EIA flaws exposed, concern about trans-species and transbasin contamination

Karens ethnics fear the breach of their ancestral rules

On 25 September 2021, the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development [RCSD], Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Social Science, The Reporters and Transboder News jointly (Transboundary Journalists and Communicators Associaiton-TJCA) co-organized an online discussion “Stakeholders’ Voices on the Yuam/Salween Water Diversion to Bhumibol Dam”, livestreamed in four languages including Thai, English, Karen and Myanmar. 

RCSD’s Director Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti opened the discussion aimed to hear from various stakeholders who may be affected by the Yuam Water Diversion Project to Bhumibol Dam which costs 70 billion baht by saying that this is a massive and unprecedented issue since the tunnels will be built through mountains to harness water from the Salween River Basin to the Bhumibol Dam, and we are barely aware of the environmental impacts resulting from drilling to build tunnels from one River Basin to another.

“From my understanding, the Thai government is receiving cooperation from its Chinese counterpart, and we have no idea if this will come with strings attached or not, or if it will lead to a large-scale and unprecedented investment. We are all stakeholders. We pay our taxes and are concerned about the environment. And we want to know if there has been adequate study of the environmental impacts from such a large-scale project or not,” said Dr.Chayan. 

Ms. Pianporn Deetes, Regional Communication Director for Southeast Asia Programme at International Rivers gave an overview of the project that Salween is one of the last internationally free-flowing rivers. The Yuam Water Diversion Project will serve as a steppingstone to other projects. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was conducted over 4 years, and local villagers have called out several issues about the study. Still, the EIA has eventually been approved by the Expert. Review Committee (ERC) and the National Environment Board (NEB). It is probably paving the way for the investments in the Salween basin by China. 

Mr. Sathan Chiwawichaipong, the People’s Network of Yuam, Ngao, Moei and Salween Rivers, a villager from Mae Ngai, Sob Moei District, Mae Hong Son, where the dam in the Yuam River and a water pumping station and the tunnels will be built siad academics from Neresuan University have gone there to collect information as part of the EIA, and they wrote in the report that only a handful of villages would be affected including Tha Rua and Mae Ngao villages. But in fact, several other riparian villages will be affected, but they are not mentioned in the EIA report. Data in the EIA is thus not credible. And given that the dam site is located just 20 kilometers from Ban Mae Ngao, it will cause the inundation of the watershed class 1A. In addition, the high voltage power grids from the Lamphun Station will be built through the villages and forests. But until now, local villagers have not been informed of the project since they have no access to information. 

Mr. Prachuab Thongwarit, a villager from Ban Mae Ngao, said that as a member of Mae Ngao community, he has been made aware of this project. Until now, he has gone to various public hearings, but have run into the same people. He wants people in the higher echelon to listen to voices of the villagers who will be affected. We from various ethnic groups have been living here since our ancestral time. We do not want to go back to square one. Even without money, we can live fine. We can forage for bamboo shoots and catch fish for our consumption. We can make our ends meet and are happy to work as hired labour to send our children to school. Ban Mae Ngao has been teemed with forests and clean water and I do not agree with the water diversion project. 

Ms. Muda Nawanat, a villager from Ban Tha Rua said that she urges the NHRC, media and MPs to help review the quality of the EIA report and see if it has been made as required by law. Has the assessment been made with meaningful public participation or not? Have attempts been made to really keep the villagers informed or not? Until now, Mr. Weerakorn Khamprakob who promotes this project and the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) keep invoking the power of the law. We want to invoke the law, too. The Constitution’s Section 58 obliges public authorities to organize forums to hear from the affected villagers. But has there been meaningful public hearing for this project or not? I have participated in several of them, and none has been conducted in Karen language. Sometimes, interpretation services in Karen were made available, but not for the Pwo Karen language and the villagers could not understand. Other times, it was not possible for the villagers to venture from their villages to attend the hearings since the roads during rainy season are very bad. Still, they insisted on holding the hearings. 

Mr. Pongpipat Meebenjamart, of the Salween River Basin Restoration and Development Association said that there has been a lack of clarity about the project since the beginning. The villagers have been mobilizing and raising questions as well as expressing their opposition, but the public authorities have not paid their attention to that. The Yuam and Ngao River Basins as well as the Salween River are not only important to the community’s livelihood. They are intricately linked ecosystems. But the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) has failed to conduct a comprehensive enough study. 

Ms. Pornchita Fahprathanprai, villager from Kaberdin, Om Koy District, Chiang Mai, where the tunnel route will pass and solid waste disposal will be located, said that the villagers there are concerned about many issues, their farmland and the loss of forest. Most importantly, the villagers have been left in the dark about the tunnels and the EIA. Therefore, if the EIA has not been made properly, it should be cancelled. The tunneling project should be scrapped if it is not worth it. We want the Yuam River to flow freely as before. 

Mr. Piboon Thuwamonthon, President of the Om Koy Ethnics Network, said that villages in Om Koy District will be affected by the tunneling as 80% of the tunnel route passes through Om Koy. This may affect the environment and livelihood. The project should be reviewed. I want geological experts to study since it might be built on an active Faultline. From my observation, there are large sinkholes in this area. 

“We want more studies on this. The villagers are not even aware that a large solid waste disposal area is going to be near their homes. The EIA details three or four spots where a large solid waste disposal area will be built (wastes from the tunnel excavation) in Om Koy District. Some of them are located on slopy area and this may case soil erosion into the rivers and both the upstream and downstream villagers can brace for the impacts. Until now, the authorities keep talking about remedies, but they have not spelled out exactly how they would do that. The villagers have no idea how to resist. They want a lot more information. The forests the villagers forage for food every day could be filled up with solid wastes which may not be proper for planting trees. We want all concerned parties to tell us more about the pros and cons” Said Mr. Piboon.   

Mr. Wanchai Srinuan, Village Headman from Ban Mae Ngud, Hot District, Chiang Mai, where the mouth of the tunnel will be located to harness water to the Bhumibol Dam said that all the villagers are concerned about this project. This area is primarily inhabited by the Karens who are barely informed of anything. We have raised our concern about the impacts to several authorities who come here, but we have not received enough information. Since 2016, we have been resisting this project. If water is harnessed here, the villagers’ longan orchards and their homes will be inundated. We are not resisting out of our ignorance. But we know the impacts are real and we cherish tranquility and nature. If we lose this land, we have nowhere else to turn to. Even nowadays, our villages already suffer from floods. 

Mr. Sakchai Yaemoo, villager from Ban Mae Ngud said that I want to ask question to those involved since this project is causing devastation and direct and indirect impacts. Directly, if the water is harnessed here, our farmland will be inundated and the land will be used for storing solid wastes. Previously, our land has been confiscated to build the Bhumibol Dam leaving us with a few acres of land to till. Now, they want to develop this water diversion project, and this time we will have nothing left. Indirectly, this project will affect our livelihood since we depend on the forests. If the project materializes, nature will no longer be the same. I want to raise my doubts to officials at the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) who came here to survey and wrote this the report that only one village would be affected. In fact, almost all villagers in the Hot District will bear the brunt. But until now, the dam (developer) and the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) have given us no such information. 

Mr. Saw Ta Pho, representative from communities in Myanmar’s Karen State said that the Yuam River is a tributary that empties into Moei River and then the Salween. He is concerned about the downstream impact and agriculture in Hpa-an and Mon State. As to the impact on migratory fish, it will impact more than 100 specifies according to the study of the villagers. Most concerning is political and human rights issues since Myanmar has had a military coup since last February. The area around the site of the Hut Gyi Hydropower Project on the Salween has been affected by armed conflicts including in the Karen villages in Myaing Gyi Ngoo where there are more than 8,000 internally displaced persons. They are starving and having no access to food or humanitarian relief. 

“The EIA study on the area by the Yuam River was conducted in merely a couple of villages (in Mae Hong Son province). This is woefully inadequate. Transbasin impact study covering the downstream area is needed including in Karen and Mon States.  The people in this area have been concerned about the Chinese investments as well” said Mr. Saw Ta Pho.  

Dr. Sitang Pilailar, lecturer from Kasetsart University said that after listening to the villagers, she has found the impacts will be much more than what has been written in the EIA report. People are saying that since it has been built, the Bhumibol Dam has never been filled up. In fact, we need to ask do we really need to fill it up with 13 billion cubic meters of water? Although it has been designed as a large dam, it may not need to get filled up. If in any year, we face tremendous downpour, the dam can help us cope with it. The MP who said that since the dam is not filled up, we need to find more water to fill it. This is not what an engineer would say. 

“Right now, the Office of the National Water Resources is looking at the overview of water supply throughout the country. We need to address all the problems in the Chao Phraya River Basin, which do not include just water shortage, but salinity as well. Why do we have to throw all the burden at theRID? ONWR has to give us some answer as well. We need to change our perspective. We cannot look at the problems from the operational angle only. We need a comprehensive picture to address the problems of the Chao Phraya River Basin sustainably. We need to start from asking the right question. If the question is rightly put, we will find there are different other solutions, and there is not just one solution. And we may not need to spend a lot of money just to develop this project,” said Dr. Sitang.

Dr. Sitang said that it is alarming that the project involves transbasin water diversion including the Lower Ping River Basin, the Chao Phraya and Tha Chin Rivers, and we need to discuss this as trans-species and transbasin since fish in the Salween River Basin may be stronger than fish in the Chao Phraya River. Eventually, will we be left with enough mackerel to eat or not, since this involves the diversion of across the oceans. And people in the Lower Ping River Basin and the Tha Chin River Basin have not been informed of this.  

Dr. Apinan Suwanrak, lecturer from Faculty of Fisheries Technology and Aquatic Resources, Maejo University said that the Salween River Basin is unique for being the sloppy river with rapid flow of water. Native fish ought to be strong. There are more than 200 species of them, and only seven species there can be similarly found in the Ping River Basin. Therefore, it is challenging to have fish from the two basins to mix up. We have no information about the spawning and the growth patterns of fish in the Salween River Basin as no studies have been conducted there. The fish may swim to spawn in tributaries. If a dam is built there, it would obstruct their spawning. The Ngao and Yuam Rivers are a fertile nursing ground for young fish. By damming the rivers, it will cause change to the aquatic ecosystem since fish in the Salween River Basin live in flowing waters. If the area turns a stagnant ecosystem, the fish cannot survive. What is concerning is species contamination as a result of the transbasin diversion which used to cause fish extinction in Europe already. And fish in the two basins are starkly different in terms of their species. Any contamination will be irreparable. 

“In water management, water resources are treated as non-living things. We fail to give attention to water resources which are living beings in the water including native fish in the Salween. We should not let this contamination happen. Even though, meshes can be installed, but the mesh holes are not small enough to prevent the young fish from swimming in. Therefore, we should find other more suitable ways, more friendly to aquatic lives” said Dr. Apinan.

Mr. Hannarong Yaowalert, president of the Foundation for Integrated Water Management, said that if the EIA process is really inclusive, all the information should be disclosed. But in reality, people have not been involved and the study team has not clearly disclosed information since the beginning. This has deprived the villagers of the real impacts. Given the lack of quality (of the EIA), this project should be suspended and not be reviewed by the cabinet.

Ms. Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, attorney from the Community Resource Centre (CRC) said that it is very clear that the EIA includes informal data, i.e., some data from a chat at a restaurant. This is not the real information. It does not really describe the project but mention things outside the area. The information should be disclosed to all affected people, and it should be offered in a language understood by them. The network of local villagers has opposed this EIA since the beginning, but the Expert Review Committee (ERC) has failed to seriously vet the report. And the EIA report was approved by the National Environment Board within the period of just two months. It was really quick even though it is a large-scale project and will be built through swathes of lush forest. As to the claim that China has offered to invest in this project, in fact, China has a regulatory law that stipulates that if any investment abroad violates people’s right, lawsuits could be filed against it in the Chinese courts. The problem is, will the Chinese government allow this lawsuit to happen or not? The responsibilities of transboundary investment have been discussed at the United Nations and both China and Thailand have to be held accountable should there be any impact on the public (as a result of investments from the countries). 

After listening to viewpoints from the speakers, the floor was opened and there has been input from various people including an MP, National Human Rights Commissioner, and an academic.

Mr. Manop Keereepuwadol, MP of the Move Forward Party. said that in fact there are other solutions to water supply problem without having to rely on foreign investments.  It is preposterous to preserve the forest by drilling a tunnel through the mountains. I want to know how the EIA has been easily approved by the National Environment Board while it is woefully difficult for the villagers when they request for a road project or electricity.  I want to know if the whole EIA process has been made according to the law or not.  Thai MPs will join hand to investigate this matter. We are not opposed to Thailand’s attempt to secure sufficient water supply. But we need to ask how to do it properly. 

Ms. Preeda Kongpaen, National Human Rights Commissioner, said that I have received a complaint from the Network and been asked to inquire this matter. The NHRC will initiate an inquiry into the issues of community rights and environmental rights. We want to do a fact-finding mission and listen to the people about the impacts. 

Mr. Prue Odochao said that the coexistence with nature of the Karens chiefly rest on their respect of the Water Goddess and any ceremony would begin with homage being paid to the Water Goddess. This project aims to link up two major River Basins (the Salween River Basin and the Chao Phraya River Basin). The Karens believe that it is prohibited to harness water from the two ends into one trench since it may bring about calamity as each River Basin is believed to be under the protection of its own deity. To combine water from both sources into one, it can give rise to many problems. It is absolutely prohibited according to our tradition. Therefore, the government or politicians who hang their power temporarily should not flout the prohibition. By rushing the cabinet to review the matter, it is too hasty and violates the principle. 

Prof. Surichai Wankaew, director of the Peace and Conflicts Study Centre, Chulalongkorn University said that given the scale of the project, any rush decision may cause many more problems. Those with decision making power should open up spaces to listen to more opinions and be more considerate since such losses are irrecoverable.

[This is a translation of orignal article by Transbordernews https://transbordernews.in.th/home/?p=28873]

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