This whole dam thing could backfire

This whole dam thing could backfire

I went to the Mae Wong National Park in Nakhon Sawan about a year ago. I can still remember the cool breeze, fresh air and the vast tracts of lush green forest there. I dipped myself in a small creek to enjoy the cool and crystal-clear flow of water. I remembered watching the sunset at Chong Yen, one of the park's most popular camping grounds.

This place is heaven on earth.

The 894-square kilometre national park, about 370km from Bangkok, is not only a perfect holiday destination for city people like me. Mae Wong is also one of Thailand's most pristine forests, the headwater of rivers and streams, and a home to many rare wildlife species _ tigers, wild elephants, hornbills, peacocks, wild elephants and gaurs.

Mae Wong is part of the western forest complex and is connected to the Thung Yai Naresuan-Huai Kha Khaeng natural world heritage site. Now the Mae Wong forest is now under threat from a 13.28-billion baht dam approved by the government on April 10.

The dam will be built across the Mae Wong River in the Mae Wong National Park. About 12,000 rai of the national park will be inundated.

The Royal Irrigation Department (RID), the dam developer, says the dam will solve flood and drought problems in the Sakae Krang river basin, covering Nakhon Sawan, Kamphaeng Phet and Uthai Thani.

It says the dam will reduce the water flowing into the Chao Phraya River basin in the rainy season while it will irrigate about 291,900 rai of farmland in the dry season.

In a video presentation made to promote the dam project, the RID said: "Only 2.21% of the national park's area, or about 0.12% of the western forest complex, will be flooded".

The department went on to say that the dam reservoir is located on the rim of the national park, so it won't cause much impact to the western forest complex.

These claims didn't make me feel any better and no one should be misled by the dam developer's rhetoric, which tries to downplay the environmental impact. The impacts of the Mae Wong dam won't be minor as the RID has claimed.

The National Environment Board's panel of experts rejected the dam's environmental impact assessment report in 1994 and 1995 due to severe impacts on the forest and wildlife. The experts said the dam will damage 17.5 sq km of "pristine forest", while the dam's reservoir could lead to further forest encroachment. They also demanded the RID look into the impacts on wild animals' habitats.

Damming the Mae Wong River will also affect fish migration while other aquatic animals could be impacted by transforming the flowing river into a large reservoir, they said.

A senior RID official who oversees the dam project last week conceded that the dam would negatively affect the protected forest, but it's a "trade-off" between the dam's benefits and the environmental impacts.

With less than 20% of protected forest left in the country and the fact that forest preservation is a sustainable means to solve flood and drought problems, I don't think we should trade-off Mae Wong forest with anything else.

There is also the big question of whether this trade-off is reasonable. Green groups recently issued a statement saying the dam will not solve the flood problems in the Sakae Krang and Chao Phraya River basins, which are low-lying areas that receive water from various waterways, not only the Mae Wong River. Another explanation needed from the government is about the increase in the dam construction budget, which jumped from 4.9 billion baht in 1999 to 13.28 billion baht.

The government has not responded to the dam opponents so far, while the RID insists it want to go ahead with the project. The dam's environmental and health impacts assessment (EHIA) report will be finished in July and the construction should be completed in eight years, the department said.

The Anti-Mae Wong dam movement, led by veteran green groups such as the Seub Nakhasathien and Green World foundations, and the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand, has been growing with strong support from middle-class people in the social media. Leading environmentalists will hold a meeting today to map out their next moves. The best way out for the government now is to revoke the April 10 resolution, which is deemed illegal since it was made in the absence of the EHIA, and allow all stakeholders to discuss the pros and cons of the dam.

The government should not underestimate the environmental movement and the possibility that the dam controversy will escalate into a major conflict and put the government in peril.

Kultida Samabuddhi is Deputy News Editor, Bangkok Post.

Kultida Samabuddhi


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