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Voices from Indigenous Communities, NHRC’s investigation trip on the Yuam/Salween Water Diversion Project

During 18-19 November 2021, the National Human Rights Commission, Mr. Suchart Setthamalinee and Ms. Preeda Kongpan, has conducted a fact-finding mission to Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai to investigate a complaint concerning the project to increase water storage in the Bhumibol Dam (known as the Yuam/Salween Water Diversion Project) by the Royal Irrigation Department (RID). Affected villagers, mostly Karen indigenous peoples, participated the event to give information. There were also representatives from the RID, the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP), the Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR) and academics from the Naresuan University involved with the conducting of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

On 18 November, the NHRC delegation and concerned agencies visited Ban Mae Ngao, Sob Moei District, Mae Hong Son, where the Yuam Water Diversion Project will start with the construction of dam and tunnel mouth for the diversion. In the morning, there was a public hearing at the scenic spot of the two-colored river and it was attended by villagers from various villages. 

Mr. Singkhan Ruanhom, a villager said that his village has been founded since 1952. Villagers had a campaign against the Maelamaluang dam project in 1993, as the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) planned to build the dam on the Yuam River. Strong local opposition led to the suspension of the project. However, now there is a push for the Yuam Water Diversion Project that will be to build a dam and excavate tunnels to pump water to supply the people in Bangkok. Such projects have been initiated by the state without asking the villagers. We have only been informed when the exploration has started. All the public hearings conducted simply presented one-sided information. The Project’s EIA even distorts input from the villagers.

“The villagers raised their hands to oppose the project, but it is written in the EIA that they support it. The villagers have no idea where they can complain. When the RID and Neresuan University’s team came, I offered to drive their boat to explore the area. Only halfway to the destination, they ordered me to return having yet set their foot in the forest and fearing their shirts will get tainted. How could they obtain complete information for their study?” said Mr. Singkhan. 

Mr. Singkhan added that the government should learn from lessons. The Bhumibol Dam has been built for over 50 years, there is still a shortage of water. We should tackle the root causes rather than harnessing water from other basins to fill up the Chao Phraya river basin. If the Yuam River is dammed, the forests will irrevocably be decimated. It will impact aquatic lives in the Yuam River, and it is not right to simply release millions of fries to replace them. 

Mr. Prachuab Thongwawit, a villager from Ban Mae Ngao, said that according to ancestral belief, damming a river is tantamount to depriving the river of its parents and depriving it of the spirit. It is such a heinous act against nature. It will prevent fish from the Salween from spawning here. Until now, the community helps to protect the fish species by declaring a fish sanctuary in various spots along rivers. We want the fish to continue to reproduce through to our future generations. This project should not go ahead since it destroys nature including the construction of dam for water pumping.

Mr. Sathan Chiwawichaipong, Coordinator of the People’s Network of Yuam, Ngao, Moei and Salween Rivers, said that the Yuam Water Diversion Project aims to develop a dam to store water which can then be pumped through the tunnels. How will this affect villagers living along the tunnel routes? There should be a thorough study of the impact. The EIA has so far failed to cover all the impacts. Although, it mentions in the EIA that the villagers have been involved and voiced their support for the project, but in fact, they are opposed to the project. And how a meeting that involved just one or two villagers at a restaurant has been misused to justify the claim that a public consultation has been made. I want the NHRC and concerned agencies to look into this.

Ms. Muda Nawanat, a villager of Ban Tha Rue, Mae Hong Son, said that the villagers have not been informed in advance of each of the public hearings. They were not informed of anything. Most villagers belong to the ethnic Karen indigenous community and do not understand central Thai language. It took them quite some time to wrap their head around this prior to their participation in the public hearing. Meanwhile, during the hearing, no interpretation into local languages was available for the villagers and they were not given enough chance to speak out. It was the project proponents who were allowed to speak unilaterally about the good thing of the project excluding the impacts. The public hearings were also organized during rainy season and during the Covid-19 outbreak, and the villagers found it hard and risky to venture out from their villages to participate in such public hearings.

“Villagers tried to complain submitting their letters to RID and ONEP. Their voice has not been accounted for in the EIA. For example, the lunch at a restaurant was cited in the EIA as a consultation. But when affected villagers asked for obtaining a copy of the EIA, they were asked by ONEP to pay 20,000 baht. They had to fundraise among themselves to earn enough money in order to get to read the EIA. Yet, the EIA’s content was redacted” said Ms. Muda. 

According to Ms. Muda, villagers had following demands to concerned agencies including (1) the state should adopt a policy to ensure sustainable water management, rather than the trans-basin diversion, (2) the state must ensure a quality EIA is conducted, not an EIA conducted at a restaurant, (3) the state has to act according to the Constitution and respect community rights, and (4) the state must implement the project sincerely and straightforwardly for the villagers.

Ms. Suchart Setthamalinee, a National Human Rights Commissioner of Thailand, said that the NHRC places an importance on the complaints of the villagers and has therefore conducted this fact-finding trip to review the information. Will there be any violation of community rights or human rights or not, we have to wait until the investigation is completed. Nevertheless, he finds that there are gaps regarding the information between the villagers and concerned agencies, particularly the conflicting information in the EIA. Concerned agencies shall be summoned to explain and it will take some time to investigate since it is a large-scale project. To anticipate the submission for the consideration of the cabinet, a letter shall be submitted to the cabinet to inform them that the NHRC is conducting an investigation into this matter and will further inform them of the results,

Mrs. Preeda Kongpan, a National Human Rights Commissioner of Thailand, said that this trip sheds light on the local context. It is better to listen to a firsthand account of the villagers than to read just from the documents. On 1 December, concerned agencies will be invited to respond to various issues by the NHRC. This review will be made impartially and candidly. 

Mr. Mahit Wongsa, Director of the Environmental Affairs, the Bureau of Environmental Management, RID said that he was there to listen to the villagers about their concerns. As to the EIA which the villagers accuse of distorting information, he insists that the EIA process has been subject to a series of review and the review committees are composed of credible experts. He is sure that there was no distortion of information. In addition, as to the concern about the fee to be levied on water users in the Central Plain, he responds that the water shall be harnessed into the Bhumibol Dam and this is a normal operation. There shall be no extra fee. 

The representatives from ONEP and the Naresuan University refused to give an interview to reporters and explained that they were there as instructed by their superior officials to listen to the villagers and therefore could not speak to the press.  

During the hearing, villagers asked representatives of RID about the inundation of their village, Mr. Mahit explained that at the maximum storage height, their village shall not be flooded. There will only overflow of the tributaries. In disbelief, villagers said that in past, when there was a lot of rainfall, the water would increase to the pillars of their houses. With the dam, they believe their houses will be inundated. 

In addition, villagers asked about the compensation in case there is a resettlement. What would be the criteria for such compensation? The representatives from RID explained that the EIA covers the exploration of the affected area and the compensation shall be made according to the criteria set out by relevant laws including for land, building, and tree. The villagers explain that since they belong to an ethnic group, and some are yet to have Thai ID cards and have no land title deeds, the compensation they will receive will be not sufficient for them to purchase a new piece of land. Where else can they move to?

NHRC team then went to Ban Mae Ngao where the tunnel mouth will be built along with the disposal site of the soil from the tunnel excavation. The villagers are concerned about various impacts, particularly the soil disposal site which overlaps with land of villagers. A pumping station will also be build close to the community. 

On 19 November, NHRC team went to listen to information from the villagers in Om Koy Distrct who live along the tunnel route. 

Mr. Piboon Thuwamonthon from the Network of Ethnics in Om Koy said that the villagers are left with no information about the water diversion project and the EIA. They have no idea what would be the impacts and where the disposal site of soil from the tunnel excavation will be located. Will it overlap with land of anyone? Why did the RID not explain clearly? 

Mr. Sawatdiphon Wongkankaset, a villager said that he spotted the officials when they came here once. They asked the villagers to take them to the paddy fields and only touted about how good the project would be while refraining from talking about the impacts including how their paddy field will be filled up with the soil residue. He is concerned about how his children will live in the future and does not want this project to go ahead. 

Mr. Pairat Kasira, a villager said that he wants some explanation made to the villagers to shed light on the specific impacts as to where the piles of soil will be located, the benefits and impacts of the project. Until now, it is said that public hearings have been held, but he live in the village, but have not been informed as to where the meetings were held. 

Mr. Tawee Monjongsakul, a villager said that older persons say that the forests are occupied by the spirit. We are not supposed to humiliate them. If the mountain is excavated and piles of soil are left there, when it rains, it might cause mudslide that falls into the river consumed by people in low lying area. What would the impact of such thing be? Have the villagers who use the water been aware of the impacts? 

Most villagers have shared their concern about the impacts including the loss of their residential land and farmland, the impact on their traditional way of life, and the inappropriate compensation since the community is located in the protected area and the villagers have no land titles. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Suchart Setthamalinee asks the villagers about their feeling toward the saying that people on highland have to sacrifice in order that people in the Central Plain will have water to use. Ms. Wassana Chokchiwa, a youth representative said that such statement deeply hurts people on highland. RID should manage water for the people in Bangkok more effectively. People on highland help to preserve the watershed forests and build fire buffers every year. We perform the ceremonies to protect the mountains and the forests and take care of the waters. 

Mr. Chalermpon Pattanasakil, a villager said that villagers have traditionally helped to preserve the forests since their ancestral time. They have set up rules to ensure the forests can live on from generation to generation. The villagers in Om Koy set up rules to ensure corn planation would not lead to deforestation. 

NHRC team then visited the office of the Na Kor Rue Tambon Administration Organization, Hot District, Chiang Mai, to listen to information from the area located at the end of the tunnel. They met with two Subdistrict Heads and Village Headmen from ten villages, and other villagers. 

Mr. Wanchai Srinuan, Village Headman of Ban Mae Ngood said that if the 70-billion-baht-Yuam Water Diversion Project goes ahead, it will lead to a stigma passed down to generations. It would be similar to a stigma in 1973, when their land had been confiscated to build the Bhumibol Dam and as a result of which the villagers have no land title deeds. They have been insisting that they do not want the Yuam Water Diversion Project. After all, the area above the Bhumibol Dam often constantly face heavy downpours and floods. There is no need to pump water from the Yuam River to fill it in.

“People in Central Plain may think Ban Mae Ngood villagers are selfish. But nowadays, we live a vulnerable life without land titles. The Yuam Water Diversion Project would only exacerbate our situation” said Mr. Wanchai.  He asked the representative of RID that since the EIA has not been conducted properly and it does not reflect the viewpoints of the villagers, could we stop using it? The representative of RID explained that he would not give an answer now since the EIA is being considered by the Office of the National Water Resources, and this complaint has to be reviewed again.

Mr. Wanchai has asked for a copy of the EIA from RID so that the villagers can help verify the information since they have many doubts as to why such EIA has been approved by the Expert Committee while the villagers are mostly against it. And he insisted on opposing this project during the hearing by saying that “The EIA has been approved, even though the community is yet to read it. We have to pay 20,000 baht to photocopy the document while this project will cost 70 billion baht. Could you please give a copy of the EIA to the villagers so that they can help to verify the information?”

Mr. Wirat Aichong, Subdistrict Head of Tambon Na Ko Rue, said that villagers will not benefit from the water diversion project. Worse, they will bear the brunt from it, similar to when EGAT confiscated the land from them to build the Bhumibol Dam. Meanwhile, the land above the storage height at 260 meters MSL was transferred to the Treasury Department, instead of giving the land back to the villagers.

Mr. Mahit Wongsa of RID explained that he is willing to send to the villagers a copy of the EIA, but give him a month for the preparation since the document is thick and it has to be signed for certification on every page. 

Meanwhile, Asst Prof Sitang Pilailar from the Water Resources Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, the Kasetsart University, as an expert witness for the NHRC’s investigation said that the RID should promptly send the villagers a copy of the EIA as soon as possible since it has the file which can be printed out immediately. They should sympathize with the villagers who are going to lose their homes and their livelihood. Please be kind to the villagers.

“The copy of EIA that the villagers received after fundraising among themselves for photocopying from the ONEP was a redacted version and names of the villagers participating in the public hearings were concealed. Even name of the Deputy Director General which permitted the copying was concealed. I hope that the new version the villagers will receive shall not be a redacted version in order that the villagers can verify the information as to who shall be affected. The NHRC should follow up to ensure the EIA reaches the villagers” said Asst Prof Sitang.

This is a translation of news report in Thai https://transbordernews.in.th/home/?p=29284

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