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Thailand's River Diversion Plans for Whose Benefit?

Monday, August 4, 2008

BANGKOK Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravejs 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 peoples 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 projectsworth around 500 billion baht (US
$14.97 billion)and that they should be completed within the
governments four-year term.

At least eight water diversion projects are planned, not including the
Prime Ministers 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 Thailands 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

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 dams
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

"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

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 projects 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

Lertsak Khamkhongsak, coordinator of the Udon Thani-based Ecological
and Cultural Change Studies Group, said the governments 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

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

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


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Living River Siam Association 138 Moo 4, Suthep, Muang,Chiang Mai, 50200 Thailand
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