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Asia

Dam planned for national park put on hold

A year-long campaign by environmentalists and conservationists against a planned dam inside a national park in central Thailand has led the Thai Government to back down on the plan.

Thai government plans to build dams and reservoirs, including within national parks, faced a major setback last week following a successful campaign by conservationists to put a halt to a planned dam inside the Mae Wong national park in central Thailand.

The proposed 428-million-US-dollar dam to be built inside the park, located 370 kilometers north of Bangkok, was to be part of the government's $12 billion flood management program after the disastrous 2011 floods that claimed 800 lives and cost $40 billion.

Ministers adamant over project

Marbled cat wanders around the Mae Wong National Park(Photo: DNP/WWF-Thailand)

WWF camera traps keep an eye on the park's wild cats; here it captured a marbled cat

The Thai cabinet approved the project in April 2012, with government ministers determined to press ahead with the project despite protests by environmentalists.

Deputy Prime Minister and chair of the Water and Flood Management Commission (WFMC) Plodprasop Suraswadi told local media the Mae Wong Dam's flood prevention value outweighed any negative impacts on forestry and wildlife.

Plodprasop said while he was open to suggestions about how to improve the project's environmental impact assessment, he would not listen to people who tell him not to build the dam.

A Royal Irrigation Department survey stressed the dam's role to provide irrigation to some 480 square kilometers of farmland, with the dam affecting only 19 of the park's 894 square kilometers.

Part of protected area

The park has been protected under the 1961 National Park Act for 25 years with tens of millions dollars ensuring the region is secure for wildlife. The Mae Wong is part of the largest protected area network in mainland Southeast Asia known as the Western Forest Complex, covering 17 protected areas of 18,000 square kilometers. The park also provides a buffer for the nearby Huay Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary.

Retired meteorologist and scientist, Samith Dharmasaroja, - and a former government adviser on water management issues - opposes the government's plans.

"I don't agree with the government plan (to build the dam) because it is just thick forest, for nature, wild animals, cattle and tigers and so on. We should reserve that area, not the dam," Samith told DW.

Activists march

A tiger walks at night through the Mae Wong National Park (Photo: DNP/WWF-Thailand)

Conservationists worry the project could endanger the regions tiger population, of which there are now less than 300

A simmering campaign against the dam received a major boost when activist Sasin Chalermlap, secretary general of the Seub Nakhasathien (Conservation) Foundation in early September marched almost 400 kilometers to Bangkok from Nakhon Sawan province.

Sasin was welcomed by up to 3,000 dam environmentalists and conservationists upon his arrival after a 10-day march to central Bangkok, in a dramatic show of support that unnerved government leaders.

He warned that if the Royal Irrigation Department's environmental assessment report was adopted, other forest areas would be threatened. "They are using this (report) as the standard regulation and if it goes through, other dams will go ahead and ... if this is the standard, the forests will all be lost," Sasin told DW.

Conservationists also raised the issue that the dam could threaten vulnerable species in the region, including the habitat for about one dozen wild Asian tigers. Thailand's wild tiger population now stands at fewer than 300.

Tiger conservation

Rungnapa Phoomjampa, manager of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Thailand tiger recovery program, says the region, which includes the Hway Kha Khaeng Tung Yai Wildlife Sanctuary, "is like the heart of the conservation (area) of the tiger."

"If we want to increase the tiger population we have to increase the tiger habitat for them as well," Rungnapa told DW.

In recent years the WWF has set "camera traps" inside the park, capturing images of tigers and their prey, including gaur, barking deer, and wild pig.

At the Bangkok rally welcoming Sasin Chalermlap, supporter Mr. Utthiput, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, says his prime concern lies with the impact the dam would have on the tiger population.

"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. The area is not supposed to be destroyed, it's supposed to be preserved; it's like a lung of our world," he told DW.

Significant victory for environmentalists

Fishermen throw nets into the Mekong River on March 18, 2009 in Laos. (Photo: EPA/BARBARA WALTON (zu dpa 0506 vom 26.06.2012) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)

Hydropower dam projects in Asia have jeopardized the culture of local populations

Mounting public pressure has forced the government to retreat. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra put a halt to the Royal Irrigation Department's development proposal and called on Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop to hold talks with the opponents to the dam, including Sasin Chalermlap.

Anak Pattanavibool, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Thailand, says the government back-down marks an important moment for Thailand's conservation movement, even if the project has not been cancelled and authorities seek alternative sites outside 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 the people to feel that you don't need to have big dams destroying parks anymore in Thailand," Anak told DW.

"So that's the key message. In terms of the back down a little bit, I think it's quite strong for the message of conservation."

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