Weerakorn: “PM giving green light for China to divert water from Yuam/Salween to Bhumibol Dam, EIA approved, pending review of Environmental Board” Environmentalist concerned on inaccurate information

(Translated from Thai-language report of Transbordernews)

20 August 2021- Mr. Weerakorn Khamprakob, MP from Nakhon Sawan Province f Palang Pracharath Party and Vice Chairperson of the House Special Committee to explore the options for integrated river basin management under the House of Representatives, revealed the progress of the project to increase water supply in the Bhumibol Dam, known trans-basin water diversion project from Yuam/Salween to Ping/Chao Phraya basin carried out by the Royal Irrigation Department (RID). According to the MP, the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been approved by the EIA Expert Review Committees at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, pending the review of the National Environment Board (NEB) chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan 

“It took many meetings before the EIA was approved. I have been following this matter for nearly two years. It took a long time as the Expert Committee has proposed many revisions, but I am sure it will get approved by the current administration since the Director General Prapit Chanma (of the Royal Irrigation Department) has said that if it got approved by the NEB, the project’s construction can commence the end of this year. I have no idea though if it could begin at the dam site or from surveying the area” said Weerakorn.

The House Special Committee’s Vice Chairperson said that he has been lobbying prominent figures, particularly Gen. Prawit and Prapit Chanma to give a nod to this project since it really is useful. It can help to address water supply problem to some extent in the entire Central Plain. Water from tributaries including Nan river basin, if it get water from the Ping River, it will reduce the burden in the Nan River. For Chum Saeng District, Nakhon Sawan, more water can be harnessed from the Nan river basin. Similarly, water can be harnessed to help the Yom river basin. To put it simply, this will ensure enough water supply in the Chao Phraya River. 

Weerakorn said that while reviewing this project, the House Special Committee has been coordinating with a China’s state-owned enterprise as we know they are interested in this project. There are about five state-owned enterprises in China, and they operate hydropower dams around the world. They build large dams in both China and abroad. It’s like they agree to take on this project without expecting much profit. They have all the equipment to develop large-scale projects and want to help Thailand.  

“The RID has estimated based on the draft plan that it would cost around 70 billion baht and takes seven years to complete. But the Chinese state-owned enterprise said they only need 40 billion baht and four years to complete this project. Basically, their proposed cost is much lower than our estimated cost. I have brought this to the attention of the Prime Minister and Gen. Prawit was there as well. They all said we should press ahead with this project. If they build this for us first, we do not have to spend anything. We do not have to make the investment ourselves. If we need to make the investment ourselves now, we would not be ready for that. But if the Chinese want to do it, we should let them do that. They ask the Chinese company to coordinate with Mr. Somkiat (Mr. Somkiat Prajamwong. Secretary-General of the Office of the National Water Resources). This project receives backing from those high up and the RID gets excited and is ready to press ahead with it. Even the EIA has been smoothly passed. Meanwhile, the RID is working on the project design and it is nearly done. I have lately talked with the Director General Prapit, and he said if the EIA gets approved, the project can start within this year” said Weerakorn.

The MP said that water from the Yuam River has to be diverted to the Ping river basin since Thailand has been facing shortage of water. People in the Central Plain has been suffering tremendously and they have not been able to pump water from the river to grow their rice in the past 14 years. They have been prevented from doing that. Many provinces suffer from drought. In average, we are short of around 4,000 million cubic meters every year. The House Special Committee has started to review this issue and has been looking for projects that may help to harness water from the Yuam River.

Asked what the Chinese state-owned enterprise will gain from investing in this project, Weerakorn said that they will sell the water at less than one baht per cubic meter, which is super-cheap. Even we cannot do that. They may make some profit, otherwise they would not do it, but they do not want to rack up much profit. When hearing the water will cost less than one baht per cubic meter, the RID is really thrilled, it really is a good price.”  

“They sell water to the Thai government, once it gets into the Bhumibol Dam, we can generate power for sale. We should earn something from that. The EGAT (Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) may help to offset some expenses. The government can instruct EGAT to spend some of its profit to subsidize this project. It would not cost them much. It’s tiny, not much. After power revenue, there might be just 50 satang per one cubic meter to subsidize. If we use 2,000 billion cubic meters a year, that translates to about one billion baht. EGAT has made enormous profits, tens of billion baht a year” said the Vice Chairperson of the House Special Committee.

Asked if there are other reasons the Chinese would be interested to invest in this project, Weerakorn said that as far as he knows, China is investing in the development of an industrial city in Myanmar, just opposite to Mae Hong Son. If we draw a straight line from Sob Moei District to Naypyitaw (Myanmar’s capital city), it will be only 80 kilometers away and it is close to where the industrial city they develop is located. They have already coordinated with the Myanmar government and planned to develop dams in the Salween River to generate power to serve the industrial city. Part of the power will be sold to the Thai government. I have coordinated with the Energy Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow, he asked me to separate between the Salween Dam project and the water diversion project and do not get them mixed up. 

“The Deputy PM said that that project is the one for the future. We can talk about this later. But the priority should be given to the Yuam River water diversion project. He entirely agrees with it and finds it a flawless project. But some NGOs have tried to derail it by claiming that this water diversion project will cause floods as far as Mae Sariang District, which is not true. I want the media to clarify the matter. We are not going to cause suffering for our people. The water diversion only happens during rainy season. The sluice gates can be built four meters high to give enough depth to pump the water.”  

Asked if the excavation of more than 60 kilometers if tunnel would cause deforestation, Weerakorn said that there would be no loss of forest. The excavator would go the depth of 20-30 meters under the mountains and there would be no impact. No one on the ground can feel the impact. It is a new technology. It is not like the blasting of topsoil to lay down the pipes and bury them later. It is an excavation process.  

Asked how to deal with an enormous amount of soil from the excavation, Weerakorn said that he has proposed to the RID to use the soil to fill up the nearby low-lying area including in the Nam Ngao National Park. It should not be piled up in one spot. And if all the soil is removed and used to fill up low-lying area, this should not cause any environmental impact. NGOs can be allowed to monitor the process since it will not cause much fallout on the environment. Of course, we cannot say there will be no impact at all. There shall be some, but it’s worth it since in the future, we can extend the tunnel to the Salween River which is not so far away, about 10- 20 kilometers, and harness water from there to the reservoir or the sluice gate we build in the Yuam River. 

Hannarong Yaowalert, president of the Foundation for Integrated Water Management, said that he was shocked that the project under the review of Expert Committee is tipped to be reviewed by the National Environment Board. Originally, the project was under the charge of the Ministry of Energy, and then it gets transferred to the RID. We have seen how individually and collectively through the House Special Committee, efforts have been made to push through the project. During the review of the project and the fact-finding trip of the House Special Committee, I was there at the site as well. All the local villagers said that the House Special Committee only sought to meet with people who supported this project.  Even though some local leaders have raised their concern with the House Special Committee and the RID, but there has been no response from them. The agencies kept saying to the villagers they should not be worried. It would be an underground excavation of tunnel. But according to the EIA, at least four areas are designated for landfill purpose throughout nearly 70 kilometers of the tunnel including in forested area where the ethnic Karen community has been living. The information in the EIA is far from accurate.  

Hannarong said that until now, local villagers have submitted their letters of petition to the RID, and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental a couple of times. The Expert Committee has never invited the villagers to give them information. They only invite the project proponents. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, the project suddenly received approval. It has made people skeptical as to based which information they gave green light to the project.  How much have the affected people been participating in the process?  They simply claim this nearly 70 kilometers of tunnel will be made possible by the Chinese technology, but we have never seen their concrete work. The only example we can find is the Mae Taeng-Mae Ngud water diversion project in Chiang Mai, the construction of which is much behind the schedule. It has caused harm and deaths and it has now taken more than ten years to build. Given that the tunnel in the project is even longer, I was shocked at how the EIA has been approved. 

“In its Phase Two to divert water directly from the Salween, an international river shared by China and Myanmar will be harnessed. They claim they would not use much water. But have we informed the riparian countries already? I heard that recently, Myanmar has sent a letter to an international organization raising its concern about the impact. Have the RDI and our politicians given any thought to this, or will we just wait until the problems have emerged?” said Hannarong.

The president of the Foundation for Integrated Water Management said that after the project’s EIA has been publicized, the RID has been conveying lopsided information simply focusing on its benefits, i.e., the million of rais of irrigated, etc. The increased water supply of 1,800 million cubic meters might be overlapped with the existing water supply in the Chao Phraya River Basin. It also does not reflect information about the use of water per rai.  

“The House Special Committee should be aware that it does not matter where the RID has acquired the water and which country they co-invest with, RID is only allowed to charge not more than 50 satang for each cubic meter. By claiming that it is a joint-venture project, and they have to collect the fee to give back to the investors, it shows how they lack the knowledge of the Thai law.  

Of course, it impossible for the state to be the sole investor in this project since it is a highly complex project composed of different modules. And I don’t think they can complete this project within 4-7 years. By rushing to push it through, it makes us feel skeptical that there might be something wrong with it and there might be some expectation for some gain” said Hannarong.

Hannarong said that a joint-venture project has to go through numerous negotiations. Experience from neighboring countries show that when exporting their knowhow and investment, you cannot expect China to do it for free. It is very important that politicians must have more information. 


Original Thai-language report https://transbordernews.in.th/home/?p=28322

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