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Patani River, Environment & Eco System Facing Threat-2

A top-down irrigation scheme(Patani Diversion Dam) poisoned rice    fields in Patani
Berraheng Duereh thought he was lucky. His rice fields happen to be right next to the state irrigation canal. Little did he realise that what he considered a blessing would turn out to be a curse.
His luck turned sour when the dredging of the canal rendered his farm infertile, destroying his livelihood.
To survive, he had to shut up house and look for a living elsewhere.
Mr. Berraheng is not alone in his misfortune. A few metres away from his now-silent home is another abandoned house that belongs to a neighbour, Mueleh Jehwae. Like Berraheng, Mueleh can no longer till his land. To make ends meet, he is now working as a hired hand in a rubber plantation in Malaysia.
Abandoned dwellings are commonplace in Ban Klang, a rice-farming village of some 150 families in Pattani's Panare district. There are over 30 of them in Ban Klang alone. And many more in adjacent villages. "It's all because of the state irrigation canal," says Roseh Jemeng, another local farmer.
Seeing is believing. Irrigation systems are supposed to help farmers boost their yields. But now, on both sides of this winding canal is a vast tract of barren land overgrown with weeds that extends as far as the eye can see.
This was once a productive rice-growing area. Then, in 1989, the Royal Irrigation Department deepened a natural waterway that runs through the community in order to link it up to a network of irrigation channels fed by Pattani Dam.
That was when the Ban Klang tragedy began.
According to Nukul Ruttanadakul, an ecologist from the Faculty of Science and Technology at Prince of Songkla University in Pattani, Ban Klang and its environs were once under the sea. Over time, the saltwater receded and the land gradually became fit for farming.
The soil removed from the old irrigation canal during dredging was piled up on either side to make unsealed roads. Suddenly, exposed to the air after centuries under water, the salty soil turned acidic.
"The ecological balance was destroyed," Nukul says. "It was a catastrophe."
After the channel was deepened and gates installed to control the flow of water, farmers also noticed that the seasonal floods on which they depend were lasting for longer than usual, causing the young rice plants to rot in the fields.
Rice field in Kolum village,Yarang Distrrict Patani province
Meanwhile, fields on higher ground became unusually dry and rice growing there withered as a consequence.
Within a few years the land alongside the irrigation canal was covered by weeds such as bulrushes and spikerushes, which thrive in acidic soil. Growing rice became impossible. "That was how I lost my fields," says Doloh Doreh, heaving a sigh as he looks wistfully at the reed-infested land that was once his pride and joy.
At least 960 hectares of rice fields have become untillable in Ban Klang alone. Neighbouring villages have similar complaints. According to a report on human security in the deep South by the National Reconciliation Commission, only 30 per cent of the farmland served by the Pattani Dam scheme now benefits from irrigation.
Muslim or Buddhist, the communities which draw water from this system are in a similarly miserable situation. "This is because the irrigation authorities never asked the locals for their opinions," notes Phra Pornchai Thanadhammo, abbot of Wat Ban Klang, an ancient Buddhist temple in this predominantly Muslim village.
"They came up with the idea of changing from rain-fed to irrigated rice farming. And they went ahead without asking the people," says the monk.
"They thought irrigation would allow an extra, off-season crop of rice but the farmers ended up having to desert their fields altogether."
For Buddhist farmers things have been relatively easier. Products of the national education system and part of mainstream Thai culture, their children have greater social mobility and so enjoyed better access to alternative job opportunities when rice farming collapsed in the area.
For local Muslims, however, the choices were much more limited. Given their preference for religious rather than secular education and their lack of proficiency in the Thai language, looking for work in Malaysia was the only viable option. Not only because they can earn better wages there, but because they can practise their faith unhindered in that predominantly Muslim society.
Story by Sanitsuda Ekachai, Outlook Bangkok post,
Monday, April 10, 2006


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