Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Human Rights and the Environment: Rivers, Dams, and Ecosystems

These last few weeks have been a rush.
So many new sights, sounds, tastes, and languages. I can now claim an ability to speak a little Lao, I've eaten loads of red ants (and their white eggs), drank lots of home-distilled rice whiskey, can identify several types of freshwater fish as well as macroinvertebrates (bugs), pulled in fishing nets, saw the interworkings of a hydroelectric dam, swam in 3 major South East Asian Rivers, canoed down one of those rivers, got sun burnt, played the dulcimer, talked with an anti-dam activist 80 years old, talked with anti-dam activists 15 years old, experienced crazy lightning storms, lived with the poorest of the poor, listened to the marginalized, sat at the feet of those fighting for justice, and stood beside communities in their struggle to maintain their basic rights as human beings.

So, this field course (the first of 3) focused on rivers, dams, and human rights. We read lots of articles, received lots of lectures, and prepared for one week before leaving on the course. We then jumped into a few vans, us 17 students, 1 professor, and 4 instructors in their 20's (2 thai instructors, 2 american instructors). We traveled to a village outside of Ubon in Eastern Thailand. This is very near to the Thai-Laos border. We spent one week doing homestays with families in a village called Nong Po. Now, this village (and the whole eastern Isarn region of Thailand) is actually Lao in ethnicity, language, and culture. back when Laos was a French colony, random borders were drawn to establish some kind of separation between the Siamese and Lao kingdoms. Like most borders in the developing world (determined by Europe), they separated ethnicities of people. This being said, the village we lived with spoke Lao and Thai as a second language, so we were able to communicate with our Thai, but learned a lot of Lao as well.

Now, this community we lived with (just a village of a few hundred people) isn't just an arbitrary poor group of people. They are a typical example of a community impoverished by the building of a dam. 20 years ago the Pak Mun dam was built on the Mun River, 30 kilometers downstream from the village. The community was told by the government that a 'project' was going to take place that would better their livelihoods. They were told the dam was just a temporary weir-like wall for irrigation that wouldn't affect them much, but would provide jobs and better manage the water. On the contrary, the village of Nong Po was devastated. For years the majority of the community had relied on fishing as a major source of income and subsistence. Once the dam was put in, all of that was destroyed.

Now from here, I must branch into a few directions to explain what is going on. There are so many factors in play here- I hope this doesn't get confusing.

Let me explain why it is that rivers are destroyed by dams. Ecologically, rivers are their own systems. There are forest ecosystems, lake ecosystems, ocean ecosystems, river ecosystems, etc. These systems are based on the PRODUCTION and MOVEMENT of energy. Nutrients. The circle of life- trees, squirrels, ants, bacteria, mushrooms, humans, vines- every living thing has some energy and we are all passing it around. "Our bodies become the grass and the antelope eat the grass." We are all apart of this system and the whole system can't exist without plants. Plants that use photosynthesis are the BASIS of the system. We all would not exist if it weren't for those plants that use the sun's energy to produce nutrients to sustain our lives.

Humans are not outside of this system, obviously. We are secondary consumers, on the same ecological level as dogs, and rely on the balance of our ecosystem as much as a moth does.

Now, when looking at all the life involved with rivers (bugs, fish, bacteria, animals, plants, and algae), it is important to see the most important factor in a river ecosystem.


The idea of a flow of nutrients, migrations of fish, distribution of sediments, etc, is vital to the health of a river ecosystem. Actually, flow is the very thing that makes a river ecosystem a river ecosystem. So when a dam is built, or the flow of a river is severed, the ecosystem is strangled.

this is what happens upstream:
huge water retention basin.
sediment builds up, keeping it from flowing downstream.
decomposing organic matter creates a significant amount of methane (global warming).
stagnant water breeds insects not usually at home in the area.
algae builds up.
fish aren't able to travel downstream (necessary for some species' reproductive cycles).
basically, a lake is created where there should not be a lake. The surrounding ecosystem is not prepared for a lake, and things are thrown off balance.

this is what happens downstream:
difference in water temperature, disrupting fish migrating patterns.
no silt is let through, so fewer nutrients
fish are not allowed upstream to spawn (necessary for most species)
floodplains are dried and the general flow of the river is reduced dramatically. what usually happens, and this is also the case for the Pak Mun dam, is the amount of water let through the turbines changes depending on the demand of electricity. so not only is there an inconsistency in flow of water, but the natural yearly flooding patterns of downstream are ended. without these yearly floods, underground aquifers aren't restored and nutrients are not distributed to the floodplains surrounding the riverbed.

An ecological disaster.

Since people are connected to this delicate balance of moving energy, it had impacts. This is how we discovered how severe those impacts are:
It was the last night with our host families in Nong Po. We had spent the week fishing with them, eating sticky rice with them, and talking with them. Jeremy and I lived with a family of 6 out in the middle of rice fields- stunningly beautiful. We were far from any road- you needed to walk between rice paddies for 15 minutes to reach their house from the road. They had chickens, roosters, cats, and a talking parrot (hilarious. it would actually repeat whole sentences back to you. or mock your laugh when you walk by). Jeremy and I spent lots of the time playing with the kids of the family. They were super shy and it took a few days for them to warm up to us, but we eventually broke through to them. Thank you soccer balls. We spent hours playing soccer in our bare feet in the dry rice fields, making goals and slapping high-fives. Often the kids from neighboring ricefields would show up and we all would play giant rounds of Thai duck-duck-goose until the sun set. It was wonderful. We loved our family and from what stories were shared by other students, they loved their families as well. Lots of our families were relatives or friends of each other and would often meet up, bringing 3 families and their respective host students together. We were connected. The whole community welcomed us. They arranged a religious blessing ceremony for us one night and every host parent came around to every student and blessed us by tying strings of good spirit around our wrists. We did this sitting on the floor in a circle and the parents approached us on their knees. No one was allowed to stand. We were all on the same level. It was overwhelming and wonderful and overwhelming.
But anyway, on the last night, we had a community meeting. All of us students sat in a huge circle with all of our fathers and mothers and we talked about why we had come. We had come to learn from them, we said. We had come to understand how they have been affected by this Pak Mun dam, we said. We then asked them questions.
Are there fewer fish now than before the dam was built?
Yes. There used to be more fish. And bigger fish. There used to be over 200 species of fish. Now there are 50 species. In one rainy season, they used to catch over 1000 kg of fish. Now they only catch 40 kg.
How can you survive with so few fish?
We can't.
Since many of your livelihoods centered around the fish in the river, what do you do for food or money now?
We send our children to work in factories in Bangkok. They send money home.
How many of you have children in Bangkok?
All the hands go up.
How many of you have several children in Bangkok?
All the hands stay up.

The meeting progressed like this. We kept getting deeper and deeper into the impacts this dam has had on the community. One fisherman said he used to have a good life before the dam was built. He was a wealthy man with fish to feed his family and even more fish to sell. But now he is poor. He has been made poor. He has no rice fields or gardens to grow vegetables- he relied on the longevity of that river. And most of the villagers have been protesting the dam. They protested before it was built, they protested at the dam site and were beaten, they protested in Bangkok after the dam was built and got the gates to be opened a few months out of the year. But talk of decomissioning the dam is ignored. They have been fighting this for 20 years and are weary. There is no more money left to spent on protest- the next generation of young people is all working in other cities, and the youngest know nothing of their parents' struggles.
It was at this point in the meeting that one of the villagers stood up and asked us a question.
What are we going to do about it?
Did we just come to study them and leave? They shared their struggle with us. What are we going to do with that?

We were stunned silent, at a loss for an answer, and that was basically how the meeting ended. We had come to love these villagers and they were gracious to us. They shared what they had with us and we listened to them tell their story. Even though they aren't sure if we can help them (i'm sure all of us will try), by us being there and sitting at their feet, we validated them. They were thankful and so were we. It was an intense and touching experience to become apart of the community of Nong Po.

So after that,
we all loaded up into vans and drove along the MeKong River (border of Thailand and Laos) for a few days, and ended up in the second village.

This village was called Don Chai. A larger community of about 800 people.
What is similar about this village and the one we had just come from is that they are both connected to their rivers for subsistence.
What is different about Don Chai from Nong Po is that Don Chai has no dam on their river (the Yom River). There have been plans to dam the Yom River for 15 years now, but the people have resisted. They have organized. They have demonstrated. Upon driving into the village, we saw huge banners hanging from people's homes and graffiti painted on the roads saying, "NO DAMS" and "OUR RIVER, OUR LIFE" and "NO DAM, NO WAR". We had entered a village of intense activists. They are known around the world for their successful struggle, and for good reason- if the projected dam were to be built, their village would be flooded. Not just a few inches of water- since they would be upstream of the dam, their whole village would be tens of meters under water.

So we spent a few days with these villagers, each of us living with a host family, talking with them about their struggle, and having community meetings. The energy of the place was amazing- the people had such a passion for their place- they had organized as a collective and fought against the might of the government and actually won. Although the government is still pushing for the dam to be built and the villagers are still pushing back, the fight looks promising.

We were able to meet with a youth activist group while we were there in Don Chai. It was a group of teenagers who, having grown up with activists for parents, took the struggle onto themselves as well. They met every weekend and made banners or took trips to neighboring villages to educate other youth. They are 15 and 16 years old- passionate about justice and willing to do what it takes to ensure their livelihoods arent taken from them. It was very inspiring. Our conversations with them were good.

After our time in Don chai was over, we all embarked on a 6 day canoeing trip. The point of the trip was to study the Yom River more closely. Over the 6 days, we boated the whole section of river that would be flooded if the dam were built. It was very eerie to be canoeing down the river valley and look up and around at everything that would be flooded.
But anyway, while we were on the river, we boated about 13 km per day, sleeping at a different camping site every night, taking river health measurements along the way. This involved lots of bug catching and recording, chemical testing, and river area surveying. The whole process was much more detailed than that, and there were little gadgets that tested this and that, as well as chemicals for nitrate and phosphate levels. We recorded lots of data, lots of reference books were consulted, and by the end of the 6 day paddle, we had determined that the quality of the river was excelent.

It is the last major river in Thailand that has no dam on it. May it stay that way.

all in all, the Rivers, Dams, and Human Rights field course was brilliant. I now know how to scientifically test a river's health, I know what dams do to the ecosystems they sever, I know how these environmental injustices are inextricably linked to human rights abuses, and I have learned all of this directly from the sources themselves.

What an amazing opportunity I've been given here...


  1. i found you!!!!!!!!!!!

    (you write a lot.
    and you look like you again!
    i missed that...)

    ok. love. will read better and comment better sooooooooooon.


  2. wow! what an awesome article! that's so cool that you got the opportunity to do something like that! i hope you don't mind if i quote you a little for my environmental science paper seeing as i've haven't had the chance to do something like this yet, and no worries, you'll be cited! (and i don't really care anymore if this is a blog, it has all the informaiton i was looking for!)