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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thai Dam Stirs Waters of Discontent

PAK MUN RIVER, Thailand -- Mekong fish don't jump.

It was one of the many hard lessons learned at Thailand's Pak Mun Dam, which casts a long and costly shadow over Asia's water wars. Built more than a decade ago on a tributary of the Mekong river, Pak Mun left a legacy of angry protests, damaged fish stocks and uprooted communities -- and a fish ladder more suited to leaping salmon.

"It created huge conflicts in Thailand that last today and it produces very little power. When you consider all the lives disrupted, you have to ask, was it worth it?" said James Fahn, a journalist and author who covered the Pak Mun saga.

The uproar has blocked new dam construction in Thailand, prompting the state utility, Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, to back hydroelectric projects in neighboring Laos and Myanmar.

Dam proponents such as the World Bank say future projects like Nam Theun II in Laos, soon to be Southeast Asia's biggest dam, will benefit from lessons learned at Pak Mun. But anti-dam campaigners, who fear more Pak Muns are in the making, want Thailand to seek alternative sources of power.

"Don't let them build it," advises Thongcharoen Srihadhamma, a fisherman who led mass sit-ins against Pak Mun in the 1990s. "This is like a slow tsunami. The destruction cannot be reversed. Nature cannot be rebuilt," he said during a visit to the dam once touted as an economic driver for the poor province of Ubon Ratchathani.

The 17-meter-high dam was beset by problems from the start. Cost overruns pushed its price tag up 68 percent to 6.6 billion baht ($172 million), with nearly $16 million in unanticipated compensation payments for lost fisheries. About 1,700 households were displaced, far higher than the 241 initially expected.

The UN-backed World Commission on Dams said in its comprehensive 2000 study of Pak Mun that a failure to study the potential impact on fisheries -- catches fell by 50 percent to 100 percent, affecting 6,000 fishermen -- had been a "critical lapse" in the dam's planning.

Ubon Ratchathani University lecturer Kanokwan Manoram says more than 40 rapids were inundated on the Pak Mun, wiping out spawning and fishing grounds that once teemed with Mekong fish. A tiered fish ladder, a series of stepped pools that allow fish to navigate around a dam, was added later. It proved a dismal failure and the butt of local jokes, she said.

"They're not salmon, so I guess they don't want to jump."

Of the 256 species found in the river before the dam, 100 have disappeared, say local fishermen.

"The rapids are gone and the fish from the Mekong don't stop here any more," said Samran Thiamthat, 41, pulling two wriggling fish from his net as he fished near the dam.

"Before the dam I found fish all year. Now I only fish for three or four months," said Samran, who relies on 200 baht per day from odd jobs to support his family of four. "I want to cry. I don't want to go away to work in the city."