‘Thailand does not need to engage in the destruction of the Salween’

Kraisak Choonhavan, conservationist, human rights activist

Thai conservationist and human rights activist Kraisak Choonhavan has long campaigned against hydroelectric dams. Dr Kraisak, an academic for 20 years before he entered politics with the Democratic Party, was a member of the Thai Senate from 2001 to 2006 and served as chair of its foreign relations committee. Dr Kraisak is president of the Bangkok-based Freeland Foundation, which campaigns against wildlife and human trafficking in Myanmar and the region, and is a senior advisor to Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission, which has been investigating the role of Thai companies in plans to build dams on the Thanlwin (Salween) River. Mizzima Weekly’s Geoffrey Goddard sat down with Dr Kraisak for a wide-ranging discussion about dams and Thailand’s energy policy.

Why are you opposed to dams as a source of energy?

Dams destroy biodiversity, not only where the dam is constructed but upstream and downstream of the river. Rivers give life. For example, about 80 percent of the flora and fauna species in China can be found in the regions through which the Lancang [Mekong] and Salween flow. This shows how much the existing societies depend on rivers being undisturbed. If you get rid of all the fish in one river you deny millions of people their income, their right to a livelihood. The sediment carried by rivers brings down all the elements of nutrition of the soil to their lower reaches that produces the natural seasonal fertilisation of the land. The sediment also builds a natural barrier in the delta areas that helps to prevent sea water entering. If you prevent the sediment reaching the delta, the natural barrier is broken down and you get rising salination. This is clearly happening now in the Mekong Delta. Dams also have implications for protein intake. In countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, about 70 percent of their intake of protein is from freshwater fish, wild fish. This is in comparison to Thailand, where most of the rivers are dammed and we get 90 percent of our protein from farmed animals and aquaculture.

Why has Thailand shifted its focus to building dams in neighbouring countries rather than in Thailand?

In actual fact, it has not, but politically it was impossible. The last attempt was 2014 when the government approved a cabinet decision to build 20 dams with a budget of 450 billion baht [about US$13.8 billion]. That decision caused widespread protests but they were hardly reported at the time because the media focus was on the anti-government protests in Bangkok. The reason it was stopped, not only because there was a coup, was a ruling by the Administrative Court. There was a lack of transparency and there were no technical studies of the effects of these dams on the environment and the social environment. The third reason was, and it’s law in Thailand, there was no consultation or public information provided. The Administrative Court ruled after deliberating for only two weeks to order the cessation of the dams, the entire project. The Thai have suffered so much from dams; many communities have suffered because of dams. People have still not received compensation from dams built 30 years ago. This is why protests occur at the drop of a hat against plans to build new dams, as happened in 2014. There’s a sense of alertness and consciousness that dams are a threat, to the forests and the mountains and to communities, basically to a way of life, and to biodiversification, which is lost forever. Therefore it is very difficult to build dams in Thailand. But in countries opening up to foreign investment, like Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, for instance, they have absolutely no transparency, not a law but only a very loose principle of environmental assessment which they do not follow properly. When I was chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee I went to the border to investigate plans by EGAT [Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand] to build dams at Mae Sarieng [on the border] and at Hatgyi. The Karen people on the Thai side were very much against the Mae Sarieng dam and the Hatgyi dam because of the huge areas that would be inundated. If you build a dam anywhere along that mountainous section of the Salween whatever is left of the agricultural land will be completely flooded. It will be flooded all year round. As farmland, it is lost.

Thailand needs electricity for its development. Why shouldn’t it build dams in neighbouring countries for its energy needs?

That’s the nature of Thai capitalism. It has an absolutely free and unlimited policy for expansion of monstrous malls. One mall alone, let’s say the Paragon or Central World, one alone, consumes more electricity than three rural provinces. We have kilometres of these malls now, building up along one single road in the centre of Bangkok. Thai capitalism is more or less based on extreme exploitation of its natural resources. Particularly with dams because they think it’s free, without thinking about the damage caused. With the Nam Theun II project (in Laos), even as a tributary to the Mekong, you had to remove 20,000 people into unproductive areas. With the invasion of plantation investment from China, the Laotians are left poorer and poorer, even for a country they call the battery of Southeast Asia. And Myanmar has a worse record on dams. Dams are the cause of insurgency, the cause of armed conflict, because the Burmese insist on total and 100 percent control of the land and the road towards the construction and the very site of the dam itself. For some reason it does not consider the use of indigenous people for labour or anything like that. In areas like the Hatgyi dam [one of seven planned for the Thanlwin], they consider the Karen as enemies of the state. So after the signing of the contract with Thailand to buy electricity from the Hatgyi dam, the military went in there with a vengeance to clear the area and what happened is that we have to build refugee camps in Thailand to take these tens of thousands of people coming in from the very area where we are going to build the dam itself. That’s a contradiction in the darkest sense, in the most inhuman way. I don’t want to be shopping in a mall that has caused a slow genocide of an entire community. We in Thailand have built a regional and almost international solidarity in which the Hatgyi dam is protested by the Thai side, not only by the local Karen, but by Thai NGOs, Thai human rights defenders. A member of our National Human Rights Commission, Dr Niran [Pitakwatchara] has recently returned from interviewing people affected by the Hatgyi dam. EGAT hired the Chulalongkorn University Centre for Environmental Studies to do an EIA [environmental impact assessment] which was supposed to examine 10 issues, such as impact on the flow of the river, sedimentation, social effect, impact on biodiversity, etcetera, but could only study river flow because it was not possible to gain access to the dam site. So Dr Niran will report back and recommend to the Ministry of Energy that it will have to either postpone or delay this Hatgyi dam because the contract is unworthy of upholding. He will call for cancellation because no studies have been done on the EIA and you cannot push ahead with this because the cost, the social cost, the environmental cost, will be either too high or we don’t know the cost anyway because of the inability of the consultancy to make the study.

Do you think that EGAT prefers to build dams in neighbouring countries because it is easier than building them in Thailand?

EGAT has been losing a lot of its businesses. EGAT controls all the dams, some 90 or 100 dams, that exist in Thailand. It has golf courses, it has resorts, the income of its workers is very high, they have social security, retirement benefits, etcetera, but it is running out of places to build [in Thailand]. It wants to have new projects. EGAT has found a new partner and it is PTT [a state-owned, listed company formerly known as the Petroleum Authority of Thailand]. And PTT has huge [financial] reserves and now it wants to dump its reserves into building dams in partnership with EGAT. The Thai banks have also formed an alliance to build dams. Why? Because Thai capitalism needs to expand. They like huge, mega projects in order to impress the market, the international market.

How can Thai energy policy change to reduce the emphasis on dams as a source of electricity?

They need to deregulate the renewables, particularly solar and wind. They need to increase the capability of investments in those sectors. I was in Russia and I’ve seen all along the roads in Moscow solar panels; in Russia, [laughing] which gets sunlight for about four months of the year. It is ridiculous that Thailand is not anywhere near any country as far as harnessing the most renewable energy in the world, which is solar. We need to do that. But I think what should happen is that heads should roll first, in the sense of exposing those who prevent deregulation and what do they get out of it. So far the Thai business community has been very angry [about this] but only internally. They have not exposed it yet but I am exposing it to Mizzima, which I think is important. Thailand does not need to engage in the destruction of a virgin river like the Salween.

Is there such a thing as a well-designed dam or a dam that minimises impact on the environment?

A dam being decommissioned and the river returning to its natural state; that’s a good dam. The problem is where to put all the waste when you destroy a huge dam, it’s a big problem. But the area that has been flooded will regrow. I’ve seen evidence from hundreds of decommissioned dams in the United States, in Arizona, some parts of California, New Mexico, the fish return, the plants return. Nature … can return to its original path quite easily, particularly in tropical areas.

An energy conference in Nay Pyi Taw in 2013 was told that Myanmar is one of the most “attractive” countries for hydropower development in southeast Asia, with potential to generate 100,000 megawatts, of which less than 10 percent is being harnessed.

The support for hydropower comes from a lot of hidden agendas. A lot of the hidden agenda is overpricing, the turbines, the cement, everything. That’s number one and two has always been overstating the capacity. After a dam has been in operation for five years the maintenance is very high because you have to get rid of the sediment that blocks the turbines. That is not put into account and they consider that water is forever free. Three is that if you block fish migrating, you block huge numbers of people from earning an income. Fish migrate upstream and downstream, it depends on the species. They try to build all sorts of stairways for fish [at dams] but it has been proven in Laos that each step in the stairway can only be about 10 centimetres high for fish to be able to climb it, so you can imagine how long the stairway needs to be. A lot of fish will be caught and ground to pieces in the turbines. There is no fish friendly turbine in the world. Alternatively, what Laos can do is two things: they can build the old fashioned dams and destroy everything on its path or build tunnels or canals at the curve of the river, like in many of the rivers in Europe. The Danube, the Rhine, they generate a lot of electricity from the current on the curve. Of course it exacts less energy [that damming a waterway], but it is less harmful. You can also build tunnels that the river flows through and if you have different elevations you can generate huge amounts of power. These are projects that the French have proposed to the Laotians. Alternatively you can build in tributaries but never, never go for the main stream. A main stream Salween dam or a mainstream Irrawaddy dam would be extremely, extremely costly and extremely harmful.

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