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The Pak Mool dam is worse than useless

The Nation, May 15, 2000

Let's admit it. The Pak Mool dam is one of Thailand's worst mistakes. The hydroelectric project not only falls short of expectations on economic gains, but also generates economic losses for thousands of fishing families in the Mool river basin.

Today more than 2,000 fishermen living along the river will march to the notorious dam site and demand that the government take action. They vow to make the site their stronghold until the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) agrees to open all of the dam's gates to restore fisheries.

We find the proposal to decommission the Pak Mool dam highly sensible. Since its completion in 1994, the Pak Mool dam has done more harm than good to the country's economy, not to mention its ecology. The dam was suppose to have an electricity generating capacity of 136 megawatts. But today it does not generate more than an average of 40 megawatts, partly because of a miscalculation on water flow by Egat engineers.

In August and September when the Mool rises to become even with the level of the Mekong, the dam at the confluence of the two great rivers generates almost no electricity. There is simply no headwater to run the turbines.

The latest important study of the Pak Mool dam's economic viability by the World Commission on Dams (WCD) found that the more Egat runs the dam, the higher operation costs it has to bear. The study indicates that the miscalculation on water flow raises the dam's daily operating costs.

The WCD is an internationally recognised independent organisation founded by the World Bank and the dam building industries in developed countries to assess the performance of dams worldwide. Other projects under WCD investigation include the gigantic Grand Coulee Dam in the United States, the Tucurui dam in Brazil and a system of 37 dams in Norway.

Although dam building more often than not involves cost overruns, the cost of Pak Mool dam was almost double its original estimate. In its first feasibility study, the construction cost was calculated at Bt3.3 billion while the actual cost when the dam was completed was Bt5.8 billion.

Egat as a state enterprise simply passes the prices of its mistakes onto consumers and taxpayers. If one traces Egat's performance, Pak Mool is not the only dam having such economic problems. Needless to say, the agency would have gone bankrupt if it were a private corporation.

Now look at what the Pak Mool dam has done to riverine ecology and the local fishing industry. The WCD recorded that 169 out of 265 species of fish in the Mool River were affected by the construction of the dam. Of these, 56 species have completely disappeared.

Before the dam, Thailand's largest tributary of the highly genetically diversified Mekong, the Mool River, was considered one of the most fertile fishing grounds in Southeast Asia. A writer once noted that if the Mekong were a monarch, the Mool would be the closest to the throne in terms of natural fertility.

Such a dramatic depletion of fish in the Mool is directly linked to the dam at the mouth of the Mool River. The dam blocks migratory fish from swimming up from the Mekong to feed and spawn in the Mool River during the rainy season.

Opposition against the dam from fishermen, who predicted the consequences, prompted Egat to build a fish ladder to serve as a passage for fish. But as predicted again by the villagers, the ladder provided little help.

Last year, a fisherman found a nearly 100-kilogramme fish struggling to get past the concrete dam and into the Mool. The fish was found to have bruises all over its body and finally died of exhaustion.

By opening wide the water gates, the river can be restored almost to its natural condition with no need to remove the concrete structure itself. Due to its unique design as a run-of-the-river dam, the dam does not have a large storage reservoir. The electricity from the Pak Mool dam can also be replaced by other alternatives. The WCD report found that it is cheaper to generate the same amount of power by using natural gas and bio-mass fuel.

The decommissioning of the Pak Mool dam involves little technical complication, but requires strong political will. Public support is needed to boost the courage of the government. Only by admitting that the dam is a mistake can a correction be made. Thailand is not the only country in which people cry out loud for dam decommissioning. The world's major dam builders, such as the United States, have gone through the same process.

For decades, the Pak Mool and other dams - which affect people's livelihood by taking away their land and resources - have been symbols of unjust economic development policy. The poor and powerless have always been told to sacrifice for the good of the nation. But we seem to forget that the poor, who happen to be the majority in this country, are also a part of our nation.


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