Salween on a Precipice

Key Issues: 

Bangkok Post 11 November 2007

By TUNYA SUKPANICH

During a lull in construction preparations, villagers whose ancestral lands face oblivion from a proposed series of dams on the Salween River are eager to make the public aware of the fragile beauty of the riverine system, reports TUNYA SUKPANICH from Mae Hong Son.

The Mae Khong Kha cascades down through lushly forested slopes in Mae Sariang district of Mae Hong Son province to join the Salween River at Ban Tha Ta Fang in a spectacular wilderness setting that seems ideal for eco-tourism.

On a breezy afternoon a few weeks ago, a skinny old man was walking knee-deep in the stiff current of the Mae Khong Kha. "I've been at the farm upstream since early in the morning. I am going back home now," he said. He was carrying an old bamboo basket containing just enough vegetables for a family meal. More villagers followed along the swiftly flowing tributary, accompanied by lean, healthy-looking dogs.

Ban Tha Ta Fang is one of three main Thai villages on the Salween River along the stretch where it forms the border between Thailand and Burma. The other two are Ban Mae Sam Lap and Ban Sop Moei.

"Huay Mae Khong Kha is the water source for our rice fields and farmlands," said Pairoj Panapraisakul, a member of Mae Yuam Tambon Administration Organisation and also leader of the Ban Tha Ta Fang natural resource and environmental conservation group.

He explained that villagers had built several small fai (impermanent dykes) upstream to divert water into a narrow canal that supplies water to their rice fields.

His face turned grim when the subject of the planned Salween dam project was brought up. He said that Huay Mae Khong Kha and other small rivers and creeks connecting to the big river, along with all the farmland in the area, will be flooded once the Salween is dammed.

The project includes proposed dams at Ta Sang on the upper part of the Salween inside Burma, at Wei Gyi and Dagwin on the Salween where it forms the Thai-Burmese border, and at Hut Gyi, about 47 kilometres from the Thai border inside the Karen State of Burma.

Ban Tha Ta Fang village would likely be submerged if a dam is constructed at either Darwin or Wei Gyi.

Montri Chantawong is a campaigner with the Foundation for Ecology Recovery in Chiang Mai. He said the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), which has a joint agreement with the Burmese government to implement the dam project, prefers the Wei Gyi site because it would be easier to control construction and operational management. However, the Burmese authorities think differently. This is one factor leading to slow development of the project, something Ban Tha Fang villagers are thankful for.

Moreover, since the Wei Gyi site is partially on Thai soil it would presumably require an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). According to the new constitution, the process should allow participation by locals and other concerned citizens. Since part of the Salween Wildlife Sanctuary would be submerged and a road to the site would pass through the adjacent Salween National Park, getting approval for any EIA which recommends the project might be a tall order.

Locals opposed to the controversial dams have gotten considerable support for their cause from Thai and international environmental organisations and human rights groups, which are concerned with the displacement of indigenous peoples the dams would cause. There are reliable reports that the Burmese military government has already begun forced relocation in a number of areas and is conducting alleged atrocities in the process.

Early this year, protests against the planned dams on the the 2,800- kilometre-long Salween River were organised in 20 major cities worldwide, including Bangkok, Manila, Sydney, and Washington D.C. The protests called outright for an end of the project. The issue promises to become more of an international cause ce'lebre after the brutal crackdown of the recent monks-led protests by the Burmese regime.

For now, Egat is refusing to give details on the status of the project and is also unwilling to comment on any negative impacts to the river and the river basin, or the locals who depend on them. Villagers along the Salween, however, say they know without any EIA that if the project goes ahead the ecosystem of the river will be drastically affected.

Natural Harmony

Ethnic Karen groups have long settled in the areas around Ban Tha Ta Fang and other villages along the Salween and practiced rotational farming in the forest. This is not the first time they have faced the prospect of losing their ancestral lands to government policies.

In 1996, when the Forestry Department was planning to designate the scenic forest as a national park and wildlife sanctuary, it was proposed that locals should be relocated despite their long-time settlement in the area.

After lengthy negotiations, the authorities decided to exclude the villages and farming areas, as well as certain community forest lands, from the Salween National Park and the Salween Wildlife Sanctuary.

Pairoj said the former dispute with the Forestry Department seems mild compared to what is now brewing, noting that "the dam will wash away our village, our farmlands and our livelihood."

The villagers have proved that they can live in harmony with the river and the forest. To supply water for their rice fields, many fai made from stone and bamboo trees were built to divert water from the Huay Mae Khong Kha into the long narrow canal villagers dug with their own hands. The fai are not permanent. If the water flow is very strong they are damaged and the villagers join together to make repairs.

"We do not mind fixing them from time to time," said Pairoj. "We help each other through a kind of community spirit." He added that a few years ago the authorities had constructed a 21- million-baht concrete dam upstream for irrigational purposes, which was itself destroyed by the strong currents. The villagers felt the irrigation dam was a waste of money and that it obstructed nature, said Pairoj.

Even though there have been no further studies or other actions of late on the planned Dagwin and Wei Gyi dams, perhaps because of the strong opposition, villagers at Ban Tha Ta Fang and other nearby villages remain uneasy, worried that the project might be given the go-ahead behind their backs at any time. Therefore, they never grow weary of explaining the situation to any interested members of the public or press.

Said one villager: "Our village and farmlands will be flooded. We cannot move to nearby villages, since they will face inundation as well. Beside, we love our village and our land." He added that villagers are not wealthy, but they have enough to eat and strong shelters to live in.

Somsri Kruenae runs a homestay service for tourists. Like most others in Ban Tha Ta Fang and surrounding villages, she grows rice, banana trees and some vegetables on a small plot of land. Beside the fruits, the trunks from the banana trees supply feed for pigs she raises.

As a family leader she was also keen to express her concerns over the dam construction. "We have discussed the dams for three or four years now. I want the plans forever scrapped so we can live a healthy life without worry."

Village headman Thongsuk Lapchusap said that the authorities always mention the benefits to the country when talking about the dams, but never acknowledge the hardships they will cause to villagers.

"We will not sacrifice. We will fight to the end to conserve our rivers, our forest, our farmland and our lives," unanimously confirm the Ban Tha Ta Fang villagers.

The 'First Dam'

It has been indicated almost from the start of the project planning that that the 1,000-megawatt Hut Gyi dam, inside the Karen State of Burma some 47 kilometres from the confluence of the Moei and Salween rivers on the Thai border, would be the first dam built. According to information from Salween Watch, an organisation dedicated to protect and conserve the Salween River, in December, 2005 Egat signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Burma's Hydroelectric Power Department to construct the Hut Gyi dam. Then, in June 2006, Egat signed on to a deal with China's state-owned hydropower company Sinohydro to be a third partner in the dam construction.

Egat teams were assigned to do feasibility studies and to survey the dam site. Construction work on the 36-billion-baht Hut Gyi dam was scheduled to begin next year. However, Egat temporarily suspended its survey of the proposed site after a Thai engineer was killed in an artillery attack by an unidentified group on Egat construction workers in September. Another Egat employee was killed in a landmine accident in May, 2006. Over 40 Egat workers were evacuatedto Thailand following the September incident.

Pianporn Deetes, a coordinator for Living River Siam-Southeast Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN) ) asked how many deaths or injuries at the Hutgyi site have not been revealed to the public.

Egat has not sent any employees to the Hut Gyi site since the artillery attack, citing safety reasons. "The decision on the status of the Hut Gyi dam is likely to be made when the new (Egat) governor takes office," said an Egat official.

Another reason for the present lull may be that an overall decision on the involvement of Thailand in developing dams on the Salween would probably have to be made by an elected government some time after the December 23 general election. Activists like Pianporn say that Hut Gyi was chosen as the first dam construction site because its inundation area would be completely inside Burma, and that consideration of the adverse environmental and social effects of a dam at Hut Gyi has not been a priority for the Thai government, much less the Burmese.

Under the present political situation and the ongoing suppression scheme against ethnic rebels, minority groups cannot voice their opposition to the dam construction. And, since it will be constructed inside Burma, it was not considered essential by the Thai government to conduct an EIA.

However, in light of the strong opposition from environmental and human rights organisations, Egat finally hired the Environment Institute of Chulalongkorn University to conduct an EIA.

Montri, of the Foundation for Ecological Recovery, said that Egat s main objective in approving this EIA was to obtain research in support of the project to have ammunition against the anti-dam movement, the suggestion being that the Environment Institute did not act in an independent manner.

Montri remarked that this was against the concept of EIAs, which are supposed to assure that the authorities are informed of environmental impacts before making decisions on whether or not to proceed with major projects.

Montri also noted that the Chulalongkorn Environment Institute's EIA has been classified as confidential, with only Egat having disclosure rights. Egat has also declined to discuss details of the agreement with the Burmese authorities on the construction of the Hut Gyi dam.

Egat says it can't reveal details unless it receives permission from its counterpart in Burma. Montri questions this state of affairs, and asks why the general public, and especially locals who will be greatly affected by the dam construction, are not able to obtain relevant information.

In late October, Dr Thaweewong Sriburi, chairman of the Environment Institute, said that only 42 families in Burma would need to be relocated because of the dam. He also claimed that leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) support the construction.

Unconvinced, Montri has proposed that the government authorise an independent EIA conducted by a different set of academics, as well as independent organisations, so that the full impacts of the proposed dam to the river and the locals can be revealed.

Pianporn supports the idea of a freely accessible and independent EIA, saying it could be a very effective tool. She gave as an example the Chinese-initiated project to blast reefs and shoals in the Mekong River. In 2003, the Thai cabinet called for an EIA study which has halted the explosions until now.

Village Sceptics

Egat claims it does not want to interfere in the internal affairs of Burma, especially conflicts with the ethnic minorities, but the agency apparently has little concern for the plight of villagers living on the Thai side of the Salween either.

Like their counterparts in Ban Tha Ta Fang, the villagers of Ban Sop Moei, upstream of the proposed Hut Gyi site, are also very much opposed to dams on the Salween River,

Because the details are kept secret it is not known how much if any of their land will be inundated if the dam is built, but they don't believe claims by dam proponents that they will not be affected.

The village headman, Chawalit Kongpetsak, who has fished in the river all his life, recalled a situation in the past when outsiders continuously came to harvest fish with electrical equipment. The villagers' catch steadily decreased during those years and they finally rose up in protest five years ago. They convinced the authorities to put an end to the harmful practise, and the situation has since returned to normal.

The experience served to make the villagers even more aware of the fragile balance of the river ecosystem.

"Therefore, we never believe that the Hut Gyi dam will not pose a problem to those of us who live upstream," said an old villager in Ban Sob Moei.

At present, there are 132 families, more than 600 persons, living at Ban Sob Moei. The Salween, with its geographical diversity of small islands, deep crevices, clumps of tall grass and rock formations, supplies them with a rich and varied stock of fish.

The villagers plant rice on 250 rai, mainly along the Huay Koladaee and Huay Maepingklo creeks, tributaries of the Salween.

They also have been allotted 600 rai of land in the forest reserve for rotational rice cultivation. In former times they had more land available in the forest reserve, but some has been reclaimed by the Forest Department for its teak reforestation project.

Therefore, they are more dependent on the Salween than ever for fish and also for planting on the riverbanks during the dry season when the water level recedes.

"We've counted on the Salween and other connecting creeks since we were young. Sometimes in the past our fields have been flooded from natural causes," noted Chawalit. He feels certain that even if their lands are not permanently flooded, with a dam, or dams, downstream, the river and side creeks will overflow more easily, and there may be other adverse affects on their way of life.

Poh Luang Nu Chamnan-khiriprai, a village headman of Ban Mae Koh, also situated upstream of the proposed Hut Gyi dam, is in total agreement with his counterpart in Ban Sob Moei. He has actively campaigned against the Salween dam project along with others in his village.

He said that he and other residents of Ban Mae Koh have travelled widely around Thailand to discuss their concerns with many officials and non-governmental organisations, but they have never gotten any response from anyone at a high level.

"Egat and other authorities continue to ignore our existence and our needs," lamented Poh Luang Nu.

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Burma's displaced

Dams on the Salween River are already swelling the ranks of Burma's internally displaced persons (IDP), which almost certainly means a new movement of Burmese refugees into Thailand, writes TUNYA SUKPANICH

According to the latest report from he Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), a charity organisation registered in England working along the Thai-Burma border, there are at least half a million internally displaced persons (IDP) now in Burma, many of them residing in areas administered by various ceasefire groups in eastern Burma which have been granted a relative amount of autonomy by the Burmese army. Around 95,000 others are forced to hide out from the army or paramilitary patrols in what can only be described as a sub-human existence.

This quote from a Shan IDP in a report by Shan Spawa, an organisation working to protect environmental and human rights in Shan State, gives some idea of the hardships they face: "My life depends on my kitbag. Every morning I have to prepare food for the whole day. Then I put the cooked sticky rice, beans, salt, a box of matches and a bottle of drinking water into my kitbag. When I hear the noise of Burmese soldiers, I will grab my kitbag tight and run to hide in the jungle. Without this kitbag, I will not survive."

The problem of IDPs in Burma is not new, but in recent years it has grown. Many villagers have been forced by the government to leave their homes to cut off support for armed resistance movements, and many others to pave the way or provide forced labour for state-sponsored development projects.

TBBC says the proposed dams along the Salween River have already displaced over 35,000 people. Those remaining are at risk of being forced into road construction.

A series of four dams along the Salween, either inside Burma or on the Thai-Burmese border, is seen as a significant political tool to suppress and destroy communities of ethnic minorities which have been fighting with the Burmese government for more than 50 years.

The Ta Sang dam site is located in the southern part of Shan State, where the Shan State Army (SSA) conducts hostilities against Rangoon.

The proposed Dagwin, Wei Gyi and Hut Gyi sites are in Karen State, where the armed Karen National Union (KNU) is still active.

Pianporn Deetes of the Southeast Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN) says the dam construction would provide justification for sending more troops into these areas. She gave the example of when the Burmese government constructed a dam for producing electricity for Rangoon, and several thousand villagers were moved from their villages. Soldiers were sent into the area to protect the construction and a large number of landmines were installed. Many villagers died or became disabled from the landmines. Sadly, rather than paying for their medical treatment, the government fined these unfortunate villagers for damaging its property.

Sai Sai, a young ethnic Tai coordinator of Shan Spawa, said his organisation has closely followed the Ta Sang dam project. In March this year, he said, the military government and a Thai company called MDX organised a ground breaking ceremony for the Ta Sang hydropower project.

According to information gotten from Shan Spawa, before 1996 some 60,000 villagers resided in 280 villages in the area surrounding the proposed dam site. It is not known how many of them remain. The land is fertile and suitable for agriculture.

The Pang River, which branches off the Salween close to the proposed dam site, will also be affected from the Ta Sang dam.

Villagers in Karen State are facing forced displacement because of the Hut Gyi dam (see main story).

Fresh Influx

Thailand is home to more than 150,000 Karen refugees from Burma in camps along the border. It is not known with certainty how many of the hundreds of thousands of Burmese living marginally outside the camps are actually political refugees.

Every fresh wave of government aggression against ethnic minorities in Burma brings more refugees to Thailand. For example, in 1996 an estimated 300,000 villagers in the central and southern parts of Shan State were forcibly relocated to new settlements under control of the Burmese military. Without fertile land and access to rivers and creeks, they live in difficulty. Consequently, many have left the relocation settlements and become IDPs. An estimated 35,000 of these IDPS have crossed the border to live in the provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, but the number may be much higher.

Dams on the Salween almost certainly mean a fresh influx of Burmese refugees into Thailand.

Those from Karen State might try to find a place at refugee camps like Mae La Oon and Mae La Ma Luang in Mae Hong Son, or go further to a camp in Tak province. Meanwhile, after striking out for border villages in northern Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, those from Shan State would have little choice but to live illegally in Thailand.