The Mekong People Approach the Government House EP.2 at the Government Complaint Center, the Office of the Permanent Secretary, the Prime Minister’s Office

At about 3.30 PM, after the march “Stride and Speak for Fishes” from the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, representatives from the Community Organization Council Network of 7 Northeastern Provinces in Mekong River Basin Association (ComNetMekong) have met with representatives from 12 government agencies including both department and ministry levels involved in the problem management of the Mekong River at the Office of the Public Sector Development Commission (OPDC). Regarding this Mekong meeting agenda which will lead to concrete recommendations, there were 7 points of discussion in accordance with 7 demands brought by the Mekong communities to negotiate with government organizations led by Mr. Seksakon Atthawong or “Rambo Isan”, Assistant to the Prime Minister’s Office Minister, as a chairman of the meeting.

The 1st point: Urging the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to promptly work on a bilateral operation between Thailand and Laos, among their energy-, water resources- and environment-related agencies, to integrate the cooperation; assistance and information sharing on water management by preparing the discussion points for Thai and Lao leaders by the end of March 2021, then extend the results in negotiating with China. In the negotiation, people must be able to participate in broadly expressing their opinions for the highest benefit of the country’s natural resources and to preserve them for future generations.

Ormbun Thipsuna, President of the ComNetMekong, stated that almost a hundred people came together today to talk about problems happened to the Mekong River. It must be said that the existing international mechanisms were not enough to protect and fix the cross-border problems caused by dam constructions. Research studies conducted by the Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR) including several universities clearly pointed out that building dams on the Mekong River will obviously cause transboundary impact. The government together with its relevant agencies must therefore have an evident mechanism to negotiate with Lao government in managing various issues of the Mekong River.

Rujikorn Saengchan, Deputy Director-General of the Department of International Economic Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that they were not at inactive in this regard. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had several bilateral mechanisms such as the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the Mekong-Lanchang Cooperation and the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) as well as other multilateral levels like the Mekong-Japan Economic Cooperation, the Mekong –U.S. Partnership, the Mekong-ROK Cooperation including the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) in which Laos also took part. It can be seen that Thailand had many ways to negotiate with Laos and the negotiations have been continuously happenings.

Recently, after the Chinese authority had announced the closure of Jinghong Dam for repairing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in contact with the ONWR to coordinate with China for more water releasing in order to alleviate the Mekong’s problems. The dialogue has continuously been occurring.

Ormbun added that villagers should have been allowed to participate in all of these negotiations as they have never been able to take part in such mechanisms before.    

Assoc. Prof. Thanaporn Sriyakul, the National Fisheries Policy Committee, proposed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should host a more explicit conversation between the relevant agencies and the Lao government on bilateral water and environmental management.

The Deputy Director-General of the Department of International Economic Affairs answered that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs already had plans to work more inclusively and is willing to have public sector involved in developing a dialogue towards the Lao government.

Montree Chantawong, the ComNetMekong’s adviser from the Mekong Butterfly group, found that after the meeting between Thai minister and China consulting for more water release, it was actually not the case. China also informed that it will finish repairing the transmission line since the end of January, it has not yet released additional water until now and the Mekong today remains very dry. He suggested having an evident monitoring process towards China and proposing China’s water releasing plan which accorded well with the need of the people in downstream countries as well as allowing public participation.

Assoc. Prof. Thanaporn Sriyakul suggested that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has to be a consultant for those relevant agencies in initiating a conversation with Laos. It might begin with cross-border natural resources and environmental issues, then followed by fisheries.

The 2nd point Urging the government to postpone the purchase of electricity or any power purchase agreements from Lao’s dams blocking the Mekong River until a solid conclusion is made on Thailand’s electricity demand and need towards the Mekong dams. In the formulation of electricity using and purchasing plan, the national energy security should not be the only dimension to be considered, the impact on ecosystem and natural resources of the country as a whole must also be scrutinized. There must be a thoughtful process of consultation with stakeholders and civic sector as well as an urgent determination of the remedial measures for the affected communities along the Mekong.

Ormbun said that the villagers were obviously affected by the changes of the Mekong River due to dam constructions, they had to give up on their careers. Only in the northeastern region, there are more than a thousand villages located along the Mekong, the impact happened to their agriculture; fisheries and tourism. It was proposed to initially set up a comprehensive compensation fund. As for the reserve capacity, Thailand now has more than 15% of the backup power as required and Thai people have to bear the burden of rising electricity tariff owing to the increased reserve margin. Moreover, the Mekong people have to bear the cost of life they have lost because of dams building which will be scarcely beneficial to them.

As to Dr. Veerapat Kiatfuengfoo, Director of Power Policy Bureau in the Energy Policy and Planning Office, Ministry of Energy, the purchase of more than 9,000 MW of electricity from overseas, Laos in particular, started with the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) on behalf of the Thai government and the government of Laos, the Ministry of Energy did not indicate where to build dams as the countries normally have their own dam policies.

The overseas electricity purchasing project must also be in line with Thailand’s Power Development Plan (PDP). Buying electricity from Laos should occur only when the reserve capacity is low which will be during 2026-2027. The ministry will purchase electricity from within the country first, the one from abroad must be a second option and will be bought only when the power reserve margin is low with an approved Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). And in case of dams on the Mekong mainstream, the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) process must be done.

The meeting’s chairman proposed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has to work with the relevant agencies as well as civic sector in order to create a mutual agreement. Assoc. Prof. Thanaporn agreed with this, but wanted other authorities such as the Ministry of Energy to join. Ormbun also supported this suggestion and requested a joint forum between the government, civic sector as well as Laos.

Montree Chantawong added that it was a good occasion to talk with the Ministry of Energy today, the first thing that must be talked about now was the ecosystem problems affecting people’s livelihood which have been occurring for 2 years in a row, especially the crystal-clear Mekong since 2019 after the power generation of the Xayaburi Dam. The people along the Mekong also measured the turbidity of the water at every gauging stations from Chiang Khong to Ubon Ratchathani and found that turbidity in water was all higher than 120 centimeters, while at Chiang Khong station, it was about 30-70 centimeters. It indicated that the water was very transparent which really affected the ecosystem. Montree would like the Ministry of Energy to think about how to not let the Xayaburi Dam bring about the Mekong crystal-clear phenomenon or to release more sediment.   

The 3rd point The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment through the Office of Natural Resources and Environment Policy and Planning (ONEP) must speed up the revision of the environmental quality promotion laws to give Thailand the authority to conduct an EIA of the projects with cross-border impacts in order to safeguard its benefits in terms of natural resources and environment as well as to further effectively negotiate with foreign countries. The Prime Minister, in this urgent situation, is asked to exercise his executive power directing the ONEP to run a transboundary EIA as the government used to do in the case of the Mekong rapids blasting.

Indhira Euamonlachat, Director of the EIA Division of the ONEP, commented that legal enforcement on the EIA is under each country’s sovereignty, Thailand could not apply its EIA guidelines to the projects in other countries’ territory. She personally acknowledged that the MRC has been pushing a transboundary EIA.

Representative from the Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR) agreed that a common approach must be used to drive the Transboundary EIA Guideline to be approved by the MRC’s meeting and literally be applied. Such guideline must be adopted as it has never been used before.

As to Montree Chantawong, this issue should be extensively considered in different aspects. The Mekong people agreed with the Transboundary Impact Assessment (TBIA) that the ONWR has to negotiate. However, a cross-border EIA could be conducted in Thailand to see what kind of impact there would be since it had been done before in the Mekong rapids-blasting project using internal budget with no need to intervene the EIA implementation in Laos. The ONWR itself already had a study on the TBIA of the Mekong River, it may not do for all 12 main dams, but that of the Xayaburi Dam must be conducted.

Assoc. Prof. Thanaporn Sriyakul added that there was a cabinet resolution in 2004 regarding a conduct of an EIA for the rapids-blasting project, the villagers thought that collecting data on the Thai side was enough and it did not have to be done in Laos. Conducting the assessment merely on the Thai territory, where the Mekong River enters Thailand, would not affect international relations.

Ormbun commented that the previous impact assessment did not meet the villagers’ expectation as they were not involved in designing the research problems. Such research problems only came from the Terms of Reference (ToR) between the project developer and the consulting firm, she would like the villagers to participate in designing the research problems or the EIA. 

The 4th point Managing of database and creating an effective real-time water-level-changing alarm system from Chiang Rai to Ubon Ratchathani which is easily accessible for the people along the Mekong River in all areas in order to alleviate their sufferings and that they can truly cope with and make use of the water-changing situation.  

The representative from the ONWR said that Thailand is now mainly using the MRC’s database which is published on the website. The water level alert was quite slow because China informed late. In the future, however, there will be a provincial water center for water management together with the MRC’s flood monitoring system. The limitation is that it is still in English, no Thai language. The ONWR planned to have Thai translation with easily understood infographics.       

Ormbun proposed that there should be an application that people can access promptly and more quickly than the website as many villagers could not use the website. There should also be a local alarm in different areas, there was no evacuation training at all in the past.     

Montree said that, regarding the warning system, the ONWR should go beyond the flood alert because just a few meters of daily water level fluctuation can have a huge impact on people, particularly farmers and fishermen along the Mekong. He therefore suggested to have new water level measurement and warning notification as people are now monitoring the water mainly from Chinese dams. It actually needs to also monitor the water level of the Mekong tributaries in the Lao side, there should be an integration of water level data from various substations.        

The representative from the ONWR answered that the ONWR is now developing the MoU with Laos on an exchange of information regarding the water level and dam operation, including the opening and closing of floodgates. The water in the tributaries in Laosaffects the quantity of the mainstream Mekong the most among the 4 countries.       

The 5th point There must be a determination of remedial measures for the affected communities along the Mekong in relation to their careers which are fishery; agriculture as well as livestock in order to compensate the income they used to gain from the Mekong River.   

Chawien Kongseema, representative from Pak Chom sub-district, stated that the problem has already happened and the ecosystem has already been destroyed, he wanted the relevant authorities to have a compensation policy since he is now in a lot of trouble.    

Representative from the Ministry of Interior got back to the earlier issue saying that the Thai National Mekong Committee Secretariat will be responsible for the Mekong warning system and the Hydrographic Department will take care of the hydrography. For example, in Chiang Saen district, there will be a preparation of daily fluctuation data reported only the water level as well as a simple warning system which can be done through the governor sending notifications to sub-district or village headmen via Line application or mobile phone, it yet might be delayed. The Ministry of Interior will therefore take this matter to develop the more timely warning system that people access faster.        

After this, there will be a training for practicing the warning systems as well as an adjustment of the remediation criteria in terms of disaster prevention and mitigation to be more in line with the changing condition of the Mekong River, especially in the Mekong riverside areas.  

Representative from the Ministry of Finance said that the regulations of the Ministry of Finance could not cover the compensation process, the state money could not be used without laws. As this was about public disaster and compensation, it must be firstly initiated by the relevant authorities. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture must be the one who conveys the issue of disaster impacts on agricultural sector.      

Deputy Director-General of the Department of Fisheries, the Ministry of Agriculture said that he will act as a host in putting the compensation issue in terms of the agricultural impacts into operation.

Amnat Trichak as the head of Nakhon Phanom Community Organization Council requested the government agencies at the meeting to have the people engaged in the implementation of compensation formulation. Without civic sector in this mechanism, the problems will not be directly solved and there will be further impacts.   

Ormbun expressed her concern that there will more companies involved in dam building and while the electric energy fund was growing, the affected people however were not compensated at all.  

“Destroyers did not compensate anything. We would like to propose that the remedial fund should charge the companies that profit from their dam operations for remedies, not only doing CSR, we do not want it. And the people should not be compensated with their own taxes.”  

The 6th point Assigning the Decentralization to the Local Government Organization Committee to speed up concretely decentralizing the power in managing natural resources and environment, including transferring the missions; budget as well as personnel in accordance with the decentralization plan. The operation must include a consultation process with stakeholders and civic sector. In case that the local government organization needs more missions and duties, the decentralization committee is requested to exercise its authority as per Section 16 and 17 of the Determining Plans and Process of Decentralization to Local Government Organization Act B.E. 2562

Representative of the Office of the Decentralization to the Local Government Organization Committee, the Office of the Permanent Secretary, the Prime Minister’s said that they have established a decentralization subcommittee on natural resources and environment which has already set up a working group to study the problems at the local level. People can report to the provincial decentralization committee chaired by the governor and if it is a specific matter or a severe catastrophic which can be called ‘asymmetry’, such area may be granted more authority in some issues related directly to the management of people’s sufferings.        

As to Assoc. Prof. Thanaporn Sriyakul, the asymmetric decentralization might meet the demand of the people from 7 Mekong provinces more clearly, for instance, the disaster alert and management that the Provincial Administrative Organization (PAO) would possibly be able to do in the future.     

The 7th point Assigning the National Fisheries Policy Committee to quickly appoint a subcommittee for solving the problem of ecological changes in the Mekong River Basin.

The representative from the Department of Fisheries said that after having discussed this afternoon, Mr. Alongkorn Ponlaboot, adviser to the Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, has already stated that ministerial-level committee will be set up which is an initial conclusion.       

Ormbun said that people wanted this the most, they understood well the Ministry of Agriculture’s responsibility but this committee must go beyond that. The Ministry of Agriculture may be a coordinator creating integration, but the Mekong problems go further than that.    

“We come today to speak for the fishes, we do not know how to answer the media now. We would like this subcommittee to be set up today because the Mekong issue is big and too big for any single agency to handle alone.”

Assoc. Prof. Thanaporn Sriyakul stated that this issue was the easiest one as there had been a meeting and order drafting for setting up this subcommittee. It is left only signing on such appointment letter, meaning that people have to keep on waiting. However, it was good that the hardest issue regarding the setting-up of a working group from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to negotiate with the Lao government today became the easiest issue.     

After the meeting, the chairman said that the people only came to present their recommendations today and it was an opportunity for the agencies to meet with them clarifying their concerns as well as bringing such concerns; suggestions and the results of discussion to summarize and inform the Director-General of the Department or the Permanent Secretary involved. Then the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) will directly present the issue for the Prime Minister to further decide and order again.

It seems that the Mekong people have yet to reach a satisfactory conclusion on all 7 points since the relevant agencies could not instantly make any decisions. Moreover, there is no exact time frame for putting each issue’s conclusion info effect. However, all the parties joining the meeting today agreed that the Mekong River is in a critical crisis and at least, the most complicated issue like the bilateral action between Thailand and Laos in negotiating for the solutions of the Mekong through various frameworks is showing the most progress. The results will be extended to a discussion with China because the MRC’s problem-solving mechanism is not effective and tardy.   

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s