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The Karen people are an ethnic group who live along the Thailand-Myanmar border. Most of the Karen in Thailand live in the province of Mae Hong Son, where a recent United Nations survey concluded that 64% of the province lives below the World Bank Global Poverty Line of $1.90 per day. In the past, Karen farmers have built small dams using rocks, bamboo, and brushwood to interrupt the flow of a river or stream just enough to divert water to their crops. However, heavy rainfall and flash floods can seriously damage these fragile irrigation systems just as the region receives the bulk of its rainfall for the year, which means that the opportunity to conserve this precious resource is lost. As subsistence farmers depending on unreliable rainfall patterns, the Karen are only able to produce 40% of their food needs for the year, resulting in widespread malnutrition and children and young adults having to travel to cities to work as laborers to send money back to the village. In 2016, the problem has grown worse, with Thailand experiencing its hottest recorded temperatures since 1960 leading to its worst drought in decades (see link in "Resources" section for link to news story). These worsening conditions have forced Thailand to ration its water as its rice production has fallen by 30%. These extreme weather conditions can lead to fields going dry for years on end, leading to paddies that are no longer productive. Insufficient rice yields push Karen villagers to adopt drastic measures such as "slash and burn" cultivation, which contributes towards further deforestation and environmental destruction.
This also allows the villagers to learn the skills necessary to maintain the system in the future, ensuring that it can be fully-sustainable and not require ongoing funding. However, none of the 69 dams built in the last 10 years by the Karen Hilltribes Trust has required repairs yet, and each are expected to have a useful life of at least 20 years. The project's activities include: - Consulting with village leaders to identify the best location for the site - Surveying the site to assess and measure the specific dimensions of the new system - Collecting large supplies of rocks and sand as base materials to cover the river bed - Constructing bamboo and steel moulds which shape the base and walls of the new dam - Filling these moulds with concrete and reinforcing them with aggregate and steel - Constructing woven basket moulds which are then filled with concrete to reinforce and support the dam walls - Constructing concrete channels which direct water to the nearby fields - A reliable water supply will lead to increased yields (see "Food Security Case Study" in the Resources section for a case study in which a recently-completed dam increased the crop yields five-fold), and also allow the farmers the opportunity to earn income from selling surplus rice, or diversify into cash crops such as soya and garlic, allowing them to pay for healthcare and education opportunities for their families.