Sal­ween di­ver­sion project en­ters trou­bled wa­ters


Over the past few months, the Ir­ri­ga­tion Depart­ment and the House Com­mit­tee Re­view of In­te­grated River Basin Man­age­ment have been heav­ily pro­mot­ing an in­ter-basin wa­ter di­ver­sion scheme. Planned projects will di­vert wa­ter across Thai­land, in­cor­po­rat­ing in­ter­na­tional river basins, in­clud­ing the Mekong and Sal­ween, to ad­dress “wa­ter short­ages” in Thai­land.

It’s a tan­ta­lis­ing sell, with prom­ises of “free” wa­ter for farm­ers in the cen­tral prov­inces. But there’s a catch: the scheme’s pro­posed dam and wa­ter pipe­line would be built by Chi­nese sta­te­owned en­ter­prises at no cost — ex­cept the right in re­turn to con­struct hy­dro-elec­tric dams on the Sal­ween River.


When par­lia­ment takes on the role of pro­moter for a ma­jor public in­fra­struc­ture project — be­fore it has ap­proved an en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment or af­fected com­mu­ni­ties have been prop­erly con­sulted — it un­der­mines what should be a demo­cratic process. Fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples in the con­sti­tu­tion recog­nise a com­mu­nity’s right to nat­u­ral re­source man­age­ment and to mean­ing­ful public par­tic­i­pa­tion, but if the de­ci­sion to back this project has al­ready been made, where does it leave Thais and dwellers of the Sal­ween basin?

While the govern­ment sings the project’s praises, key pro­ce­dures are qui­etly sound­ing the alarm on en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial grounds. Last De­cem­ber, it was re­ported that the depart­ment re­sub­mit­ted an en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment of the project to a com­mit­tee at the Of­fice of Nat­u­ral Re­sources and En­vi­ron­men­tal Pol­icy and Plan­ning. It was re­jected for the sec­ond time over con­cerns about sur­round­ing forests, fish­eries, tun­nel ex­ca­va­tion ma­te­ri­als and com­pen­sa­tion for com­mu­ni­ties.

This re­jec­tion is sig­nif­i­cant and un­der­scores what is at stake, namely at least five pro­tected forests, in­clud­ing na­tional for­est re­serves and na­tional parks. These ar­eas span three prov­inces and con­tain some of Thai­land’s last sur­viv­ing lush and abun­dant nat­u­ral forests.


Meanwhile, com­mu­nity “con­sul­ta­tions” re­gard­ing the project are run­ning into trou­bled wa­ters. Ear­lier this month, the depart­ment or­gan­ised an in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing meet­ing in Chi­ang Mai’s re­mote Omkoi dis­trict, one of the ar­eas to be di­rectly af­fected. For lo­cals, the meet­ing was ill-timed, given the dan­gers of trav­el­ling amid heavy mon­soonal rains and gath­er­ing in large num­bers dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­demic.

These con­cerns were for­mally raised by the lo­cal co­or­di­na­tor of the Sal­ween Basin Com­mu­nity Net­work on Nat­u­ral Re­source Man­age­ment, in a let­ter to state au­thor­i­ties. In re­sponse, the co­or­di­na­tor says he re­ceived an irate phone call from a per­son who claimed to be the House com­mit­tee’s vice-chair­per­son, dis­miss­ing his ap­pre­hen­sions that com­mu­ni­ties would be sig­nif­i­cantly af­fected by the project.

Com­mu­ni­ties have a right to be heard — and a right to be wor­ried, too. Ac­cord­ing to the depart­ment, there will be two projects di­vert­ing wa­ter to the Ping River and Bhu­mi­bol dam: one on the Moei River on the Thai-Myan­mar bor­der, the other on the Yuam River. The lat­ter will in­volve the con­struc­tion of a 70-me­tre-high dam, from which wa­ter will be pumped into a stor­age fa­cil­ity and then trans­ported along a 62km tun­nel pass­ing through at least 14 vil­lages. Lo­cal Indige­nous Karens fear the project will de­stroy the frag­ile ecosys­tems of the Sal­ween River and its tribu­taries and threaten their tra­di­tional way of life, as well as in­crease the risk of flood­ing and in­un­date farm­land. And those who lack Thai cit­i­zen­ship — and there­fore the right to claim ti­tle to an­ces­tral lands — worry that they will not be treated justly.


Who then stands to ben­e­fit from this wa­ter di­ver­sion project: the state ac­tors in­volved or the Chi­nese state-owned com­pa­nies slated to build the dam in ex­change for lu­cra­tive hy­dropower as­sets? For Thai tax­pay­ers po­ten­tially foot­ing the bill, it’s a rea­son­able ques­tion to ask, given that the project will cost an es­ti­mated 110 bil­lion baht in re­turn for just two bil­lion cu­bic me­tres of wa­ter each year di­verted into the Chao Phraya basin. Fac­tor in the dev­as­tat­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial con­se­quences of this project, and the true cost to Thai­land and Thais is im­mea­sur­able.

More­over, this ill-con­sid­ered so­lu­tion fails to ad­dress the root causes of “wa­ter short­ages” in cen­tral Thai­land, in­clud­ing de­for­esta­tion at head­wa­ters, the ex­pan­sion of the agri­cul­tural sec­tor and in­creased wa­ter de­mand in ur­ban ar­eas. Blinded by its megapro­ject my­opia, the govern­ment has failed to con­sider de­cen­tralised, smaller-scale so­lu­tions, such as lo­calised wa­ter har­vest­ing, which can sup­ply farm­ers with the wa­ter they need while keep­ing the pris­tine forests in the Sal­ween basin in­tact — all with­out hav­ing to in­volve out­side ac­tors. Also, by shift­ing from a cen­tralised model to lo­calised so­lu­tions, prob­lems can be solved in a par­tic­u­lar wa­ter basin with­out ex­port­ing the prob­lem to oth­ers.

To truly ad­dress Thai­land’s wa­ter needs, we need a com­pre­hen­sive op­tions as­sess­ment — a pri­or­ity ap­proach iden­ti­fied by the World Com­mis­sion on Dams 20 years ago — rather than a pre-de­ter­mined pref­er­ence for a pet project that fails to draw on public par­tic­i­pa­tion or con­sider the po­ten­tial so­cial, en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic im­pacts.


The Sal­ween is one of the last, large, long­est in­ter­na­tion­ally free-flow­ing rivers. We can al­low it to be used as a re­source to be ex­ploited for the ben­e­fit of a few, or we can act to pro­tect this river and its tribu­taries by seek­ing per­ma­nent le­gal pro­tec­tion for the Sal­ween basin. In China’s Yun­nan province, a sec­tion of the Up­per Sal­ween has al­ready been de­clared a Unesco World Her­itage Site, while in Thai­land, Sal­ween Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary and other na­tional parks along the Sal­ween and its tribu­taries are a tes­ta­ment to the area’s out­stand­ing eco­log­i­cal value.

Se­cur­ing per­ma­nent le­gal pro­tec­tion for the Sal­ween means we will be able to ef­fec­tively man­age this trans­bound­ary river in part­ner­ship with ri­par­ian states while recog­nis­ing the rights of indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and the en­vi­ron­ment.

‘‘ Who stands to ben­e­fit from this wa­ter di­ver­sion project: the state ac­tors in­volved or the Chi­nese state-owned com­pa­nies?

Pianporn Deetes is Thai­land and Myan­mar Cam­paigns Direc­tor with In­ter­na­tional Rivers, a global NGO work­ing to de­fend the rights of rivers and com­mu­ni­ties. Since 2002, she has ac­tively worked to pro­tect South­east Asia’s ma­jor rivers, the Mekong and Sal­ween.

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