Interview: The river of dreams

Sompong Wiengjun sits on a balcony of her house along a dirt road running parallel to the Mun River in Khong Chiam district, Ubon Ratchathani. She sighs while gazing at the foul-smelling river. Twenty years ago, she would have been catching fish and planting vegetables along the river bank.

Life would have been simple and sustainable, only if the Pak Mun Dam had never been built.

“The Mun River is vital to our lives,” said Sompong, 64, a protest leader against Pak Mun Dam who has been campaigning through 13 prime ministers and 16 cabinets — and counting. “We want to free our river from the dam.”

Her life and the other tens of thousands living in the 70 villages upstream from Pak Mun Dam have been mired in misery for more than two decades since the dam severely affected their livelihoods.

Pak Mun villagers had earned their living by fishing the river for generations. Sompong grew up by the waterway and learned to fish with her father at a young age. She was 14 when he died, and she became a fisherwoman to help raise her five siblings, who ranged from 12 years old to nine months.

Day after day she learned that vendors at the market cheated her on the scale. That unfairness hurt, and she decided to become a fish vendor with a fair and just scale. She weighed the catch and paid in accurate kilogrammes, and many fishermen sold fish to her, while many customers kept buying from her.

“I opened my shop in the early morning, and was sold out within a couple of hours. I would spend the rest of the day fishing,” she said. Sompong was the family’s breadwinner.

“The Mun River was abundant, and I could send my brothers and sisters to school and support them until they had families. I could buy 80 rai of land and offered 60,000 baht loans a year to people in my village,” she said. Life for her and her four children seemed prosperous.

Until the nightmare began. “Once the first sticks of dynamite exploded to destroy rapids in the Mun River, I felt like dying. The fish were gone, and I have not been able to catch a single one since. It was like my house was robbed and burnt down in one go. I was devastated,” she recalled, as tears welled up in her eyes.

It was 1991. The dam was built 5.5km upstream of the confluence of the Mun and the Mekong rivers by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat). The 6.5 billion baht dam used 700 rai of land on both sides of the Mun River. The dam’s projected target was to produce 136MW per year, but it can only produce 21MW, or just 15% of the target, according to a study by the World Commission on Dams (WCD). And the electricity is not for the locals, but is directed to Khon Kaen province.

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