Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
Despite alarming evidence to the contrary, dam construction has long been accepted in Thailand as the most effective form of water management. Thailand continues to invest billions of dollars in building dams, even as dams are being dismantled in other countries. Across the world, dams have not met their projections for water supply and power generation. According to the World Commission on Dams (WCD), dam construction has caused the displacement of approximately 40 to 80 million people, often without proportionate compensation and rarely taking into account the community’s preference. Dams have also disrupted riverine ecology, preventing the travel of marine life to upstream breeding grounds and the flow of nutrients and contributing to the endangerment and extinction of one fifth of the world’s freshwater fish.
There is growing public resistance against dam construction in Thailand. Dams irrigate less than one fifth of all farmland and generate far less than the projected amount of electricity. Communities surrounding most dams are still without electricity or running water. The use of dams for water storage and power generation requires dams to be as full as possible, diminishing their effectiveness in flood prevention, while providing a false sense of security to downstream communities. The Thai government has temporarily deferred dam construction plans, but only to renew the same plans again periodically. Thailand is also beginning to invest in the large dam construction projects in neighboring countries.
Wetlands, as natural storage reservoirs are proven to reduce the risk of flooding. Wetlands are also one of the most genetically diverse ecosystems, serving as breeding and feeding grounds for a wide range of plant and animal life. In Thailand, however, the word wetland does not exist in forestry textbooks. The word appeared in the Thai dictionary in 1975, when Thailand endorsed the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention). Since then, wetland has remained an academic term understood by only a few national government officials. Wetland protection efforts have only been in the form of national decrees, without the participation of local government and communities.
Wetlands, particularly freshwater wetlands, are perpetually perceived as wastelands or inferior real estate in Thailand. Registered as public property, wetlands belong to local governments but cannot be sold. As a result, governments often donate wetlands to large-scale national projects such as dams and reservoirs, or develop other construction projects to raise the value of adjacent properties. In all cases, the development of wetlands involves filling in or shutting off waterways, effectively destroying the wetlands’ natural functions, and their natural uses to surrounding fishermen communities. Moreover, small-scale water management projects such as dredging or bypasses disrupt the flow of natural waterways, causing many wetlands to dry up and disappear. There are at least 19,400 wetlands across Thailand, but there is no account of how many wetlands have been destroyed. The fast disappearance of wetlands coincides with Thailand’s encounter with more frequent and damaging floods, which dams are unable to prevent.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Hannarong Yaowalers is re-educating Thai society about wetlands, generally disregarded as useless muddy areas. He has created networks of rural communities where wetland ecosystems are threatened by countless construction projects, to substantiate the muffled voices of peasants who depend on wetlands for their livelihood. He has set up local collaborations between income groups and government agencies, to initiate concrete examples of sustainable use and participatory management of wetlands. Hannarong co-founded Thailand’s first Academic Working Group on Wetlands, and serves as the only citizen sector representative alongside national government officials. By dispelling misunderstandings about the value and proper use of wetlands, Hannarong is instilling new awareness among various government departments, resulting in new policies to inventory local wetlands, to define criteria for construction projects in wetland areas, among others. Hannarong’s efforts have also led local governments to introduce new ordinances to protect wetlands from misuse. He has set up a pilot curriculum on wetlands for public high schools, and is now collaborating between peasants and economists to translate biological diversity in wetland ecosystems into economic values. Hannarong has been instrumental in Thailand’s first declaration of an internationally-protected wetland, known as a Ramsar Site, and is working to establish widespread awareness about the value of wetlands in Thai society.