Dam study must be transparent
After a short confrontation with conservationists and local southerners late last month over the controversial Wang Heeb dam project in Nakhon Si Thammarat, the Prayut Chan-o-cha government has agreed to step back, albeit temporarily.
Late last month, a group of residents from Nakhon Si Thammarat and Phatthalung provinces drew media attention when they staged a sit-in protest in front of Government House to vent their concerns about the project's impacts on the environment. They alleged the 2.3-billion-baht dam, already approved by the cabinet, would inundate 800 rai of pristine forest in Nam Tok Yong National Park and relocate about 100 houses.
Wang Heeb is one of three controversial projects proposed by the Irrigation Department. The other two are the Khlong Sang reservoir project in Thung Yai district, and a 30km water-diversion plan.
Initially, the protesters were met with a fierce challenge by Irrigation Department chief Thongplew Kongjun who told them to take the case to the Administrative Court if they wanted the project scrapped. Such a terse statement only fuelled local people's anger.
But before things spiralled out of control, the government stepped in and declared a truce.
Government spokesman Buddhipongse Punnakanta said the government decided to suspend the contentious dam for six months to one year pending a study on the project's impact to be carried out by a new tripartite committee comprising representatives from the Irrigation Department, residents and scholars.
Many consider the U-turn decision as a delaying tactic to appease the protesters. As the election draws near, it appears the military regime, with its political ambition, feels the need to avoid conflicts with civic groups. There are concerns that Wang Heep, like several other controversial projects, will resume when the issue has faded from public attention.
But time-buying tactics should not be applied in this case. Instead, those concerned should be sincere in seeking a solution.
They must realise that the Wang Heep problem is not just about the environmental impact and adverse effect on livelihoods, but also the way the state tries to push for such costly projects from the top down.
According to conservationists, the dam project was initiated 20 years ago to solve the drought problem that plagued the area in the 1980s. Now the situation has changed due to the help of micro-dams that were built in the area, while the country still has a pressing need to keep the forest. The dam is designated in an area classified as an A1 watershed forest that deserves protection.
In other words, the problem has gone. But the department still refuses to drop the project. The major reason that the Irrigation Department cited for the need to pursue the 2.3 billion baht project was that it had completed several processes, including an environmental impact assessment (EIA) study that earned approval from the National Environment Board (NEB) in 2016.
Conservationists pointed out that the EIA studies appear to contain too many flaws and disparities. Yet those shortcomings appeared to elude the NEB's magnifying glass.
They claim there are grounds to believe that, as with so many other state projects, the EIA report for the Wang Heep project is just a formality aimed at giving the department justification to go ahead.
They questioned the EIA's validity as it failed to mention a few endangered flora and fauna in the area such as a rare indigenous fern tree, tapir and serows. At the same time, residents insisted the number of people to be affected by the proposed dam is higher than what was cited in the report.
They also complained that public hearings that were organised were just ceremonial, with their concerns being ignored.
As it gets down to work, the tripartite panel work should work with transparency, addressing all issues and concerns straightforwardly.
Any decision on Wang Heep dam must be based on the real interests of people in the area.
In addition, all should be aware that dams are now a questionable choice given the potential disasters that seem to eventuate in the wake of climate change.
Dam collapses in Laos and Brazil have resulted in high casualties.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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