Damming Isan's last free-flowing river for cash
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Damming Isan's last free-flowing river for cash

Something distinctly rotten is afoot along the northern periphery of Isan. The Songkhram River, the last river with a slight semblance of natural flow and connectivity with the Mekong River, is threatened by one of the least transparent bureaucracies, the Royal Irrigation Department (RID), and a handful of wealthy private interests. That is because the RID's plan to dam the river in Nakhon Phanom, which has been stalled, now looks like it might materialise.

The bureaucracy in question, the RID, has arguably done more to comprehensively destroy the streams, rivers and wetlands of the Northeast than any other state institution, though admittedly it has had to fend off stiff competition in the past from bureaucracies such as the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), the Department of Energy Development and Promotion (DEDP) and the Department of Water Resources (DWR).

By "destroy", I mean irreversibly degrade and otherwise damage the ecology, both aquatic and terrestrial, of countless wetlands that were previously rich in biodiversity and of high cultural and economic value to the communities that relied on them for their livelihoods.

The last decent sized river that has thus far remained just beyond the reach of the RID's damming programme is the Songkhram River. It is a 485-kilometre-long river rising in the Phu Phan hill range in Sakon Nakhon and Udon Thani that flows northwards before doing a sudden dogleg turn to the southeast and emptying into the Mekong in Tha Uthen district of Nakhon Phanom. Over its middle and lower reaches it twists and turns, flowing across a broad floodplain which still floods each rainy season, in large part due to its connectivity with the Mekong.

Like a smaller version of the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, the Songkhram River experiences a back-flow effect from the Mekong, and floods are witnessed between the months of August to October to spread out over an average area of 960 square kilometres at the peak. This is a natural flooding phenomenon, though in recent years it has been increasingly portrayed as a natural disaster by the Thai state.

The Songkhram River and myself have a relationship stretching back almost two decades, having researched it for my masters and PhD theses, and also having worked as a project officer on a wetlands biodiversity conservation project managed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for three years. Living in the Nakhon Phnom district of Sri Songkhram, I got to know the river system, its complex ecology and the people connected to it quite intimately over the years.

There has been a plan to dam the river near its mouth for almost four decades, though it has met societal opposition from a number of interest groups each time a government bureaucracy has tried to push the plan forward. It is only quite recently that it looks like the blueprint plan might actually materialise, which can be attributed to a complex mix of factors. Perhaps chief amongst these is the resurgent power of a military-business-bureaucratic alliance under Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who now feels emboldened to push forward a number of hydraulic megaprojects under the auspices of the RID, including revived plans to divert water out of the Mekong.

The Songkhram dam project is just one piece in a larger jigsaw, namely the Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun (KLCM) irrigation project, that has worried both Vietnam and Thai domestic civil society in the past for the scale of its ambitions and high likelihood of environmental and social catastrophe.

While other components of the KLCM project went ahead in a largely ad hoc manner after the millennium and control of it moved from the dissolved DEDP to the RID in 2001, the Songkhram dam project was put on hold over the ensuing years, blocked in part by an active civil society operating across scales from the local to the national.

But RID quietly carried on building other multi-million dollar irrigation projects, many of which ended up becoming redundant or abandoned almost as soon as they were built, such as the Nam Oon "watergates" project near Sri Songkhram town. Today the dam sits idle, never having irrigated a single rai of land nor protected any land from flooding (its two purposes).

A few months ago the lower Nam Songkhram River Basin (NSRB) was declared a Ramsar site, theoretically making it a wetlands of international importance. Drawn up by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the National Environmental Policy Office (Nepo), being a Ramsar wetland gives the Songkhram River an elevated level of global recognition for its biodiversity and ecosystem values.

However, it seems doubtful that even this status will save it from the rapacious designs of the RID, which has rarely been overly concerned about ecological protection of wetlands in the past. Pouring concrete for dams, building roads and canal structures that create uniform grid patterns across landscapes has always taken priority in its mission to control Thailand's rivers and, by extension, land and people. After all, there are considerable rewards to be won by a few already wealthy people if it succeeds.

Among these are an alliance of senior bureaucrats associated with RID, certain politicians affiliated to the Bhumjaithai Party, and private business interests, including construction companies who would build the dam project and owners of large-scale tracts of land who would benefit from compensation claims for land potentially flooded by the reservoir. The latter group are not local, but investor-speculators who see an opportunity to cash in land holdings they obtained some years ago at rock bottom prices via elevated compensation claims.

The land they "own" was originally public land, but like elsewhere in Thailand, back in the boom years of the 1980s and early 1990s land could be bought for a song from unsuspecting villagers and converted into private land by convoluted and opaque methods. The forested floodplain land was then cleared for intensive agriculture and turned into tomato, sweetcorn or eucalyptus plantations, none of which turned much of a profit and were mostly abandoned after the 1997 Asian economic crash. But crucially, the land remained in private hands.

And now a golden opportunity appears to present itself for the lucky few to turn their "wasteland" investment into tidy capital rewards, under the pretext of helping solve Isan's perennial flood and drought problems. It is a predictable pattern that has repeated itself across the region and the stars look promising for the Songkhram dam project to proceed this time around, thanks to the lack of participatory democracy permitted at present.

The large concrete dam, benignly termed a "watergate" in the water planners' lexicon, will be slung across the river in Tha Uthen district of Nakhon Phanom, unless concerned elements in Thai civil society organise at different levels to oppose this project.

If it proceeds, I rather suspect the dam will turn out to be the last nail in the coffin of a once incredibly productive and biodiverse river, whilst marking the end of the state's domestic hydraulic mission in the Northeast. The Mekong mainstream, meanwhile, will lose another important fish spawning, nursery and feeding ground and ultimately, die a little more.

David JH Blake is a British citizen. He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia, UK, studying the social and political drivers of irrigation development in Northeast Thailand.

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