Salween civil networks and residents petition to Administrative Court to help scrap mega Yuam water diversion project

They cite that this 200-billion-baht project and its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) are flawed and illegitimate

At least 66 representatives of the civil networks and residents from the Salween sub-basins of Yuam, Maei, and Mae Ngao in the Northwest of the country likely to be affected by the project have petitioned the Chiang Mai Administrative Court today to help scrap this mega water diversion project on the Yuam River, one of the key Salween tributaries, and its EIA, an effort seen as a last-ditch.

The residents who mostly are indigenous Karen people travelled from their remote communities located in the Salween watersheds to Chiang Mai’s downtown to make their voices heard. They claimed the project and its EIA are flawed and illegitimate as the preparations and development processes from the beginning to approval were flawed.

For instance, the EIA in the first place excluded a number of residents likely affected by the project from getting involved in the public hearings required by the law. Several of them were not informed about the project nor invited to take part in the public hearings and consultations. Or if they were informed, the language used in the hearings was Thai and technical that they did not apprehend well.

According to the residents, only two communities in Mae Ngao area were officially invited to the hearings, while there are tens of communities along the tributary that were left uninvited. The affected residents of the project were identified as only 29 families in those two communities. 

l Credit: The Community Resource Centre Foundation (CRC)

The residents also learned that some personal meetings between them and concerned authorities were falsely claimed as part of the official public hearings. Some photographs of their meetings were used to accompany the official hearings reported in the EIA. Other photographs of some seminars on Mekong issues attended by several noted academics were also used and claimed as part of the hearings of the project.

“The residents tried to participate in this project, and when they asked for the information, they were given an EIA report with an extent of wording covered by black strips. We the residents and the lawyers received the readable report only this July, over two years after its approval.

“Worse, we’ve just learned about the use of falsely claimed photos of the academics attending the Mekong seminars in the report. This’s unacceptable. This EIA report is illegitimate and a lot of information is false,” said Sor Rattanamanee Goergoraon the team leader of the lawyers from the Community Resource Centre Foundation, which provides legal support to the residents.

Some photos falsely claimed in the EIA report of the project.

Despite these points raised by the group, the National Environment Board endorsed the project in late 2021, pending only approval from the National Water Resources Committee and then the Cabinet to endorse it before it can go ahead.

The project itself is also plagued with false and contesting claims, the group cited as part of their reasons given in the petition submitted to the court. These include its unreasonable investment and benefits in return, its investment formula of public-private partnership, the first in the country’s mega water development project that the group feared could lead to disadvantages to the state, and last but not least, the likely impacts which were addressed far less than what was supposed to.

The investment of the project, in addition, has been scaled up from around Bt 70 billion to 200 billion without clear explanations given, according to the latest report evaluating the values of the project.

“We cannot accept these, and that’s the reason why we have to lodge the petition to the court,” said Ms. Sor, who also added that the government keeps pushing the project forward despite the strong opposition from the residents and a wide network of water experts and civil networks working on sustainable water resources development.

The residents have as such lodged the petition against the state agencies involved; first and foremost is the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) which developed the project, the Environmental Impact Assessment Expert Review Committee, the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP), the National Environment Board and the Cabinet. They also asked the court to enforce them to adhere to the laws relating to public hearings and consultations and introduce new regulations to protect the ecosystems of those Salween tributaries.

The graphic showing the project and its facilities will be built as displayed in the EIA report.
The Yuam River in Tak province. Credit: Transborder News/สำนักข่าวชายขอบ

The Yuam/Salween Water Diversion Project

According to the US-based river governance campaigning organisation, International Rivers, the Yuam water diversion project, which is the inter-water diversion, involves diverting water from the Yuam and Moei Rivers in the Salween Basin to the Bhumibol dam reservoir in the Chao Phraya Basin. This will be done through the construction of multiple dams and tunnels, starting from Tak’s Mae Ngao and Mae Yuam areas to Omkoi district before finishing at Chiang Mai’s Mae Ngood community next to Bhumibol, around 60 km or so.

If built, the project could impact at least five protected forests in three provinces – Tak, Mae Hong Son, and Chiang Mai. The Salween project would also have transboundary impacts, reducing the amount of water flowing into the Salween in Myanmar. The Salween River is the longest free-flowing river in mainland Southeast Asia. The transboundary Salween Basin supports the livelihoods of over 10 million people, sustaining river fisheries and fertile farmland central to the lives of indigenous and ethnic minority communities.

Before the filing of the petition today, the project had been subject to investigations by the Thai Parliamentary Committee on Land, Natural Resources and Environment and the Thai National Human Rights Commission, following complaints filed by affected communities. 

In December last year, the Committee sent a letter to the then-Prime Minister, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, and related agencies calling for the project to be stopped. The letter also echoed key community and civil society concerns about the EIA and calls for the EIA to be withdrawn.

And last month, the new PM, Mr. Srettha Thavisin, had paid a visit to Chiang Mai and the project was raised to him for his acknowledgement again by the RID. Mr. Srettha was quoted as saying by Transborder News that he had instructed the RID to conduct further studies to pave the way for the project development.

Along with other water diversion in the province, his government hoped that they could help generate excess water to fill up the drying up reservoirs and address the chronic drought in the country. The projects would be expedited within two years, Mr. Srettha noted.

Credit: CRC/ IR

The haunting

For Sathan Chiewwichaiphong, a Karen resident in his 50s from Mae Tha Lu village in the Mae Ngao area, where is planned to be the starting point of the project comprising a new power plant, a dam, and a 60-km tunnel, a push on the project by the new government has just haunted him again.

In his community and nearby over 30 years ago, there was also the Mae Lama Luang dam being pushed in the area that could affect his livelihoods and his neighbours’ that were dependent on resources from the Yuam River.

They stood up against it and realised how hard it was to fight against the government’s projects, given their status that was already “fragile” in the first place as a number of them did not have land rights on their land. It took the residents there several years to deal with the project before it was suspended without any reasons provided. They were then haunted again, this time by a series of dam projects on the Salween in the early 2000s. 

The threat from the projects prompted the residents to become environmentally and socially active to empower one another, but Mr. Sathan never thought that the Mae Lama Luang dam would come back and haunt him right away on his land. This time, it’s just come in a large-scale plan, with a large investment, plus several sophisticated tactics in order to handle local residents like him.

“We have become empowered and better equipped these days with new technology to help us communicate and disclose facts, but the government projects have at the same time gone sophisticated with various tactics deployed against us. Things are not straightforward as they are supposed to.

“Participation? It’s just a ritual of attendance. We hardly have a chance to voice out or if we manage to do so, they just don’t listen to us,” said Mr. Sathan, whose photos of his personal meetings in a local food restaurant were falsely claimed in the EIA report. The disclosure prompted this EIA report to get teased by the residents as “EIA Ran Lab”. (The EIA was produced simply from hang-outs in the minced meat salad restaurant.)

Pianporn Deetes, International Rivers’ Regional Campaigns Director (SE Programme), who decided to join the residents in petitioning the court, said over the past six or seven years, the residents have been trying to get their voices heard, but to no avail. Concerned agencies just keep ignoring them, said Ms. Pianporn, who questioned the project both on its false and legitimate consultation process and its benefits and impacts on local livelihoods.

Pianporn said over her decades-long career spending over 20 years, she has been working with communities along the Salween River and learned about its value and valued relationship between communities and the river. These values should be protected as the Salween is among the world’s most important rivers, which could be adversely affected if the project goes ahead.

Despite these values, conservationists have struggled as well to campaign to protect the river and the communities as there is hardly room left for them to do so. Ms. Pianporn viewed the court as the last resort that they could count on.

“The Salween River and its tributaries are important. They have rights to run free and the river rights should be protected along with community rights,” said Ms. Pianporn.

Also Read: Communities in the dark over Yuam River diversion impacts in Thailand

ตำน้ำพริกละลายข้ามแม่น้ำ: ความไม่คุ้มค่า (เชิงเศรษฐศาสตร์) ของโครงการผันน้ำยวม

Pianporn Deetes, Regional Campaigns Director (SE Programme) of IR decided to join the residents in petitioning the court today.