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Mounting legal challenges threaten national water and flood projects

Environmental activists want the new govt to revise the Bt350-billion mega scheme



The next government - when elected - should revise the Bt350-billion water and flood scheme and restart the public-hearing process before continuing with any activity or construction projects under the programme, environmental activists say.

No matter which political party takes office as the new government, the mega water management and flood protection scheme must be halted.

It should then be restarted by listening first to public opinion on the proper way to manage and prevent flooding that meets the demands of local people, Stop Global Warming Association president Srisuwan Janya told The Nation.

"I am not against the plan but I want it to comply with legal procedures," he said.

Last year, the government introduced the programme worth Bt350 billion in a bid to control and prevent flooding nationwide - but mainly in the Central region.

The scheme, proposed by the Strategic Committee for Water Resources Management, followed the massive flooding in 2011, which affected 65 provinces and killed 657 people across the country.

Its nine modules of activities and construction projects include dams, reservoirs, water retention, city protection, flood-diversion channels, and an information centre. The total project is expected to take up to five years.

Four companies have won bids to administer this mega-project - but work was suspended after Srisuwan filed a lawsuit in the Central Administration Court.

He claimed he had found the process lacked public participation, especially from those who would be affected most by its construction projects. The court ordered the government to conduct public hearings and listen to opinions from local people according to the Constitution's Articles 57 and 67(2), which require state agencies to seek public opinion and conduct environmental and health impact assessments (EHIAs) before going ahead with mega-projects.

The government is now holding public hearings on the project as ordered by the Central Administrative Court. Three provinces - Bangkok, Nakhon Pathom and Kanchanaburi - have not conducted these public forums yet because of the current political turmoil.

Srisuwan said the government had not explained in detail to local communities the positive and negative impacts likely from the project. Moreover, the government has not asked them for their input about how to manage waterways and to prevent flooding.

He said the government should first poll local people on their ideas. From this information officials should compile and draw up the water management master plan. But before construction begins, they should also conduct an EHIA for deliberation by the Independent Commission on Environment and Health (ICEH) and for the approval of agencies to run the project.

"There would be no strong opposition from local people if the government followed this legal step," he said.

Suwattana Jitraladakorn, chairman of the Engineering Institute of Thailand's water-resources engineering sub-panel, said the government should analyse water and flood management in each river basin to find the proper tools to prevent flooding.

Moreover, instead of running the whole mega scheme as one project, the government should proceed with construction that has already undergone environmental scrutiny. It should also address non-structural measures to prevent flooding.

Sutat Weesakul, a water management expert at the Asian Institute of Technology, said it was not necessary for the new government to review the whole programme, but only to adjust the scale of some construction projects, such as flood-diversion channels. He said these channels should not only be used to drain large amounts of flood water, as in 2011, but also to drain different volumes of water as well.

Sutat said that if the government wanted to push forward with plans to run the water and flood management scheme, it should meet the demands of local people first.

He suggested that all sides should remove politics from the programme because it was what the country - not just political parties - needed.

Royal Irrigation Department director-general Lertviroj Kowattana said his agency was ready to run its own water and flood management project if the government's schemes did not proceed.

The department now has two projects ready to go ahead - the Mae Wong Dam project and the flood prevention project in Songkhla's Hat Yai district.

For the Mae Wong Dam project, the department is awaiting deliberation by the National Environmental Board experts and approval from the ICEH.

He said he would ask the new government to allocate a higher budget for the project because of the rising costs of labour and construction.

Apichart Anukularmphai, an adviser to the Water and Flood Management Committee, said the committee might hold another forum to explain clearly to local people the background, objectives, and anticipated negative and positive impacts of the project.

The WFMC would also adjust the criteria on paying compensation for land expropriation to those likely to be affected.

"We found that most people worried about [this] compensation. We would adjust the way it is paid to them and they would get it to them more quickly than in the past. They also would not have to move far from their homes," he said.

He also explained about the use of design and build principles to run the mega-project. Under these principles, the government would require contractors to finish the design of all construction projects. Once the government approved their design, contractors would be allowed to go ahead and build them. This procedure would speed up the process to ensure completion of projects within five years, he said.

The Supreme Administrative Court will sit on January 9 to hear from the association as a plaintiff, and from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and eight other defendants, over the alleged wrongful procedure in running the mega-project so far.

Srisuwan said that if the government loses its case, the contractors might not be able to sign deals to carry out the project.


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