Interview: ‘Thai people need to have a say in Mekong hydropower’

Environmental campaigner Pai Deetes on the future of Thailand’s rivers and environmental policy
<p>Karen indigenous youth gather on the bank of the Salween River at the Salween Peace Park in Myanmar’s Karen state, on the 2018 International Day of Action for Rivers (Image: Pai Deetes / International Rivers)</p>

Karen indigenous youth gather on the bank of the Salween River at the Salween Peace Park in Myanmar’s Karen state, on the 2018 International Day of Action for Rivers (Image: Pai Deetes / International Rivers)

With a general election approaching in May, 2023 is set to be an important year for environmental policy in Thailand, especially when it comes to rivers. To the west of the country, dam-building plans and civil unrest over the border in Myanmar threaten biodiversity and indigenous groups along the Salween River. To the east, largely Chinese-led construction of dams on the Mekong continues apace, with immense implications for the entire region.

Meanwhile at home, debate surrounds the Thai government’s new Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) economy. The BCG is an incipient multi-sector national model for development and post-pandemic recovery put in place in 2021. Critics say that the plans, which run until 2026, favour large companies and fail to address transboundary river issues.

Pianporn (Pai) Deetes, the country director for Thailand and Myanmar at the non-profit International Rivers, has been a tireless campaigner for Thailand’s rivers for decades, collaborating with academics and residents of remote villages along both the Salween and the Mekong. Pai Deetes spoke with The Third Pole in January 2023 on the future of the environment and civil society in Thailand.

Pianporn (Pai) Deetes at a panel table
Pianporn (Pai) Deetes speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on 17 August 2022, the day the Supreme Administrative Court announced its dismissal of the Xayaburi dam lawsuit. The lawsuit, filed in 2012 by the Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces, was an attempt to hold Thai authorities accountable for a power purchase agreement with the Xayaburi dam in Laos. (Image: Wichai Juntavaro / International Rivers)

The Third Pole: Thailand’s new Bio-Circular Green (BCG) model has been accused of supporting a lot of large companies and monopolies in Thailand. How can civil society push back?

Pai Deetes: It’s not pushback, but we question what it [the BCG] means on the ground and in reality. We still see the direction of exploiting natural resources and boosting the economy without considering social and environmental or ecological costs.

Thailand is still pushing for power purchase agreements with at least a few dams to be built on the Mekong – for example the controversial Pak Beng and Luang Prabang dams – and those are not actually needed for the Thai electricity system. So, what do they mean when they say the Bio-Circular Green economy, when they are still pushing for destructive projects?

Thailand’s power purchase agreements are triggering much controversy, given the environmental damage caused by new hydropower dams on the Mekong. What are civil society groups doing to try to prevent EGAT (the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) and others from engaging in power purchase agreements in Laos and Cambodia?

Thai civil society and the Thai population are questioning purchasing more electricity from neighbouring countries, including from dams on the Mekong at Pak Beng and Luang Prabang. Since last year, every household has felt the increase in their electricity bill each month. So the question is, ‘While we have a huge energy reserve, [an electricity surplus of] more than 50%, why are you buying more?’ All the cost is on us.

Looking through this lens, it’s not just the problem of people living on the Mekong any more, but everybody’s problem because the Thai utility, EGAT, is getting involved in more long-term [power purchase] agreements – like up to 35 years in the purchase of [electricity from] the Luang Prabang dam. Our money is paying for those power plants that are actually not needed, just to create wealth for some people.

Our money is paying for those power plants that are actually not needed, just to create wealth for some people
Pai Deetes

You’re also well known for your work on the Salween, a river that runs largely through Myanmar and is the largest free-flowing, undammed river in Southeast Asia. There have been plans for large and small hydropower projects on the Salween for decades. How are the problems there different from those faced on the Mekong?

There are fewer actors and fewer eyes because [Myanmar] is remote and it has been under civil war for almost seven decades. Most recently, after the coup in Myanmar, the local populations affected by the [potential or planned] dams have been affected by military attacks, violence and air strikes. I would say that the villagers and the owners of the Salween basin have been even more voiceless because day by day they have been in survival mode in the jungle for some time. The first thing is where to sleep tonight, how to cook rice without letting the Burmese junta see the smoke, and will the fighter jets come and just drop a bomb again, so that’s more important right now.

However, amidst the ongoing attacks on civilians by the junta, I still see the strong will of locals and indigenous peoples to protect their rivers and ancestral land, especially at the Salween Peace Park in Karen state, the Thousand Islands in Shan state, and in Karenni state.

people sitting on rocks near riverbank
Karen indigenous displaced people who were pushed back from Thailand as they sought refuge during an air strike by Myanmar junta’s air force in 2021. The Salween River and its tributaries have long been planned for water diversion and hydropower development. (Image: Pai Deetes / International Rivers)

Thailand’s Royal Irrigation Department is promoting a trans-basin water diversion project from the Yuam/Salween to Bhumibol dam in Central Thailand. This is just phase one. Phase two is dams on the mainstream Salween River. They [the irrigation department] mention the involvement of Chinese enterprises and Chinese private sectors, but very little information is available to the public.

When we talk to the scholars who study water management in the Chao Phraya basin in central Thailand, the area has been flooded for a few months already, and the plan would divert water during the rainy season. That doesn’t make sense. Who actually needs this? People in Central Thailand don’t need more water. Is it construction companies? Is it politicians that need to accumulate more resources for the upcoming election? Lots of critical questions are coming up.

This is an election year in Thailand. What role can journalists and civil society play at this point in addressing the environmental problems facing rivers in mainland Southeast Asia?

I believe voters in Thailand can ask questions of candidates for the next election about their policy on the governance and management of transboundary basins like the Mekong and the Salween, and why existing impacts are not being taken into consideration or into negotiation with foreign countries.

Thailand is like the heart of mainland Southeast Asia in terms of actors. They’re building more hydropower in Laos and plan to import and sell it to Malaysia and Singapore, so as Thai people we need to have a say and we should be able to ask questions, because in other countries like Laos and Myanmar, people do not have the space to raise such questions.

Thailand also quietly joined the 30×30 biodiversity pledge a few months ago to protect 30% of land and ocean for nature. How can Thailand work with indigenous people to help reach the 30×30 goal?

The Thai [environment] ministry tends to be green, but green at the exclusion of indigenous people and local communities. We see more and more people arrested for just going about their livelihoods, and indigenous people have been excluded from mainstream conservation. They are just perceived as invaders of the national park, but it’s their ancestral land.

They [indigenous peoples] inherited that [land] and have been taking care of the forest for generations. Without them, the forest wouldn’t still be lush. It’s time for Thailand and the Thai government to revisit their policies, to be more participatory, inclusive and accountable.