Water plan faces major environmental hurdles
Impact assessments, expected local opposition make 5-year goal unlikely, critics sayEnvironmental constraints could pose a big threat to the government's Bt350-billion water-management plan - with its vision for eight big dams, including the controversial Kaeng Sua Ten Dam in Phrae and a number of smaller dams.
Government officials and experts warn that regardless of whether Thai or foreign bidders win the contracts, there is a high risk that the projects may not be completed within five years as planned, given that the works require support from communities and extensive studies on their environmental impact.
Aside from dams in the Ping, Yom, Nan, Pasak and Sakaekrang river basins, which must hold a combined 2 billion cubic metres of water, proper floodways would also require support from local administrations as well as villagers whose land would be affected.
Many projects would need environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and environmental and health impact assessments (EHIAs).
"Even if these are part of the comprehensive water management master plan, they must comply with the environmental law and legal procedures - especially dams that retain over 100 million cubic metres of water," the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP)'s Santi Boonprakrab said.
"For these dams it would take at least two years to conduct the EHIA and get approval from the expert panel," he added.
The government recently named six bidders as qualifiers for the 10 investment modules. All bidders are to submit final plans within the next month. This means no project has submitted an EHIA report to the environmental expert panel, set up under Article 67(2) of the Constitution.
Further complicating this issue is the fact that some dam projects have failed to win approval over past decades, including the Royal Irrigation Department's Mae Wong Dam in Nakhon Sawan. The department submitted several EHIA reports over the past 30 years, without success. And now, these projects are part of the water-management plan.
EHIA reports are also required on projects that include planned sluice gates or construction in watershed areas.
According to Santi, only floodway projects do not need EIA or EHIA reports.
The chance to win approval on any of these projects looks slim, if the words of Hannarong Yaowalers, president of the Foundation for Integrated Water Management, are to be taken seriously. He said community opposition would be strong - particularly when it concerns big dams. Also the government may have violated laws by not hosting public hearings on the projects.
Asked why South Korean construction companies qualified for several modules, including the one that encompasses Kaeng Sua Ten, Team Group executive Chawalit Chantararat said his company had decided not to submit bids because it expected that controversies over environmental issues would hinder the construction effort.
Instead of building big dams, his company proposed small reservoirs. Even so, he was not totally convinced all projects would win the support of the community and environmentalists.
To Prof Dr Thanawat Jarupongsakul, head of Chulalongkorn University's Unit for Disaster and Land Information Studies, a big construction rush would pose problems in preventing floods. He said plans were based on 2011 data, but another massive flood is expected in the near future with a higher mass of rainwater.
EIAs and EHIAs aside, the government is under fire on the funding front. Last year, it approved an executive decree to endorse Bt350 billion in borrowing for this project without parliamentary screening. A year has passed and less than Bt10 billion has been disbursed.
The investment, along with the Bt2.27-trillion infrastructure development plan, is a key factor boosting Thailand's attractiveness to foreign investors ahead of the implementation of the Asean Economic Community in 2015.
See related video at www.nationmultimedia.com