How a government dams its people

Reacting to a perennial water crisis with a series of dams that will ravage the rainforests, the Thai government bashes on regardless and displeases its neighbours

By Sumita Dasgupta
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

EVERYTHING in Thailand is daringly up front -- except for a serious water crisis. A transit passenger in the luxurious Bangkok airport who heads for the toilet for a quick shave risks inviting more than a few reproachful glances if he keeps the immaculately-polished taps carelessly turned on.

The Thai government's attention is on the 2 major rivers that flow along the 2 flanks of the country, the Mekong and the Salween. For years, it has been chalking out ambitious project plans to set up new water supply networks and hydro-power projects along the country's shores. The waterways, which traverse thousands of km, have the potential to solve all of Thailand's aqua problems.

But there is a catch. Thailand shares the Mekong and the Salween with a number of other Southeast Asian nations and is bound by a common agreement that allows it to go ahead with its plans only with the unanimous permission of the others. The Mekong flows through Vietnam, Kampuchea and Laos; and the Salween originates in China, travelling across Thailand to Myanmar with a stretch of 100 km on the western Thai border.

Riparian duels
Despite ardent courting by top-ranking officials who have reportedly been making frequent trips to the neighbouring nations, the Thai government is yet to convince the others of the viability of a "joint development" river programme.

The Thais have come up with a double-pronged strategy, consisting of the massive Kok-Ing-Yom water diversion project, which will divert 2,700-5,000 million cubic metres of water from the 2 largest Mekong tributaries, the Kok and the Ing rivers in Chiang Rai province of Thailand. And on the western front, the government proposes to build a chain of 7 dams on the Salween river, in collaboration with the military regime in Myanmar. The sites of all these projects -- the Lower Salween, Klong Kra, Mae Nam Sai, Mae Nam Kok, Mae Moei I, Mae Nam Moei II, and Mae Moei III -- are in Myanmar.

While Thai officials are trying their diplomatic best to get their neighbours' endorsement, they have only succeeded in inviting suspicion. Vietnam, in particular, is seriously perturbed about the Thai "water campaign", fearing that if Thailand goes ahead with its plans to divert water from the Mekong and its tributaries, the resultant decrease in the mainstream flow might ruin the Mekong delta, the heart of Vietnam's rice bowl.

Thailand claims that the amount of water it plans to transfer is so negligible that it will have no effect whatsoever on the downstream countries, but it is still to provide sufficient scientific data to prove its argument. The Kampuchean government also has misgivings. Phnom Penh insists that the Thai "river programme" will spell doom for their riverine ecology, which forms the backbone of the Kampuchean economy.

But the most potent protest is brewing in Myanmar. And it is being fuelled not by the government but by underground activist groups, which are carrying on an organised campaign against the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the Myanmarese army junta. The groups contend that the dam projects -- to be funded by Western and Japanese multinationals -- will only serve to strengthen the hands of the "ultra nationalist military regime, one of the world's worst human rights violators", says the Mya Yadana Report -- a document clandestinely published by a Myanmarese concern group -- which will then have billions of dollars at its disposal.

Violating nature
But the sharpest weapons that the anti-dam camp has in store are the environmental issues involved in the "dam controversy". The camp focuses on the "environmental havoc" that the dams would wreak. Not only would vast tracts of rich rainforests be destroyed, the natural ecosystem of these areas would also be irrevocably altered, the report says. Besides, thousands of Myanmarese villagers would be displaced if the dams are allowed to come up. The Mya Yadana Report accuses the Thai government of ganging up with the military dictators. "Unfortunately, the kind of stability sought by the proponents of the projects is most likely to come over the dead bodies of those who stand for democracy," it says bitingly.

The Thai government's reaction to the criticisms is an obstinate go-ahead. Braving derogation from members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), who view the Myanmarese SLORC as autocratic, the Thai foreign minister made a special trip to Rangoon last month to formally invite the junta to attend the next ASEAN ministerial meeting, scheduled in July.

On its part, the widely circulated English daily Bangkok Post, a government mouthpiece, has launched a vigorous pro-dam campaign, churning out statistics and figures to counter the Mya Yadana Report. It is hell-bent on convincing the people that the progress and prosperity of Thailand depend on the river water projects. "Dams are bound to attract opposition on environmental grounds, but they are difficult to avoid (if we have to meet our water and power needs)," said Bangkok Post.

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