Reversing the damage done by the Rasi Salai dam

On the banks of the Mun River in northeastern Thailand, communities are still struggling with the impact of a dam that was built almost 30 years ago. After calls for the decommission of the dam were left unheeded, local activists are shifting the focus on the recovery of their livelihoods.

When Pha Khongtham first heard about plans for a dam close to her home in the northeastern province of Sisaket in 1989 she supported the project. Government officials promised that damming the Mun River would improve irrigation and enable farmers to grow rice up to three times a year. Like many of her neighbors in Rasi Salai district, Pha was hopeful that the dam would help boost their incomes and improve their lives.

“They even told us there would be more fish in the river,” the 69-year-old Pha remembers. “But in the end our fields were completely flooded and it became even harder to catch any fish than before.”

The Department of Energy Development and Promotion (DEDP) initially claimed it was building a 4.5-meter rubber weir that would not raise water levels above the riverbank.

But when the construction was completed in 1993, the Rasi Salai dam turned out to be a nine-meter concrete structure with seven floodgates. It inundated a vast area of wetlands and rice paddies upending the lives of thousands of people in the affected provinces of Sisaket, Surin and Roi Et.

“The construction of the dam didn’t benefit us but had mostly negative impacts on our lives,” says Pha who became a leader of an anti-dam movement of 200 affected villages in the mid-1990s.

After almost three decades of intense conflict, mass protests and unsuccessful calls to decommission the dam, in recent years activists’ focus shifted to the recovery of traditional livelihoods, environmental restoration and calls for fair compensation from the government.

“It’s a shame, we should have opposed the project from the very start,” says Pha Khongtham, 69. For almost three decades, she has been fighting for justice after the Rasi Salai dam upended her life and that of thousands others in the Northeast. Photo by Luke Duggleby

The Rasi Salai dam was part of a gigantic water diversion plan, the never completed Khong-Chi-Mun project. It was meant to address the northeastern region’s water scarcity, boost agricultural output and produce electricity. But these promised benefits did not materialize.

Instead, the dam – approved without an environmental impact assessment – had severe effects on the ecosystem of the river and surrounding wetlands which in turn affected the traditional livelihoods of local residents.

Before the construction of the dam, the local lives in Rasi Salai were intimately tied to the Mun River and its surrounding wetlands which were used for rice farming, cattle grazing and the collection of firewood, grasses for weaving, mushrooms, red ants eggs and other edible and medicinal plants.

Approved without participation of the public or an environmental impact assessment, the Rasi Salai dam affected the lives of thousands in the northeastern region. Photo by Luke Duggleby

“Our way of life changed,” Pha says. “Our fields were flooded as were the forests where we used to raise cattle; where we used to catch fish and collect snails, the water became so deep we couldn’t catch anything anymore with our traditional fishing gear.”

The impact of the dam did not only make it more difficult for villagers to fish but it also affected the river’s biodiversity. According to a 2005 research report by the Living River Association about 15 fish species disappeared between 1993 - 2000 as a result of the dam.

Sitting on top of large underground salt deposits, the water of the Rasi Salai reservoir has a high level of salinity making it less suitable for crop irrigation. As a result, instead of the promised 5,500 hectares of irrigated land, the dam is providing water for only about 1,600 hectares of farmland. Pha thinks the loss of the wetlands has actually intensified water scarcity in Rasi Salai and disturbed farmers’ traditional water management.

Locals in Rasi Salai have depended on fishing as a sustainable source of food and income for generations. But as the dam caused water levels to rise, traditional fish spawning grounds disappeared affecting both diversity and the health of fish populations. Photo by Luke Duggleby

It is estimated that the dam directly impacted the lives of up to 17,000 people according to information from the Environmental Justice Atlas. Many of them lost their farmlands and, in consequence, the foundation of their livelihoods.

Pradit Koson, a resident of Rasi Salai, used to own more than 50 rai (about 8 hectares) of farmland. But when the dam was built he lost the land that used to yield a yearly income of 40,000 - 50,000 baht.

“If I still had my land, I’m sure my life would be much better today,” the 62-year-old says. Without any land to farm, he was forced to take odd jobs to feed his family and accept financial support from his son who works in the capital.  

Pradit received about 1 million baht (about 33,000 USD) for his loss of land in 2009 as part of one of several rounds of compensation that the government launched in the mid-90s after the anti-dam movement had organized large protests.

Yet as many in the community did not have formal land titles, losses were at first not acknowledged by the government.

In 2019, the military government of Prayuth Chan-ocha earmarked an additional 600 million baht (about 19,9 million USD) in settlements, or about 32,000 baht per rai of land.

But many affected locals believe the payments are insufficient to compensate for the dire effects of the dam on their livelihoods and the loss of natural resources.

“I don’t really want any more compensation payments,” Pradit says. “Instead I want my land, my livelihood back.”

One of the early protests of villagers affected by the dam in 1995 in Rasi Salai district. File photo by Samakhom Khon Tham

A scene of an anti-dam protest organized by the Assembly of the Poor in 1996. The banner reads “The Rasi Salai dam destroys the forest and the people.” File photo by Samakhom Khon Tham

In 2011, the Wetland People’s Association was established to find solutions to mitigate the impact of the dam. Prani Makkhanan who leads the association is working on a joint study with Chulalongkorn University to evaluate the economic loss occurred as a consequence of the dam.

This process also includes an evaluation of the benefits the wetlands provided to communities in Rasi Salai. Prani hopes that this will help them to assess the full extent to what people lost and lead to a review of the distribution of compensation.

Prani wants the state to allocate resources to recreate the wetlands, restore traditional local livelihoods and provide public land for the community to use.

“Although all the land is now state-owned, we want the government to allow us to use this land to gather food, use the forests and raise cattle like we did in the past,” Prani says.

Prani Makkhanan of the Wetland People’s Association in Sisaket’s Rasi Salai district. Photo by Luke Duggleby

But even with these new efforts and after almost 30 years of fighting for decommission of the dam, some in Rasi Salai have not given up hope that the concrete structure that upended their lives will one day be dismantled.

“I want them to remove the dam,” Pha says. “Give us back our land and our natural resources.”



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