This year in light of the elections, an awful burning season and the desire for environmental change, the city mayor has decided to turn back the clocks, removing the ever so talked about Mae Ngat Dam, just in time for the Thai New Year!
In 1985 Mae Ngat Dam was constructed ensuring water flow year-round along the river. The continuous flow has turned the Ping river into a city staple, bringing in much tourism throughout the city as well as encouraging the construction of local markets, posh restaurants, and art galleries with notable scenic backdrops–if you don’t focus too much on the garbage floating by. Given its key role in the tourist industry and to one’s general picture of modern Chiang Mai city, it’s hard to imagine why the Mae Ngat Dam is in order for demolition.
To fully understand the Mayor’s decision, it’s important to acknowledge that the Mae Ngat Dam is rather new. Created less than 35 years ago the dam has proven to be much more of a burden than a benefit, especially to local people who remember the Ping River and its boasting wildlife and significance before the dam’s construction. The Mae Ngat Dam has greatly impacted the ecosystem, most notably the Snakehead fish, and has also changed the general interactions between locals and the natural water system, which were part of King Mangrai’s visionary strategy when he built the city in 1296.
As the city prepares for its UNESCO bid, authorities are seeing that much of modern construction goes against ancient wisdom. They’ve therefore decided that, for the sake of the bid, the city should return to its ancient infrastructure. Chiang Mai is known for its preservation of culture and local connection to the environment and city, so removing the dam could further prove the sincerity behind the desire to be a World Heritage site.
Chiang Mai is beginning to see the impacts Mae Ngat Dam has had on animal life along the river. The construction of the dam has caused a chain reaction in disrupting migration patterns of the Snakehead all throughout the rivers of Thailand. Because the Ping River connects to the Nan and Yom Rivers to form the Chao Phraya River–which extends for over 500 miles!– the problem has proven to be bigger than once thought. While the fish has been on the decline in northern Thailand for the past 10 years, geologists are seeing a significant decrease throughout Thailand, so significant it has landed the Snakehead fish on the list of endangered species. Tracing its declining numbers researchers have found that they can be significantly attributed to the construction of this dam. This is rather important because the snakehead is a fish dear to locals hearts as well as the history of Chiang Mai.
The destruction of the dam will also come as good news to many locals in the Chiang Mai community. To those who have grown up in Chiang Mai, the dam has left a rather poor taste in their mouths as it put a halt to their traditional festivities, most notably Songkran. The New Year, was once celebrated by enjoying the rivers lowest water levels and engaging with others in the community within the water bed. Playing with water, eating, drinking, it seems as if these past festivities are held dearly within locals hearts, meaning the tearing down of this dam could come as rather good news.
While geologists and meteorologists are not so sure how successful the demolition of the dam will be in restoring the rivers natural patterns and ecosystems in the short term, there is hope in the long run. The goal is that removing the dam will bring the natural flow of the river back by 2025 as well as generate a liveable environment for the original species of the River, including the Snakehead! In the same vain, locals are hoping the deconstruction of the dam might bring back the river’s natural ebbs and flows, allowing for traditional Songkran festivities in the low waters in years to come. Ultimately while the bulldozing of Mae Ngat Dam might make a small dent in the tourism industry, it will make a rather large impact on the restoration and preservation of Chiang Mai and its values.