Perennial dam project threatens locals' way of life

Perennial dam project threatens locals' way of life
Northern villagers optimistic about public hearings as regime crafts water plan
Writer: Paritta Wangkiat

The big meal — fermented wild mushrooms and soybeans wrapped in leaves, boiled bamboo shoots, sticky rice, and pomelo — was ready long before the guests arrived. It was no trouble for Pan Chankaew to prepare such a feast for his guests from town.

Living in Mae Khanil Tai village, 30km southwest of Chiang Mai city, procuring the food didn't require any money — just a fertile forest that generates produce.

"The forest is our main source of food year round. Our lives are tied to it," said Mr Pan, 57, also the head of a two-century-old village located in the forest of Ob Khan National Park's Mae Khan River basin.

But this lifestyle based on nature is under threat. The villagers have lived with anxiety for 20 years under the shadow of a dam construction project that has been dusted off by successive prime ministers despite the villagers' protests.

In 1987, the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) proposed turning 2,000 rai of Ob Khan National Park's forest area into the Mae Khan dam project. But the villagers only found out about the project in 1994 when a consultant was hired to conduct an environmental impact assessment.

While conducting the assessment, Mr Pan recalled, no appropriate mitigation plan or resettlement programme was brought to the villagers.
If the project had proceeded, at least 58 households of Mae Khanil Tai and 24 Karen households in Sob Lan village would have been flooded.

The purpose of the dam was irrigation, which the department claimed would benefit over 5,000 people and enhance agricultural capacity in suburban villages downstream.

Since then, the project has been revived under various governments. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra brought it up during his administration, and his sister, Yingluck, made it part of her ambitious water-management scheme worth 350 billion baht.

But even after the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) scrapped the controversial plan in July, villagers could not breathe a sigh of relief.

The military junta created the Water Management and Policy Committee (WMPC) to draw up a new plan to develop and manage water resources, and to mitigate droughts and floods.

Under the WMPC, five sub-committees have been appointed to oversee different regions. The RID, which originally proposed the Mae Khan dam, was assigned to the North and held seminars last month to "listen to problems" from local residents. Feedback gleaned from the seminars would be folded into the plan, due out Oct 15.

Mr Pan handed a letter to the officials at the seminar, asking them not to add the Mae Khan dam to the WMPC's plans. "We have to keep raising our voice to be heard by the government," he said, adding they only hope the new plan would end their worries.

The seminar itself was auspicious. Villagers from Mae Khanil Tai said it struck a different tone from previous public hearings that accompanied Pheu Thai's mega water-management scheme, where their voice wasn't heard.

The new hearings ended with a resolution that the community should have the right to propose solutions to manage water resources sustainably, while the government must not force big development projects on them.

"Officials promised us they would not touch projects listed in the 350-billion-baht water management scheme," said Sayan Khamnueng, a villager from the Kaeng Suaten area and now a staff member at Living River Siam.

RID director-general Lertviroj Kowattana was less committal in an interview with the Bangkok Post. He said a WMPC sub-committee was reviewing the information from the seminar.

Asked about the possibility of projects being included in the water plan, he said they could turn up as part of mid-term or long-term measures.

Civil society groups are concerned a dam project will be approved under the transitional government and newly elected government. They were unhappy with the approval process for Ubon Ratchathani's Pak Mun dam and Chiang Rai's Chiang Saen port near the Mekong River.

"Soon we will see if the plan being drawn up by the junta aligns with public opinion," Mr Sayan said.

"I believe they [the military government] would not want to stir conflict."

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