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Pak Mun Dam on the Mun River in Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand’s Rich Freshwater Biodiversity Under Threat

In a remote forest in Thailand’s western Ratchaburi province, a team of Thai scientists have discovered a species that was thought to have disappeared in 1935―loaches, or freshwater fish, known by their scientific name of Schistura myrmekia.

The fish were found upstream in the Pachee River, within the boundaries of the Pachee River Wildlife Sanctuary, a 490-square-kilometer tropical forest that is home to more than 150 animal species.

Along with the loaches, the team also found another 28 species of fish, two crab species and one shrimp species upstream―11 of which are unique to the area. Their presence is an indicator of excellent water quality and a healthy ecosystem.

These extraordinary discoveries were reported during the scientists’ 2020 expedition, led by the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, which wanted to prove the species’ abundance in the protected forest area.

Their move was aimed at stopping the Thai government from approving a 1.8-billion-baht dam (US$49.87 million) and reservoir project proposed by the Royal Irrigation Department (RID), which would inundate part of a pristine forest and the animals’ habitats.

The RID planned to start construction on the project as soon as next year, due to an urgency to tackle increasing water consumption shortages as well as drought that has been aggravated by climate change.

This project is one of several thousand water projects proposed or built in recent years to ensure year-round water access and increased climate resilience for Thailand―which ranked 9th amongst countries that were most affected by extreme weather from 2000 to 2019, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021.

Despite the good intentions of these projects, some scientists have warned the projects will cause serious harm to fragile river and wetland ecosystems, which provide a safe haven to abundant species.

Sriratanaburi swamp forest, Thailand
Sriratanaburi forest was one of the largest freshwater swamp forests in northeast Thailand. But since the operation of Rasi Salai Dam began in 1993, the forest has been inundated throughout the year, changing the nature of the forest and affecting the species diversity / Credit: Visarut Sankham.

Thailand is regarded internationally as one of the hotspots of freshwater biodiversity, with 22 major rivers and more than 36,616 square kilometers of freshwater wetland.

About 10% of the world’s freshwater fish species live in Thailand, according to a 2017 report by the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental and Policy Planning. At least 858 species of 81 families of freshwater fish were detected in the country.

The freshwater sources also offer habitats to 120 species of birds, 41 species of reptiles and 140 species of amphibians, according to a study conducted by the Department of Biology at the Prince of Songkla University.

The present boom in water projects raises a big question—how Thailand can find a balance between the success of its climate resilience efforts against preserving the country’s freshwater biodiversity.

Projects described as ‘serious harm’

Nearly 3,000 water projects proposed in 2022 were described by ecologists as having the potential to cause “serious harm” to freshwater biodiversity.

These included 44 irrigation dams, 2,667 check dams on streams in national parks and reserved forests, 12 river embankments, 63 water gates and eight river dredging projects.

Conservationist Nonn Panitvong, who took part in the expedition which rediscovered the loaches, has concerns over the numerous check dams proposed.

“By building check dams over the streams, the streams will be transformed into a series of still-water reservoirs, instead of fast-flowing water that provide the right conditions for aquatic animals’ habitats,” he said.  

“As many of these species are unique and cannot be found elsewhere in Thailand, they are most likely to end up going extinct.” Check dams would also degrade the water quality by trapping sediment in the stream, he added.

The boom in water projects came after the 2014 Thai military coup led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha. He formed the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) as a temporary political body to run the country, which replaced the elected government.

In 2017, the NCPO founded the Office of National Water Resources (ONWR) to centralize the country’s irrigation and water resource management, which had previously involved 38 government offices that ran their water projects separately.

A year after its establishment, the new office released a 20-year water resource management master plan, which heavily focused on extensive investment in new water projects.

Between 2018 and 2022, the budget for water resource development tripled. As a result, numerous irrigation and water management projects were proposed or emerged across the country.

Chart showing growth in Thailand's budget for water resource development

The largest growth in the budget and the number of projects was seen in 2022, with more than 353 billion baht (US$9.7 billion) allocated for 48,115 water projects across the country. The amount of funding and the number of projects increased 203% and 76% from the previous year, respectively.

This amount is 11% of total government expenses this year, slightly higher than the entire budget for Thailand’s best-funded ministry, the Ministry of Education.

The board of the ONWR, chaired by the military and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, recently planned to secure 1.1 trillion baht (US$30.4 billion) from the central government in the 2023-2027 fiscal years to pursue 108,817 water projects.

“We understand the concerns of local people over the possible adverse impacts to the environment and ecosystems [by the water projects]. But we need to balance environmental conservation with water resource management,” said ONWR secretary-general Surasee Kittimonton.

“Thailand is facing greater risks from more severe floods and droughts as the world’s climate is becoming more extreme due to global warming. This is why the Thai government invests a large portion of the country’s budget to develop more water development projects to better manage water resources in each river basin.”

Freshwater swamp forest in Nakon Phanom Province, Thailand
Freshwater swamp forest, known locally as "Pabung Patham", in Sriwanchai village of Nakon Phanom Province. The forest provides local communities with edible plants and animals year-round / Credit: Visarut Sankham.

Personal gain

Environmental activists have linked private gain to the rapidly increasing number of water management projects.

“Many big and costly water projects have been proposed nationwide despite their ineffectiveness and poor outcomes,” said Hannarong Yaowalert, the chairman of Thai Water Partnership, a network of Thai civil society groups calling for sustainable water management.

“These projects are a way for the authorities to secure the central government’s budget for their organizations. They are the main beneficiaries.”

Public spending on construction projects in Thailand has always been vulnerable to corruption as it involves the extensive procurement of goods, materials, and services―opening the way for government officials, politicians or their networks to abuse power for personal gain.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission reported last year that 30% of its nearly 3,000 cases under investigation were linked to public procurement.

Thailand is not in a good position when referring to its level of transparency. The 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index released by Transparency International ranked Thailand 110th out of 180 countries with the best anti-corruption performance.

However, there have been no corruption complaints related to the ONWR’s water projects so far. But the country’s poor reputation for transparency leads many to assume the government’s high-cost construction projects are driven by personal gain, despite having no evidence on paper.

On the other hand, conflicts between local communities and authorities have happened at some project sites.

These included local protests against the government’s proposed 1.9-trillion-baht (US$52.6 billion) water diversion project in Loei province, which will divert water from the Mekong River to the central part of northeastern Thailand where drought has been severe in recent years.

Local communities fear their land will be inundated as the project requires a reservoir and dam on a Mekong subsidiary to collect water from the mainstream river, then distribute water to another part of the region via newly constructed tunnels and canals.

“Blocking the river with large structures like dams will definitely alter the natural ecosystems in many ways, from changing the water flow and sediment levels to disrupting fish migration,” said Tatporn Kunpradid, the head of Chiang Mai Rajabhat University’s Center for Biodiversity Research and Implementation for Community.

A decline in biodiversity has already been seen in the Mekong River after a series of dams were built on the river in the boundaries of China and Laos.

Rasi Salai Dam in Sisaket Province, Thailand
The Rasi Salai Dam in Sisaket Province was completed in 1994 amid local protest. Since then, local communities have reported adverse impacts of the dam, including declining numbers of plant and fish species, alkaline soil near the river, and reduced crop yields / Credit: Visarut Sankham.

The Chao Phraya River Basin in central Thailand has faced a similar fate. In the past three decades, this low-lying plain has experienced rapid urbanization and development, including dams and water diversion projects that caused a drastic loss of biodiversity.

Some species have disappeared from the basin. These included the Siamese schilbid catfish (Platytropius siamensis), shovelnose sea catfish (Hemiarius verrucosus), Siamese tigerfish (Datnioides pulcher) and the Siamese bala-shark (Balantiocheilos ambusticauda).

Nature-based solutions

Recently, the ONWR has revised its action plan for 2023–2027, which will incorporate the “nature-based solutions” framework―the use of natural features and processes to tackle socio-environmental challenges while providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.

Examples of this approach include conservation and reforestation to enhance water availability, and wetland and floodplain restoration to improve water quality and reduce the risk of flooding.

“There will be more nature-based solution projects that aim to conserve nature and ecosystems, particularly in the headwaters of major rivers, mostly in mountainous forests in national parks and protected forestlands,” said Surasee from the ONWR.

“We are planning to have more reforestation projects to ensure the availability and quality of water sources.”

Hannarong from the Thai Water Partnership suggested the government ensure meaningful public participation in the water projects. Otherwise, it will see more protests erupt at future project sites.

One of the solutions is to allow local communities to set up a committee in each river basin and have them take part in the government’s water management decisions.

In this way, he said, the government may discover that sustainable water management does not always require hard structures.

Pratch Rujivanarom produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published by the Bangkok Post on 27 June 2022, and a longer version was published by Mekong Eye on 18 July 2022. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing. All images were created by Visarut Sankham, a visual storyteller and documentary photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Banner image: The Pak Mun Dam on the Mun River in Thailand’s northeastern Ubon Ratchathani province. Since its completion in 1994, the dam has been linked to declines in fish species in the river / Credit: Visarut Sankham.