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2011-04-03T140412Z_01_BAN204_RTRIDSP_3_THAILAND-FLOOD

In 2012, the Puea Thai coalition government (PTP), still reeling from the aftermath of the devastating Great Flood of 2011 and eager to shore up its credibility among locals and foreign investors, hastily approved an $ 11.6 billion dollar water management scheme involving the construction of dams, reservoirs and canals throughout the central region of Thailand. The aim was not only divert floodwaters away from the capital and disperse it into the sea through a network of canals and rivers along the Chao Phrya Basin, but also store water for agriculture and irrigation purposes as well as generate much-needed electricity for surrounding regions.

Among the hundreds of projects in the scheme, two have been resurrected from the boneyards: both are highly controversial and were scrapped in the past due to an outpouring of public displeasure. They involve the construction of dams in Mae Wong National Park and along the Yom River in the north.

Readers may be wondering why environmentalists are creating such a stir about these projects and what is so unique about Mae Wong or the Ten Sua forest cases which have NGOs crying foul? Let’s delve into this issue a little deeper.

MAE WONG AND TEN SEUA: THE LAST OF THEIR KIND

Mae Wong National Park is located on the western border of Thailand and is one of many protected areas which combine to make the Western Forest Complex, the largest intact forest block remaining in Southeast Asia. It is also one of the richest and diverse national parks in the central region. Its territory covers riverine valley, foothills and mountains, allowing it to harbor a vast variety of flora and fauna. Among its inhabitants are endangered mammals such as leopard, sambar, bear, guar and tiger. In fact, Mae Wong National Park is considered to be one of the few remaining strongholds in the country for this apex predator.

Mae Wong is also one of the most popular birdwatching sites in Thailand and among the most important in terms of conservation. Mae Wong is home to the endangered Rufous necked Hornbill and is perhaps the only accessible place in the country where the birds can be found. It also harbors local specialties such as Burmese Yuhina, Crested Kingfisher, Rusty naped Pitta and Grey Peacock-pheasant.

The Kaeng Ten Seua  Dam project is slated to be constructed over the Yom river in the northern region. Habitat along the Yom river is relatively untouched and supports a number of endangered wildlife species. Most importantly, the Yom riverine forests are home to the last remaining old teak forests in Thailand.

In short: A dam in Mae Wong National Park would submerge important tiger habitat and would have a direct impact on over 200 species of animals which reside in the park, half of which are birds. Construction of the Kaeng Sua Ten Dam on the Yom River would eradicate wildlife along the Yom basin and destroy the largest remaining Golden Teak forest in the kingdom to date.

The government believes that the implementation of these projects will help reduce the devastating droughts and floods which plague the region on a yearly basis. It would also provide water for irrigation and produce much-needed electricity for the hundreds of homes and small businesses in the area.

Both of these projects were initiated decades ago but were shelved due to strong opposition from NGOs, local environmental agencies and villagers. Two EPA reports, issued in 1998 and 2002, were damning enough to cause the head of the Forestry Department to reject the project.

It’s interesting to note that the man who headed the Forestry Department at the time was Mr. Plodprasop. During his tenure as Chief of the RFD, he refused to approve the project not once, but twice. Then, during the Yingluck administration, he held rank as a Deputy Prime Minister and sat on the board as chief of the water management committee. Upon being endowed with this position, he completely reverted his stance on the issue and is now one of the strongest proponents of the dam project.

Among the many issues which haunt these mega projects, most damning was the Yingluck Administration’s failure to listen to the voice of the people. On one side, we have villagers and locals who strongly oppose the project. On the other side of the spectrum sit a smattering of government agencies and private corporations which vigorously support it. Local residents have for years opposed the projects, while the government has used the local provincial and subdistrct administration as its political propaganda machine to drum up support for its programs.

Both the Mae Wong and Ten Seua cases look eerily similar to another controversial dam project which was implemented only a decade ago: the Pak Mun Dam in Ubon Rachathani. In the end, the government’s decision to steamroll over the pleas of the local residents resulted in an ecological disaster which doomed entire communities into ruin and set a course for extinction for many of the resident fish species inhabiting the river.

The lesson which should have been learnt but could never comprehended in the minds of those who masterminded the project is that once an ecosystem has been destroyed, it is lost forever. Like the old saying goes, “You only live once”.

-Once dead, forever dead.

THE PAK MUN FIASCO

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A lonely fisherman casts his net beneath the ominous shadow of the Pak Mun dam in Ubon Rachathani province. His dark, desperate eyes scan the water for signs of life, even the slightest ripple which may reveal clues to where the fish may be lurking.

The net is drawn and the catch is collected. The fisherman mumbles a stream of incoherent curses as he sorts the fish. “I used to work for three or four hours a day and catch enough (fish) to make a living” he says. “Now I fish from morning to evening and don’t even make enough to survive.”

It’s been this way for over a decade.

Built for the Electric Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the Pak Mun Dam was the brainchild of the Chatchai Choonhavan Administration and cost a staggering $240 million dollars to construct.

The dam generates clean, renewable energy in a nation starved for electricity. To date, the Pak Mun Dam accounts for nearly 5% of total power generated by EGAT throughout the country.

EGAT claims the project was a success; since its inauguration, the dam has generated above its projected capacity.

However, from well beyond its inception, residents of the river have opposed the project, claiming the dam would destroy their way of life and impede on local customs and culture. More importantly, residents of the Mun River Basin were concerned of the impact the dam would have on the environment. A number of EPA reports issued prior to the start of the project also echoed the same sentiment.

Despite the increasing calls to reevaluate the project, construction went ahead on schedule. Feeling slighted that their voices were ignored, the villagers became more aggressive in their protests. In 1993, a demonstration at the project site turned violent, and clashes between the local authorities and protesters left dozens wounded. Community leaders and the authorities blamed each other for inciting the violence.

The incident made headlines throughout the country but failed to provide enough pressure to abort the project.

The dam was christened in 1994 and went into full-scale operation the very next year.

In the years that followed, EGAT distributed over $45 million in compensation to over 240,000 locals who lost their livelihoods or were forced to relocate. Yet despite the massive buyout and additional government compensation, the biggest issue which still haunts the remaining residents of the Mun River is the disastrous affect the dam has had on the environment.

A series of surveys from various universities and NGOs revealed that since the dam went into operation, fish stocks have declined by almost 70% and over 200 species of fish have disappeared from the river. Even the construction of a fish ladder has failed to curb the dwindling numbers, forcing EGAT to open the massive sluice gates and suspend operations at the dam for up to six months out of the year.

-Surely this was not what EGAT or the Chatchai Administration had envisioned for the dam!

The ecological mess which has clouded the Pak Mun River reveals a truth few in the administration are willing to admit: We should have listened to the voice of the local people.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel famously stated that “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. Time and time again, Thai governments have proven to the world the genius of Hegel’s wisdom.

Thailand is a country obsessed with building dams, and understandably so. The nation is located in a region flush with rivers draining from China, Tibet and Burma. Its wealth is in water; its life-giving elixir enables the country to flourish agriculturally, making it one of the world’s largest producer and exporter of agriculture products.

However, the gift of water can also be a curse; since it is geographically located in a flood plain, Thailand suffers from a myriad of natural disasters. Without a proper water management program, the nation will suffer from flooding and drought on an almost annual basis.

It is therefore understandable that the government would go all-out in an effort to prevent the events of 2011 from ever occurring again.

However, while its eyes are solely focused on flood prevention and water management, the government is “failing to see the forest for the trees.”

What we need to do is step back and have a look at the bigger picture overall.

Pouring billions of taxpayers dollars into these water management megaprojects will surely boost the economy, impress the international community and instill confidence in the business sector, but at what cost to the local people and environment?

There are many in the government and private sector who believe that the decision to build these dams will help prevent drought in the summers and flooding in the monsoon season. However, many environmentalists and scientists will also point out at severe drought and flooding are often a result of deforestation, not always a result of El Nino or freak weather.

Apart from the agricultural sector, the energy management bureau is another benefactor and a strong proponent of the projects. In an age where coal and gas plants are being phased out in place of naturally replenishable energy sources, hydroelectricity seems to be the most forthright solution.

However, if we were to view the entire concept in perspective, we’d see that it just doesn’t make any sense.

Trading thousands of hectares of forest to build a reservoir or a 500 MW dam is not a sustainable solution. Take for example the construction of the Rajaprapah Dam in Khao Sok in 1985. The dam inundated a forest habitat so pristine and diverse it rivaled that of the mighty Amazon Basin. The dam brought death to untold thousands of creatures which drowned when the valley was flooded. The habitat was thought to be home to hundreds of undescribed insects and reptiles, including a number of rare species of birds such as Storms Stork and Gurney’s Pitta. The full extent of what we lost as a nation is still unknown to us to this very day.

Yet despite all that, the dam has served a purpose in that it has helped to protect hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest reserve from being destroyed. The massive Cheio Laan reservoir acts as a natural barrier which prevents loggers and poachers from  entering and raping the forest. I doubt the same can be said for the Mae Wong and Ten Sua Dams which are under consideration at the moment.

Water management experts and various NGOs have also pointed out that there are other ways to manage the annual monsoon runoff without having to constructing more dams. Some experts point to the extensive network of canals which already exist, which, when properly managed and maintained, effectively divert water away from the cities and into the sea.

The truth of the matter is, no matter how many dams, weirs and canals we construct, without proper management, the entire infrastructure will go to pot and result in catastrophic disaster, much like the events of 2011.

WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FLOOD?

Wannaphong Durongkaveroj

The root of the problem does not lie in nature, but in the way we humans handle the situation.

While there are some projects which should be initiated which will help to improve drainage and prevent another disastrous flood in the future, I firmly believe that the biggest issue lies in the way the management is structured. Having hundreds of dams and reservoirs scattered throughout the country will be completely useless if all the government agencies fall to get their heads together to work towards a unified solution.

In my opinion, a lack of communication, distrust among agencies and political strife are the main causes for the Great Flood of 2011. No one wanted to take the blame for the 2011 disaster which claimed over 500 lives and cost the country billions of dollars in damages. The administration spent months looking for a scapegoat on whom to place the blame, but the truth of the matter was simply this: everyone should have been blaming themselves.

In retrospect, we see a myriad of issues which resulted in the Great Flood of 2011: the dams were too full to receive additional water at the beginning of the monsoon season; the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), run by the opposition Democrat Party, refused to cooperate with the Water Management Committee, chaired and run by the ruling Peua Thai Party; the Irrigation Department failed to communicate with the other agencies; worst of all, the nation was struggling with political turmoil while numerous factions manipulating the situation for their own gain rather than putting aside their differences to work towards a unified goal.

Until the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA), the Irrigation Department, the Water Management Agency and other various provincial and state administrations start working together as a team, we will only see more pain than progress.

CONCLUSION

panamericanwood

In closing, there are a few things which must be reiterated:

1. Water management does not need to involve the wholesale destruction of forest habitat.

In my opinion, whether it be for irrigation, flood prevention or the production of energy, all dam projects should have a minimal impact on the environment and should not even be considered an option if it involves the destruction of forest habitat. Our forests are the lifeblood of the nation. They supply us with water and fresh air; they retain water and prevent soil erosion; they are also a home to millions of creatures which also have the right to exist on this world.

2. Hydroelectric power is not clean if it involves the destruction of millions of hectares of forest.

Hydroelectric energy is clean, but I would not trade thousands of hectares of wildlife heritage for 100 megawatts of electricity. This sort of strategy reminds me of an old saying “Penny-wise, pound foolish”. It’s easy to see that the real solution to the energy crisis is not to look for any way to produce clean energy, but a way to produce massive amounts of energy with the least impact on the environment.

What one must consider is that water is one of the many links in the delicate ecosystem. Trees produce water. Water, in turn, feeds the trees. Removing the trees to build dams only means you’ll soon end up with dry dams.

This might sound extreme, but I would rather live atop a nuclear power facility in the heart of downtown Bangkok that produces enough energy to fuel the nation’s capital than construct 100 clean-alternatives which will wipe out the remaining 10% forest cover we have remaining.

3. Listen to the people

This is Thailand, not Communist China or Vietnam. We are a democratic country where we, the people, are endowed with the right to speak and shape our own future through our voices. The government is empowered by the people and must remember that it was us who put them in the position of power and influence; they did not inherit it, nor is it a right which was handed to them by any human or diviner.

While some may argue that there are instances where governments must put the needs of the nation above that of the few, one should also consider that our nation is not just made up of humans. All creatures have a right to exist. Just as it would be a crime to evict thousands of people from their homes, it should also be a crime to evict millions of creatures from their forest habitats in the name of “progress”.

So please don’t try to sell me on a plan to invest billions into constructing dams, reservoirs and canals at the expense of our forests. Leave the forests out of the picture. The odds of improving our nation’s chances against future flooding disasters will never improve until we decide to get our heads together, unite and work as a team rather than a bunch of selfish, self-serving lunatics.

If we can’t find a solution to resolve these internal issues, I fear Thailand will be facing another disaster within this decade.

Categories: Conservation

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