Monday, August 4, 2008

Thailand's River Diversion Plans for Whose Benefit?

By KORNPAN WINWONG (NEWSMEKONG)* Monday, August 4, 2008

BANGKOK — Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej’s plans to divert water from rivers in neighboring Laos to help feed agricultural production face stiff opposition from activists, who argue the ambitious projects could threaten the environment and local people’s lives.

Since taking office on February 6, this year, Samak has repeatedly stated that his People Power Party government intends to push ahead with the water diversion projects—worth around 500 billion baht (US $14.97 billion)—and that they should be completed within the government’s four-year term.

At least eight water diversion projects are planned, not including the Prime Minister’s ambitious scheme to divert water from the Mekong River to help farmers in the north-east.

The Thai cabinet approved two of these schemes in July.

The first is the 43.8 billion baht ($ 1.31 billion) scheme to divert water from Mae Yuam River next to the Salween River, flowing from Burma into the Mae Hong Son province, to be stored at the Bhumibhol Dam in Thailand’s Tak province.

The second scheme involves diverting water from Laos’ Nam Ngum River to store at the Lam Pao Dam in the north-east Thai province of Udon Thani, worth some 76.7 billion baht ($ 2.3 billion).

Environmentalists have doubts over the efficiency of the projects, especially the two most recently approved schemes.

They fear that the government could be spending taxpayers’ money ineffectively and are urging the government to carefully conduct the environmental impact assessments before starting work on the projects.

Pianporn Deetes of the Chiang Mai-based Living River Siam, a non-governmental organization in northern Thailand working on the environment, said she believes the construction of the Yuam-Bhumibhol water diversion project could threaten the lives of farmers and damage the environment.

She said that under the scheme, water from the northern river will be diverted for a distance of some 200 kilometers to the Bhumibhol dam’s reservoir through a 62-km complex of underground tunnels and irrigation canals.

The construction of these would destroy 11,500 rai (1.854 hectares) of forest and adversely impact the health of local people, according to critics.

"People in at least 14 villages will be adversely affected by the construction, including the vibration and noise from the explosions and the release of chemical substances in natural water sources and soil,’’ Pianporn said.

Villagers living near the Salween River and National Park, linked with the Mae Yuam River, would suffer shortages of water in the dry season if water from the Mae Yuam River was diverted, she said.

The diversion of water from Mae Yuam River may also cause changes in ecological systems, adversely affecting water plants and fish migration.

Around 30,000 Karen refugees from Burma living in refugee camps near the Mae Yuam River would also be affected, she added.

She said the government did not publicly disclose any information or hold any public meetings to discuss the project’s environmental impact assessment, before going ahead with it.

"I do not understand why Prime Minister Samak wanted to dust off the water diversion project despite the fact that it has yet to be approved by the national environmental committee first,’’ Pianporn added.

Lertsak Khamkhongsak, coordinator of the Udon Thani-based Ecological and Cultural Change Studies Group, said the government’s rush to revive the water management project could be a political ploy to attract votes from the people, especially those in the north and the north-east. The two regions are strongholds of the ruling People Power Party, which is believed to be a nominee of the now-dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party headed by deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

"Who will benefit from the proposed water diversion projects? Are they the people or the politicians?’’ said Lertsak.

He said that the past experience in north-east Thailand has shown that the promotion and implementation of large-scale water management schemes tend to benefit agribusinesses and not small-scale farmers.

As there are concerns that the project to divert water from Laos’ Nam Ngum dam could cause flooding problems in some areas, the government should first ask the local people whether the project was what they really needed, Lertsak maintained.

"People's participation in any decision-making is also required for such megaprojects, as it could have an immense impact on their lives," he said.

He called on the government to halt work on the Nam Ngum diversion project until the completion of environmental and social impact studies and mitigation plans.

Lertsak said environmental and grassroots groups nationwide would hold a nationwide campaign to educate the public about the controversial scheme.

Government spokesman Police Lt-Gen Wichienchote Sukchoterat said the government always respected the people’s participation. It really wants the project to help develop the country and the quality of people’s living especially those in drought-prone areas, he said.

He denied that the project was aimed at attracting votes or popular support.

(*This story was written for the Imaging Our Mekong Programme coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific)

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