Mekong drought plan raises concerns

national January 29, 2016 01:00

By VISARUT SANKHAM
THE NATION

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NGOs criticise move to divert river water.



NON-GOVERNMENTAL organisations have expressed concern about a government decision to tackle the drought crisis by diverting water from the Mekong River. 
The decision contravenes the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin, which was signed in 1995, because the Thai government has not asked for permission from the Mekong River Commission (MRC), according to NGO representatives. 
The MRC is an inter-governmental organisation with riparian members Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. 
Hannarong Yaowalers, chairman of Thai-Water Partnerships, said Thailand would be the first country to install water pumps along the Mekong River since 1995 if the government went ahead with the project. 
“The attempt to use water from the Mekong River needs to be discussed at the MRC,” he said. 
Hannarong was responding to the Royal Irrigation Department’s construction of a pump station on the river in the Northeast. 
Somkiat Prajamwong, director of the office of project management at the Royal Irrigation Department, described the project as urgent but added that it would be operational for just for three months to ease the drought from February to April. 
“This is a Bt15-million project. Of that, Bt10 million is for construction and Bt5 million for electricity costs,” he said. 
The irrigation department plans to divert water from the Mekong River 80 kilometres to Nong Khai’s Huai Luang water gate and then to the nearby Luang watercourse. 
Somkiat said he expected the project to irrigate 300,000 rai (48,000 hectares) of farmland in Nong Khai and Udon Thani provinces.
 “With such an amount of water [40 million cubic metres], we don’t have to inform the MRC. In addition, we will pump water only when the water level in the Mekong River is higher than the normal level compared to the dry season of previous years,” he added. 
Hannarong responded that the MRC must be consulted regardless of the volume of water diverted. 
Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign director of International Rivers, said Thailand should realise that the Mekong is a shared resource of six countries, including two of which are downstream. 
“Any plan to pump, divert or use water from the Mekong by Thailand, especially when less water is available, will need to go through a regional process and comply with international laws and agreements,” she said.
 Pianporn added that consultation with affected communities and trans-boundary impact assessments were also important. 
Despite concerns expressed by NGOs, Thai authorities are planning more projects involving the river. 
The temporary pumping project is just the first of three Mekong River Basin development schemes, which also include a Bt18-billion project to build pump stations in Nong Khai’s Phon Phisai district to channel water 80 kilometres to Songkram Basin in Udon Thani province.
The third scheme involves an even bigger project that requires an initial feasibility study. If the project goes ahead, Bt30 billion will be spent to divert water from the Mekong River Basin to Ubolratana Dam in Khon Kaen province, with plans to irrigate 1.3 million rai of farmland.
“The water in the Mekong River can be diverted as the project aims to pipe water to fill the Mun and Chi rivers, which are considered to be in the Mekong basin, ” Somkiat said. Pianporn said the Thai government had planned such large-scale projects for a long time. 
“The government has used the ongoing drought crisis as an excuse to push ahead the schemes,” she said. 

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