Plans for some old dams unfortunately never die

Piaporn Deetes, Living Rivers Siam
Monday, June 23, 2008

Opinion piece published in the Bangkok Post

Perhaps Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej thinks it is still the 1960s. As new prime minister, he autocratically announced water diversion projects for the Mekong and Salween rivers, callously calling these international rivers ''public waters'' in the faulty belief that anyone can utilise them without repercussions. In power for only four months, he has already revived almost all the historically rejected water infrastructure schemes, including the infamous Pa Mong dam _ the Mekong's Hoover, proposed by the US some four decades back _ along with other multi-gigawatt dams and poorly planned water diversions.

The Salween/Yuam-Bhumibol dam diversion appears it would be the most destructive to both forests and climate. The project consists of a dam on the Yuam River, a Salween tributary. The project calls for a water pumping station, a 61km-long, nine-metre-wide underground tunnel, and 202km of new electric lines.

Even more rashly, the prime minister announced these schemes as a way to mitigate climate change.

How could that be? According to the World Commission on Dams, reservoirs emit up to 28% of global greenhouse gases, with tropical reservoirs being most to blame.

''All large dams and natural lakes in the boreal and tropical regions that have been measured emit greenhouse gases [carbon dioxide, methane, or sometimes both].''

Mr Samak's logic is tragically wrong, and we will all pay the price for his folly.

This particular project will devastate at least 2,300 hectares of forest along the Thai-Burma border, a pristine jungle with hundreds of species. A simple calculation suggests that destroying the forests for the water diversion will release about 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide initially, and prevent thousands more tons from being absorbed every year.

Besides environmental damage, the diversion project will use an enormous amount of electricity to pump water uphill to the tunnel. The energy to be used is 320 megawatts _ three times the controversial Pak Moon dam's installed capacity, or enough for 98,000 homes.

Thailand's decision-makers should learn from past hydropower failures. Lessons in mismanagement and overlooked social costs are rife in the region, yet they have been consistently ignored.

Dams in Thailand are an excellent example. Almost 40 years after commissioning the project, the people resettled by the Sirindhorn dam project still lack any measure of fair compensation, such as land replacement or an ability to achieve the quality of life they had prior to the dam. In most cases, resettled villagers find their lives worse than before the dam was built.

Simply put, the rural poor and the environment always seem to bear the burden of the greedy and short-sighted dam builders in Bangkok.

Neither the rivers nor their water belong exclusively to Thailand. The Mekong is shared by six countries, and the Salween is shared by three. Bangkok alone cannot decide to exclusively exploit mainland Southeast Asia's common resources to the detriment of other countries, especially poor countries that lack democratic governments like Burma.

First of all, the projects need complete and transparent impact assessments. A valid environmental impact assessment (EIA) must include an analysis of the need for the project, a valid purpose, a range of alternatives and full public participation that includes providing local people with the chance to see the EIA before it is adopted.

Further, the consideration of the cumulative impact of all of these projects taken together has never been performed _ the piecemeal analysis of individual projects hides the gross harm of repeated industrial development schemes. Many EIAs that affect Thailand never see the light of day (like Burma's Ta Sang dam that will provide electricity to Thailand), since the government likes to call their pet projects ''official secrets'' to prevent public opposition.

The new 2007 constitution requires a health impact assessment (HIA), but none of these projects has been considered. The loss of farmland and fisheries upstream on the Yuam could easily overcome any positive impact of more water flowing down the Ping River, but without an open and public HIA this will never be known.

As a result of these deficiencies, approval of the schemes should be immediately withdrawn. A transparent process with informed public participation, particularly for affected communities, that also includes all riparian countries, must be undertaken instead to avoid future conflicts.

There is a lesson the prime minister seems to have failed to learn from the Pak Moon dam, which to this day has failed to realise Egat's promises. An outstanding one is the World Commission on Dams' case study that concluded in 2000 that: ''If all the benefits and costs were adequately assessed it is unlikely that the project would have been built in the current context.''

Mr Prime Minister, pay attention. It is now 2008, and the mistakes that were missed 40 years ago will cause even more severe problems if undertaken now.

Pianporn Deetes is a campaigner with Living River Siam, a Chiang Mai-based non-profit environmental group.

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