People protest the Mae Wong Dam, Bangkok, Sept. 22, 2013. (Ron Corben for VOA)
People protest the Mae Wong Dam, Bangkok, Sept. 22, 2013. (Ron Corben for VOA)
Proposed Dam Site Near Mae Wong National Park,Thai
Proposed Dam Site Near Mae Wong National Park,Thailand.

The Thai government stepped away from plans to build a dam in a national park as part of a multi-billion dollar flood management scheme. The decision to re-evaluate the environmental impact of the project marks a victory for conservationists.

Since the 2011 floods that inundated Thailand’s factories, scared away tourists and caused some $40 billion in losses, the Thai government has worked to deploy a nationwide flood management scheme.

However, civic and engineering groups criticized the $12-billion plan for being poorly conceived and focusing more on improving irrigation than preventing floods. Critics  also said the government has not sought adequate public input on the plans.
Despite the opposition, the government stuck by its proposals for some 20 dams and drainage systems across the country. That is until this week, when authorities said they would re-evaluate the impact of a proposed $428-million dam within the Mae Wong National Park, 370 kilometers north of Bangkok.

Anak Pattanavibool, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Thailand, said the reversal marks an important moment for Thailand’s conversation movement, even though the project has not been cancelled and authorities are likely to look for alternative sites outside of the park.

"It's quite significant. I think it's going to be ... I don't want to say victory but it's like we can get people to feel that you don't need to have big dams destroying parks anymore in Thailand," he said. "So that's the key message. In terms of the government back down a little bit, I think it's quite strong for conservation - the message for conservation."

When assessing the dam’s impact, surveyors said it would only affect 19 of the park’s 894 square kilometers. It would be able to hold enough water to irrigate some 480 square kilometers of farmland.

But that did little to appease environmentalists such as Sasin Chalermlap, secretary general of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, who walked almost 400 kilometers to Bangkok to raise awareness of the project.

Sasin was met in Bangkok by more than 2,000 supporters. He told VOA the environmental impact studies for the proposed Mae Wong dam were expected to serve as a model for other planned dams.

Sasin said the Department-backed assessments would pose a threat to forested areas throughout the country.

Khun Utthiput, a lecturer at Chulalongk
Khun Utthiput, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, is worried about the Mae Wong Dam's impact on tiger and the forest, Bangkok, Sept. 22, 2013. (Ron Corben for VOA)

Former meteorologist and scientist, Samith Dharmasaroja, said some aspects of the water management scheme should go ahead, but the Mae Wong dam should not be one of them.

"I don't agree with the government flood plan. I don't know why they want to dig that area [Mae Wong] for a pond [dam] to keep some little amount of water flow down to the Bangkok area," he said.

Conservationists, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), feared the dam would endanger efforts to protect vulnerable species, including the habitat for about one dozen wild tigers.

Thai protestors, like Khun Utthiput, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, say their concerns have been focused on the dam’s impact on the tiger population and the forests.

"The [tiger] population is getting larger and larger these days, so it's not worth it to lose them and to lose the other animals," he said. "From what I see the area is not supposed to be destroyed, it's supposed to [be] preserved, it's like a lung of our world, this forest is a lung of the world."

For now, Thai authorities say they will undertake another environmental study and alter the dam’s design to focus more on flood prevention than irrigation.