Over the past few months, the Irrigation Department and the House Committee Review of Integrated River Basin Management have been heavily promoting an inter-basin water diversion scheme. Planned projects will divert water across Thailand, incorporating international river basins, including the Mekong and Salween, to address "water shortages" in Thailand.
It's a tantalising sell, with promises of "free" water for farmers in the central provinces. But there's a catch: the scheme's proposed dam and water pipeline would be built by Chinese state-owned enterprises at no cost -- except the right in return to construct hydro-electric dams on the Salween River.
Parliament as promoter
When parliament takes on the role of promoter for a major public infrastructure project -- before it has approved an environmental impact assessment or affected communities have been properly consulted -- it undermines what should be a democratic process. Fundamental principles in the constitution recognise a community's right to natural resource management and to meaningful public participation, but if the decision to back this project has already been made, where does it leave Thais and dwellers of the Salween basin?
While the government sings the project's praises, key procedures are quietly sounding the alarm on environmental and social grounds. Last December, it was reported that the department resubmitted an environmental impact assessment of the project to a committee at the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning. It was rejected for the second time over concerns about surrounding forests, fisheries, tunnel excavation materials and compensation for communities.
This rejection is significant and underscores what is at stake, namely at least five protected forests, including national forest reserves and national parks. These areas span three provinces and contain some of Thailand's last surviving lush and abundant natural forests.
Consultation or intimidation?
Meanwhile, community "consultations" regarding the project are running into troubled waters. Earlier this month, the department organised an information-sharing meeting in Chiang Mai's remote Omkoi district, one of the areas to be directly affected. For locals, the meeting was ill-timed, given the dangers of travelling amid heavy monsoonal rains and gathering in large numbers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
These concerns were formally raised by the local coordinator of the Salween Basin Community Network on Natural Resource Management, in a letter to state authorities. In response, the coordinator says he received an irate phone call from a person who claimed to be the House committee's vice-chairperson, dismissing his apprehensions that communities would be significantly affected by the project.
Communities have a right to be heard -- and a right to be worried, too. According to the department, there will be two projects diverting water to the Ping River and Bhumibol dam: one on the Moei River on the Thai-Myanmar border, the other on the Yuam River. The latter will involve the construction of a 70-metre-high dam, from which water will be pumped into a storage facility and then transported along a 62km tunnel passing through at least 14 villages. Local Indigenous Karens fear the project will destroy the fragile ecosystems of the Salween River and its tributaries and threaten their traditional way of life, as well as increase the risk of flooding and inundate farmland. And those who lack Thai citizenship -- and therefore the right to claim title to ancestral lands -- worry that they will not be treated justly.
The true cost
Who then stands to benefit from this water diversion project: the state actors involved or the Chinese state-owned companies slated to build the dam in exchange for lucrative hydropower assets? For Thai taxpayers potentially footing the bill, it's a reasonable question to ask, given that the project will cost an estimated 110 billion baht in return for just two billion cubic metres of water each year diverted into the Chao Phraya basin. Factor in the devastating environmental and social consequences of this project, and the true cost to Thailand and Thais is immeasurable.
Moreover, this ill-considered solution fails to address the root causes of "water shortages" in central Thailand, including deforestation at headwaters, the expansion of the agricultural sector and increased water demand in urban areas. Blinded by its megaproject myopia, the government has failed to consider decentralised, smaller-scale solutions, such as localised water harvesting, which can supply farmers with the water they need while keeping the pristine forests in the Salween basin intact -- all without having to involve outside actors. Also, by shifting from a centralised model to localised solutions, problems can be solved in a particular water basin without exporting the problem to others.
To truly address Thailand's water needs, we need a comprehensive options assessment -- a priority approach identified by the World Commission on Dams 20 years ago -- rather than a pre-determined preference for a pet project that fails to draw on public participation or consider the potential social, environmental and economic impacts.
Permanent legal protection
The Salween is one of the last, large, longest internationally free-flowing rivers. We can allow it to be used as a resource to be exploited for the benefit of a few, or we can act to protect this river and its tributaries by seeking permanent legal protection for the Salween basin. In China's Yunnan province, a section of the Upper Salween has already been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, while in Thailand, Salween Wildlife Sanctuary and other national parks along the Salween and its tributaries are a testament to the area's outstanding ecological value.
Securing permanent legal protection for the Salween means we will be able to effectively manage this transboundary river in partnership with riparian states while recognising the rights of indigenous communities and the environment.
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.