(November, 2021) The Sri Song Rak sluice gate on the Nam Loei River in Chiang Khan district of Loei province is under construction and is expected to be completed by this year. It is among the first infrastructure projects 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

The Saga of Mekong Tributary Dams

The Northeastern region has been dotted with dams following decades of state ambition to make optimum use of water in the region and from the Mekong River. The local people, however, are up in arms over their impact on the environment and their livelihoods.

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 two 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.

(November, 2021) Once completed, the sluice gate is expected to help regulate the flow of the water, which will be further discharged downstream to feed the mega-project. The locals strongly oppose it, fearing that it would interrupt the natural flows of the Mekong and its tributaries.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Locals, including those living in Ban Klang village in Tambon Paktom, also oppose the project because they fear it would inundate their villages and jeopardise the ecosystem of the Nam Loei River on which they depend.
Posters and signs expressing their strong opposition have been put up at many places in the villages. The villagers refuse to call it “a sluice gate”, and instead deem it “a dam”, a term state officials are avoiding.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad

(November, 2021) 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 of Ubon Ratchathani province, triggering a fierce conflict over water resource development and conservation. The dam has jeopardised the Mun River’s ecosystem and disrupted its natural flows, in the process also affecting the livelihoods of locals who were once dependent on them.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Since its completion in the early 1990s to produce electricity, concerned officials and Pak Mun villagers have tried to resolve their conflict by adjusting the operation of the dam. The villagers kept demanding that the sluice gates be opened year-round, but to no avail. Several resolution models have been proposed, including a four-month operation instead of electricity production throughout the year. These days, the villagers complain that the dam is operational without proper notice. Sometimes it floods their fishing gears and water pumps due to the sudden fluctuation of water levels.
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 cycle, causing extensive failure of the ladder to help revive the deteriorated ecosystem.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Mae Songpong Wiangjan was a fish trader from Ban Wang Sabang Tai village, in Tambon Nong Saeng Yai in Khong Chiam, who lost her occupation as soon as the dam became operational. Her village was once largely dependent on fishery. Their main income came from fish caught from the river. The dam, however, obstructed the passage of fish. The fish could not swim through the ladder, ending fishing activity in the village. Mae Somepong later joined the fight under the iconic “Assembly of the Poor” to demand fair compensation from the state. She has fought the construction since the beginning when the first rock was blasted to make way for the dam. She continues to be a fighter against Pak Mun and has become an icon of the decades-long struggle.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Fishers of Ban Sabaeng Tai village have been reduced to part-time fishing because there are fewer and fewer fish to catch in the river. Some tried to survive by travelling far to fish. Several others had to leave their occupation to find jobs in the cities and ended up as cheap labourers for years.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
 The rice fields of the villagers are flooded by irregular flows of water discharged by the dam. Although some rubber farmers may benefit from the water discharged by the dam, or some fish species may survive in the still waters, several livelihoods once dependent on the natural cycle and flows of the Mun River have been affected.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Several fishing spots including notable rapids in the villages have gone underwater forever. They include the Kaeng Tung Lung rapid. 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 of Ubon Ratchathani province was once a popular fishing ground for Pak Mun fishers. It too has been affected by the dam as it obstructs the flows and flooding. The area has also been developed without proper city planning, and encroachment is rampant 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 in well with their environment. Several of them are left unused, raising a question over the town’s urban development without proper planning.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
The Hua Na dam is another controversial dam in the Kong-Chi-Mun mega-project in Si Sa Ket province that has left wounds and conflict among the villagers. 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. Construction of the dam faced accusations of lack of transparency as its impacts were hardly disclosed. It is another project against which the “Assembly of the Poor” has fought for fair compensation for affected villagers.
Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Sayan Chuenudomsavad
One of the highly controversial dams under the Kong-Chi-Mun mega-project is the Rasi Salai dam. Being a 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 Si Sa Ket province. It is the Northeastern region’s womb, and spawned a way of life, including the Tham buffalo raising.
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.