Irrigation disputes spark locals' wrath

Irrigation disputes spark locals' wrath

Still no panel to look at impacts despite govt pledge

A resident talks about the impact of the irrigation projects at a forum for King Prajadhipok's Institute students. (King Prajadhipok's Institute photo)
A resident talks about the impact of the irrigation projects at a forum for King Prajadhipok's Institute students. (King Prajadhipok's Institute photo)

The state should come up with urgent plans to help residents affected by construction of irrigation projects in Nakhon Si Thammarat, a recent study argued.

Work on the projects worth 9.5 billion baht in the municipal area began in 2018 and is expected to be complete in 2023.

The projects entail digging three new drainage canals with a total length of 18.64 kilometres to connect to existing two canals, dredging the 5.9km Wang Wua canal, dredging the 11.9km Tha Rua-Hua Trud canal and building seven floodgates.

The Royal Irrigation Department (RID), as the project overseer, said the projects will help reduce the impact of flooding in the municipal area.

Pisetsak Pakdeeteva, a representative of Group III of Class XI students on a peace-building course from the King Prajadhipok's Institute (KPI), said the team conducted the study on how to deal with conflicts between the RID and residents.

Mr Pisetsak said RID officials told the group the projects would help take water from Khao Luang mountain to the sea when heavy rains occur.

At the same time, the three new canals covering an area of 17,400 rai are designed to help retain water to alleviate floods in the city of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

The RID believes the projects will help reduce flooding by approximately 90%, covering 12 tambons in Nakhon Si Thammarat municipality and its nearby areas.

About 32,000 households will benefit from the projects, it said. Apart from mitigating the impacts of flooding, in the dry season they will also help retain water for consumption and agriculture, Mr Pisetsak quoted RID officials as saying.

Residents, however, insisted the projects lack true community participation and an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report.

They want the projects to be put on hold until the EIA is done but the RID said it will move forward anyway. It also insists it conducted a transparent EIA report, and that projects had been approved by the cabinet.

Mr Pisetsak said his team also gathered information from opponents including residents and non-governmental organisation (NGO) staff in the province.

Among those affected, 40 households whose land was expropriated for two of the three canals in tambon Chai Montree of Muang district were most unhappy with the RID's action.

The homeowners said the projects have destroyed their livelihoods and the biodiversity of upstream areas near Khao Luang mountain.

They had to relocate from an area where many had been born. They no longer had land to live on, Mr Pisetsak said.

"As a result, local people still need the state or the RID to come up with urgent plans to help those affected by the projects especially those whose lands had been expropriated," Mr Pisetsak said.

Some residents complained they had been awarded inadequate compensation for the expropriated land. They asked the government to appoint someone to help settle the dispute.

"They want the state to provide them with agricultural and residential land reform so they can return to live together in one community as they did before," he said.

Instead of digging new canals, residents suggested authorities dredge existing canals and waterways in Nakhon Si Thammarat municipal area and collect garbage dumped there to let more water flow down to the sea. Authorities should also enforce the law against those who dump trash on the streets or in the canals.

Mr Pisetsak said the conflicts have dragged on since the RID began construction in 2018. However, one year later, in January 2019, residents from Nakhon Si Thammarat and Phatthalung drew media attention when they staged a sit-in protest to vent their concerns. They petitioned the government to put the projects on hold.

A new round of talks should be held for all stakeholders to express their concerns, they said.

The Prayut Chan-o-cha government agreed to step back, albeit temporarily. The government decided to suspend the mega-irrigation projects in the two southern provinces for six months to one year pending a study on their impact, to be carried out by a new tripartite committee of the RID, residents and scholars.

According to the study, the committee has yet to take shape but work on the projects carries on. Locals believe the U-turn was a delaying tactic to appease protesters. Mr Pisetsak said the study also suggested the state attach importance to community participation in future megaprojects.

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