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Mekong Water Diversion Project, academics and civic sector calling out a lack of public participation, requesting for the review of EIA

12 October 2021, Mr. Suntiphap Siriwattanapaiboon, a professor of the Environmental Science Department of Udon Thani Rajabhat University’s Faculty of Science gave an interview about the effort by the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) to develop the Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun water diversion project, and its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) being reviewed by the National Environment Board (NEB), amidst staunch opposition from the public. He recommends that the government study and learn from its previous mistakes including regarding the Mekong -Chi-Mun project which has proven unworthy and squandered lots of public money to solve existing problems.

Mr. Suntiphap said the Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun project aims to harness water from the Mekong River to Northeast Thailand. They claimed it would help to make people live a better life. But he questions why peasants who grow rice three or four times a year in Central Plain have yet become richer and well-off? This is because of an increased cost of production including the need to use chemical fertilizer and the widespread corruption in such water projects. Securing more water supply does not always guarantee a better livelihood. Why does the state not explore local wisdom, integrated farming or the cultivation of plants appropriate to the local area? 

Asked about the hidden reasons to the push of such large-scale projects including the project to divert the Yuam River to the Bhumipol Dam. The academic said that this could stem from the need to spend money more than anything. The state believes that such large-scale projects can help to spur the economy, particularly in the construction sector. It is also a political issue, since the next elections are forthcoming, and it is a high time to do such projects. But whether its motive has anything to do with corruption or not, he cannot say for sure, but urge everyone to help to put them under scrutiny.

“The people behind such large-scale projects shun an inclusive process. The persons at the head of the table are military guys and they have the power to approve. The EIA has thus been done with flaws. For example, they are planning to excavate large tunnels for hundreds of kilometers, have the local people where the tunnels would pass been informed? If these people have not been informed any detail, how can you assess the economic and social impacts? Such participation has been lacking. In the past, such flawed EIAs had to be redone. And for a project that costs hundreds of billion baht, the Expert Review Committee (ERC) has to be particularly careful. But in this case, the NEB which functions as a proxy of the cabinet has approved it and it has also sailed through the cabinet. I wonder if there was any political interference in the NEB,” said Mr. Suntiphap.

Meanwhile, on 11 October, the People’s Network of the Mekong River Basin has submitted a letter signed by 649 individuals and 88 organizations to Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, Chairperson of the National Environment Board to oppose the EIA of the Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun Water Management by Gravity Project Phase One. They allege that the report lacks legitimacy and inclusive process with participation from the affected people and demand that the EIA report be reviewed urgently.

“The report shows a lack of understanding and fails to mention ecocultural issues and local wisdom. The Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun Water Management is also a costly project and may affect a number of people. Its Environmental Impact Assessment should have been done based on genuine participation of the community,” as stated in the letter. 

The RID has completed the EIA and the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun Water Management Project in the Northeast since July 2012 and its Phase One development has been completed since April 2017. Nevertheless, the Expert Committee has reviewed the report on 17 June 2021 and instructed the Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR) and the RID to revise the report. The ONWR is requested to conduct further study by the Expert Committee until it gets approved.

Mr. Suwit Kularbwong, Coordinator of the People’s Network for the Mekong said that the decisions have been made based on one-sided information. They already have the agenda to push forward the Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun Water Management Project. Therefore, the public hearings have simply been conducted ceremonially as a rubber stamp to justify their claim that public participation has been garnered. However, the E-san people are worried and question whether it is worth it to develop the Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun Water Management Project which costs tens of billion baht or whether it would be another waste of public money.

“To harness water from the Mekong River to the Northeast, we are well aware that China has built dams in the upper reach of the Mekong River and Laos PDR has built the Xayaburi Dam to generate electricity to sell to Thailand. The water in the Mekong River has already decreased. Laos PDR even plans to build the Sanakham Dam, just 2.5 kilometers from the Thai border in Loei’s Chiang Khan District. Once completed, colossal impacts on Thailand are anticipated and the water will further decrease,” said Mr. Suwit.

The Coordinator said that at present ONWR is pushing the Pak Chom Dam (Pha Mong) in Ban Khok Wao, Loei Province, on the Mekong River at the border between Thailand and Laos PDR. This is to store water and elevate the water to ensure it drains into the mouth of the Loei River, although it has been opposed by local people.

“The government should suspend the Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun Water Management Project and commission a study on the previous Mekong- Chi-Mun Project in terms of its social and environmental impacts. Such study should be made with state-public partnerships to explore appropriate alternatives to water management which are suitable to the ecosystem in the Northeast,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Thai government by the RID, is actively promoting large-scale and inter-basin water diversion projects including the project to increase water supply in the Bhumipol Dam. In its Phase One, it aims to harness water at 1,800 million cubic meters per year from the Yuam River in the Salween River Basin to the Ping- Chao Phraya River Basins. The project worth more than 70 billion baht has already been approved by the National Environment Board.

[This is a translation of original article by Transbordernews https://transbordernews.in.th/home/?p=29027]

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