China's bold plans for the region
The Yuam Water Diversion Project made headlines recently after its environmental impact assessment (EIA) last month won approval by an expert review committee (ERC) and was tabled before the National Environment Board (NEB).
The project will cost an estimated 70 billion baht to get built. Dams across the river will pump water into a 60 kilometre tunnel (6.8 to 8.3 metres in diameter) built through forests for over 60 kilometres from the Yuam River in Mae Hong Son to refill Bhumibol dam in Tak province.
The project drew public attention after the Nakhon Sawan Palang Pracharath MP Weerakorn Khamprakob, vice chairman of the House committee to explore options for integrated river basin management, revealed early this month about collaboration between China's state-owned enterprises and Thai authorities on the project.
According to Mr Weerakorn, Chinese investors proposed to develop the project for 40 billion baht, or 30 billion baht cheaper.
The Royal Irrigation Department (RID) initially estimated based on the draft plan that it would cost around 70 billion baht and take seven years to complete. "But the Chinese state-owned enterprise said they only need 40 billion baht and four years to complete this project. I have brought this to the attention of the prime minister and Gen Prawit was there.
"They said we should press ahead with this project," he said.
"If China builds this for us, we do not have to spend a dime. We do not have to make the investment ourselves. If we need to make the investment, we would not be ready for that. But if the Chinese want to do it, we should let them do that," said Mr Weerakorn.
The project has been floated for several years but was left to gather dust given the large investment and challenges in construction which require underground tunnelling in a rich forest area.
However, the project is now on a fast-track under this government.
Another interesting twist was revealed by Mr Weerakorn. "China is investing in the development of an industrial city in Myanmar, just opposite Mae Hong Son. If we draw a straight line from Sob Moei district to Nay Pyi Taw (Myanmar's capital city), it will be only 80km away and it is close to where the city they are developing is located," he said.
"They have already coordinated with the Myanmar government and planned to develop dams in the Salween River to generate power to serve the city. Part of the power will be sold to the Thai government."
During the project's Phase II, water from the Salween River will be harnessed into the Yuam River to feed Thailand's Central Plains as well.
Mr Weerakorn's information sheds light on how this Yuam River water diversion is not merely a local project. Rather, it will be scaled up into an international project since Salween is an international river.
The environmental impact assessment (EIA) was funded by the RID and was approved despite critics. The EIA is important as the project comprises 60km of underground water tunnels built under lush forest and a rich ecological area.
Civic groups, conservationists and local villagers raised questions about the EIA's accuracy. Local villages have submitted petitions to the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) and Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment three times about inaccurate data in the EIA.
Meanwhile, ethnic community residents accused the group that conducted the EIA of failing to hold a meaningful public hearing.
The EIA used photos of the villagers opposed to the project without their consent. Villagers also complained their names were included in the EIA even though they were never consulted by the experts who conducted the EIA.
The project and the Chinese investors reflect China's grand strategies in the region.
In the past few years Chinese investors have developed a new city at the Thailand-Myanmar border, in Shwe Koke Ko, Myawaddy district, opposite to Tak's Mae Sot district. In the future, a massive number of Chinese will be resettled here.
Meanwhile, according to Mr Weerakorn, China is developing an industrial complex at the border between Thailand and Nay Pyi Taw.
This is slated to increase power demand and so the two dams are being planned in the Salween River with approval from the Myanmar military regime.
Spanning 2,800 kilometres, the Salween River originates from the Himalayan mountain range. It flows along the border between Thailand and Myanmar and helps to maintain the livelihoods of various ethnic groups including the Karen, Shan, Mon, and Karenni.
It is considered one of the most pristine rivers in the world given its free flow without dams, as it meanders along lush forest and terrain. Some of those areas through which it passes are mired in armed conflicts between the ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar Army.
The Myanmar Army has tried to gain exclusive control of the area along the Salween River, particularly in places suitable for developing hydropower projects in both Karen and Karenni States. This has brought fierce resistance from the ethnic armed groups since they are well aware of the hidden agenda of the Myanmar Army.
Since early 2021, the Myanmar Army has mobilised an all-out offensive against the KNU's Brigade 5 which has control over the area along the Salween and the border between Thailand and Karen State. This has caused the displacement of over 70,000 villagers, some of whom have sought refuge by the Salween River in Thailand.
A few months after the monsoon, armed conflicts between the Myanmar Army and the ethnic armed groups will likely resume. The intense political situation inside Myanmar and the demand for freedom of various ethnic groups aside, the interests concerning the "Salween dam" will be another factor pushing the Myanmar Army to crush ethnic armed groups. They want to regain control of the area and facilitate the investments from China.
So, Thailand's Yuam Water Diversion Project and China's lower estimate for building it are inevitably intertwined in the proposed development of dams in the Salween River. The vested interests, economically and security-wise, of the governments of China, Myanmar and Thailand, are also involved.
Meanwhile, various ethnic groups which comprise the majority of people in the Salween River Basin will likely bear the brunt of the armed conflicts and social and ecological transformation which will result from these projects.
Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th
Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th