has always been so important to me, just in terms of recreational uses between swimming, kayaking, canoeing. In addition, Maine runs on 40% hydropower, which I always believed was a better alternative than coal- powered plants. I always knew the environmental effects of dams, but never the community effects, maybe because in Maine people have been living with dams for 100-200 years that those impacts have been mitigated by now. I called Eileen, the director of Bowdoin's ES program for a completely different purpose, but she informed be of a project that Bowdoin and two other Maine universities are getting starting. It works with communities who are going to be affected by dam decommissioning and river restoration. I can not wait to get started. Now that I've worked with communities who have been negatively impacted by river work in their homes, its going to be interesting to see what issues may arise surrounding such positive work. 

The difference in the water in Rasi Salai and Tamui was stark and undeniable. The Mun river was filthy, and there was a layer of boiling hot water and really cold water underneath, because the water was so stagnant and unmoving. The Mekhong was clear, cool, healthy, and you could find multiple varieties of fish swimming around. Although dams upstream have already impacted the river, the current state is far better than the Mun reservoir. 

Water and the things that live in it are our most sacred resources. People need water, the earth needs water, and making clean water inaccessible or expensive is a human rights violation and murder. 

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