A Chinese company has showed interest in investing in the Yuam River water diversion megaproject, expected to kick off late this year, despite opposition from local people and water experts.
Weerakorn Khamprakorb, Palang Pracharath Party MP and deputy chairman of the commission to study holistic water management, said a Chinese company is interested in investing in the project to build a tunnel to divert water from the Yuam River in Mae Hong Son to refill Bhumibol Dam in Tak.
This 70-billion-baht project, known as the Bhumibol Dam water refilling project, has passed an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and will go to the National Environment Board for consideration, Mr Weerakorn said.
"If the project is approved by the board, we can start the construction by the end of this year," he said.
According to the Royal Irrigation Department (RID), the project will include a 69-metre-high dam on the Yuam River to create a 2,075 rai reservoir, water pumping station and 61km concrete tunnel to deliver the pumped water to refill the dam's reservoir.
He said the commission studying its feasibility has acknowledged the interest of Chinese companies which have the technology and experience in building large water irrigation projects and dams across the world.
"The project will need a budget of 70 billion baht and up to seven years for construction, but with the Chinese company's expertise, the budget can be reduced to 40 billion baht and project timeframe shortened to just four years," he said.
"I have told Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon and he backs Chinese investment."
He said the project will be good for farmers in the Chao Phraya River Basin, because this area needs up to 4 billion cubic metres of water a year for agriculture.
However, secretary-general of the Office of National Water Resources Somkiat Prajamwong said it is too early to say who will invest, as the RID is still drawing up an investment plan.
Wanchai Srinuan, Mae Ngoud village chief in Chiang Mai Hot district, one of the villages in the path of the project, said locals were concerned about the development. They were afraid their farmland could be seized and local ecosystems damaged.
"Most people who stand to be affected are ethnic Karen. Many do not hold land titles and if the project goes ahead, most of their land will be expropriated without compensation," he said.
"We are also worried about the environmental impacts, because a large amount of earth and rock will be drilled out for the tunnel and landfilled in the forest, while the river will also need to be dredged to allow more water to pass through. That will damage river ecosystems."
He said local people had not been given a say, as the public hearing session allowed little time for them to comment.
Hannarong Yaowalert, president of the Foundation for Integrated Water Management, meanwhile, said the project has been progressing rapidly, despite the cost and complexity.
"Thailand has experience in constructing the much shorter Mae Tang-Mae Ngad water diversion tunnel in Chiang Mai, which is only 70 kilometres long, but even that needed up to 10 years to complete. There were also human casualties during construction," he said.
"I wonder why the Yuam River water diversion project, which is much longer and more expensive, can pass EIA consideration so quickly and easily."