Who’ll pay

Key Issues: 

Bangkok Post 2 April 2006

When we turn on our air conditioners, washing machines and other electrical appliances, most urban dwellers never think about where the energy comes from, what are its real costs and who is really shouldering them, writes SUPARA JANCHITFAH

It was about noontime that Saw Ta (not his real name) had his first simple meal of the day. After finishing a plate of broken rice and curry made from a few slices of potatoes, the young Karen boy walked slowly out to the edge of the raft which was floating down the Salween River. He lowered himself and used his right hand to scoop some cool water up from the river and drank it right away.

The free-flowing river is the source of subsistence for a great many people who live along the SalweenRiver and its tributaries. Upon learning that a series of dams is planned for the river, many Karen and other ethnic people understandably became concerned that the dam construction would affect their livelihood.

Saw Ta came to the Weigyi dam site – one of the five planned dam sites inside the KarenState, adjacent to the northern Thai province of Mae Hong Son – with his parents and other Karen from Thailand and Burma who are opposed to the project.

On March 14, more than 400 Karen in their traditional dress gathered at the dam site deep in the Salween watershed area. Some walked for more than half a day from hamlets located near the tributaries of the SalweenRiver. They held both Buddhist and Christian prayer services and also asked Mother Earth to protect the river, which they call the Kolo-glow in Karen.

''We have no one to turn to at the moment so we pray to Mother Earth,'' said Saw Ta's father.

Jor Ka Jae, a local Karen whose hamlet is about an hour's walk from the river, said ''our ancestors told us that people who live in the forest must protect the forest; those who drink the water must protect the water.'' He offered this simple prayer: ''Please let the Kolo-glow flow freely.''

RUNNING FREE – FOR HOW LONG?

The SalweenRiver is one of the five great rivers of Asia and the only one that still runs freely. More than 2,815 kilometres long, its origins are in Tibet, at the ''top of the world''. From there the river flows swiftly to Yunnanprovince of China, then down through Burma and forms a part of the border between Burma and Thailand. The river rushes through deep gorges and broad valleys and finally emerges at Moulmein in southern Burma, where it empties into the AndamanSea.

On March 13, a day before the gathering at the dam site, many representatives from different villages joined the Karen River Watch (an organisation made up of Karen people) at a ''safe place'' on the Burmese border to discuss water management issues in the SalweenRiver basin. The common feeling of the people who attended the meeting was that the SalweenRiver is under threat and people must protect it. They want their river to continue to run freely.

The Karen from both Thailand and Burma rely heavily on the river, for fishing, farming, commuting and gardening, but they do not log the surrounding forests. They use only bamboo, not hard wood, for their shelters.

''If the dams are built, our lives will change forever,'' said Naw Way Paw, another local. ''Imagine, the water will reach the height of that mountain,'' she said, pointed at the mountain across the river.

''If the dam is built, we will not be able to catch fish as we used to,'' said Chartchai Buchachongchotekul, Saohin sub-district chief in Mae Hong Son province.

Now villagers catch a large number of fish in the rapids of the river and its tributaries, some weighing more than 100 kilogrammes.

''I have been to many places where dams were constructed in Thailand, and I have found only adverse consequences,'' said Chartchai.

The lesson that he has learned from observing dams elsewhere in Thailand is that they bring sweeping ecological changes which affect the way of life of the locals. He says the promises from the dam builders are never met. ''For example, the Pak Moon dam (in the northeastern Thai province of Ubon Ratchathani) cannot deliver water as promised, cannot generate electricity as proposed, and the locals cannot catch fish as well. The people face many health problems related to the still water,'' he elaborated.

Because they wanted to be able to demonstrate the natural abundance of the river basin to governmental agencies and other interested parties, the locals, along with concerned Thai researchers, conducted a participatory research effort called the Thai Baan research. The two-year-and-seven-month study reveals that there are more than 70 fish species which can be caught using more than 19 different types of fishing gear at different locations in the river.

Moreover, the research shows there are more than 52 traditional varieties of rice and 130 other food crops, as well as 77 kinds of herbs, that have been grown in the area for many generations and which the people who live along the river and its tributaries depend on for their subsistence.

''If the dam is built it will inundate the land that I use to grow rice and vegetables for my family,'' said Nor Di Na, from Pakorder hamlet inside Burma. Riverbank gardening is practised when the water level in the Salween starts to recede after the monsoon season and the white sand beaches emerge. This is the best ground for cultivation as it is full of nutrients deposited there by the river. The sand beaches are fertile for growing more than 30 varieties of crops such as peanuts, watermelon and tobacco.

The people in the area practise swidden farming. Nu Chamnankiripai, Mae Kon village headman in Mae Hong Son, said they do not use the slash-and-burn method as many Thais think, but rather they look after their forest and treat nature with respect. Each family will grow rice and other crops one season and then leave the plot of land for seven years to let it naturally regain its fertility before returning to till the same plot again.

''We don't destroy the forest. We live there, so we must protect it,'' Nu said seriously, adding that the construction of the dam will affect not only people but the ecological balance between the forest and its water sources.

A local who asked not to be named said that many officials and business people do illegal logging in the Salween forest, and if the dams are built they will have more opportunities to clear-cut.

SUFFERING HAS BEGUN

The governments of China, Burma and Thailand have all announced plans to construct a number of dams on the Salween. However, the 13 large dams along the course of the river in southern China have been halted, at least temporarily. The remaining dams are to be a joint Thai-Burmese project to exploit the hydropower potential of the entire lower river basin, as well as to divert water to Thailand.

In various meetings, many Thai officials have said that the construction of the dams will have little effect on people as there are very few people living in the SalweenRiver basin. However, from simple survey it is quite evident that there are a large number of people who live along the Salween and the many tributaries which flow into the main river from inside the two countries.

The local Karen people know all too well that they will be severely affected if the dams are built, and they are already facing hardships in the planning stages. A large number of Internal Displaced Persons (IDPs) are hiding in the jungles. ''In the dry season, a new round of attacks is an ongoing activity, and that is the reason for this...,'' said Saw Laueh, pointing out a large number of IDPs roaming around without a secure place to stay. The IDPs came from the Ta-cha-se area, their houses burned down and their food taken by Burmese troops.

Some IDPs say they are forced to be labourers and porters and sometimes they are tortured for no reason. Their crops and animals are taken by force.

''They sometimes even took the roofing and the bamboo posts of our houses,'' said an IDP.

Charm Tong expressed her concern about the dam construction on Salween river, which includes Tasang dam in the Shan state. Charm Tong is a Shan activist, co-authored the report License to Rape. She also met with US President George Bush and a four-member advisory team at the White House on October 31 last year to brief them on political conditions inside Burma.

''Salween is our lifeline, if the dam is to be built, many Shan will lose their livelihood and culture,'' she said, adding that presently more than 300,000 Shan are displaced and more than 150,000 have taken refuge in Thailand.

''Even though only the survey teams have been working up to now, many people have been affected. Many troops were sent to the Shan state and many have had to escape to Thailand,'' she said.

''The dam construction plans were made without consideration of the recommendations made by the World Commission on Dams, and without consulting those who will be affected,'' she added.

According to Karen River Watch, since 1992 the Burma military regime has waged war against the Karen National Union (KNU) to seize control of Papun District, formerly in KNU-controlled territory. Many villages have been destroyed and about 50,000 people driven into Thailand or other parts of Burma. Some are hiding in the jungles.

Currently more than 25,000 people along the Thai-Burmese border – IDPs and Karen people from different districts inside KarenState – have signed a petition asking the Thai government and the Burmese military regime to scrap the plans to build dams on the SalweenRiver.

''I beg the Thai government, especial Egat (Electricity Authority of Thailand) to reconsider their plans to construct the dams, and moreover not to purchase energy produced from hydropower projects in our river,'' said Shwe Shwe Myint, a researcher and one of a small group of ethnic Yintalai in Burma.

She said that the Thai government has many alternative sources for energy. These include natural gas from the Yadana and Yetakun gas fields in Burma (see related story on energy needs).

Myint lives by a creek called Paw Chong, which flows into the Salween river. She said at present the Burmese government has sent three battalions to keep vigil and control her village. Many people have to work for the army, for example as porters carrying rock to construct the fences of the military camp. ''We have suffered enough, if the dam is built I think we will suffer more. Please help us,'' she added while holding her child tightly.

Saw Wa told how Burmese troops came to her village and took her money and belongings. However, she said, they were fortunate that the troops at least did not rape or kill anyone in her village.

Many others have asked the SPDC to stop all atrocities against the people in the KarenState and withdraw its troops from the area.

Local Burmese place their hopes on international organisations such as the United Nations and the World Commission on Dams, as well as the Thai public, to increase pressure on the military regime.

Saw Wa, a Karen woman, shook her head and raised her voice high when she was asked what she would like to ask from her government. ''We don't think that we can ask our own government for anything. We only ask them to stay away from us.''

Apart from calling for the dam plans to be scrapped, the Karen River Watch and its coalition partners are asking the Thai government to stop all forms of investment in Burma until genuine democracy is restored.

''The investment means strengthening the military dictatorship and supporting their military strategy to suppress the ethnic peoples,'' said Saw Laueh Roland, a representative of Karen River Watch.

 

ENERGY FORECASTS ARE UNREALISTIC

Since Thailand's present capacity for energy production is more than adequate, there's time to plan for power projects which leave a light footprint on the land and the people, writes SUPARA JANCHITFAH

April is the hottest month in Thailand, with the temperature rising as high as 42 degrees Celsius in some years. It is the month that people who are involved in energy forecasting and those who are responsible for ''finding energy'' use as the basis for their calculations on the energy needs for Thai consumers.

The calculations also take into account the country's GDP to determine the energy needs for the following year. The forecasts have assumed for 13 years in a row that Thailand's annual GDP would increase at an average rate of 6.5 percent. According to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), the peak demand in 2005 was only 20,538 MW (which was recorded at April 26, 2005 at 2 pm), lower than Egat's predication by 605 MW (see graphic).

Witoon Permpongsacharoen of the Foundation for Ecology Recovery said that the calculations which overestimate actual energy needs should be corrected before they are used as the basis for the yearly energy forecast.

A major reason for the overcalculations is that the GDP has in factincreased on average only 3.6 percent if looking at the last 10 years, and 5.2 percent if looking at the last 15 years. Witoon said the energy forecast calculation should be modified to reflect an increase of GDP ''not higher than that of the average rate of the past 15 years.''

Inaccuracy in peak demand forecast in the past years must also be taken into account, said Suphakij Nuntavorakarn, an economist of the Health System Research Institute. Records reveal that the real peak demand has been consistently lower than Egat's forecasts for many years. This applies to the previous Power Development Plan (PDP), not just the present PDP. Suphakij noted that the installation cost for each MW for an electricity power plant using any kind of fuel is on average about one million US dollars, or about 35-38 million baht.

According to information given to the World Commission on Dams in 1999, the final cost of Egat's Pak Moon dam was 6.507 billion baht (US$ 260 million). The dam was built to provide 136 MW as a run of the river project to serve peak needs. However, based on the daily power output data between 1995-99, Pak Moon can generate only 15 percent of its capacity reliably in the 4-hour peak period.

Yet more than 6,155 fishermen were significantly affected by the project, some having to leave their comunities and take menial jobs in Bangkok.

Suphakij explained that presently Egat has a 26,457 MW installed capacity base. As last year's peak demand was 20,538 MW, Thailand has an electricity surplus of 5,919 MW, making the total reserve margin of 28.82 percent. Even when calculated only on the basis of the ''dependable capacity'', the reserve margin is more than 23.45 percent, explained Suphakij.

In the coming years there are many other projects coming on line that will produce more electricity to supply the system. For example, the BLCP power plant in Rayong will produce 1,346 MW this coming October.

Wittoon added that Thailand's energy demand will never be met if Thai people don't learn how to properly manage it. He urges considering alternative energy sources with less environmental impacts than constructing fossil-fuelled or hydro power plants. A more responsible national energy policy would include such programmes as Demand Side Management (DSM), renewable energy generation, co-generation and re-powering existing power plants, he said.

However, the Egat is determined to go ahead with projects to deliver more energy, like the series of hydropower dams on the Salween. Egat officials argue about the need for energy security. The official line is that hydropower from the SalweenRiver is needed to serve Thailand's growing power demand, that hydropower is cheap and helps increase the country's fuel diversification. This is of strategic importance to national security and also to strengthen Thailand's standing as a regional trade hub.

SITES UNDER STUDY

At a hearing before the Senate Committee on Social Development and Human Security last year, Chavalit Pichalai, the director of the Energy Analysis Bureau, Office of Energy Planning and Policy, Ministry of Energy, testified that Thailand needs to purchase more energy from neighbouring countries due to an economic growth rate of about four to five percent a year. ''Each year, we need about 1,500 MW more of electricity. Presently we have about a 19-20 percent reserve margin. Normally we should have about 15 percent reserve margin. Thus in four to five years we will need more electricity, (even) apart from purchasing from independent Power Producers (IPP),'' he explained.

He said that Thailand also needs to consider the risks from the type of energy used. Presently 70 percent of electricity is generated by gas. ''Hydropower is clean energy and the (proposed) Salween dams located high in the mountains can produce more energy at a lower cost,'' said Chavalit.

Niwat Pattanasemakul, director of the Hydropower Division at Egat, testified that the Thai and Burmese governments have a bilateral agreement to develop hydropower in the SalweenRiver basin. The Thai government has assigned Egat to conduct surveys and studies.

''We found that four dams have some possibility to be constructed,'' Niwat said, adding that Egat has already reduced the area that would be submerged and that the social impact of the dams is also included in the studies.

Chavalit said that the project will have little impact even though the electricity line will pass through a class A1 watershed area. ''But we will not cut the forest,'' he assured.

Chavalit said the energy produced by the series of dams on the Salween would be cheap, about 80 to 90 satang per unit. However, no one could give a clear idea if this includes the costs of the social and environmental impacts, as well as the rights of the minority groups from both countries.

Moreover, there is a risk in using foreign energy, according Dr Jirakorn Kotchaseni, a member of a subcommittee of the Senate committee. He warned that Thailand should be aware of the uncertainties of international politics, and the possibility that the international community will blame Thailand for exploiting the natural resources of neighbouring countries.

''We should pay high concern to the participation and the rights of minorities,'' he said, adding that ''we may not have been thinking seriously about a decentralised energy system.''

Chavalit assured that the concerned agencies will listen to the people before any decision is arrived at regarding the dams' construction.


A regulation concerning the use of foreign energy states that the amount of energy that Egat can import from each country should not be more than 13 percent of the total electricity produced in Thailand.


MOA SIGNED

In late February of this year, Nipol Pienpak, the Hydropower Engineering Division manager of Egat, testified before the Senate committee that Egat has already signed the MOA (Memorandum of Agreement) for Development, Ownership and Cooperation of the Hutgyi Hydropower project on the Thanlwin (Salween) River with the Department of Hydroelectric Power, under the Ministry of Electric Power of the Government of the Union of Myanmar on December 9 last year, but said ''the details of the MOA cannot be disclosed.''

He said the waters of the Hutgyi dam's reservoir would reach a height of about 48 metres above sea level and there will be a series of five dams on the Salween, but not all would belong to Egat. (See related story).

Nipol said that Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has not been conducted as the process is only in the survey stage. The MOA specifies that Egat will be assigned as the implementing agency to conduct surveys and studies because Burma lacks the technology to do so. There are no details on the cost of electricity produced at the dam as it is still in the studying process, he said.

Senator Wongpan Na Takuathung asked Egat represenatives about the standards for an EIA of the dam construction.

Nipol insisted that Egat will use their own standards and likely those of the World Bank standard.

''We don't want to have any conflict in Thailand so we'll try to use our high standard, but we need consent from Burma as we value the compensation differently,'' he said.

Asked if there will be public hearings on the construction of the dam, the Egat official said he has proposed to his Burmese counterparts that they should commit to the same environmental standards as Egat, but that further discussion is needed.

Senator Tuenjai Deetes asked about human rights violations and how Egat would go about assessing the impact of the dam on ethnic minorities in Burma. The Egat official insisted that the Burmese officials are saying that the Hutgyi dam has the least impact of the five dams and that is why they have proposed that it be constructed first. However, Nipol added that Egat will conduct its own social and environmental impact studies in order to be acceptable to the international community.

The Egat manager was then asked when Thai villagers will be given more information concerning the dam construction as there has already been work on some infrastructure projects, such as a road from Poso to Weigyi village on the border.

The Egat official insisted that since half of the dam is in Burma this is not yet the time to disclose the facts to the Thai people.

Nipol was then asked about the displaced ethnic Karen in the Karen state of Burma, in particular at Sub-moei, where the Hutgyi dam will be constructed and where in February of this year more than 400 asylum seekers were waiting. There are countless other internal displaced persons inside Burma because of the dam projects.

The Egat official responded that the area that will be submerged would be only a few rai of land.

''That area (around Sub-moei) should be all right (meaning there will be no more fighting), that is why the Burmese government decided that the dam can be built in that area first,'' he said, adding that when Egat conducted the survey in the area, they saw no forced relocation.

''Those asylum seekers might have been forced to relocate for some other reasons, but not because of the Hutgyi dam,'' he said, adding that the project is ''government-to-government''.

Egat officials emphasised that the agreement between the two countries is confidential, even though many senators went on record as saying that an international agreement should not be above the Thai system of internal checks and balances.

Under the Thai Constitution, Article 224, any international agreement which will affect the boundaries of the country must be deliberated in Parliament.

Senator Kraisak Choonhavan said that the dams project ''would definitely change the boundary. The dams would create large reservoirs. How could we then tell where the Thai-Burmese border is?'


Proposed major dams on the Salween River

The available information on height, flood area, cost and megawatt capacity of the proposed dams varies according to the source and date of study. Final specifications also may vary as a result of changes during the planning processes.

Energy Minister Viset Choopiban signed an agreement on May 30, 2005 with the Burmese Ministry of Electric Power to conduct a feasibility study on the multi-billion-baht venture on the SalweenRiver. Minister Viset said a total of five hydropower dams can be built on the river with a combined capacity of 15,000 Megawatts. The four proposed dam sites are:

1. Hutgyi dam:

Although previously this dam site was seldom mentioned, it is now expected to be the first dam of the series to be constructed, as Egat has signed the Memorandum of Agreement with its Burmese counterpart last year. It will be located 33 km downstream from the Salween-MoeiRiver confluence.

A 1999 pre-feasibility study by the Japanese development consultant NEWJEC recommended ''a low height, run-of-river dam having a capacity of 300 MW.'' However, the Thai energy minister on November 14, 2005, citing a new feasibility study, said ''electricity production could be increased to 1,200 megawatts.'' Since this is four times higher than the first study, this indicates a substantially higher dam, and therefore a larger reservoir.

Significant areas in both KarenState and Thailand may be flooded by the dam, including part of the Kahilu Wildlife Sanctuary in KarenState. In addition, flooding the border would cede Thai territory to Burma due to old agreements setting the border at the Thai waters' edge.

It is also important to mention that with a larger reservoir the Thai authorities will be able to more easily divert floodwaters from the Salween River into a dam on the Yuam River at Mae Lama Luang, which is already at an advanced stage of planning. Water from the Mae Lama Luang dam can then be diverted through a tunnel into the Bhumipol Dam in central Thailand.

2. Tasang dam:

The largest of the Salween River dams, it is to be located in an area of active and persistent conflict in south central Shan State, from which some 300,000 people have been forcibly relocated since the dam studies began (around 1996-98). The 7,110-megawatt, 228 meter high Tasang Dam, if built, would be the highest in Southeast Asia. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the dam is reportedly underway now but incomplete. Such a study should have been part of the pre-feasibility or feasibility study on which decisions were based on whether or not to go ahead with the project. The detailed design study, which is usually not started until the project has already been approved, is already underway.

3. Weigyi (Upper Salween) dam:

Located on the Thai border close to where the Salween River flows out of Karenni (Kayah) State in Burma, the site is favoured by Thailand as it should be able to exercise greater control over construction, expenditures and operational management.

The SPDC has done notably little in the way of study or development of the site. The site on the Thai side is situated in the Salween Wildlife Sanctuary, while an access road under construction leading to the dam site passes through the adjacent Salween National Park, both of which have already been illegally logged.

Original specifications are for a 4,540-megawatt dam with a flood height of 220 meters.

4. Dagwin (Lower Salween) dam:

This site is located on the border south of the Weigyi site and to the west of Mae Sariang town in Thailand. With projected capacity variously given as 500, 792 or 900 megawatts, the dam would produce electricity but would mainly serve to trap and regulate large amounts of water released by the Weigyi dam during peak hours.

It would use off-peak power to pump water back up into the upper dam. The estimated US$900 million cost and the fact that it has no practical water diversion route make this dam exceptionally impractical. The site is located near Tha Ta Fang village.

Sources: Salween Watch, Southeast Asia River Network, Karen River Watch and Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand