Sri Song Rak sluice gate on the Nam Loei River

Originally published in Bangkok Tribune News

By Phairin Sohsai, the Thai-Mekong Campaign Coordinator for International Rivers and Sayan Chuenudomsavad, a documentary photographer residing in Bangkok, Thailand. Diverse and vibrant, his images capture everyday people living alongside the challenges of development, climate change and social changes in the Mekong region.

The Northeastern region has been dotted with dams following the decades of state ambition to make optimum use of water in the region and from the Mekong River. They, however, have also been marred with strong opposition by local people who say the environment and their livelihoods have been extensively affected

For the past few decades, the water from the Mekong River and its tributaries has been offered as the main ‘solution’ to address drought and poverty and bring prosperity to the people of Isaan, the Northeast of Thailand.

Water shortages and limited productivity are often viewed as a problem of the country’s Northeast, driving large-scale water resource development interventions since at least the 1960s when modernisation of the agricultural sector became a key ideological underpinning of state development policy in Thailand.

During the Second Indochina War, building dams and large water infrastructure in Thailand’s Northeast region was part of Thai-US counter-insurgency or development programs in their fight against communism. As Cold War tension eased, the “Green Isaan” project was promoted to irrigate the Northeast and promote agro-industrial development.

A long line of large-scale water development projects has ensued and many Isaan people have come to believe the political slogan, “bring water to Isaan and poverty will be made history”. As a result, Isaan is littered with dams and reservoirs like the Ubonrattana Dam, Lam Pao Dam, Sirindhorn Dam, and Pak Mun Dam. Despite billions of baht being spent, these projects have done little to improve the lives of Isaan people or reduce inequalities.

One of the most controversial water development initiatives, the Kong-Chi-Mun Project, aimed to pump water from the Mekong and key tributaries to irrigate Isaan. More than 18 billion baht was allocated to develop at least 14 dams and irrigation systems in the first phase on the Mun and Chi River systems. The aim was to increase the irrigated area to more than four million rai (640,000 hectares). 

The impacts

The promised benefits never materialised. On the contrary, the project caused widespread salinisation of irrigated land and destroyed one of the most ecologically abundant wetlands in Isaan. The lowland floodplain forest used to be the breeding ground of more than 200 species of fish and other aquatic animals and was home to numerous native plants which people relied on for their livelihood. The reservoirs also inundated farmland and grazing land and hundreds of salt farms.

People mobilised in opposition to the state project as part of the “Assembly of the Poor” in the 1990s. These days they continue to demand compensation for the loss of land and livelihoods and the restoration of the ecosystem. As a result of these social conflicts, phase two of the Kong-Chi-Mun Project was shelved. 

Despite the failure of the Kong-Chi-Mun and its predecessors, large-scale water development projects to alleviate “drought” and “poverty” in Isaan continue to be a flagship policy of successive governments and political parties. It seems that nothing much has changed except the name of each proposed project, and the political stripes of its proponents. 

The Office of National Water Resources (ONWR) and the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) are still trying to resurrect the Kong-Loei-Chi-Mun Water Management by Gravity Project. With a cost estimate of over 2 trillion baht, the project seeks to divert water from the Mekong River to Ubonrattana Dam to supplement the Khong-Chi-Mun irrigation project.

The project has several components, including expanding the mouth of the Nam Loei River, a tributary of the Mekong River, and diverting water through mountains via tunnels that traverse through protected areas and villagers’ farmlands. In the view of the local people, this is more or less an attempt to “build a new river in Isaan”.

This project is also linked with the proposed development of the Pak Chom Dam on the Mekong River along the Thailand-Laos border. The idea is to elevate water in the Mekong so as to enable it to flow into the Nam Loei River and the water diversion system in Isaan. 

The Kong-Loei-Chi-Mun Water diversion project’s environmental impact assessment is still at its initial phase and is under the review of the Expert Review Committee. However, there are concerns over the project’s high cost and its ability to deliver irrigation benefits, as well as the negative environmental and social impacts. 

Additionally, the RID has indicated that it wants to revisit old plans to build a few dams on the Songkhram River, causing much concern among local people.

The Songkhram River features a unique wetland ecosystem, which has been compared to Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap. The area is teeming with biodiversity and is a critical nursing ground for fish from the Mekong River during the rainy season. 

Last year, Songkhram was designated a Ramsar site under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, making it the 15th site in Thailand. Songkhram’s biodiversity and richness stem from local community efforts to preserve and sustainably manage the wetlands, which are important for their culture and livelihood. Its designation as a wetland of international importance should provide additional protection from large-scale projects in the future.

In conclusion, large-scale water infrastructure has failed to address poverty in Isaan. Many environmental and social impacts from existing projects remain unaddressed. Yet, it seems the Thai government has not learnt lessons from the failure of previous large-scale projects.

Once completed, the sluice gate is expected to help regulate the flows of the water, which will be further discharged downstream to feed the mega-project. The locals, on a contrary, strongly oppose it for fears that it would interrupt the natural flows of the Mekong and its tributaries.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The villagers nearby including those living in Ban Klang village in Tambon Paktom also oppose the project because they fear that it would inundate their villages and jeopardise the ecosystem of the Nam Loei River they depend on.
Posters and signs expressing strong opposition are extensively erected in the villages. The villagers refuse to call it “a sluice gate” but a dam, the terms which state official try to avoid to use.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Aside from Sri Song Rak, other infrastructures are also under construction, including those under the Lower Huai Luang Basin Development project to make optimum use of water in the region.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
The Pak Mun Dam stands tall on the Mun River near its mouth in Khong Chiam district in Ubon Ratchathani province, marking the saga of fierce conflict over the water resource development and conservation as it has jeopardised the Mun River’s ecosystem and disrupted its natural flows as well as local livelihoods that were once dependent on them.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Since completed in the early 1990s to produce electricity, concerned officials and the Pak Mun villagers have tried to resettle their conflict by adjusting the operation of the dam. The villagers kept demanding the sluice gates be opened for the whole year-round, but to no avail. Several resolution models have been proposed including the four-month operation instead of the whole year-round electricity production. These days, the villagers complain that the dam is operational without proper notice. Sometimes, it floods their fishing gears and water pumps suddenly as the water levels fluctuate irregularly.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
The highly controversial fish ladder (or Bandai Pla Jone in Thai) of the Pak Mun dam was allegedly constructed without sufficient studies on the Mun River’s ecosystem and fish’s cycle, prompting extensive failure of the ladder to help revive the deteriorated ecosystem.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Mae Songpong Wiangjan was a fish trader of Ban Wang Sabang Tai village in Tambon Nong Saeng Yai in Khong Chiam, whose occupation was finished as soon as the dam became operational. Her village was once extensively dependent on the fishery. Their main income came from fish caught from the river. The dam, however, obstructed the fish’s passage. The fish could not swim through the ladder as expected and fishers in the village could no longer fish. Mae Somepong later joined the fight under the iconic Assembly of the Poor to demand fair compensation from the state. She has fought it since the beginning when the first rock was blasted to make way for the dam. Nowadays she is still a fighter of Pak Mun and an icon of the decades of Pak Mun fighting.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Fishers of Ban Sabaeng Tai village become only part-time fishers because there was fewer and fewer fish to catch in the river. Some tried to survive by travelling afar to fish elsewhere. Several others had to leave their occupation to find jobs in the cities and became only cheap labours for years.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
The rice fields of the villagers are flooded by irregular flows of the water discharged by the dam. Although some rubber farmers afar may benefit from the water discharged by the dam or some fish species can survive in the still water, several livelihoods which were once dependent on the natural cycle and flows of the Mun River have been affected and gone.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Several fishing spots including notable rapids in the villages have gone underwater forever. Kaeng Tung Lung rapid is among those. The villagers said they used to camp and fish there all day long, but it is now underwater.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
The Kud Pla Khao bog prompted by natural flooding and flows of the Mun River in Warin Chamrab district in Ubon Ratchathani was once a popular fishing ground of Pak Mun fishers. It too has been affected by the dam as the dam obstructs the flows and flooding. The area has also been developed without proper city planning, and encroachment is rampant in the area due to the town’s expansion and urbanisation.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Without proper city planning, the Kud Pla Khao bog these days is flooded with wastewater from the town. Fishers find it more and more difficult to fish there.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
The town’s development has also brought new parks and recreational buildings to areas that were once popular fishing grounds, like the Kud Pla Khao bog. Without proper planning, the structures do not fit well with their environment. Several of them are left unused, raising a question over the town’s urban development that lacks proper planning.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Another controversial dam of the Kong-Chi-Mun mega-project in Sisaket province that has left wounds and conflict among the villagers, Hua Na dam. Located next to the Rasi Salai dam, it’s the largest structure in the project, which was expected to help regulate the flows further down the Rasi Salai dam. The dam was accused of lacking transparency as its impacts were hardly disclosed. It’s another project against which the Assembly of the Poor has fought for fair compensation for the affected villagers.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
One of the highly controversial dams under the Kong-Chi-Mun mega-project, Rasi Salai dam. Being part of the dam series that might have helped the government achieve its ambitious plan to divert the mighty Mekong several years back, an enormous environmental price has been paid, however. The country has lost one of its most fertile assets_ the Bung-Tham forest in Sisaket, which is the Northeastern region’s womb, and the ways of life born out of it; the Tham buffalo raising included.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The Saga of Mekong Tributary Dams is part of the exclusive photo essay series, the Mekong’s Womb, to present to the public the values of the river basins and tributaries of the country and the Mekong region, their rich biodiversity, unique landscape and geography, livelihood and culture, which could soon vanish without a trace because of rapid development in the region.

Featured photo: Sri Song Rak sluice gate on the Nam Loei River in Loei’s Chiang Khan district is under construction and is expected to be completed by this year. It is among the first infrastructures of the rebranded Kong-Loei-Chi-Mun mega-project attempting to make optimum use of water from the Mekong River. Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad