Water Diversion: A Re-emerging Threat to Mekong Water Security

Hoang Duong
Site of the 'Monkey's Cheek' project, where water from the Mekong will be stored
Site of the 'Monkey's Cheek' project, where water from the Mekong will be stored. Credit: Hoang Duong

Diverting Water From the Mekong River in Thailand

Water diversion is not a new idea for Thailand. Three decades ago, the Thai government initiated the Khong-Chi-Mun (KCM) scheme, a water diversion scheme for Thailand’s northeastern region that was only partially realized, while the full project was shelved many years ago. Yet recent moves by the Thai government to resurrect the KCM project are bringing back nightmares for many communities, particularly in Northeast Thailand. Rather than the delivering the prosperity that was promised, the scheme brought many problems to the local people. And now it is likely to threaten water security across the entire Mekong region.

The Politics of Water Diversion Projects in Isaan

Isaan is the largest region in Thailand, covering 20 provinces in the northeast of the country. The area is one of the main Mekong basins, and has sustained the lives of people in the region for hundreds of years. Most people there are farmers and its economy is dominated by agriculture. “Poor and dry” is the label that the Thai state gave this region. Water management, therefore, has been a central political issue in Isaan. Politicians have used the topic of water management as a hook to secure votes during general elections in Thailand. People in Isaan have been promised a better life with more water in the dry season and two crop yields per year. These promises were used to promote giant projects to bring more water for irrigation. Initiated in the 1980s under Prime Minister General Chatchai Choonhavan, the Khong-Chi-Mun was part of the scheme for “Greening Isaan” and more recently, the Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun scheme.

Community members lower a banner over the Rasi Salai Dam during the International Day of Action for Rivers in 2000
Villagers lower a banner over the Rasi Salai Dam during the International Day of Action for Rivers in 2000

Today, local people still have to bear negative impacts from the many dams and reservoirs built during the 1960s and ‘70s for these water diversion schemes. The Rasi Salai Dam was the first dam in the Khong-Chi-Mun Water Diversion project. Completed in 1994, the project caused severe impacts on both local lives and the environment. The dam’s reservoir flooded the farmlands of 15,000 villagers, 60% of whom have never received compensation. Rasi Salai led to the contamination of the surrounding soil and community water sources; due to such high levels of salinity, no one was able to use the water anymore. There is now an ongoing campaign by local communities to decommission the dam. 

But the scheme was never completed. Due to strong public opposition and the lack of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the government had to suspend other proposed projects within the KCM.

The Nightmare Comes Back to Life: The Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun Water Diversion Scheme

Bad ideas tend to get resurrected. In 2008, the Thai Cabinet approved the idea of sending water to farms in Isaan during the dry season, and the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) has recently come up with new routes for diverting water. Around April 2016, they began to pump water directly from the Mekong River, while simultaneously diverting water from the Loei River through Si Son Rak Gate to cities in Isaan. The project is being called Si Son Rak Gate – a “flood gate.” However this name is misleading the public, as technically any construction that stops the flow of water is not a gate – it’s a dam.

According to the proposed project’s design, the “flood gate” would be built at the mouth of the Loei River, despite strong public opposition to the project, especially from local people at Bang Klang, Chiang Khan Province. The villagers worry that their land will be submerged once the gate is built. One woman shared her thoughts during a community meeting with our group. “We have been living here for generations[…] we do not want compensation, we want to continue our lives here.” According to community members, the EIA for this project has not yet been conducted. Royal Irrigation Department officials have informed them that an EIA is not needed because less than 500 households will be affected. Together, a thousand villagers from Ban Klang are demanding that the government carry out an EIA for the project.

Site of the proposed Si Song Rak Gate
Site of the proposed Si Song Rak Gate
Credit: Hoang Duong

The Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun Project Causes Regional Concerns for the Mekong - Water for Whom?

The water from this scheme, though reportedly intended for farmers, will likely be too expensive for them. Since it is an investment project that requires profit, the water will not be free. According to the KLCM project information issued by RID, there is no clear strategy for how they will be able to pay the electricity bill required for pumping the water. The price of rice – the areas’ main livelihood – in the worldwide market is still very cheap and therefore farmers are cash-poor – they can’t afford the electricity. The authorities, again, are turning a blind eye to the failure of previous water management projects and the real needs of the people.

Furthermore, this water diversion project, once implemented, would not just affect Thailand. The Royal Irrigation Department of Thailand should be in charge of public notification for the project within the country, but the Thai National Mekong Committee should also notify the neighboring countries and the Mekong River Commission about their diversion plans. Even though the water diversion project planners claim that they only pump water during the flooding/rainy season, there are strong regional concerns about what the diversion of water from the Mekong could mean for neighboring countries. According to the Mekong Agreement 1995, the Joint Committee should be notified about any intra-basin diversion project. During February to May this year (the dry season), RID has pumped water from the Mekong. Yet if the local communities and international media had not brought this issue to the public, no one in the downstream countries would have heard about it. 

A protest sign in Ban Klang, Chiang Khan
A protest sign in Ban Klang, Chiang Khan
Credit: Hoang Duong

According to Mr. Nguyen Nhan Quang, an expert on the Mekong Basin Development, water diverted from the Mekong River during the flood season can reduce the amount of water that flows to the downstream countries, especially the Mekong Delta, in floating season. The annual floating season is expected to bring extra income for the local people from selling fish and local products, as Siamese mud carp, Pangasianodon gigas, water lilly and Egyptian riverhemp. There is no solid proof to show that pumping water during the flood season would have fewer impacts on the mainstream than pumping during the dry season. And the project is going ahead with little transparency or clear project information, causing concerns for downstream countries, including Vietnam and Cambodia.

In April, the Mekong Delta in Vietnam experienced its worst drought in over 90 years, adding to concerns within Vietnam about the impacts of upstream dams and water diversion projects. It is vital that the Thai government disclose project information for the Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun scheme, and regional public consultation should be conducted to monitor this water diversion scheme to make sure the water use is shared equally among the Mekong countries. By doing so, we would strengthen sustainable development not only for one specific country but for the whole region.

Hoang Duong is based in Vietnam and working as a freelance journalist with a focus on environmental and social impacts of development projects.

Thursday, August 4, 2016