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Dam threatens World Heritage status

Seated in a four-wheel drive vehicle, I could see a few big trees on the edge of Khao Yai National Park. Crossing one creek after another, I learned how they help mitigate fast-flowing waters from flooding towns further downstream.

During my visit to the park this month, I also came to realise that many fruit trees, pomelo, longkong, and durian, are not listed at all in the final Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report commissioned by the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) for Klong Madue Dam.

If approved, the project will be built in Sarika sub-district, Nakhon Nayok province. Part of it will be built on Watershed Class A1 areas — ecologically rich ecological areas that have been barred from development projects by a 2005 cabinet resolution.

The dam project and a string of RID water projects in the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex will be discussed at the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (45th session), held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Sept 10-25. If these water schemes get built, the status of Khao Yai as a Unesco World Heritage site might risk being revoked once and for all.

It has to be said that Unesco has been worried, with the issue first being raised at the 44th session in China in 2021.

According to Decision 41 COM 7B.32, the World Heritage Committee asked the Thai government “to permanently cancel plans for any construction of dams with reservoirs” within the forest complex and “to undertake a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the river basin”.

The committee recommended that Thailand cancel any considerations for constructing new dams within the property.

Instead of giving heed to Unesco’s recommendation, RID has pushed ahead. In April, the provincial governor appointed a working committee to survey and estimate compensation for the properties of locals affected by the Klong Madue Dam project despite the environmental study of the project attracting criticisms.

For example, the Expert Committee of the Office of the National Environment Board (NEB) criticised the EIA for overlooking several key components.

But what RID has done is have the same consultants prepare another EIA by updating what has been done in the past and submit this version by the end of this year to have construction start 2026-2030 as planned.

The question is, can we expect any changes in this revised EIA? Having studied the EIA report closely, I am exasperated by its quality.

The EIA only promised touted benefits that the dam project would bring while minimising the potential impacts.

It must be stressed that NEB’s expert committee noted the EIA failed to mention the possible risk of losing the World Heritage status if the project was launched. I can also add my long list of woes to the NEB expert committee’s own. Due to limited space, I will discuss only some here.

To start with, the public hearing process warrants concern. For example, on Oct 20, 2022, just nine local leaders were invited to attend an online focus group run by the consultant firm and RID. I can’t help wondering whether nine local leaders are sufficient for giving input to the dam project to be built in a World Heritage site area.

It should be said the affected area is rich in fruit orchards. Nevertheless, the EIA report only mentioned rice, mangoes and plangos. Despite the diversity of flora and fauna in the A1 watershed forest — a highly vulnerable ecological area — the consultant firm spent less than a year collecting data, from the end of January to December 2020. The RID conducted a field trip from Feb 14 to July 7, 2020.

The EIA failed to mention wildlife reported by locals, such as elephants, tigers, red bulls and serows. The sole rare tree of value mentioned in the EIA is the Pip Thong (Radermachera hainanensis), which they proposed to transplant those sizeable enough to meet their criteria but discard ones deemed too small to be worth saving. I wonder how many of those trees would fit the bill and if they would survive transplantation.

Likewise, the EIA report proposed pushing wildlife deeper into the forests to avoid the dam. Such a prospect reminded me of pictures of countless animals struggling to stay afloat in the reservoir when the Rajjaprabha Dam was built in Surat Thani province almost four decades ago. The late conservationist Sueb Nakhasathien and his team tried to rescue as many as possible, but only a fraction survived.

Meanwhile, RID keeps harping on with the same old message about the benefits of dam projects. It claims the dam, with a 91.84 million cubic metres (MCMs) capacity, will deliver water to 37,100 rai. This will submerge the forest in Khao Yai by about 1,116 rai and Sarika Reserved Area by about 502 rai — a total of 1,618 rai.

In over two decades of covering environmental issues in and outside Thailand, I conclude that the history of RID’s irrigation projects, especially large-scale dams, has been far less than satisfactory.

Often, they promise a rose but deliver clay. Just look at the statistics. According to the Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR), Bhumibol Dam now has only 48% of its 13,462 MCMs capacity as of Sept 9. Mae Mok Dam, situated between Sukhothai and Lamphang provinces, has 110 MCMs capacity, but only 28% has been filled. Klong Si Yad Dam has only 18% of its 450 MCMs capacity. Khun Dan Prakarnchon Dam, not so far from the location of the Klong Madue Dam site, has 63% of 224.9 MCMs capacity.

A main concern is whether such supposed benefits of the dam will be worth it if Khao Yai’s World Heritage status is revoked.

Rainfall levels have receded in recent years, and it has become a policy that RID usually asks farmers to skip growing a second rice crop. In the middle of this year, they publicly requested farmers to switch to sugarcane or corn, which need less water.

According to locals in Prachin Buri, the Huay Samong Dam, which was built to help farmers, much of its water has been diverted to industrial estates.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if the Thai government will comply with the World Heritage Committee’s request to conduct a Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) on the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex.

Judging from the dismal records of the past EIAs, including the Klong Madue Dam project, I propose that a third neutral party undertake the SEA.

The new government should provide a budget to run an independent study that includes residents and neutral academics accepted by local people — not only developers — and credited conservation groups like the Rak Khao Yai and Seub Nakhasathien Foundation.

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