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Project an uphill struggle

Bangkok Post 22 June 08 (Perspective)

Without any mention of past weaknesses, the Water Resources Department is proposing to dust off many old projects and implement new ones to realise the dream of irrigating the Northeast with water from the Mekong, writes SUPARA JANCHITFAH

At first glance, most villagers were happy with a pilot project of a water grid system proposed back in 1999 for Nong Phue sub-district of Khon Kaen province, even if there was not much consultation or opportunity for them to give their input. After listening to the promotional campaign from Irrigation Department officials, they believed they would be much better off.

Supat Kumpitak, chairman of Nong Phue Tambon Administration (TAO), said that locals really couldn't imagine the details of the system, but were sold on the idea they would have access to plenty of water all year round.

In all, about 513 families were expected to benefit from the project to take water from Ubonrat Reservoir via three pumping stations and deliver it to their rice fields.

But the villagers' happiness did not last long. After the project was completed in 2001, they learned they would have to pay to use the water, although not until 2006.

Villagers in northeastern provinces are still engaging in agriculture, but with less access to land and water. -- SUPARA JANCHITFAH

Supat said that villagers had no say in where the pipeline should snake through their communities, those decisions were all made by officials. Parat Saprom-ma is the head of the pipeline water users group in Nong Phue sub-district. He told of some difficulties he had encountered in operating the pipeline water system.

"First of all, gravity is working against us, so we have to pump the water from the reservoir. The storage tanks are located at the level of the rice fields, but the pumps have to be turned on to force water from the storage tanks as well (see pictures and graphic), mostly because of the sediment in the lines.

"In some areas," he went on. "we've found that the storage facility structures are faulty and cannot hold water. Quite often, the pipeline has broken. And in many cases, the pipeline is too small and has been placed lower than the fields to be cultivated."

Whenever the more minor problems are tackled, it seems, bigger ones emerge.

"In the summer months there isn't enough water in the system to deliver to the fields.

"Moreover, the water volume measurement gauges often don't function. Later they were stolen from most sub-stations," said Parat.

Supat stressed that a major factor that contributes to the unsuccessful delivery of water is the sediment and earth from water pumped from Ubonrat dam, which clogs the pipeline and prevents water from flowing even when gravity is not working against the system.

"We face more difficulties now, as we (villagers) must contribute money for the system. Now we contribute only one fourth, but in the future we will have to shoulder 100%," said Supat.

He said the Irrigation officials at the Nong Rue district office in Khon Kaen province have asked his TAO to contribute and manage the pipeline water system.

"Since January of this year, we have paid the salaries of six staff from three water-pumping stations. However the structure and management are still the responsibility of the Irrigation Department," he said.

Supat explained that his TAO is not prepared to manage the project at this time, as the electricity costs of the three water pumping stations would be too high for a small TAO.

From January to March this year, for Nonkong station alone, villagers contributed 53,000 baht. The total electricity costs for Nonkong station were about 212,000 baht. The cost of electricity for each station is about 0.84 million baht a year.

Mission Unaccomplished

The three small pumping stations and piping systems in Nong Phue sub-district cost the nation's taxpayers more than 133 million baht to construct, and they were all far behind schedule.

For example, the system supplying Nonkong village cost 51 million baht and was 511 days behind schedule. It was supposed to deliver water to 3,200 rai of agricultural area, but as it turns out it only supports 1,200 rai of farmland around two villages.

Using electricity to pump water and deliver it through a pipeline is one of the methods of water diversion in Thailand.

According to a 1999 report of the now-defunct Energy Development and Promotion Department (presently, the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency), at that time there were 1,984 water pumping stations spread throughout the country. These stations were said to divert water to 3,073,766 rai of agriculture field (from a targetted 4,785,163 rai.)

There are about 975 water pumping stations in the northeastern provinces, which are reported to deliver water to about 1.5 million rai (2.4 million rai were targetted), which is only 22% of the total 6.8 million rai under irrigation in the northeastern provinces. Generally speaking, few of these water pumping systems that suck water from Ubonrat and other reservoirs in the region are not fulfilling their mission, despite the huge sums of money invested in them.

The Irrigation Department and other related agencies have also constructed many so called "water-gates" to keep water in the Northeast. Huay Luang Watergate in Phon Phisai of Nong Khai province is one of these. It was built only one kilometre from the confluence of the Huay Luang and Mekong rivers.

The Huay Luang Option

The Water Resources Department (WRD) has proposed to Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej an ambitious scheme to divert water from Laos PDR and the Mekong to the northeastern provinces. The PM has expressed his whole-hearted support for the old idea.

Without any mention of past shortcomings, the WRD intends to dust off many old projects and implement new ones.

There are three options under consideration.

One is to divert water from Nam-Ngum Reservoir in Laos PDR by way of a tunnel under the base of the Mekong River, which will be connected to Huay Luang river (see graphic).

According to the plan proposed on June 9, the water diversion line would deliver water to irrigate 3.61 million rai and would divert a total of 1,978 million cubic metres of water a year. The existing amount of dependable water is only about 7,859 million cubic metres a year.

Presently, the demand for water in the Northeast is about 10,994 million cubic metres a year. According to the WRD, this does not include the large amount of water needed to maintain natural ecological systems.

The department does not address the troubles related to the contour of the northeastern plateau. Huay Luang is located at about 150.5 metres above median sea level, whereas the interior of the plateau averages about 160 metres above median sea level. A watergate has been built there to form a small reservoir. Under the scheme, water must be pumped from this reservoir and then transported to the Nong Han-Kumphawapi Reservoir in the interior of the plateau.

A new proposal from the WRD states that the water level at the Huay Luang water pump station should be kept at 180 metres above sea level and then released through a complicated system of pipelines and tunnels to the reservoir at Nong Han-Kumphawapi, which will hold water at 170 metres above sea level.

Lertsak Kamkongsak of the Udon Thani Cultural-Ecological Project, believes this option will be prohibitively expensive.

Besides the cost of pumping the water, he cited the electricity and materials cost in laying the long pipeline.

Lertsak believes that the high investment costs and low past performance of water diversion projects need to be considered.

"Moreover, the volume of water proposed to be diverted from the Nam-Ngum Reservoir, at 212 feet above sea level, is more than the Nong Han-Kumphawapi Reservoir has the capacity to keep," he said.

Currently, the reservoir holds about 102 million cubic metres of water. Already villagers are asking for more than 500 million baht in compensation for land which was submerged by the construction of the dam.

"The government would need to dredge Nong Han and build higher dykes in order to keep such a large amount of water. This would lead to many more environmental and other consequences," said Lertsak.


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