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Damming the Northeast – How an irrigation mega-project threatens the environment and traditional livelihoods

By Nicha Wachpanich

Photography by Luke Duggleby

As Thailand marches ahead with its vision of ‘greening’ the Northeast through extensive irrigation projects, local communities are concerned about the impact of the infrastructure plans on the Mekong’s tributaries.

 

Hundreds of homemade rockets launch into the sky above the Mekong River, leaving trails of smoke and cheering locals. It’s May, and to welcome the rainy season’s arrival in northeastern Thailand, the annual Bun Bangfai festival in Chaiburi district, Nakhon Phanom, begins.

Amid the loud cracks of competitive rockets, Amnat Traijak stays calm. He doesn’t believe in superstitions, but he’s willing to partake for the sake of the Mekong and her tributaries.

As a president of the Network of Mekong communities in the Northeast, Amnat carries an elaborate krathong float to the riverbank where the brown water of the Songkhram River dissolves into the green waters of the Mekong. It’s a long trip down the stairs because the Mekong fell to unnaturally low levels this year.

“Dear respected spirits, we want no more dams. We hope the policymakers will listen to us even just a little,” he prays.

Amnat prayed for thousands of local communities across the Mekong river basins in the northeastern region, where Thailand’s ambitious three-decade vision to divert water from the Mekong continues apace. 

Since its inception, the project has changed the region’s environment and the explosion of infrastructure projects makes it difficult to gauge the effects on the river and the communities that depend on it. 

Ambitious vision

For over three decades, Thailand has wanted to develop the Northeast’s water management, a region that makes up roughly one-third of the country and is known for its fatal cycle of droughts and flash floods. Successive governments have pushed through a host of large- and small-scale irrigation projects like those of the Mekong-Chi-Mun (Khong-Chi-Mun, KCM) mega-project. Tasked with ‘greening’ the Northeast, it is the country’s largest water project to divert and control water from the region’s rivers, including the Mekong.

Home to more than twenty tributaries to the Mekong, it has been a dream of subsequent prime ministers to control these waters to feed the region’s agriculture, known for its famous Thai top export product of jasmine rice. Ever since the cabinet first approved the mega-project in 1989, infrastructure projects have mushroomed across the northeastern tributaries.

The KMC mega-project aims to mitigate water shortages for consumption and agriculture and solve the repetitive flooding and drought issues, according to the Department of Energy Development and Promotion, the agency running the project at that time.

Despite this visionary dream, local communities and experts have been criticising the mega-project since the first set of thirteen large dams was built on the Chi and Mun rivers in the late 1990s, disturbing their natural flow. Until today, the villages whose houses and rice paddies face unpredictable floods almost every year go on protest regularly. 

“We are the living evidence that the Mekong water diversion project results in more negative impacts than the benefits it claims,” said Sirisak Saduak, who works with Chi River basin communities on behalf of a local NGO.

As a result, dams and the KCM mega-project became stigmatised and met public resistance, with many projects being put on hold. But in 2012, parliament revived the plans, and an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was carried out

“The new project they are talking about now is actually the same thing with the KCM project that has been causing unsolved problems until now,” explained Sirisak. The most recent version of the project has added a new watershed, the Loei River, changing the project’s name to “Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun” (KLCM).

The Loei River enters the Mekong at the point where the River Mekong exits mainland Laos and begins to snake its way around Thailand’s Northeast, providing a natural border between the two countries.

A component of the new KLCM mega-project envisages bringing in 1,900 million cubic metres of Mekong water annually by gravity during the first phase through a widened mouth of the Loei River to be sent through seventeen canals and tunnels to the UbolRatana Dam in Khon Kaen province, the largest water reservoir in the region. The project is expected to cost more than 1.93 trillion baht (around USD 51 billion) and will take 20 years to complete.

“Even though the project needs a high investment it’s important and beneficial for Thailand to implement the plans,” said a representative of the Department of Irrigation in a PR video.

 

Water management from home

Chantra Chanthathong lives in Ban Don Kaeo village, between the Roi Et Dam and the Yasothon-Phanom Phrai Dam on the Chi River. Completed in 2000, the dams were part of an early phase of the Khong-Chi-Mun mega-project, according to the Department of  Energy Development and Promotion’s annual report. Chantra and his neighbours now regularly experience irregular flooding of their homes, rice paddies and the floodplain forest where they used to go foraging. The impacts have occurred since the dams took control of the water flow.

In June 2022, Chantra and fellow villagers from the network of Chi river basin communities travelled to Bangkok to pressure the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperative to pay compensation for thousands of affected people and restore the environment.

In September 2022, the government held another round of public hearings for the KLCM project. To counter the push, local communities from different river basins in the Northeast came together to oppose the three-decades attempt.

“All the problems from the dams built thirty years ago haven’t been resolved and the government is still pushing forward a new mega water diversion project?” asked Sirisak.

He points out that Thai water governance is centralised to only a few authorities. The idea of ‘greening’ northeastern Thailand has been a persistent narrative from the state. Still, the region’s ecosystems are too diverse for a one-size-fits-all policy, communities contend.

After 30 years of struggle, Sirisak believes it is not too late for Thailand to manage the water better.

“The state needs to return rights to manage water to the people who know best about their environment. The state shouldn’t look at water as a commodity but look into it the way the communities do,” said Sirisak referring to how communities see the rivers as important natural components to sustain other living beings.

On the hot and humid streets of Bangkok, Chantra and his neighbours from the Chi river basin network wait for the answer from the authorities.

“I don’t know when it will end but I wish we could bring the heartbeat of the river back.”

A mask on water projects

In Loei, where the Mekong forms the natural border between Thailand and Laos, Jiraporn Suwanampai spends hours working in the rubber plantation just outside her village of Ban Klang, about eleven kilometres downstream from the soon-to-be-completed dam. It’s late May, and the traditional Phi Ta Khon festival is in full swing. Like the rocket festival in Nakhon Phanom, it seeks to appease the spirits in the hope of plentiful rain for the upcoming harvest.

Rather than large rockets, the Phi Ta Khon festival is known for its delicately carved masks representing different spirits and local beliefs. So famous have these masks become that they will soon decorate the tops of five large supports of the massive Sri Song Rak irrigation dam on the Loei River, a few kilometres away from the Mekong River.

The ongoing construction consists of seven watergates across the Loei River: two over the natural stream and five over the newly dug channel. The watergates will manage the Loei River for sixteen kilometres before it enters the Mekong, reducing flooding and redistributing the water to vast agricultural areas, according to the Royal Irrigation Department.

Despite the Sri Song Rak watergate sitting just a few kilometres away from the proposed river mouth widening site, it is not officially included in the mega-project. The five-billion-baht project has sparked controversy from certain surrounding communities living downstream.

“Sri Song Rak watergate is not related to the Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun project. The watergate will only manage the Loei river and keep a certain amount of water while the KLCM will manage the Mekong,” explained Master Sergeant Prakorb Poonpol, head of construction for the watergate project. “They are two different things.”

While communities located around the dam, including Hua Hin Sor village located next to the structure, are in favour of the project because a new bridge and roads will be built for them, cutting kilometres off a drive to the nearest town of Chiang Khan, Jirapan’s community is staunchly against the dam and are concerned about the possibility of flooding.

“The main problem is a lack of clarity, so the communities around here are divided,” said Jiraporn. “It’s only my village that resists the project. We turned out to be like enemies.”

Construction is expected to be completed in 2024 

Not far from the Sri Song Rak watergate, lies the site of the planned Sanakham dam, a Chinese-backed dam in Laos that will sell electricity to Thailand. The locals of Ban Klang are concerned that the project combined with this new hydropower infrastructure would threaten the area as all the rivers are all connected. Many communities in the Northeast have voiced similar concerns. 

Since it is Irrigating only a small area and does not divert water to the other river basins, Sri Song Rak gate is not required to conduct an environmental impact assessment, which could take many years to complete.

“We’re talking about water management in the whole northeastern region. The officials like to divide the water development program into small-scale projects, so as not to look like a mega project and easily progress forward” said Santiparp Siriwattanapaiboon, professor of environmental science, Udon Thani Rajabhat University.

Whether the Sri Song Rak ‘officially’ falls under the mega-project category or not, its impact could be the same. Locals worry the new infrastructure will alter the Mekong-Loei natural flow, and some believe, including Santiparp, that the Thai government is cleverly rebranding the mega water project that has seen years of public scrutiny.

“It is like piecing jigsaws together,” said Santiparp.

Nature and culture at stake

Four hundred kilometres from the mouth of the Loei River lies the Songkhram River which flows into the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom province. Split geographically into the upper and lower Songkhram River, the latter is the last expansive stretch of river that remains, for now, undammed in the Northeast.

The lower river basin has gained so much recognition for its environmental, ecological and cultural importance that it was declared a protected site under the international conservation treaty Ramsar Convention in 2019.

The basin has a seasonal cycle; during the rainy season, the high waters of the Mekong flow into the Songkhram River, which floods the surrounding wetlands, turning parts into unique flooded forests. Inundated for several months, the complex freshwater ecosystems become a breeding ground for aquatic species and plants. Then, when the rains subside, the waters return their flow to the Mekong.

The area’s ecological uniqueness, which sustains an active traditional local fishing industry when other areas have given up due to lack of fish, has deterred decades-old plans of damming this pristine estuary. Yet, the threat of a proposed dam has been looming for almost four decades, and local communities remain vigilant.

The proposed Songkhram dam is not officially included in the KLCM project, but in terms of geography and engineering, it would be very similar to the Sri Song Rak floodgate, according to Santiparp, including five gates. Both projects could dramatically alter the natural environment.

Nostalgia for the past

Chaiya Chantree, 50, head of a village a few kilometres away from the Hua Na dam in Sisaket, a province in the southern part of the region, remembers when his area was as pristine and abundant as what the Lower Songkhram River is today.

What began with the announcement of a small-scale rubber dam on the Mun river in 1992 became a huge fourteen-gate irrigation dam cutting the largest Mekong tributary in Thailand. Part of the early phase of the KCM project, the dam was built on the back of the completion of the Rasi Salai Dam, some 90 km upstream. The two communities have been collectively fighting for compensation ever since.

The construction of these two dams fundamentally altered the livelihoods of thousands of villagers who were forced to adapt. Their land became inundated, some losing acres of rice paddy and the water became salinated due to the large underground salt rock deposits. Local fishermen were also forced to adapt to changes in water flow and diminishing fish stocks. 

Thirty years have passed, and today Chaiya lives in an unpredictable environment. Every year, he and hundreds of locals contend with local authorities about when the floodgates will be opened.

During the monsoon season, Hua Na opens its gates to prevent flooding nearby urban Ubon Ratchathani, inundating Chaiya’s rice paddies. Locals say that government compensation does not cover their losses.

“Many communities in Mekong basins view us as a case study. They like to ask ‘How do you live with dams?’” Chaiya said. “If we resettle, we have to start from zero, so my answer is we must adapt to live here with dams.”

 

Edited by Fabian Drahmoune

The original version of this story was commissioned and first published in The Third Pole. This version has been produced independently by HaRDstories.

Nicha Wachpanich is a Bangkok-based journalist covering stories from a rights-based and human-interest perspective. She previously worked with a local environmental news agency under Thai Society of Environmental Journalists.

Luke Duggleby is a Bangkok based photographer. He regularly works on stories related to the environment and the impact of pollution and development on local communities.

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