Another dam government
The dams are back.
The Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai forest complex was recently added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites on grounds it is one of the most important remaining forest zones in mainland Southeast Asia. The listing was the triumphant result of a ten-year campaign. Within less than a month, the government proposed to flood 3,000 rai of the forest complex under water storage reservoirs to help overcome water shortages, especially for industry, on the Eastern Seaboard. This proposal betrays a value system in which the words “world heritage” have no meaning at all. This forest land is just a neglected resource waiting to be used. The auto factories and petrochemical plants on the Eastern Seaboard are much more important. Officials have claimed environmental impact studies can be skipped on grounds the dam was planned before the World Heritage listing.
The panic in the east has also inspired proposals to reactivate the dam on the Bang Pakong river, and replicate similar projects on the estuaries of other rivers along the eastern coast. The reasoning is simple. There is all this water flowing uselessly into the sea; if only we could stop it and store it, we could sell it to the factories which need it. But the Bang Pakong project is a proven disaster. Soon after it was built, it had to be abandoned because of enormous side-effects, especially salination and water-logging of land. River systems are complex. The Bang Pakong project is a monument to the lack of understanding, inadequate research, and general lack of respect for nature which marked so much dam building in the 1980s and 1990s. The prime minister claims there is “not enough time” to do environmental impact studies on the new projects which are similar to Bang Pakong.
Plans raised recently for the far northeast are rather similar. Too little rain has fallen this year, and there are prospects for an extended drought. The Agriculture Ministry has have come up with the idea of rapidly building barrages on fifteen rivers of this region to save as much water as possible from draining away into the Mekong. Again the objective is good and the logic seems obvious. But the case study for such projects is the Rasi Salai dam in Ubon. This also was a disaster. The construction destroyed natural wetlands, caused widespread salination of soils, disrupted local patterns of cultivation, and embroiled governments in a vituperative decade-long dispute over compensation.
The plan to build a dam at Kaeng Sua Ten has also been revived to relieve flooding in the urban areas along the lower Yom river. This dam project was the focus of controversy in the 1990s. Originally the dam was proposed as an irrigation scheme. However, scrutiny showed that the proposed dam's irrigation was mostly imaginary, while its environmental impact was huge. The project became the focus of struggle between the “dam coalition” and a new network of protest. The dam coalition was made up of irrigation officials who saw their job as building dams, land speculators who specialised in profiting from compensation schemes, construction interests, and local politicians. The protest network spread from local villagers, to the Assembly of the Poor, sympathetic journalists, and environmentalist academics who wrote report after report showing how bad the project was. The dam coalition reacted wonderfully by claiming that water could run uphill, and by denying the existence of a whole teak forest. They recast the dam as a flood relief scheme to appeal to embattled urban communities along the lower Yom River – even though it had never been planned for flood relief, and a glimpse at a contour map showed it would not contribute much at all.
The revival of these bad projects and the invention of new ones which are as bad or worse is very revealing. The old dam coalition is still alive and well. Although it has been smarting from its defeat by civil society in the late 1990s, it has been biding its time. By the middle of the Thaksin government's first term, irrigation officials understood that this government was likely to be sympathetic. It began to revive projects like Kaeng Sua Ten and Phong Khun Petch. Every year in the flood season, local politicians tried to whip up local support for these projects. This year, water has misbehaved spectacularly. There is too much here, and too little there. The Chiang Mai flood and the Eastern Seaboard drought have combined to create a sense of crisis and a tendency to panic.
Over the previous four years, much of what this government has announced as plans, and done in terms of administrative rejigging on water issues, had seemed very sensible. A National Water Resources Committee was formed. The old Irrigation Department was reoriented to water resources management, seemingly suggesting a more broad-minded approach than its old emphasis on dam building. The government embraced the idea of planning on the scale of whole water basins, rather than the piecemeal projects of the past. After the prime minister had viewed the Chiang Mai floods by helicopter, he fixed the blame on illegal loggers, dubiously legal tangerine plantations, and riverbank encroachers. He promised that these environment criminals would “face serious legal measures.” Applause all round.
But this year's panic is prompting a reversion to bad old habits. As the government's public image weakens and its support base narrows, it becomes more and more dependent on the local political interests which have been the bedrock of Thai politics over past decades. They include illegal loggers, riverbank encroachers, plantation owners, land speculators, and construction contractors.