Put media focus on the Salween

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Bangkok Post 24 April 2011


It is encouraging that the government is taking another look at Thailand's major involvement in the proposed Xayaburi dam project on a section of the Mekong River running through northern Laos. On Thursday, the House committee on political development, mass communications and public participation unanimously voted to oppose dam construction and approved a motion calling for the government to explain the project to the public.

The committee also endorsed a motion saying that the Thai government should ask Laos to abandon the project, which has been awarded to the Thai company Ch Karnchang. Earlier in the week an Energy Ministry spokesman said the costs and benefits of the dam on the Mekong River needed to be explained. These developments are due in large part to continuous opposition to the project from a number of environmental groups, along with increasing media coverage in recent weeks.

As well, Vietnam and Cambodia - both members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), along with Thailand and Laos - have also raised concerns about insufficient environmental studies of the dam's likely impact, and they have been joined by government officials from Australia, the United States and other countries.

It should not be naively assumed that the project is dead because of the House committee's recommendations. Last week, the Bangkok Post Sunday broke the story that major road construction was being done around the dam site and villagers were preparing to be relocated. On Friday, the CEO of Ch Karnchang sounded confident that the dam construction would proceed as planned, regardless of whether it ultimately receives clearance from the MRC. Clearly there will be pressure from high places to go ahead with the project, but hopefully it will remain under the media spotlight.

Another place that spotlight needs to be focused is to the west, on another dam project the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand is heavily involved with inside Burma, one which may have had even less in the way of public participation than the Xayaburi project. The 1,360MW Hutgyi dam, inside Karen State on the Salween River 47km from the Thai-Burma border, is one of seven proposed dams on the last remaining free-flowing river in Southeast Asia, intended to supply electricity mainly to Thailand and China. The Thai and Burmese governments signed a memorandum of understanding in 2005 to study the possibility of building dams along the Salween, the first of which would be the Hutgyi project. These dams are all in areas which have seen extensive human rights abuses of ethnic minorities at the hands of the Burmese army.

In June 2006, Egat signed a deal with China's state-owned hydropower company SinoHydro to be a third partner in the dam construction. According to the Myanmar Times, a feasibility study and detailed design report were completed in August and September 2007 respectively.

In November 2009, Thai civil society leaders representing a large number of organisations delivered a letter to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva which warned of dire consequences if the Hutgyi project goes ahead. These include major human rights abuses against minority peoples opposed to the regime and flooding of a large populated area. The letter went on to say that rule by the military junta in Burma negates any possibility of transparent enquiry into the impact of the dam or the need for it.

The Thai government and Egat backed away from involvement in the project for a time after two Egat field workers were killed in 2007 by unknown attackers and findings that Thailand did not need the dam's energy capacity. However, now it seems that Egat is quietly back in the game in spite of a recommendation from the Human Rights Commission to abandon the project. According to the Salween Watch website (salweenwatch.org), Egat joined SinoHydro and other Chinese companies, along with Myanmar IGE Co, Ltd in a joint field survey for the hydropower project in March 2010.

In February last year, Energy Minister Wannarat Channukul said the Hutgyi dam project was in the process of an environmental impact assessment. Reportedly the assessment also covers the impact of construction on local residents and addresses possible human rights violations. However, details of the assessment are hard to come by and moreover, it is extremely unlikely that public participation in the assessment was allowed in Karen State. Clearly there is much ground around Hutgyi for a media spotlight to cover, although it must be said that extracting news out of Burma is a daunting task.