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Bangkok Post 22 June 08

Maybe it's worthwhile to take another look at water diversion efforts that were part of the previous Kong-Chi-Moon project before embarking on any new and grander schemes, writes SUPARA JANCHITFAH
The few little fish from the once-mighty river represented the entire morning's catch of a local woman from Tha Bo in Nong Khai province. At what should have been a prime spot for fishing, where the Huay Mong River meets the Mekong River, she pulled out less than a kilogramme of fish.

"I heard that China built two dams upstream," she said, adding that this makes the level of water in the once bountiful and free-flowing Mekong River lower than in the past.

What's more, because of the Huay Mong dam, or watergate, built as part of the Kong-Chi-Moon water diversion project, in the summer months water is pumped into the Huay Mong from the Mekong to feed the river line. During the rainy season water is released from the Huay Mong to the Mekong to prevent flooding.

The local woman agreed that one of the advantages of the dam is that it does prevent flooding in the rainy season, but the dwindling supplies of fish, a staple of the local diet, make it a poor tradeoff in the eyes of most locals.

Meanwhile, information and records released by officials still indicate the success of the project.

Villager Soonthorn Tridej expressed her dismay to see her canal being destroyed by the Lampanieng development project.

A few kilometres away from the river's mouth, another woman was walking on a bare stretch of the earthen dam embankment along the Huay Mong River, which is normally about three metres above the water at its highest point.

Carrying a fishing-net and two empty baskets, she hadn't caught anything that morning. With a somewhat bewildered look in her eyes, she discussed the Huay Mong water diversion project. She seemed unwilling to say anything negative about the project, but after a while she expressed regret that her family had lost about seven of their 15 rai of farmland due to the enlargement of the river, a key part of the diversion scheme.

"I feel pity that my land, where we used to grow rice, has now become part of the high dyke. I don't know if we got any compensation, you have to ask my father," she added.

Some eucalyptus trees grow on the embankment, but many parts of the dike are bare.

Prasong Pongsawat, the chief of the Huay Mong Irrigation project, said that there are no 100% winners from any project. "The project was completed some 20 years ago (in 1986), and the villagers volunteered their land as it prevents flooding. They benefit from it (the project)," he insisted.

Major Concerns

The Huay Mong development project is part of the larger, suspended but now re-proposed, Kong-Chi-Moon water diversion project under the Water Resources and Irrigation departments.

The Kong-Chi-Moon project was the subject of a National Environmental Board (NEB) study in 1993 which concluded that the Irrigation Department should reconsider it on the basis of six major concerns. For example, the environmental impacts associated with deforestation and salinity from the project, and also potential duplication in the project (see next series).

Water from the Huay Mong river must be released to the Mekong River in the rainy season.

One of many plans of the Kong-Chi-Moon project is to take water from the Mekong to Huay Mong and divert it to the Lampanieng canal, which would then be connected to the Ubonrat Reservoir in Khon Kaen province. Such a route would have to go through a range of mountains between the Huay Mong and Lampanieng waterways. The reservoir would then supply irrigation water to many parts of the Northeast (see graphic).

In March of this year, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej proposed a strikingly similar project over the objections of many experts. There have been many questions raised about the project - its feasibility, what are the pros and cons, etc. But one of the most basic questions to be answered is this: Are villagers willing to sacrifice their ancestral land for the development project?

Nong Bua Lam Phu villager Wichien Srichannon is among many who are not willing. Unlike many villagers who had no idea about the documents they signed giving the go-ahead for the Kong-Chi-Moon project, Wichien did read them, and he did not sign the paper which stated that "the project will dredge the Lampanieng and villagers (will) allow the soil to be placed on empty land (the whereabouts of the 'empty land' was not specified.)"

"I have learned from people upstream how they have suffered from the implementation of the project. They are deprived of their land because the project did not only dredge the waterway, but in fact it has enlarged it," said Wichien.

When Wichien did not sign the paper to allow the state agency and its outsourcing company to enter his land to dig and enlarge the Lampanieng waterway, he received a letter saying that he had no right to oppose the project because the land in question did not belong to him.

Wichien remarked that in fact the land does belong to his mother-in-law, but it will be inherited by his wife. "Our family cultivates on this piece of land and my mother-in-law did not sign any paper or give any approval to allow the state agency to do anything on the land either."

Wichien has opposed the project by many different means, such as submitting petition letters to concerned agencies, but yet the company contracted to do the dredging still entered onto his land. "I have to carry my licensed gun to chase them away," he said, although he is aware that it will only stop them temporarily.

"At present we are asking the Administrative Court to give us justice," he added.

Many other villagers not as determined and knowledgeable as Wichien have lost much or most of the land they held when the Lampanieng development project began in 2004.

Wang Nam Kao villager Thongmuan Pimkod has lost almost all her land. Five rai and 200 square metres became part of the Lampanieng waterway and its dyke, leaving her about 300 square metres of land she cannot cultivate.

"I went to to see my daughter who works in Bangkok. When I came back I could not even recognise my land. There were no more trees. It was just empty land with soil and rubbish piled up," she said.

The Lampanieng stream is the bloodline of many locals in Nong Bua Lam Phu province. The small waterway has more than 1,549 square metres of water catchment area, and travels about 150 kilometres, fed by 116 tributaries from various mountain ranges, to nourish more than 909,395 rai of agricultural land. The canal has never run dry, say locals, and wild vegetables and trees grow on the banks. It is an integral part of a unique and important riverine ecosystem.

But after the operation to enlarge the river, to pave the way for the water diversion project, locals see the banks as barren and full of difficulties.

"It is quite hard for ordinary villagers to draw water from the steep waterway into their fields, and this creates conflicts among villagers, as those who live away from the river banks cannot divert enough water to irrigate their fields," said Wichien, adding that it is now more expensive to divert water for irrigation as well.

In the past, villagers had their own water management system. They built check dams by contributing their own labour and money. They had their own rules and regulations to govern distribution of the water.

Wichien said four local check dams were destroyed during the dredging and enlarging of 30 kilometres of the waterway before the project was suspended. The waterway was enlarged on average to a width of 82 metres, not counting the two dykes on the sides, each about six metres in width, compared to seven to 10 metres in the past. Most villagers accept dredging but not the enlargement.

Said villager Ampan Busuk: "It (the water diversion project) destroyed our weir. In the past buffaloes went into the river to drink water, but the banks are too steep for them to climb back out now. Some have died in the river because the water is too deep."

Taking it to court

Villagers feel they have no one to turn to. No NGOs operate in the area dealing with these sorts of issues. Local politicians and state agencies have been unresponsive to their pleas for justice. Recently they began submitting petitions with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and have also filed charges against the Irrigation Department at the Administrative Court.

The matter would have been easier to take on if they had banded together and filed a class-action lawsuit. But as it is, the cases were filed individually, starting in 2005. There are 148 suits in total, each with a similar line of complaint. Four cases have been withdrawn and four have been refused by the court. As of May this year, the Administrative Court has ruled on 23 cases, in each ordering that the Irrigation Department must compensate villagers whose land was lost in the operation of the project, at the rate of 100 to 150 baht per square metre.

However, the Irrigation Department is appealing to the court, negotiating to pay less compensation.

"The department wants to pay us only 50 baht per square metre. Think about it, at that low price how can we buy new land," said Soonthorn Tridej, another villager who has been deprived of much of her land by the project.

But what villagers want more than compensation is to have their land back.

If these villagers still had their land they could grow anything, said Wichien.

He added that that "the compensation money they may be receiving is nothing. Certainly, they cannot replace their land at today's prices."

But the project has hurt him too, even though he has resisted the dredging along his stretch of waterway.

Before operation of the Lampanieng development project he could harvest about six to seven tonnes of paddy rice per cultivation from his 12 rai of land, which could be sold at about 10,000 baht a tonne. He also grows vegetable on his small plot of land which gives him an income of about 7,000 baht a month.

These days he is producing less, however.

"This is due to the fact that less water can be diverted into my field, as the project has destroyed the clay weir that my father-in-law and his friends constructed long ago," he said.

Many of Wichien's neighbours who lost their land have had to take their children out of school. "One of them lost 18 rai of his 22 rai of land. His family suffers a lot and the children are now going without a formal education," said Wichien.

Apart from using the water for irrigation, villagers use the waterway for fishing.

People along the Lampanieng are just one of many groups whose livelihood has been hurt by water diversion schemes whose managers never sought consultaion with the villagers they affect the most. As a result, the outcries of locals are emerging from here and there with more force.

Prom Srisangcom is a villager who represents people affected by the Huay Luang water diversion project, another branch of the Kong-Chi-Moon project (see related story).

A few weeks ago, Prom was among a group villagers who went to Udon Thani provincial hall to ask the governor and Irrigation officials to look into their troubles, and to ask for compensation for the land that they lost due to the department's water diversion projects.

"Villagers have had to shoulder the adverse consequences of these projects in silence for many years," said Chanthra Sanguannam, from Kumphawapi district of Udon Thani. Her 24 rai of land was inundated by the construction of the Kumphawapi dam (part of Huay Luang project) in 1989.

"I have no land to cultivate. My family has been torn apart - my daughters have to work at a construction site in Bangkok," she added.

"Many affected people don't want compensation. We want to demolish the dam so that we can get our land back," said Prom.

When contacted, Sommai Kerdnimrit from the Region Five Office of the Irrigation Department said that the Huay Luang project was transferred to his department in 2002, but was initiated and implemented by the former Energy Development and Promotion Department.

"Many villagers affected from the construction have already been compensated at the rate applicable to the year the dam was erected. However, when the dam increases its holding capacity from 154 metres to 160 metres above sea level, more villagers will be affected. We will then compensate them according to the Government Land Expropriation Law."

Affected villagers say that the department is offering only about 35 baht a square metre, which to them is unacceptable.

Sommai remarked that if villagers aren't satisfied they can file charges in the Civil Court.

But going through prolonged court proceedings is a daunting and expensive task for most villagers.

"It's as if we've run into a great mountain range. It's not easy for villagers with only a rudimentary education," said Lampanieng villager Ampan, who begged state agencies to think more carefully and consult locals before implementing development projects in the future.

Note: This is the first in a series on troubles surrounding the Kong-Chi-Moon water diversion project.


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