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Like moving fish to another ocean: Indigenous communities in the dark over Yuam River diversion project impacts

By Nanticha Ocharoenchai

Photography by Luke Duggleby

Along the northwestern border where Thailand meets Myanmar, Singkharn Ruenhom steers his motorboat on the Yuam river, panning his hand across the riverbanks. When he was young, his father would take him out to fish here. This is where they set traps to catch river shrimp, and that spot is where they built a bamboo hut to rest or stay the night. Years later, he fished on the river with his own sons. Now he worries his grandchildren might not get to do the same. 

About an hour down the stream, lined with lush green hanging from the cliffs, the boat approaches a blockade of rocks and comes to a halt. About ten kilometres from here, Singkharn said, a new dam might soon emerge from the river, blocking its natural flow. 

Like many in communities across Mae Hong Son, Tak and Chiang Mai provinces, Singkharn is concerned about his home and heritage. In September 2021, a project was approved to divert an average of 1,795 cubic metres of water annually to irrigate the central plains.

“They didn’t tell us about what impacts there’d be,” said Ekachai Jamonjarudet, a resident of another village affected by the project in Omkoi district, Chiang Mai. “They told us not to worry because they’ll compensate us or find new land for us.”

The long game

First conceived in the early 1990s by the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency and the Ministry of Energy, the large-scale “Bhumibol Reservoir Inflow Augmentation Project” is more commonly referred to as the Yuam River Diversion Project.  

It was estimated to cost around 70 billion baht (USD 2.1 million) and take seven years to build. However, because of the project’s high cost, it was put on hold until 2016, when it was revived by the Royal Irrigation Department (RID). Later, it was reported that a Chinese state-owned developer had offered to deliver the project for just 40 billion baht (USD 1.9 billion) in four years according to the vice chairman of the special committee in the Thai parliament. But the claims were dismissed by the RID and the project is currently proceeding amid doubts. 

The project will be the first to dam this tributary of the Salween, one of Southeast Asia’s last remaining free-flowing rivers. 

Starting in Mae Ngao village in Mae Hong Son province, six water pumping stations and filtering systems will be built on the land where Singkharn and his neighbours live. These will pull water up from a reservoir created by a 70-metre-high dam about 14 kilometres from the Myanmar border. From there, water will flow into an eight-metre-wide tunnel descending 600 metres underground for almost 62 kilometres until it reaches Chiang Mai’s Hot district. From there, it will flow into the Ping River, a tributary of the Chao Phraya to boost agricultural irrigation in the country’s central plains. 

Walking along the banks, Singkharn described the species that live in the cracks and crevices of this part of the Yuam, and the seasonal ecosystem: the drought and flash floods, the wildlife. 

“City people overlook it,” Singkharn said. “When they see the river they simply see water, but there’s much more than that.”

The diversion: Public scrutiny and the Yuam

The project cuts through five national forest reserves and the forthcoming Mae Ngao National Park. It will clear a total of 582 hectares of forest, 206 of which are classified as crucial for ensuring the continuity of the watershed. Construction materials and the debris from creating the tunnel will be dumped in six mounds along the way, covering 71 hectares. Most of the area is the ancestral land of indigenous communities, many of them ethnic Karen.

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in 2006 claimed the project will only affect 21 households and the farmland of four other households. 

But Pianporn Deetes of the NGO International Rivers estimates that at least 46 villages will be directly affected, not including others who depend on the Salween watershed for their livelihoods.

In Sop Moei district alone, at least 74 households in Mae Ngao village and nine in Tha Ruer village might be forced to evacuate to clear a path for the dam and water pumping stations, according to the People’s Network of Yuam, Ngao, Moei and Salween River Basins. 

For months, controversy has been surging around the project and local people’s engagement in the approval process, with accusations of misrepresentation and lying about local participation. Rather than providing information on potential risks, officials have stressed its benefits. These include an annual average of 300 million cubic metres of water for consumption; about 462 million kilowatt/hours of electricity generated; revenue of USD 18,585 from fisheries and USD 142,679 from tourism annually; and 257,604 additional hectares of arable land in the Central region during drought.

“The village headman’s photo is in the EIA and he doesn’t even know it,” said Phibul Tuwamonton, chair of the Omkoi Indigenous Peoples’ Network, who has been spreading awareness about the project’s impacts to affected communities throughout the past year.

“I didn’t even know what an EIA was,” confirms Phooso Chamoncarumat, headman of Mae Sor Tai, a village due to become a dumpsite for debris.

There were public hearings on the project. But they were held during the Covid-19 pandemic and the rainy season, posing difficulties for remote communities who needed to travel to attend. Gatherings in large groups were also problematic. Despite most of the affected households being Karen speakers, no translations in Karen were provided in the documents and meetings.

“Because many lack citizenship, they are afraid to come out and protest against the project despite receiving the full impacts,” said Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, executive coordinator and co-founder of the NGO Community Resource Centre Foundation.

The Royal Irrigation Department and Naresuan University conducted the surveys for the EIA. Both declined to comment.

Ecology on the edge

While there is little in-depth research about the Yuam river’s ecology, the Salween watershed is known to be a vital habitat for more than 200 fish species 

Damming the Yuam will reduce the oxygen crucial to river life. As sediment becomes trapped, many species’ food sources will disappear. Even more alarming, the project will connect the Salween and Chao Phraya watersheds, two separate river systems with different freshwater species and conditions.

“It’s like moving fish from one ocean to the other,” said Sitang Pilailar, a lecturer at the Water Resources Engineering Department at Kasetsart University.

With only ten fish species known to be common to both basins, experts have expressed concerns about non-native invasions.

“If one organism disappears, this could affect hundreds of other organisms,” said Aphinun Suvarnaraksha from Maejo University’s Faculty of Fisheries Technology and Aquatic Resources.

Communities living along the Yuam will bear the impacts of the decline in fish stocks, the loss of arable land, and potentially exacerbated floods and landslides. In addition, the project will be built along active tectonic plates. It could lead to a high risk of earthquakes, though this concern is only briefly mentioned in the EIA.

Lesson from the past

In 1964, the Bhumibol Dam was completed in Tak province, downstream from Sakchai Yemu’s community, a farmer in the ethnic Karen village of Mae Ngud in Chiang Mai’s Hot district. The dam interrupted the natural flow of the Ping River, and water backups have been causing floods, carrying away nutrients and sediment on the once-fertile fields where Sakchai used to grow rice.

“Since the dam was built, some families were torn apart,” he said. “Everything has changed.”

With their lands turned sandy and no longer arable, many people had no choice but to leave their homes for the city in search of a job. Once able to build a house and feed a family without additional income, today, many are taking on jobs outside of the community to earn enough to pay for food, accommodations, and bills.

For the 1.6 hectares of arable land Sakchai lost, he was given a one-off compensation payment between 400,000 – 500,000 baht (USD 11,900 – 14,900).

“With that money, how many days or years can you use it?” said Mueda Nawanat, a member of another affected community in Sop Moei district, Mae Hong Son. “With the land they currently live on, they can live entirely without money.”

Communities resist

Building on the lessons of the Bhumibol Dam’s impact, the Mae Ngud community is determined to not let history repeat itself. Since learning about the Yuam River diversion project, the community spoke up against the project, submitting complaint letters and protesting with signs.

Other civil society groups, including the Omkoi Indigenous Peoples’ Network led by Phibul Tuwamonton, are also rushing to raise awareness among affected communities about the project and its impacts. They are mobilising against what they describe as false claims in the EIA. They are also suing the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning. 

The National Human Rights Commission recently visited Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai to meet with community members and investigate complaints concerning the Yuam river diversion project.

“Why do involved government departments not ever speak of getting communities who live in the forests to take care of the remaining forests?” asked Thongchai Leawpichaipaibul, a member of the Mae Ngao community.

Though proposed mitigation measures are included in the EIA, experts doubt their viability and effectiveness. For example, fish ladders allow migration and electrical barriers to prevent species invasion, but they lack research. Likewise, tourism, reforestation, and seismic monitoring are unlikely to remedy the most acute social and ecological impacts.

“On one hand, they’re making merit and on the other they’re sinning,” said Pianporn at International Rivers. “They’re reforesting and reclaiming homelands from communities, but at the same time they’re allowing mega-projects that exploit natural resources.”

Sitang, the lecturer from Kasetsart University, is concerned about the potential impacts of climate change on the 30-year-old project proposal and questioned its rationale. She believes there are more cost-effective and socially and environmentally sensitive solutions to water shortages, including reducing consumption, fixing leaks, improving management and restoring watersheds.

“To address water problems, you can’t be short-sighted because it affects the entire basin and nearby basins,” Sitang said. “The directors need to change their mindset, open up and take in technical information from various disciplines, letting communities help solve these issues together.”


Edited by Fabian Drahmoune

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

Nanticha Ocharoenchai (Lynn) is an environmental writer and youth climate activist from Thailand. She frequently writes about the environment, science, conservation and sustainability.

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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