To the Friends of the Mekong
and the Mekong Committee of Vietnam
NGÔ THẾ VINH
THE GREENING OF THE ISAAN REGION
Isaan is an immense region located in the Khorat Plateau of the Mekong Basin. It covers 20 provinces in the northeast of Thailand and represents 1/3 the area of that country’s 514,000 km2. With over 20 million inhabitants, about 1/3 of the total population, the region still remains poor, parched in spite of the fact that it is surrounded by the Mekong River which also serves as a natural border between Thailand and Laos. Due to a collusion between the French and British colonial powers, a part of Laos was incorporated into Thailand in 1941. Consequently, the majority of the people in Isaan are of Lao origin and known as Thay Isaan. They speak Lao and mostly earn a living as farmers, silk weavers, or fishermen. In addition, a significant number of Vietnamese also live in the area for quite a long time.
In the 1960s, to respond to the growing intensity of the Vietnam War that had spread to the three countries in Indochina and also to stop the communist encroachment into Thailand, the Americans poured money into the development of the Isaan region i.e. the building of a modern highway network and 4 military airports of strategic significance from where to launch bombing missions over North Vietnam or rescue the downed pilots. Moreover, the U.S. Government also assisted the Thai in the construction of hydropower dams on the Mekong’s tributaries in an effort to bring electricity to the countryside and improve the irrigation system in order to increase agricultural output.
Picture 1: Isaan Plateau [in red]
[source: from internet]
Traditionally, Thailand ranks as the leading exporter of rice in the world. As a result, “water” always plays a vital role in the agricultural as well as industrial sectors of the national economy. Considering that Isaan is a predominantly agricultural region, “water” has remained a “trump card” for the politicians to use during elections to gain votes. They never fail to promise the Isaan farmers the “water” they need during the dry season in order to have two harvests per year to bring them a more prosperous lifestyle. [Picture 1]
THE TWO UNFINISHED KCM AND KIN PROJECTS
Way back, close to the end of the 1980s, in order to find a solution to the acute water penury its country was facing, the military government headed by Prime Minister Chatchai Choomhavan came up with an audacious and “large-scale” project to divert the Mekong’s water. It was named the Kong-Chi-Mun Project with the accompanying motto "Greening Isaan".
_ The Kong-Chi-Mun Project:
In 1992, the Thai government officially introduced a far-reaching program with an investment cost of US$ 4 billion in order to save the Isaan region in Thailand’s northeast that is constantly suffering from drought. The program in question is the Kong-Chi-Mun Irrigation Project. It proposed the construction of a 200-km long system of enormous aqueducts to divert the water from the Mekong’s section in the vicinity of Nong Khai to feed the series of hydropower dams on the Chi and Mun rivers. [Picture2]
Orginally, the project only called for the diversion of the water from the Mekong in the rainy season. However, the Thai government later decided to do it also during the dry one at a flow rate of 300 m3/second on an average flow rate of 1600 m3/second during the dry season in the Mekong Delta. (4)
Picture 2: the Kong-Chi-Mun Project
[source: Watershed Vol.6 No.3, March-June 2001]
In total disregard of the cautions voiced by Thai experts that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was still incomplete and the project’s price tag too high, phase I of the KCM Project was given the green light anyway. The immediate impacts resulting from the implementation of that initial phase were many: destruction of the flooded forest, higher salinization in the farming areas in Thailand’s northeast, and negative changes in the peaceful life of the local communities.
_ 1994 Kok-Ing-Nan Project
Only two years later, the Thai government started to mention a second large project: Kok-Ing-Nan Project. This is an extremely daring transbasin water diversion project: transferring the water from the Mekong Basin to the Chao Phraya River’s one. This is a very large endeavor requiring an investment cost of US$ 1.5 billion.
This project diverts water from the Mekong’s two large tributaries the Kok and the Ing in Chiang Rai, north of Thailand, into giant tunnels running over a distance of more than 100 km to connect with the Nan River which is a tributary of the Chao Phraya. [Picture 3]
Picture 3: The Kok-Ing-Nan Project
[source: Watershed Vol.4 No.2 Nov 1998 - Feb 1999]
The Chao Phraya River, the lifeline of the Thai people, is now being drained dry and threatened with salinization. The water of the Kok and Ing Rivers will be used to feed the perennially thirsty big Sirikit dam. The water stored in its reservoir is not only destined to irrigate the parched and immense fields in the Chao Phraya Delta but also meet the demand of the expanding industrial parks as well as the tens of millions of inhabitants in Bangkok, the capital city.
The Thai government is in a position to implement the Kok-Ing-Nan Project because both of those Mekong’s tributaries flow within its national borders. At completion, Thailand has the ability to move 2,200 million cubic meters of water per year from the Mekong Basin to that of the Chao Phraya.
In the absence of an exhaustive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) it was not at all surprising that the livelihood of the local inhabitants was severely impacted right after the first dam Rasi Salai of the KCM Project was completed in 1994. The water of its reservoir alone caused the farming area owned by over 15,000 farmers to be inundated. To this day, the majority of them have yet to receive any compensation from their government. On top of that, the salinization caused by the dam prevented the people from using the water for their everyday use. Consequently, the local people had petitioned the government to take down the dam. (2)
On account of objective reasons i.e. excessive implementation costs and vehement opposition from a large segment of the local population, the Kong-Chi-Mun Project was temporarily shelved after the completion of its first phase.
THE EXPANDED KLCM PROJECT: A NIGHTMARE REVISITED
In 2008, the Thai Cabinet reconsidered the idea of channeling the water from the Mekong to irrigate the Isaan Plateau. The KCM / Kong-Chi-Mun Project was reactivated - this time with more aqueducts added and renamed the Kong-Loei-Chi-Mun / KLCM Project. The latter bears a price tag of US$ 17 billion – or 17,000 million dollars. Its completion time is expected to span over a 15-year period and its total investment cost may eventually reach a staggering US$ 76.8 billion. (3)
A question comes to mind: where will this huge amount of US$ 76.8 billion come from? Undoubtedly, one can assume that it would orginate from China. It fits very well within the One Belt One Road (OBOR) strategy for the Lancang-Mekong tailored and promoted in recent days by Beijing with the ultimate intention of subjugating the entire Mekong Delta. Vietnam that sits at the mouth of this river has no choice but to acquiesce.
The Loei River is another major tributary of the Mekong. It starts from the Phu Luang Plateau then flows south before turning into a southeastern direction to mark the boundary between the Loei and Phetchabun provinces. From there it moves north past the Chiang Khan District before merging with the Mekong.
In April of 2016, the RID/ Royal Irrigation Department started the pumping of the water from the Mekong. At the same time, it diverted the water from the Loei River to the Isaan Plateau by way of the Si Sin Rak Flood Gate. This so called “Flood Gate” is in reality another dam built at the estuary of the Loei River. The inhabitants in the two provinces of Ban Klang and Chiang Khan showed strong opposition to the construction of that Si Sin Rak dam.
During a demonstration, a woman from the village stated: "We have been living at this place for many generations already. We want to continue to live here and do not wish to relocate just for the purpose of being compensated.” The villagers also know that no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been conducted prior to the building of the Si Sin Rak Dam. Meanwhile, they were informed by the Royal Irrigation Department of Thailand that no EIA “was needed because only about 500 families are being affected” by the construction works. Nevertheless, thousands of the villagers in the Ban Klang Province still insisted that the government carry out an EIA before the actual works on the dam could begin.
THE PRICE OF WATER BROUGHT TO ISAAN
With the people of Isaan. KLCM is meant to be a self-paying project. Even though it was designed with the lofty aim of improving the living standard of the people, the cost involved in acquiring the needed water for its operation proves to be too prohibitive. So far, the Royal Irrigation Department of Thailand has not given a satisfactory explanation as to how the farmers could afford to pay for the electricity they use while the price of the rice they grow remains so low compared to its market price. The prosperity they were promised has yet to be realized yet in the meantime they already undergo the numerous disruption and inconvenience to their placid life.
With the people living downstream. Even though, Thailand has announced that the diversion of the Mekong’s water will only take place in the rainy season but in fact it is also being carried out during the dry one that lasts from February to May of each year. This plan has been going on “quietly” and continuously without any public announcement to inform the world communities or the countries downstream.
This partly accounts for the weaker flow rate of the Mekong’s water into the Tonle Sap Lake, aka as the Heart of Cambodia, at the time when the Tonle Sap River reverses its course in the rainy season over the last few years. Furthermore, it is reported that the High Water Season no longer comes during the rainy season while in the dry one, water penury coupled with severe drought become frequent throughout the Mekong Delta.
The phenomena that were observed in the Mekong Delta during 2016: the water level in the two Tiền and Hậu Rivers has dipped to its lowest point over the past 90 years (since 1926) and the extent of salinization has grown more acute with the brackish water encroaching deeper inland, all the way to the Cambodia-Vietnam border.
THE WATER SOURCE MUST BE SHARED EQUITABLY
Vietnam lies at the mouth of the Mekong, and Foreign Minister Nguyễn Mạnh Cầm representing his country committed a strategic misstep when he signed the 1995 Agreement of the Mekong abolishing the veto power of the member countries. This does not mean however that the member countries of the Mekong River Commission [MRC] have a free hand to exploit the river’s resources with the sole purpose of serving their self interests. Neighboring countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos must be consulted when any new project to build a hydropower dam or divert the Mekong’s water is being considered. Consequently, the KLCM Project cannot be an unilateral decision taken by the Royal Irrigation Bureau of Thailand but it also lies within the responsibility of the National Mekong Committee of Thailand – one of the four members of the MRC. By the same token, in the spirit of the 1995 Agreement of the Mekong, all plans to exploit the resources of the Mekong must be looked upon as Sustainable Development steps for the entire region. In that sense, there must be assurances that the Mekong’s water is equitably shared among the nations in the region.
Article 7 of the 1995 Agreement of the Mekong River for a Sustainable Development of the Mekong Basin states:“The contracting parties make every effort to avoid, minimize and mitigate harmful effects that might occur to the environment, especially the water quantity and quality, the aquatic eco-system conditions, and the ecological balance of the river, from the development and use of the Mekong River Basin water resources.”
In that spirit, all projects involving the Mekong must still go through these three PNPCA stages: (1) Procedures of Notification, (2) Prior Consultation, (3) and Agreement -- it means the agreement or consent from the member countries is still needed.
Nevertheless, in reality, we are now witnessing Beijing building hydropower dams in the series of the Mekong Cascades on the upper half of the Mekong River in Yunnan in full disregard of the impacts that may be wreaked on the nations downstream. Then comes the turn for the smaller countries like Thailand and Laos to act just as irresponsibly. Thailand never ceases diverting the water from the Mekong while Laos never stops the construction of its 9 dams on the main stream of the river brushing aside the concerns of its two southern neighbors: Cambodia and Vietnam.
A NETWORK OF ATTACHÉS FOR ECOLOGY
Once a fertile delta and the rice bowl of the entire country, the Mekong Delta is now showing signs of degradations and on the throes of gradual death. Faced with that fatal threat, besides very solitary and feeble signs of protest, Vietnam seems to be at a loss to formulate a guiding strategy to preserve the resources of the Mekong in general as well as a plan to save the Mekong Delta in particular. The MRC and the Mekong Committee of Vietnam, prove to be powerless and ineffective.
We are not about to forget the melodramatic attempt in March of 2016 when the "Prime Minister of Vietnam rescued the Mekong Delta" by calling on China to do a favor and release the water from the Jinghong Dam in order to save the Mekong Delta from drought. What is the result? A heartbreaking scene of peasants from the Mekong Delta forced to abandon their land to wander about looking for a way to earn a living!
As the "war on the ecology " is quietly unfolding, though it may be already too late but this is the very time for Vietnam to muster all its political, diplomatic and military muscle to save the Mekong, an entire fertile region of the nation, and the Civilization of Orchard that are threatened with extinction.
Picture 4: Drought in the Mekong Delta
[source: VNExpress 03.11.2016]
Two decades back, this author put forth a suggestion for the establishment of a Department for the Mekong River acting like a "think tank" at the Cần Thơ University. I later learned that the whole idea became “occluded” in Hanoi. To see the light of day, any program or plan must be approved first by Hanoi. [sic]
At the present time, we, the people of Vietnam, are not fully informed about the destructions that are silently doing their nefarious work all along the length of the Mekong’s current.
Professor Lê Anh Tuấn Ph.D. of Cần Thơ University has described vividly this lack of information in his answer to a question posed by reporter Hoàng Hương of the Tuần Việt Nam Magazine. He stated: "I have been in contact with many government officials and scientists of the region as well as in Vietnam. There are many projects dealing with the Mekong River they are not aware of or have scarce knowledge of. The farmers or fishermen form the group that is directly affected. Unfortunately, nobody comes forth to explain those projects to them in a clear and exhaustive manner or sollicit their opinion.”
So, who is in the best position to collect this information? When the free lance reporter Tưởng Năng Tiến and the ecology Prof. Lê Anh Tuấn of Cần Thơ University had to use the word “infiltrate” to refer to their visit to the “restricted” construction site of the Don Sahong Dam then we can see the full extent of the danger or risk involved in such an endeavor.
Picture 5: Prof. Lê Anh Tuấn, on an observation trip on the
Loei River, a tributary of the Mekong [source: TuanVietnam.net]
A policy of non-transparency and secrecy pervades the dams’ construction sites and the exploitation of the water source of the Mekong from Yunnan China all the way to Laos and Thailand. Those areas are classified as key strategic locations and well guarded like military installations. This author had first hand knowledge of it when he visited the Manwan Dam in Yunnan, the first dam built on the Mekong mainstream in China.
So, who, in fact, are protected by diplomatic immunity when they gain access to those sites if not the attachés assigned to the Embassies. We already have cultural, military attachés in place. Nothing prevents us from posting “attachés for ecology” to our Embassies located at the 6 nations of the Mekong Subregion. They would be tasked with the job of collecting, studying, monitoring the up-to-date data pertaining to the exploitation activities all along that river’s current. They must form an integral part of the inter-ministerial Vietnam Task Force in charge of protecting the Mekong River and saving the Mekong Delta.
This is an urgent proposal sent to Mr. Phạm Bình Minh, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Prime Minister and Member of the Politburo of Vietnam. He once served as Vice Chairman of the Mekong River Committee of Vietnam in 2010.
NGÔ THẾ VINH
1/ $17 Billion Project Proposes Changing Course of Asia's Mekong River, VOA's Khmer Service, by Neou Vannarin, September 16, 2016
2/ Water Diversion: A Re-emerging Threat to Mekong Water Security,
by Hoang Duong, July 29/2016, https://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/259/water-diversion-a-re emerging-threat-to-mekong-water-security
3/ Diverting the Mekong River into Thailand: The Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun project. Mekong Commons. Environmental Justice, June 6, 2016
4/ Mekong – Cửu Long 2011, A Look Forward Into The Next Half Century, by Ngô Thế Vinh, Viet Ecology Foundation, http://vietecology.org/Article.aspx/Article/61#