Mekong basin stirs up region: Thai water diversion project could have mega risks

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Mekong Eye, Loei Province, Thailand

According to the 10th National Economic and Social Development Plan of Thailand, the northeast region (Isan) is oriented to become the country’s center of food and bio-fuel production. Currently, the irrigation system has covered only 10 percent of the farming area, with the remainder being rain-fed. Therefore, the Thai government has planned to develop many major irrigation schemes in the region, including Kong-Loei-Chi-Mun project to divert water from the Mekong River to irrigate 17 northeastern provinces.

A “mega” diversion project

Kong-Loei-Chi-Mun project was developed by the Royal Irrigation Department (RID). The feasibility study was conducted from 2008 to 2012 by RID, which estimated that the total cost of the project would be up to 2,700 billion baht (approximately US$75 billion), and take 16 years to complete nine phases.

The project title is combined from the names of four rivers: Mekong, Loei, Chi and Mun; Mun is tributary of Chi river, while Chi and Loei rivers are tributaries of the Mekong. It was proposed to divert Mekong water to tunnels under Loei river, storing at the reservoirs of Huai Luang and Ubol Rattana. The water would then follow canals to Chi and Mun rivers, irrigating 113 districts of 17 northeastern provinces.

If the project was carried out, 30.6 rai (about 5 million hectares) of farming land would be irrigated, according to RID.

However, the locals, experts and many organizations have protested the project; they pointed out that it would cost a lot of money and potential danger to the environment – such as saline contamination of the soil and water shortages in lower Mekong countries – outweighed the project’s benefits. This forced the Thai government to temporarily halt the project.

In October 2015, the project restarted due to the severe drought in northeast Thailand. A new feasibility study, which expands upon the previous one, is currently being conducted by a consultant company under RID. It is expected to be finished and released by December 2016, and Thai government will give out the final decision on the project, after reviewing the study.

According to RID, this project relies on irrigation-by-gravity (from highland to lowland). However, the deepening Loei’s river mouth and building of tunnels under the river-bed clarify the human intervention to nature, not mention to five pumping stations at Si Song Rak floodgate that have raised public concerns on forced taking of Mekong water during the dry season.

The locals worry

At the entrance way to Klang village (Ban Klang), Chiang Khan district, Loei province, we saw many signs stating “No Si Song Rak watergate here” and “Ban Klang villagers do not need Si Song Rak watergate.”

Si Song Rak watergate is an important part of Kong-Loei-Chi-Mun project. It is generated by expanding the Loei River surface to 450 meters, and 250 meters on river-bed, increasing its width to 5 meters, in order to pave the way for Mekong water flowing “naturally” into 24 underground tunnels (each has 10 meters in diameter), diverting to Chi and Mun rivers. Five pumping stations are proposed for construction at the watergate to pump water to high land nearby the banks of the Loei River.

Mr. Tanusien Inda, a Klang villager, told us the reason of protesting the project. They were not informed clearly about the scale, goals, and benefits villagers and local residents could  get from Si Song Rak watergate.

“Will my village be submerged with so much water from the Mekong River or not? Last year, officials from RID went to the village and said the project is in the process of implementation. They said we would have more water for irrigation, and reduce the damage when flood comes. But when we asked for more detailed information, they have not responded so far,” said Tanusian.

Klang villagers stated that they do not need so much water, and that their livelihoods depend on cassava and rubber plantations. Conversely, the Loei river mouth is a spawning place of several kinds of aquaculture, which brings good income to locals during the summer. They worry that deepening the river will devastate their fishery resources.

According to Ms. Rattiya Chuetamuean, a preschool teacher, what villagers are afraid of the most is being forced to relocate to make land for the project. “We do not need money! We need our homes and land! We want to keep the customs and traditions as Thais-Puan have lived here for more than 400 years,” she said.

Currently, Ban Klang has more than 1,000 residents, all determined to fight to the end to stop the project. Officials from RID have been forbidden to enter the village.

Failures in the past

We visited Ms. Phairin Sohsai, a representative of International Rivers, a U.S.-based watchdog, posted northeastern Thailand. Ms Phairin, who grew up in the region, did not believe in the benefits of Kong-Loei-Chi –Mun project.

“Actually, years ago, the National Energy Policy Office (NEPO) implemented a project named Kong-Chi-Mun, also aimed at diverting Mekong water to the basins of Chi and Mun rivers. The water was pumped to reservoirs before flowed into the two rivers.

“The project consisted of three phases. The first one launched in 1980, and was completed in 1995. But after only a short time of operation, many negative impacts to environment such as saline contamination from capillary attraction became exposed. The project was stopped due to fierce public protest.”

Ms. Phairin took us to Kupawapi Lake in Udon Thani province, which is the first reservoir of Kong-Chi-Mun project. Mr. Po Khen, who has lived there for a long time, was actively involved in protesting the project. He said that the locals survive by farming during monsoon season and tourism during the dry season. Kumpawapi Lake is famous for the name “Red lotus sea,” and the period between December to March is the blooming season of lotus, attracting many tourists.

“On average, every day we take out 40 to 50 boat trips carrying tourists to see lotus flowers. The trip costs roughly 300 to 500 baht. There are also many services around the lake such as catering and hotels. We live very well here! But if they pump water into the lake, the lotus flowers would die, and nobody will come here again. We prefer tourism to rice farming!” Many villagers shared the same idea with Mr. Po Khen.