CityNews – Wednesday 30th October was a grey morning with clouds obliterating Doi Suthep-Pui behind the sparkling new Convention and Exhibition Center recently completed under the guidance of former Prime Minister Banharn Silipa-Archa.
Mr Banharn had given more in the past to Chiang Mai, notably the concreting of the Mae Kha Canal, complete with its many elaborate steel machines to remove garbage, an underground sewer and the promise to residents that the water would be safe to bathe in. Mr Banharn who is in the construction business comes from Suphanburi, north of Bangkok and made news during the great flood of 2011 by ordering water gates closed to spare his province while all around water to two metres depth immobilized communities and drowned farms for two months.
So Chiang Mai’s new meeting place was a fitting venue for the Peur Thai coalition government, which also includes Mr Banharn’s party, to bring its big “Water for Life” road show aimed at convincing people to support the 350 billion baht scheme of construction of dams, 18 in the north alone, and of gigantic water diversion channels and flood basins across Thailand.
The government was forced by court action to carry out public consultation on the plan it had tried to proceed with in defiance of the Thai Constitution. The government might be pleased the fog hid bare areas in the national park forest where nothing will grow because repeated burning, and whence rain water rushes down bringing with it tonnes of silt and sand several times each year. It was also far enough away from the newly completed 500 million baht Ping River water gates which stand as evidence that the government construction agenda is far from what the public is told.
The water plan has had criticism in political circles with the opposition Democrats, who in government initiated countrywide river channelization, opposing the borrowing of money. But the meeting did not see high profile politicians in attendance. Neither the president of the Chiang Mai Provincial assembly, Mr Boonlert Buranapakorn, whose photo appeared on the billboard advertising the event, nor his niece Tessani the M.P. for Chiang Mai were on the podium. There were reports that the Prime Minister would attend but not by lunch time, when the frigid air conditioning of the venue drove me to leave and nor did her Deputy PM Dr Plodprasop Surwasadi who after leading the government’s campaign to prevent forest fire this year to total failure, has driven the water plan.
In the place of the politicians the main apologist for the scheme was Dr Wasan Jompakdee, who acted as an advisor to the government during the scheme’s development, and gave an illustrated talk followed by a video. Dr Wasan recently retired as Assistant Professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Chiang Mai University. He has taken a keen interest in river management, extolling the virtues of removing concrete channeling and restoring natural flows and stream vegetation, works not proposed in the plan on display. He also suggested the formation of the International Citizens of Chiang Mai.
Mid morning contributions were open from the floor.
Dr Wasan Jompakdee
Sitting next to a Chiang Mai University Humanities student from Mae Jem, I was told that the government had invited hundreds of its rural supporters to come. When the first participant from the floor spoke he claimed the need for a new dam north of Chiang Mai city to supply adequate water for growing vegetables and serving government institutions such as the Nakhorn Ping Hospital at Mae Rim. He omitted to mention big water users such as golf courses, luxury resorts and suburban moo-bans. Another dam supporter claimed that a dam on the Mae Jem, which joins the Ping River down stream from Lamphun at Hot was needed to save Bangkok from flooding. Has no one told him about the huge Bhumipol Dam?
Speakers from the floor were called for by name from a pre-determined list and the appearance was one of fairness and balance. Each person was given five minutes and their image was displayed on big screens to the 2500 attendees with a notice on time remaining every minute on the screen.
Dissenting views came from an number of speakers including a strong contingent of farmers from Mae Jem district who stood to lose their land, and had walked in procession to the venue carring NO DAM banners. Only one in five farming families in Thailand own the land they farm, the rest being in the hands of investors a seminar on Visions for Chiang Mai was told recently.
No doubt much which was said went unnoticed by foreign ears, but my student companion explained that one speaker told how we went around all the villages in the dam affected area of Mae Jem and heard the same story of opposition everywhere. Another speaker from Mae Jem suggested as an alternative to dam building a reduction in land devoted to corn plantations and the use of organic farming techniques.
Interestingly one of the displays shows Google Earth, before and after images, of hill country with forest cover restored after earlier forest destruction.
While much of what was said might have been as expected, there were major omissions.
While heavy rains bring nothing like the devastation and hardship in the country upstream from the Bhumipol dam at Tak, than they can on the Chaophraya plain, flash floods do occur in the north with environmental destruction, property damage and occasional loss of human life. Forest restoration and rehabilitation on hill sides and along streams can mitigate damage by slowing flows and retaining soils intact. The first pre-requisite for putting back forest with their healthy soils and leaf litter is the absence of fire. Four months from now Chiang Mai can again expect to see Doi Suthep shrouded in a fog, a fog not of low cloud but of smoke haze generated by the annual forest burning. Yet in the entire morning session I did not hear one mention of forest fire, let alone the need to curtail it. Was fire written out of the script lest it embarrass the to government for the failure of its 90 day fire ban to have any impact? Certainly Dr Wasan is well aware of the critical importance of burning in the destruction of Thailand’s environment, and in speaking to reporters away from the main meeting I heard him say “burn”.
There were also missing from the floor speakers representing various interests that make up Chiang Mai society. Where were the wealthy landowners who have plans for resorts and suburban developments who can expect the value of their properties to rise with new assured water supplies? Where were the contractors who will benefit from building the projects? Where were the bankers to assure us the country can afford to borrow abroad to finance this project? On the other hand where were the advocates for public health who would rather see government funds spent on financing the relocation and retraining of farmers of maize on the hills? Where were the advocates of protection of the rivers, who could have pointed out that many dams in the USA are being decommissioned because of their negative effects, or that our ASEAN partner VietNam has just announced it has abandoned plans for two big dams?
Why also did I not hear the advice HM King Bhumipol, who long ago was an advocate of dams to develop our country, when last year he suggested to the Prime Minister not that dams be built, but that trees be grown and the hills reforested in order to mitigate floods. Why did we not hear that although the Prime Minister ordered the growing of trees of the order of 3 million seedlings, and that these have been grown but rather than being planted during the rainy season, they are still left awaiting the Minister’s signature before they can be released?
The next day the fog has gone. The sky is clear and bright. So surely it is time to throw off the obfuscation intended by the government’s “Water for Life” road show and to end the hypocrisy.
There are many voices calling for an end to the reign of corruption which has gripped Thailand and we need all ask our selves on which side will we be counted? That does not just mean those born into the Thai system who have grown rich and comfortable under it. In Chiang Mai live tens of thousands of foreign residents, only one of which joined the 5000 strong meeting yesterday.
Much that is built in Thailand has very little to do with public benefit and much to do with greed and self enrichment, and the sheer scale and nature of “Water for Life” fits into this category. It is time we all looked beyond our narrow personal interests and joined with the farmers who want to keep their land and farm in a sustainable manner, and spoke out loud, and say NO DAMS.
And we, may I add should include Dr Wasan Jompakdee, President of the Committee for the Protection of the Ping River and its Environment.