By Paw Sirilak Saiprasit
Chiang Mai, Thailand, September 20, 2015
Water and river grabbing refers to situations where powerful actors such as developers and governments are able to take control of, or reallocate to their own benefits – including decision-making power – the use of rivers and water resources. This grabbing of water resources and river systems often comes at the expense of the local people who depend for their lives, cultures and livelihoods on these natural ecosystems 1.
Globally, the construction of hydropower dams has forced some 40-80 million people to leave their lands in the past six decades, according to the World Commission on Dams 2. Many communities around the world are still fighting against old dams and proposals for building new ones. One such struggle is continuing in a village called ‘Mae Khanil-Tai’ against the Mae Khan Dam project in the northern Thailand province of Chiang Mai.
Forest and rivers sustain our lives
Since 1994, when the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) conducted a 3 year feasibility assessment of the Mae Khan Dam project, the villagers of Mae Khanil-Tai have been opposing the dam project due to concerns over the loss of forest and their livelihood.
About 56 households are living in this village located in Ob Khan National Park inside the Mae Khan River Basin. “Our lives benefit from the forest and the Mae Khan River tributaries for planting rice, it’s our traditional way of living,” said Pan Junkaew, aged 57, the head of Mae Khanil-Tai village.
“We can stay here with the forest with no money, but we can’t stay in the city with no money. The money might sustain us for a short while, but forest and rivers can sustain us for generations,” said Pan.
“If the Mae Khan dam is built here, our village will be flooded by the reservoir, over 2,000 rai (approx. 3.2 million m2) of land will be submerged,” he explained.
In fact, for any development project or an activity that may cause severe impacts to a community and to the surrounding environment, the RID is required to conduct an environmental impact assessment under Thailand’s laws, specifically under the Enhancement and Conservation of National Environmental Quality Act 1992.
Key issues with an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
“EIA is used to either stop or start the project, and also used as a guideline to prevent, mitigate, or reduce the impacts. Generally, EIA aims to evaluate the project for the sustainable development of a society,” said Songkrant Pongboonjun, a lawyer at EarthRights International.
However, in reality, EIAs are often incompletely and insufficiently conducted, and lack people’s participation. For example, the assessments of environmental impacts of a large hydropower dam project often: (1) have limited scope within a country, even though some dams result in transboundary impacts; (2) constrain the study of impacts to a limited area either downstream or upstream, but does not take into account the entire complexity of the watershed or river ecosystem; and (3) limits their assessment of affected people to a small part of the affected population and sometimes collects data from communities who may be located further away from the directly affected areas.
Importantly, the entire process of the EIA tends to focus solely on completing the study for the developer rather than to genuinely engage about the impacts of the dam with the affected people and the general public. On completion of the study, it is very rare that the final EIA reports are presented to the public for comment or critique. Nor are the reports translated into local languages especially ethnic minority languages.
Lesson learned from other dam projects
Arguably one of the worst EIA’s in Thailand’s recent history was done for the Pak Mun Hydropower Project, a so-called run-of-the-river dam sited at the confluence of the Mun and the Mekong Rivers in northeast Thailand, and built and operated by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). The Pak Mun dam resulted in severe negative impacts for the livelihoods of both upstream and downstream local communities.
According to the World Commission on Dams report in the post-dam period fishing communities located upstream and downstream of the Pak Mun dam reported 50-100% decline in fish catch and the disappearance of many fish species.
The Pak Mun’s EIA was conducted and passed with inadequate baseline studies. It did cover the different seasons and neglected to use a timeframe of at least 2 years of research; it did not study the cumulative impacts on aquatic resources from other development projects in the watershed 3.
Other cases of incomplete and incomprehensive EIAs have been the cases of the Kaeng Sua Ten dam project in Phrae province and Mae Wong dam project in Nakhon Sawan province. In both cases, local communities have been opposing the dam projects due to the significant threats to the forests, animal habitats and local livelihoods.
People participation is key to the decision-making process in approving an EIA report. However, in the above dams, local communities were often excluded from ‘people participation’ and no ‘public review’ was carried out of the EIA studies. For the local villagers in Kaeng Sua Ten dam project area, after so many years of requesting for participation, they are more than aware that once a government decision is made there is little possibility at the local level to discuss and decide on any other type of water management in its place 4.
Also, the latest case of the Krabi Seaport project, where EGAT mobilized people to support its project in the public hearing, and used police and defense volunteers to stop affected people from attending and voicing their concerns also stands out as another indictment of how EIAs are used in Thailand only to rush through approval of infrastructure projects.
“EIA is done just for the dam project to be approved,” said Songkrant Pongboonjun of EarthRights.
Opposition to dam projects now begins with opposing the EIAs
It is no surprise then that many communities are wary of allowing dam developers to enter the villages to conduct EIAs.
In the case of the Mae Khan dam project, the Mae Khan dam’s consultant company, Punya Consultant Co. Ltd, has been trying to collect data for assessment of environmental impacts, according to Mr. Sayan Khamnueng, a staff member at Living River Siam, an environmental group working in the area. However, the villagers have refused to cooperate with company staff members and even banned them from entering the village area.
“If we let the dam developers succeed in conducting the EIA, the dam project will be approved. They never provide us complete information, we don’t want to cooperate with them,” said Sayan Khamnueng. He stressed that: “[even an] incomplete EIA is still considered valid, as it is meant to just approve the project.”
Looking at several cases of dams in the Lower Mekong Region, such as the Maewongdam in Thailand, Nam Theun 2, Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in Laos, and the Lower Se San 2 dam in Cambodia, it is evident that rather than EIAs anticipating problems or raising concerns, they have served as a rubber-stamping device to approve projects that take-over or grab the resources of local people.
“We have never seen any affected people from dam projects as becoming happier or better-off after the resettlement or being given compensation,” said the head of the Mae Khanil-Tai village. As the villagers learned about the problems of dam-affected people in other areas in Thailand, they were increasingly convinced that they have to oppose the dam.
Noppadol Kowsuvon, Chief of the Irrigation and Transportation Office of the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) in Chiang Mai, pointed that the authority needs to involve people’s participation. If the people don’t agree on the project, an EIA cannot be issued and the project can’t be approved.
“No EIA, no project approval,” stated Noppadol.
Mae Khan dam: Questions about benefits
The RID is promoting the Mae Khan dam as necessary for flood prevention especially in the downstream urban areas of Chiang Mai.
“As a matter of fact, the flood prevention ability of the Mae Khan dam is a false claim by the RID,” said Sayan.
He explained that the Mae Khan dam is to be built downstream below Chiang Mai city. Therefore the dam could hardly help to prevent flooding of the city. In fact, it is designed to store water to supply the expanding industrial estates in neighboring Lamphun province.
According to the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand, the demand for water supply for the Lamphun Industrial Estate I and II is estimated 24,760 cubic meters per day or about 24,760,000 liters a day. This is huge when compared to about 120-300 liters for a person per day of water consumption in Chiang Mai province.
On 4 September 2014, the Water Management and Policy Committee (WMPC) held a public hearing, where Mae Khanil-Tai villagers submitted a petition demanding to remove the Mae Khan Dam project from the proposed national water management scheme of Thailand.
According to Living River Siam, although the WMPC seemed to acknowledge their concerns about the dam, Mae Khanil-Tai people still harbor uncertainty under the present rule of the Thai military regime.
EIA is meant to be used as a planning tool to help prevent destruction of the river and the livelihoods of the local communities. But the dam development process is driven by the commercial interests of developers and other powerful actors who would benefit from the dam. This results in EIAs becoming a tool that enables water and river grabbing. Yet, if EIAs are to work for people affected by projects, they should include genuine people’s participation and take account of affected people’s concerns and needs, not just be a decorative process for approval of dam projects. In the case of projects that bring problems rather than benefits, they should recommend the projects to be cancelled.
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on www.imekong.org