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Final strike for Wang Heep Dam in southern Thailand?

Tensions have resurged in southern Thailand over a proposed two-billion-baht dam project that communities fear would uproot their lives and inundate a pristine watershed forest.  

Photo: Wuittichai Kaewlamhat
Photo: Concrete markers to indicate the expected flood area. Wuittichai Kaewlamhat

BANGKOK – In a watershed forest in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, tensions have resurged over a proposed dam that communities fear could uproot their lives, and significantly impact the environment. This comes at a pivotal moment in Thailand, as the government is expected to transition power by the end of this year.

The forest, known as the Wang Heep watershed, plays a crucial role in providing water sources to the surrounding communities. It is distinguished as a Grade A watershed due to its rich biodiversity and vital ecological service.

Centred around a proposed 26 million-cubic litres dam, the controversy reignited on 12 June. It is part of a Royal Irrigation project initiated three decades ago to provide water for rice farming, mitigate flooding, and promote tourism. A local community group has been opposing the dam for years, which led to a reassessment of the project

The renewal of the conflict came after approximately 40 officers from the Department of Royal Irrigation, along with border patrol officers and local municipalities officials, visited the areas anticipated to be flooded by the dam. The officers marked the locations for future compensation, leading to confrontations with local communities.

“We don’t want the dam. The needs of our people have changed,” said Wuttichai Kaewlamhat, a 36-year-old farmer and leader of the local conservation group. Like many community members in the Thung Song district, Wuttichai makes a living from rubber plantations, which depend on rainfall.

Community members have shifted to farming techniques that don’t rely on irrigation infrastructure, which would become obsolete if the dam project proceeds, according to Wuttichai.

Although the confrontation did not result in a resolution regarding the dam’s future, it underscored the residents’ fears of displacement and loss of farmland.

Efforts to thwart the dam project led Wuttichai and his group to construct an iron gate on the road leading to the watershed forest. This act resulted in an accusation of altering public property by the Chief District Officer. However, the court dismissed the charge in November 2021.

The Thai government had approved the dam project in 2018 allocating a budget of 2.377 billion baht (about $68.6 million) for a five-year construction plan. However, the project was then suspended to further build common understanding with the communities. 

The Department of Royal Irrigation revisited the project in January 2023, holding public meetings with the communities. Still, locals feel their needs are not being considered. “I believe they really want to push the project through before the budget plan ends, especially in this transitional period for Thai politics,” Wuttichai said.