The Nation 16 February 2010
By WATCHARAPONG THONGRUNG, CHULARAT SAENGPASSA
The Energy Ministry will proceed with the construction of the Hatgyi dam and hydropower plant in Burma, despite a local requirement to enhance the environmental impact assessment and information disclosure for greater transparency.
"There will be more studies. Although this may lead to a delay, the project is not scrapped," Energy Permanent Secretary Pornchai Rujiprapa said yesterday.
Most of the electricity from the 1.36 gigawatt plant will be supplied to Thailand.
Pornchai, as chairman of the subcommittee on power cooperation with neighbouring countries, said the Energy Ministry is ready to heed the advice of the committee led by PM's Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey. Sathit's committee said the environmental impact assessment be extended while information disclosure must be improved.
The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, as the representative of Thailand and the dam operator, will take care of the two issues.
The committee last month submitted the list of recommendations to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, in a bid to make the investment project more transparent. The committee was set up following the National Human Rights Commission's complaints that the project would directly impact dozens of Karen villages and the villages may have to be relocated from the dam's floodplain.
Thousands more will suffer abuses from the Burmese army's attempts to secure the site, which have resulted in several military offensives and a large build-up of troops in the area.
All of the dams planned on the Salween River will greatly disrupt the riverine ecosystem and destroy the livelihoods of those peoples living along the river.
Sathit said in a telephone interview that the hold-up of the project should not cause diplomatic displeasure with Burma. He also referred to the cool response from Egat towards the proposals.
"The committee's concern was the repercussions on Burma, not the impacts on Egat's investment," he said. Next week, the committee will convene to monitor Egat's reactions to the suggestions. It will also work on the structure of the information disclosure unit, as well as its scope of responsibility.
Montree Chantawong, coordinator of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (Terra), was pleased with the Sathit committee's resolutions, which should create a more transparent disclosure channel.
Egat has so far refrained from releasing the full EIA, claiming that it needed Burma's consent to submit the full report, he said. The civic groups received only a brief summary in English.
The civic groups actually want the government to terminate the investment outright, he said. While people in the Karen State would be saved, Egat does not need power from Burma. However, the construction will fuel fighting and suppression of the minority tribe.
He also urged the government to ask for parliamentary approval for the project's EIA, if it continues to support the project. Since the dam will lead to alterations in river flows, which could change Thai territory in Tak's Sob Moei district, the contract needs parliamentary approval under Article 190 of the Constitution, he said.
"The Human Rights Commission earlier even urged Egat to conduct a separate EIA on the Thai border, for a clearer impact," he said.
The Burma Rivers Network, comprising organisations representing various dam-affected communities in Burma, said on its website that "large development projects in Burma bring an expanded Burma army presence and the increased use of forced labour. Villagers living downstream from the dams will also face difficulties."
Energy Minister Wannarat Charnnukul insisted that Abhisit has not yet ordered a delay of Hatgyi Dam.
Pornchai stressed that Thailand has followed international human rights and environmental accords. The Energy Ministry has worked closely with the Foreign Ministry on the project. Once the negotiations are completed, the issue would be submitted to Parliament under the Constitution, he said.
Pornchai, as chairman of Egat, said Egat's board of directors recently approved the investment with Sinohydro from China.
A joint venture is being set up. Sinohydro will hold a bigger stake than Egat, as it is in charge of securing the loan, while the Burmese government will be a minority partner, he said.
The hydropower plant was expected to start commercial operations and export power to Thailand in 2015 or 2016. However, due to controversies, the project has been stalled and has not yet been included in the Power Development Plan.
On July 14, 1997, Thailand signed a framework agreement for 1.5GW from Burma by 2010. The first project was My-Kok Dam, with Italian-Thai Development and partners as the developer.
The lignite-fuelled dam, with 405MW capacity, is located in Shan State, 80 kilometres from Chiang Rai. It is scheduled to start feeding power to Thailand in January 2016. The power rate throughout the 25-year purchase contract averages Bt2.3 per unit, at the exchange rate of Bt34 to the US dollar.