Karen fear ravages from river diversion schemes
Muesaw Chokedilok, an ethnic Karen woman from Thailand's Kaburdin Village in Chiang Mai's Omkoi district, hops aboard an old pickup truck for a rugged ride up the mountain. With her are a group of housewives from the same village, all clad in cotton handwoven clothes with beaded lace and colourful headscarves. They are on the way to meet a group of journalists from Bangkok. Their village is at least four hours by car to Muang Chiang Mai.
On the truck, the women point towards the sloping hills, gesturing at the forests, villages, paddy fields, and family farmlands, all critical to their livelihoods and way of life. The entire landscape will be severely affected by a planned water diversion project that will pass underneath the mountains.
Over the past few months, the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) and the House Committee on the Review of Integrated River Basin Management have been heavily promoting inter-basin water diversion. The planned projects will divert water across Thailand from the North to the South, incorporating international river basins, including the Mekong and Salween. The stated aim is to harness the water supply in these transboundary rivers to address "water shortages" in Thailand.
The Salween basin project involves diversion of two rivers, the Yuam River and the Moei River at the Thailand-Myanmar border in Tak and Mae Hong Son provinces, which borders Myanmar's Karen State. The Yuam diversion will involve the construction of a 70-m high dam, from which water will be pumped into a storage facility over 100m above the dam reservoir. An eight-metre-wide tunnel will transport water 62km from the storage facility to the Ping River and the Bhumibol Dam.
The project comes at a high cost for a relatively small volume of the water. The current combined cost of the planned diversions from the Salween basin is around 110 billion baht in order to harness around 2 billion cubic metres of water annually into the Chao Phraya basin.
And that's just the monetary price tag -- the environmental and human costs are incalculable. The projects will affect at least five protected forests including national forest reserves and national parks in three provinces, namely Chiang Mai, Tak and Mae Hong Son. These areas comprise some of Thailand's last surviving lush and abundant natural forest.
The RID's documents claim that the Yuam Diversion Project will affect only 23 individuals, with one losing family farmland. However, the evidence from our trip to this area proves otherwise.
"I have been living in this home, this forest for more than four decades. No one has come to look after me and my family. Now, they are going to dam the Yuam River. They talk about all the positives of this project. I myself have no Thai ID card, even though I have been living here a long time." said Mai Ong with no last name, 67, a stateless villager from Tha Rua village in Mae Hong Son's Sob Moei district. "If this project really benefits a lot of people as they claim, personally, I am fine with having my house inundated", he adds sardonically. Mai Ong lives about 10 kilometres from the potential site of the Yuam River dam. The story is the same for other local people. Yet, you'd be hard-pressed to find one that has been counted among the affected population.
Singkham Ruanhon, another villager from near the Ngao River -- a major tributary of the Yuam -- reckons what will be lost if the diversion is completed. "It cannot be monetised at one million baht [the amount said for compensation]. I want studies conducted to review previous projects including the Bhumibol and Pak Mun dams. Prior to construction, these were touted as a panacea to water management problems, yet we still face shortages. Instead, they have simply created unending demand. Without help from local people to care for the watersheds, the rivers will stop flowing in future. There may be dams, but there will be no water."
The past week saw a splash of Thai media coverage about the contentious diversion projects. The Vice-Chairperson of the House Committee reportedly informed the Prime Minister that Chinese state enterprises have offered to build the projects free of charge -- in return for the right to build three hydropower dams on the Salween River on the Thai-Myanmar border, close to Mae Hong Son. The Chinese state enterprises will negotiate directly with Myanmar on the projects. And according to the Vice-Chair of the House Committee, the PM has already given a nod to the projects since they will be built for "free".
Any such trade-off is hardly free. Plans for massive hydropower dams on the Salween River in Myanmar, to be developed and financed by Thai and Chinese firms, have a long history of opposition due to their extensive impacts on the river system -- one of Asia's last remaining free-flowing rivers -- and the livelihoods and cultures of local people. This history is closely intertwined with one of protracted armed conflict between the Myanmar army and ethnic armed groups in areas where dams are proposed in Shan, Karenni and Karen states.
Despite a national ceasefire, armed clashes continue to break out, in some cases exacerbated by planned dams. Local people face looming threats -- from major impacts if the dams are built, but also as a result of speaking out about harm to their communities. Last week Saw Tha Poe, an environmental activist from Karen Rivers Watch, was targeted for arrest and charged with statements critical of the state. Saw Tha Poe has long worked to raise awareness of the risks posed by destructive developments, including hydropower dams, on his community along the Salween River.
While people in the Salween basin know the true cost of these vast infrastructure projects -- they also know the value of their river. Today, on March 14, International Day of Action for Rivers, youth from Muesaw's village will gather together with people throughout the Salween basin in Thailand and Myanmar, in order to celebrate and campaign to protect the Salween and ensure it continues flowing freely across borders -- now and into the future.
Pianporn Deetes is Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director with International Rivers, a global NGO working to defend the rights of rivers and communities. Since 2002, she has actively worked to protect Southeast Asia's major rivers, the Mekong and Salween.
Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of International Rivers
Pianporn Deetes is Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of International Rivers.