By Alayna Ynacay-Nye and Kyle Ojima
On 4 to 6th August 2015, the Naga fellows from the Mekong, Red and Salween river basins traveled to Ubon Ratchathani province in Thailand for an intensive course in field research methods and to study the impacts of the Rasi Salai dam on local livelihoods. The event was hosted by the Mekong Sub-Region Social Research Center (MSSRC), Ubon Ratchathani University.
All of the research fellows and staff from the Mekong, Red and Salween river basins who attended the training at UbonRatachathani University. (Photo by Kyle Ojima)
The first day of the training, held at UbonRatchathani University, readied the fellows for their field work, providing an orientation to field research methods. Techniques and approaches were provided by invited speakers, but benefited greatly from the combined experience of the fellows themselves, many of who have experience conducting field research already. The fellows were then separated into five thematic groups that would be their research focus for the following two days:
Roles of women in wetland management
Roles of government and local authority in irrigation management
Civil society and people organization in wetland recovery
Traditional water management
Local Livelihoods and change of wetland resources and utilization.
By the early evening, the fellows had relocated from the university to Si Sa Khet province, and were settling into their home stays in villages within the area affected by the dam.
Construction and impact of the Rasi Salai Dam
In the 1990s, the Thai government constructed the Rasi Salai dam on the Mun River in Si Sa Khet Province, inundating a large swathe of wetland, proposed to irrigate the surrounding areas. The impacted wetland was referred to by the locals as their ‘supermarket’ due to the invaluable resources it provided and that supported the community. The dam had a severe impact on many people’s livelihoods, with prolonged flooding and the loss of river and wetland biodiversity reducing fishing yields, wetland rice farm production, and farmers’ ability to raise cattle and to collect valuable products from the wetlands, such as mushrooms, medicinal herbs, red ant eggs, and fire wood.
The Rasi Salai Dam in Si Sa Khet province, Thailand, which caused serious impacts to local communities. (Photo by Kyle Ojima)
When the government approved the construction of the Rasi Salai Dam, it did not conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or consult local villagers. When construction began in 1992, villagers were initially told that a 4.5 meter rubber weir was being built to solve the problem of water scarcity. However, after the construction the villagers found that instead of a small rubber weir it was a 9 meter concrete dam. Whilst there have been many impacts, relatively few villagers of the region have actually received the promised irrigation benefits.
Fellows learn about the Rasi Salai Dam
On Wednesday August 5th, the fellows and staff woke up in their local villages, and began to explore their allocated themes. Most of the groups started out with interviews a range of people, from local government organizations to farmers living off the land. The fellows learned that some villagers who once relied on the wetlands for food, were no longer able to grow crops because the flood regime had changed; it had led to water logging creating soils that could no longer sustain rice fields and other plant life. Villagers said that traditionally in the area there were 13 varieties of rice grown for generations, but now there are only 3. The river’s migratory fish species were also in decline.
A meeting with retired local officials and farmers to discuss the effects of the RasiSalai dam on local livelihoods (Photo by Alayna Ynacay-Nye)
There were once many cattle in the Rasi Salai area, but the loss of grazing land following the dam significantly reduced the number (Photo by Kyle Ojima)
The fellows heard from the villagers interviewed that they are no longer able to depend solely on the land for food and economic security, and must seek alternative solutions. This has resulted in villagers migrating to big cities such as Bangkok in pursuit of low paying labor jobs, leaving their traditional agrarian way of life and weakening their ties to family, culture and their neighbors. For those who chose to stay in RasiSalai, the land is no longer able to provide the variety and quantity of foods it previously could, forcing people to purchase low quality products in the market which further increases their expenses and debt. The creation of the dam sparked social movements advocating for villagers’ rights and compensation. The Royal Irrigation Department (RID) is currently negotiating with the Taam Mun Association, which represents the villagers, for compensation and livelihood recovery programs. This has created a stronger trust and communication between the RID and the villagers that in the past.
Presenting research findings
Finally on Thursday August 4th, the groups left the villages and arrived at the Lower Mun Irrigation Office for a wrap up of the workshop. The fellows were able to present what they had learned in the villages using the research tools studied on the first day of the workshop. A local village leader and a representative from the Royal Irrigation Department also joined the meeting to provide their perspectives on the Rasi Salai Dam and its benefits and impacts.
Overall, the fellows had a valuable opportunity to build relationships amongst each other and therefore across the Mekong, Red and Salween basins. The fellows also learned various techniques for fieldwork and had the chance to actively apply them in the field. In addition, the fellows were able to learn from the local situation at the RasiSalai dam, and to contrast it with the experience in their own countries. The fellows are now looking forward to meeting again and sharing the progress of their research at the “2015 Greater Mekong Forum on Water, Food, and Energy” on 21-23 October in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
All of the fellows gathered at the Lower Mun Royal Irrigation Department office to present what they learned from their field work. (Photo by Kyle Ojima)
Please see the blog titled “Finding Common Ground: Co-produced Wetland Zoning in Northeast Thailand”(12 August 2015) produced for the Recovering and valuing wetland agro-ecological systems and local knowledge for water security and community resilience in the Mekong region(RECOVER) project.