By Pratch Rujivanarom
Mae Hong Son
THE LIVES of people living along the Salween River still face the risk of being adversely impacted by developments in the river basin, environment campaigners said on the International Day of Action for Rivers yesterday.
Local communities along the Salween River in both Thailand and Myanmar marked the 22nd International Day of Action for Rivers, as a symbol of their efforts to protect their traditional way of life, rich natural resources and the river’s healthy ecosystem from hydropower dam development and other harmful projects.
Ban Sobmoei in Mae Hong Son’s Sop Moei district is one of the many Salween riverside communities that also marks World Anti-Dam Day on March 14 every year.
This year the villagers invited the international environmental group, International Rivers, to participate in a religious rite to pray for a bountiful river and the ability to fight against efforts by investors and the authorities to develop mega-projects in the Salween River Basin.
Salween is one of the only rivers in the world that still runs free from its source in the Tibetan Plateau down to the Andaman Sea.
Pongpipat Meebenjamas, a Ban Sobmoei community leader, said Salween River is one of the last remaining rivers that is free dams and harmful development, which is why its ecosystem remains healthy and fertile, providing food and life security to people living along the river.
“People here still lead peaceful lives, as the Salween provides us with everything from fresh fish and clean water to natural fertiliser from the fertile river sediment,” Pongpipat said.
However, he said, locals were concerned about their future as the authorities are eyeing many hydropower dam projects in the mainstream of the river.
“The project closest to Ban Sobmoei is the Hat Gyi Dam, some 47 kilometres downstream from here in Myanmar. If this dam is constructed, it will cause terrible flooding upstream and severely harm the river’s ecosystem,” he said.
“Our blessings from a healthy and free river will come to an end if the project materialises. This is why we have to fight for our Salween River to run free and preserve its rich resources for future generations,” he said.
According to the Salween Watch Coalition, Hat Gyi Dam is a joint venture between the Electricity Genera-ting Authority of Thailand (Egat), China’s Sinohydro and the Inter-national Group of Entrepreneurs from Myanmar.
The project is expected to generate 1,360 megawatts of electricity and most of it will be sold to Thailand.
The authorities are also planning six more hydropower dam projects in the mainstream of Salween River and Egat is funding two – the Dagwin and Wei Gyi dams.
Apart from the harmful hydropower dam projects, Pianporn Deetes, International Rivers’ country director for Thailand and Myanmar, said the Royal Irrigation Department’s project of diverting water from Yuam River to Bhumibol Dam will also seriously damage the Salween River’s ecosystem.
Pianporn explained that Yuam River, one of the key tributaries of Moei River, empties into the Salween River at Ban Sopmoei making it part of the Salween River Basin. Hence, taking water from the Yuam River to refill Bhumibol Dam in the Chao Phraya River will not only have an adverse impact on the ecosystem but will also prove to be very expensive.
“Just basic construction for this inter-basin water-diversion project will cost Bt66 billion, not to mention the funds that will be needed to pump and divert water through a tunnel,” she said. She also warned that this project will harm both the rivers’ ecosystems as well as destroy forestland as the very long water-diversion tunnel will have to go through large areas of the pristine Salween National Park.
Meanwhile, Niwat Roikaew, member of local environmental group Rak Chiang Khong, said he fully supported people’s efforts to protect the Salween River Basin.
“I want to encourage them to keep up the good work,” he said. “People in the Mekong River Basin have learned an expensive lesson from the serious impacts of hydropower dams and other harmful projects on their river and I hope this tragedy is not repeated here.”