From morning to evening the vast water mingles with the small fishing boats. There are two or three people on board each of them. Concentrating on casting their nets, they don’t notice the scorching sun during the day.
The lifestyles of the people at the estuary of the Salween River are still idyllic, even though diminished. The water also still sustains many plant and animal species. The water’s long run and collective prosperity became the source of the millennia-long civilization of the Mon race.
As the river flows through the mountains and deep rock crevices for more than 2,800 kilometers from the south of Tibet, traversing through the land of many communities and no less than 16 ethnic groups and continues to the border with Thailand (for about 120 kilometers around Mae Hong Son), it is hard to believe that it becomes vast and calm as a lake surrounded by large and small islands when it flows into the sea at Mawlamyine.
Our group of Thai of journalists supported by the Communicative Skills Improvement Project went into the area of Mawlamyine in Mon State and Pa-An in Karen State near the border of Myanmar to gather information and listen to the voice of the communities about the Salween River dam projects, especially the Hatgyi dam project in Pa-An, a border city of Mon State.
Today the Salween River continues to flow freely to the estuary. The ecosystem along the river has changed little. The main issue is the deforestation of the watersheds which affects the various species of fish that spawn in the canal fields. As it was, same as Than Lwin Market is still bustling with buy-sell fish much.
“Most people don’t know about the dam project on the Salween River and they don’t know what will happen to them if it is built. Even now some creeks have stopped flowing. The villagers have had to move to other places in order to make a living. Some people have chosen to go abroad.” , Mrs. Ah Chai, a member of the Mon Youth Progressive Organization (MYPO) talked about the information collected by the local MYPO (by the year 2551) who conducted a research survey on the impact of building the dam on the Salween River.
“Also, earlier, Mon youth groups had collected data in the villages. It found that the villagers were facing hardships due to the salt water driven further inland, diminishing the supply of fresh water from the Salween River. There is probably due to the deforestation of the watersheds.”
Our group had the chance to cross Takow Kamai island. This is the largest of 20 islands in the Salween River estuary. There are 80 villages on the island. Most of the villagers’ livelihoods are fishing or farming. They are led by Dr. Aung Naing Oo (Mon State MP) and Outa Jay (monk).
The most prominent sights upon stepping onto the island are the large piles of stacked scrap wood. This scrap wood came floating down the Salween River. The villagers collect it and use it as firewood; it has become an important energy source for the island.
The local MP took us to see the headman’s (Mr Oo Thin La) tomato field. Mr. La recalled that rice crops were very good before. But since 5 to 6 years ago, the rice crop was dropped because the soil becomes too salty. The villagers turned to growing tomatoes because of the high level of sea water in November and December.
Mr. Oo Thin La stated that “Although the profit from growing tomatoes is not as good as that from growing rice, but it is better than nothing. Today I have to buy rice. I am afraid that if the tides keep changing, in the next few years we cannot grow anything near the river.”
Although there has happened a variation but the residents are still fighting for it. What concerns them most is the news of the Salween dam in Pa-an because, if there is a barrier on the river there, it will cause the saltwater to replace the freshwater flowing onto the farmland of the villagers, making it difficult to cope. Ten villagers from Taung Yat Si knew the reporters were coming to the island and were waiting to tell their experiences because neither the government nor the media had ever come before.
“Eight years ago, tides on the Salween changed direction radically and a lot of farms of the villagers collapsed into the water. The villagers who lived by the Salween River have moved to a village further away from the river. In the past, the state agency has never come to help or pay any compensation. We were very worried. Some people lost their farmland and they went abroad for work. Some people moved to other places. We believe that if the situation continues like this, our villages will drown within 5 years.” The villagers also mentioned other concerns. In this situation people would not even build a new house or anything permanent because they feared that it would be flooded soon.
When we asked about the dam in Pa-an, most people did not know anything about it. But, they all had the same opinion–that the dam should not be built. If it is built they do not know about their livelihood because the sea will again roll over their land.
Dr. Aung Naing Oo, the local MP, admitted that he had not recognized many of the problems of the villagers before, especially those of the dam project on the Salween River which had been up to 6 projects. But when he heard about that he felt worried and was trying to find the information on various aspects. He stated that he thought we could not build dams because it would severely impact the residents of the local villages and would also cause a serious loss of development to the state.
“I have heard the news of the objections to the Myit Sone dam to stem the Irrawaddy River but we do not know whether or not the lessons from it apply here. I think the most important thing is the voice of the people. Whatever we do, we have to listen to the voice of the people first, meanwhile, and we will find opportunities to talk with ethnic groups in other states that the Salween River runs though. And we should think how to cooperate and how to oppose. I want to set up an exchange group with them, including NGOs, in order to act together.”
The glory past of Mawlamyine and Mon people are tied up with the sea and the Salween River. The Kyaing river and Attaran River originated from Thailand’s western forest, flow to fill up the water at the vast estuary of the river. This creates proper ecosystem.
Building a dam is a subject that must be considerate carefully as it may destroy long time evolutionary balance of life.
By Padsakorn Jumlongraj