MAE HONG SONG: A group of indigenous villagers has spoken up against the government's plans to build big water projects in the Salween River Basin.
They want the rivers to flow freely and be safe from the "harmful" impact of megaprojects.
Commemorating the International Day of Action for Rivers on March 14, around 30 members of the indigenous Pakapayor living in Mae Ngao National Park in Sop Moei district of Mae Hong Son province spoke out against the water diversion project which would refill Bhumibol Dam and Hat Gyi Dam in Myanmar.
Their village is likely to be close to the water diversion project and its 75 million cubic metre dam located on the Yuam River. They are worried the project will divert water from the river to increase the volume in Bhumibol Dam in Tak province, which could put their source of livelihood at risk.
Yodchai Pornpongprai, chief of Ban Mae Sod's tambon administrative organisation (TAO), said the project will devastate locals' farmlands and fisheries resources once the river is dammed and diverted.
"At least 30 families will be relocated, and of course, the compensation is not enough to find a new place to live," he said.
The project is likely to divert 1.8 billion cubic metres of water per year to the dam to provide water security to the Central river basin of the Chao Phraya River. The project will cost 17 billion baht, including maintenance costs for 25 years.
Another 5 billion baht is needed for power infrastructure to pump water into the dam, which will be linked by a 61-kilometre water tunnel from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai province. The tunnel would end at Ban Mae Ngood in Chiang Mai's Hod district. The small Ngood River will be extended to link with the dam.
Hannarong Yaowalers, chairman of the Thai Water Partnership, raised questions about the transparency and worthiness of this project, which he argues will not solve the water security issue. There is no reliable water flow data from the rivers to ensure the project will work, he said.
The project has not been approved by the committee on the river basin, as required by law.
"The project is strange because the EIA was approved with no source of investment specified. The government still lacks an investor. It said it needs private sector investment for the project," Mr Hannarong said.
As a result of locals' complaints, the Lower House's committee on land, natural resources and environment last November decided the project should be abandoned. The indigenous groups called on the government to follow suit.
Meanwhile, another group of indigenous people from Sop Moei district has raised complaints against the Hat Gyi Dam project in the Salween River, which also serves as a river border between Thailand and Myanmar.
The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) plans to invest in the 1,300-mega-watt hydropower dam project, which will sell power to Thailand.
Some families from the two countries might have to be relocated due to flooding under the project, including 400 people from Sop Moei village.
Pianporn Deetes, campaign director for the Southeast Asia Program, International Rivers, said a move to grant legal rights to rivers and nature is gaining momentum globally, which is one response to mounting global threats to rivers and freshwater ecosystems.
"The Salween is one of the last and largest free-flowing rivers with a complete ecosystem. Indigenous peoples of the Salween have been demanding sustainable and participatory basin management and permanent protection of this pristine freshwater system," Ms Pianporn said.
"However, the mechanisms to protect the Salween are not there. Communities are concerned about destructive infrastructure, including dams and transbasin water diversion projects. While we've stopped a few destructive dam projects over the decades, those triumphs will feel short-lived without permanent protections."