A Thai dam, a mistake, a debt

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Having successfully weathered the storm of protests at its April meeting, World Bank officials are back to business as usual, disrupting the lives and livelihoods of some of the world's poorest citizens.

The World Bank has been the largest single source of funds for large dam construction worldwide. Under its stated aim of alleviating poverty, it has promoted and funded dams that have displaced more than 10 million people, caused severe environmental damage, and pushed borrowers further into debt. Never hesitant to exact loan repayment in perpetuity for projects it has funded (even failed projects), the World Bank has never been forced to pay for the destruction it has brought to millions of people's lives and the environment.

The 25,000 villagers affected by the Pak Mun Dam in northeast Thailand know all too well about the World Bank and its particular brand of poverty alleviation. The dam, which was completed in 1994, decimated the abundant fisheries of the Mun River, thereby destroying the villagers' primary source of livelihood.

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In protest and in a quest for "justice," more than 3,000 villagers have occupied the area adjacent to the dam for more than 17 months - and moved in May to occupy the dam itself. At time of writing, 472 people are on an indefinite hunger strike outside Government House in Bangkok.

They're demanding that the Pak Mun Dam gates be permanently opened and the Mun River - largest tributary of the Mekong River - be restored. Inspired in part by the growing US dam-decommissioning movement, villagers believe the only way to recover their lost livelihoods is through restoring the Mun River.

They want the World Bank to take responsibility for its role in promoting and funding the project.

In a June letter to James Wolfensohn, World Bank president, villagers demanded "the World Bank work with the Thai government to decommission Pak Mun Dam by opening the flood gates permanently and restoring the Mun River."

The hydropower project was financed by the World Bank and built by the state-owned utility EGAT. It was controversial from the outset due to its predicted impacts on river fisheries. Local fisherfolk mounted an international campaign to prevent World Bank financing. EGAT and the bank dismissed the villagers' concerns, but did install a fish ladder to appease them. Ridiculously, the ladder's design was based on the habits of Pacific Salmon, not Mekong River fish, and is useless.

Meanwhile, EGAT and the World Bank claim the project is a success. A 1998 World Bank report claimed the project's resettlement was "satisfactory," and that compensation was "exceedingly generous," making the majority "better off." The report accuses villagers of having a "culture of complaint" and "trying to win sympathy for even greater compensation claims and assistance." But each change in resettlement policy was motivated by villagers' persistent protests and demands for just compensation. After a 10-year battle, villagers now maintain they were better off before the dam, and if it were up to them, they'd remove the dam and return to their old lives.

The World Commission on Dams (WCD), an independent international agency established to review the development effectiveness of large dams, recently completed its Pak Mun Dam study. The WCD recorded that 56 species of fish in the Mun River have completely disappeared since the dam was built. The WCD estimated that the actual catch in the reservoir and upstream is 60 percent to 80 percent less than in the pre-dam era, resulting in an economic loss to villagers of about $1.4 million per annum. The WCD also confirmed that the fish ladder "has not been performing and is not allowing upstream fish migration."

Economically, the WCD found the project isn't performing well, and that it contributes only marginal amounts of power. The dam was supposed to generate 136 megawatts, but barely generates 40 megawatts in high-demand months. There's simply insufficient water to turn the turbines in the dry season. Even in the rainy season, EGAT has to shut the plant down because high water levels upstream and downstream mean there isn't enough water pressure to drive the turbines.

The WCD concludes "it is unlikely that the project would have been built if actual true benefits would have been used in the economic analysis." With such evidence supporting the villagers' claims that the project has done more harm than good, there's no good reason for the Pak Mun Dam's gates to remain closed.

Removal of the dam would result in immediate benefits and no great loss to Thailand's power-generation capacity, currently in surplus.

The World Bank should own up to its mistakes. A growing movement of dam-affected communities from all over the world is demanding reparations, or retroactive compensation, for the continuing damage to their lives because of dams. It's time for the bank to pay its own debts. A contribution toward restoring the Mun River would be a good first step toward this goal.

*Chainarong Srettachau is director of South-East Asia Rivers Network, a Thailand-based nongovernmental organization. Aviva Imhof is Southeast Asia campaigner with the Berkeley, Calif.-based International Rivers Network.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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