By Paw Siriluk Sriprasit
Chiang Mai Province, Thailand, September 20, 2015
Chiang Mai – Though hydropower is considered a form of clean energy, the construction and operation of hydropower dams can drastically destroy rivers, and alter people’s way of life forever. Therefore, assessment of the environmental impacts of specific hydropower projects is crucial to avoid what can be called ‘river grabbing’.
Globally, hydropower projects have forced some 40-80 million people to leave their lands in the past six decades, according to the World Commission on Dams. Many communities around the world are still fighting against old dams and the building of new ones, including a remote village called Mae Khanil Tai in Chiang Mai Province in northern Thailand.
“We can stay here in 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 the forest and rivers can sustain us for generations,” said Pan Junkaew, 57, the head of Mae Khanil-Tai village.
About 56 households live in this village, which is located in the forest in the Mae Khan River basin of Op Khan National Park, the proposed dam area. “Our lives benefit from the forest and the Mae Khan River tributaries for planting rice, it’s our traditional way of living,” said Pan
“If the Mae Khan dam is built here, our village will be the reservoir, over 2,000 rai (approx. 320 hectares) will be submerged,” he explained.
Since 1994, when the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) started conducting a feasibility assessment of the Mae Khan Dam project, which was finished in 1997, the villagers have been opposing the project, according to Living River Siam, a Thai-based regional non-profit organization.
“We have never seen any people affected by dam projects who are happier or better off after resettlement or compensation,” said the head of the Mae Khanil Tai village. As the villagers learned from dam-affected people in other areas in Thailand, they all agreed on ‘no dams.’
In fact, for any development project or an activity that may have a severe impact on a community and the surrounding environment, the RID is required to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
“EIAs are used to either stop or start a project, and also used as a guideline to prevent, mitigate, or reduce the impacts. Generally, an EIA aims to evaluate the project for the sustainable development of society,” said Songkrant Pongboonjun, a lawyer at EarthRights International.
However, in reality, EIAs were many times conducted incompletely and insufficiently, and without people’s participation. Songkrant continued that EIA reports are also often kept away from the public and dam developers do not release EIAs for public review.
According to Article 57, a person shall have the right to receive information, explanations, and reasons from involved agencies before permission is given for the operation of any project or activity which may affect the quality of the environment. Also a local community shall have the right to express their opinions and concerns.
However, “EIAs are made to pass,” noted the EarthRights lawyer, addressing one of the key concerns about EIAs. The lesson learned from other dam projects was that EIA reports are used just to rubber-stamp a dam project. Mae Khanil-Tai villagers therefore decided that if there is no EIA, there will be no dam.
All these years, the Mae Khan dam’s consultant company Punya Consultant Co. Ltd., has been trying to collect data for assessment of the environmental impact, according to Sayan Khamnueng, a staff member at Living River Siam. However, the villagers do not cooperate with company staff members and eventually banned them from entering the village area.
Looking at several case studies of dams in the Lower Mekong Region, the Maewong dam in Thailand, the Nam Theun 2, Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in Laos, and the Se San 2 and Strung Treng dams in Cambodia, EIAs that should anticipate problems have served as a rubber-stamping device to grab rivers, rather than a planning tool for sustainability.
“If we let the dam developers succeed in conducting an EIA, the dam project will be approved. They never provide us with complete information; we don’t want to cooperate with them,” said Sayan. He also stressed that “an invalid EIA is still valid, it is meant to just pass the project.”
In contrast, Noppadol Kowsuvon, Chief of Irrigation and Transportation, the Office of Royal Irrigation Department in Chiang Mai, pointed out that the authorities need the people’s participation and if the people don’t agree to the project, an EIA cannot be issued and the project can’t be done.
“No EIA, no project,’ emphasized Noppadol.
He also continued that the villagers don’t want to change their way of life. They are too self-concerned over their own tourism business. Meanwhile, Chiang Mai city will be flooded in the rainy season and Northern farmers are facing water shortages for agricultural plantations in the dry season.
“The dam is supposed to solve those problems,” said Noppadol.
“As a matter of fact, the claim that the Mae Khan dam is for flood prevention is false and an excuse of the Irrigation Deartment,” said Sayan.
He continued that the proposed Mae Khan dam site is downstream, below Chiang Mai city. Therefore the dam can hardly prevent flooding; it is rather to store water and divert it to support industrial areas in Lamphun Province, next to Chiang Mai city.
According to the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand, the combined water demand for Lamphun Industrial Estates I and II is estimated at 24,760 cubic meters or 24,760,000 litres a day, compared to about 120-300 litres of water consumption per person per day in Chiang Mai Province.
On September 4th, 2014, the Water Management and Policy Committee (WMPC) held a public hearing, where Mae Khanil Tai villagers submitted a petition demanding that the Mae Khan dam project be left out of the draft water-management scheme.
According to Living River Siam, although the WMPC seemed to acknowledge their concerns about building the dam, Mae Khanil Tai people still fear the uncertainty under the rule of the Thai military junta.
Articles 66 and 67 of the 2007 Thai Constitution state that local or traditional communities shall have the right to conserve or restore their customs, local traditional knowledge and culture in the management, maintenance, preservation and exploitation of natural resources.
Moreover, a person has the right to participate in, conserve, preserve, protect, and promote the sustainability of the environment and well-being of life. Any project or activity which may seriously affect the community in the quality of the environment, natural resources, and health shall not be permitted.
Therefore, EIAs should genuinely include more people’s participation and needs, and do not act as just a decorative process. EIAs should also be used as a planning tool to help prevent damage to the river and local communities, whose livelihoods depend on those natural resources, rather than be driven by the benefit of powerful actors alone – in order to prevent water and river grabbing.
About the author: Paw Siriluk Sriprasit is an independent journalist and media researcher. She is also a co-founder and trainer at iMekong.org, a media advocacy network for young environmental journalists and activists.