Damned if you do,damned if you don't
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Damned if you do,damned if you don't

The government has promised to drought-proof the Northeast with a major investment in water infrastructure, but residents say they have been let down by such pledges before

Lead-in: Children jumps from a temporary check-dam into Lai River. This check-dam help storing water for locals in Baan Nam Suay to survive in recent drought.
Lead-in: Children jumps from a temporary check-dam into Lai River. This check-dam help storing water for locals in Baan Nam Suay to survive in recent drought.

In the late 1980s, Chatichai Choonhavan's government promised an ambitious water diversion project to provide a constant supply of water to the dry Northeast.

Local politicians promoted the Khong-Chi-Mun project, telling the expectant farmers of Isan they would never want for water again.

But today, locals such as Pha Kongtham, 65, from Ban Don Samran in Roi Et's Phon Sai district sees nothing but the remnants of failure.

Under the project, which spanned various governments until realisation, 14 dams were built in the Chi and Mun rivers, the main water sources of lower Isan. But the majority of them have now stopped operating.

Unexpected environmental damage put an end to the plan to divert water from the Mekong River into the rivers via Ubon Ratchathani. A 17m-high Rasi Salai dam wall was built in Si Sa Ket province downstream from Ms Pha's village but it brought salt to the surface and polluted drinking water used by the community. The fish population dwindled and rice fields flooded in the rainy season when the dam overflowed. Ms Pha said the community still experiences water shortages today.

Today a similar promise is being made to northeastern farmers about year-round water by diverting water from the Mekong to tackle the current drought.

This time, the government says, the water will be diverted from Loei province in northern Isan to the Chi and Mun river basins, reaching as far as Roi Et. A total of 140km of tunnels will be built to make the Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun water diversion project a reality.

"We're not against this idea," said Ms Pha.

"But lessons should be learned. Isan communities have already lost their potential from a wrong decision made in the past. It shouldn't happen again."


Isan with its 22 million residents, a third of the country's population, has always posed a major challenge and reward for Thai politicians trying to win voter support. Almost 40% of agricultural workers live in Isan, according to the National Statistics Office.

Politicians have routinely labelled Isan an "undeveloped dry region", so mega water projects have often been included in their political campaigns, which usually promise to save farmers from poverty.

As army chief in 1987, it was Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh who first started to show sympathy for the farmers of the Northeast when he spoke of "green Isan" projects to develop water resources through a multi-pronged approach which included dredging canals and digging wells.

Two years later, Gen Chatichai's cabinet approved the Khong-Chi-Mun water diversion project which would involve building 14 dams. However, environmental studies were not completed and the project faced opposition from locals and environmental activists.

The Chatichai government spoke of turning "Indochina's battlefield into a marketplace" and infrastructure such as dams and transport projects were heavily pushed.

It was not until 1994 that Chuan Leekpai's government proceeded with the project after it was sold to Isan locals by Democrat party politicians. The 14 dams would be built at a cost of 10 billion baht on the Chi and Mun rivers.

Gen Chavalit, as head of the New Aspiration Party, also tapped into support for water projects to secure victory in the 1996 national election.

Over the past two decades politicians have continued to talk about diverting water from the Mekong as a solution to Isan's water woes.

The governments of former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck promoted water management mega projects worth billions of baht which included dams, water tunnels and water diversion infrastructure.

Most of the projects faced criticism for overspending government funds and suspicions of corruption were aroused.

The military government of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has also made promises to Isan over water resources.

The Royal Irrigation Department announced last year, in the middle of the drought, it would review the Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun water diversion project.

In 2008, the RID completed a Strategic Environmental Assessment which proposed diverting Mekong water at the mouth of Loei River, in Loei's Chiang Khan district.

Another project, the Si Song Rak water gate, is being proposed for construction near the mouth of the Loei River to collect water and divert it into tunnels.

The tunnels will run in two directions: 85km to the Chi and Mun basin in the lower northeast and 54km to the east of Loei.

The Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun project will divert four billion cubic metres, three times more than the capacity of Bhumibol Dam, from the Mekong river, according to a study conducted by the Panya Consultant Company for RID.


"This project will rescue Isan from underdevelopment," said Chawee Wongprasittiporn, RID's director of project planning division.

"It will increase the irrigation zone to half of Isan farm land [or about 30 million rai]. Local farmers will be able to increase their yield and have a better life."

More than 1.72 million households will benefit from the project, with farmers expected to earn up to 199,000 baht extra per year.

The RID estimates the country will gain a benefit of 324 billion baht each year from improved farm productivity and a growing industrial sector.

In 2012 it was estimated the project would cost about 2.7 trillion baht and would take more than 16 years to complete its nine phases.

The Panya Consultant Company is conducting an environmental impact assessment for phase one, which is scheduled to be completed by December.

While the assessment focuses on Thailand, a transboundary impact study will be included in a future plan. And this means the project timeline could blow out.

"Due to the scale it could even take more than 50 years to complete. We will be sure to conduct the study thoroughly," Ms Chawee said.

"The project's [environmental] impact must be limited. Our assessment ensures Thailand will only divert water if necessary. An efficient water management plan will be adopted to avoid diverting water in the dry season."

The project has faced a mixed response. While some Isan farmers are supportive, others, including civil society groups in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, have raised concerns over transboundary impacts including water shortages and salt intrusion in downstream countries.

A joint committee should be notified if water is diverted from mainstream Mekong, within the basin, in the wet season, according to a Mekong River Committee agreement from 1995.

Prior consultation and the joint committee's agreement is required for diverting water from inside the basin in the dry season.

Ms Chawee said as the assessment was still ongoing Thailand had not yet informed MRC member countries of the project's details.

She said full details would be provided once the project had cabinet approval.

At a recent meeting of the Mekong River Committee in Vietnam, the Thai delegation made its first official statement about the project.

"Some news articles have inaccurately reported on our water management projects. In this regard, Thailand would like to reiterate our commitment to working closely with all MRC member countries on the utilisation of the Mekong River and its resources. We will inform on the progress of the proposed water use when the proper technical information is available and the timing is appropriate," it stated.


On entering Ban Klang village in Chiang Khan, visitors are confronted by signs that state "No Si Song Rak water gate here" hanging from an entrance archway. Other signs read "I'll die here" or "No entry for RID". Protest signs also appear at the front of locals' homes.

Following the RID's go-ahead on the Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun water diversion project, Ban Klang residents saw RID officials in their village in November last year.

They found out the Si Song Rak water gate project was under way. The residents were told as their homes were in one of Chiang Khan's seven subdistricts they would benefit by receiving irrigated water from the gate. Officials did not say it was part of a water diversion project but only that the water gate would support a diversion plan.

They said it would reduce the risk of floods and prevent a repeat of the 2002 monsoon flooding, during which houses were submerged.

But local teacher Rattiya Chuetamuean, 39, sees the water gate as a potential cause of future problems.

"Our community is settled on low land. The water gate will hold water and flood our community. We are concerned that we'll be forced to move out," she said.

"We do not accept development we do not need. We must maintain our Thai-Puan identity."

Many locals are descendants of an ethnic group that migrated from Luang Prabang in Laos 400 years ago, including Ms Rattiya.

About 40,000 to 50,000 Thai-Puan descendants live in Thailand today. Many residents of Ban Klang village, population 1,000, speak a local language.

Most villagers depend on agriculture. In the dry season they survive by catching fish, shrimp and clams in the Loei River without the need to pump water for off-season agriculture.

Locals say blocking the river with a water gate will stop migratory Mekong fish from accessing the Loei River, limiting their food source in the dry season and causing a never-ending drought. They say they will be forced to operate off-season farms and take water from the river.

"Officials told us we need to sacrifice," said Sorarat Kaewsa, Ban Klang's village headwoman. "But we can't.

"We've already faced unpredictable factors that could push us from having a good quality of life."

One of these factors is the upstream Chinese dams along the Mekong River, which discharge water without notifying communities along the Thai border.

Ms Sorarat has noticed water levels in the Loei River have been unpredictable in recent years.

She fears Thai officials will not notify local residents about the closing and opening of the Si Song Rak water gate.

"I don't think we need a mega project here," she said. "We need solutions such as a small dam that we can manage by ourselves. This will prevent drought effectively."


"Isan is not critically dry," said Santiparp Siriwattanaphaivoon, an academic from the Environmental Science Department of Udon Thani Rajabhat University. "The water problem is caused by poor management policy.

"I don't believe that Isan people will have a better life when more water is diverted. Even in the Central region, the country's best irrigation zone, no farmers are rich. Many still have debt due to increasing costs and unstable market prices. It's not just related to water."

He said as the Northeast was largely flat it has little ability to hold water despite the region's rainfall being similar to the national average. Rainy season flooding is natural. Disturbing the ground in the region could expose underground salt, he said.

Mr Santiparp, who has monitored development in the Northeast for decades, said small water projects were better than large-scale ones.

Locals could manage the projects according to geography, he said. Large projects, such as the Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun water diversion plan, would not solve water shortage problems. He questioned if farmers would be the ones paying for electricity for the pumps.

Mr Santiparp has heard many politicians' promises, including claims that locals would benefit financially, over the decades. But, he said, few have really benefitted from the projects.

He said Pak Mun dam in Ubon Ratchathani and other dams under the Khong-Chi-Mun water diversion project show that large-scale construction is not always the answer.

He suspects water from diversion projects is being taken to support emerging industries that require large volumes, such as potash mines in Chaiyaphum, Sakon Nakhon and Udon Thani.

Just 60km south of Ban Klang village, one farmer, Charupat Saiklang, 42, has led other locals in building temporary check-dams on the Lai River, a tributary of the Loei River, in an effort to save water during the drought.

The name of his village, Ban Nam Suai, in Muang district, means beautiful water -- a reference to its most precious resource. They fear the recent severe drought will cause problems. To alleviate this the village spent part of the funds from the five million baht government village fund programme on improving water distribution.

"We've learned to adapt and plan for water use wisely," Mr Charupat said.

Not a lot to go around: A resident of Loei's Ban Nam Suai examines a spring in the woods. Above, a boy jumps from a check-dam into the Lai River. The temporary dam was built for the drought.

Hauled in: Women check out the catch of the day on the Loei River. There are fears the diversion will interfere with fish migration.

Lead-in: Fishes caught in Loei River.

In the shallow end: The Loei River at a low during the dry season. A plan to divert four billion cubic metres from the Mekong has received a mixed response in Thailand and from neighbouring countries.

Not welcome here: Signs reading 'Ban Klong people don't need the Si Song Rak water gate" and "Irrigation Department can't enter Ban Klang" hang at the entrance of the village.

Barren field: Farmland is left dry in Loei's Chiang Khan district, where residents have stopped cultivation in the dry season and are earning money in other industries.

Voicing their fears: Ban Klang villagers have raised concerns about the potential environmental impacts the Si Song Rak water gate could cause.

Long history: A 400-year-old tamarind tree, which is one of the natural elements Ban Klang villagers respect.

The ground beneath her feet: A fisherwoman and part-time farmer collects vegetables at the mouth of Loei River. She fears water diversion projects will damage the ecology and her income.

Further downstream: A rice field in Can Tho city of the Mekong delta, Vietnam's largest food production area, which is threatened by salt intrusion thanks to the low level of the river.

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