Water projects need scrutiny

Water projects need scrutiny

It has become a pattern when the state plans a water infrastructure project that it usually runs into resistance from either local protesters or corruption busters.

Protests against water projects first took public attention with opposition to the Chiew Larn reservoir in the late 1980s. This was followed by a campaign against the Pak Moon Dam in the 1990s. Today there's an ongoing campaign against the planned Kang Sua Ten Dam and the planned Yuam River Water Diversion. These examples are just to name but a few.

The projects, and their subsequent protests, may vary but the narratives are the same. Local protesters would launch a campaign to protect the environment as well as their livelihoods as water projects often lead to forced eviction. Protesters have also accused these water projects -- most of which cost billions of baht -- of possible corruption and lack of transparency.

The process that faces the bulk of the criticism is the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which requires a developer to conduct an environmental impact study and hold public hearings to ensure affected communities are informed about the development.

Without an approved EIA a project cannot move ahead; so developers are accused of hiring "friendly" environmental firms and environmental experts to conduct a study and public hearing that give favourable outcomes that support the project. The EIA process, therefore, has been criticised by local villagers and many environmental activists as a rubber stamp.

Such accusations surfaced recently in the case of the Yuam River Water Diversion scheme. The project's EIA won approval from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment early this month and received approval from the National Environment Board last week. Again, villagers have accused that EIA of using inaccurate data and for failing to properly conduct public hearings. The 70-billion-baht project is not just another ordinary water project. The scale of the water diversion system is a first for the country with some 60km of underground piping to be used to take water from the western border river in Mae Hong Son province to feed the Bhumibol Dam in Tak.

The scheme has drawn major investors from China who have offered to build the project for Thailand and sell water to the Thai authorities at a lower cost, according to veteran politician Veerakorn Kamprakob, MP of Nakhon Sawan province from the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) who favours the project. A Chinese developer is also reported to be investing in a water diversion scheme to take water from the Salween River. Mr Veerakorn also told the media that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwon have also welcomed the idea of the project and the involvement of Chinese developers.

The project comes with an environmental cost. It is believed that 3,641 rai of forest land, among them 800 rai of protected forests and areas inhabited by ethnic communities, will be cleared.

Decharut Sukkamnoed, an independent economist, said the project is not financially sound with the cost of diverting the water being calculated at 6.04 baht per cubic metre but the value of water being used in rice plantations at 2.11 baht per cubic metre.

There are many questions left unanswered as well such as what will the cost of the water will be that Chinese investors will sell to Thailand over the long term. These, and other concerns, are worth appraising and the government needs to clear any doubts especially regarding the credibility of the project's EIA.

Editorial

Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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