6 June 2024

“When the Salween runs dry and we can cross it, that would be the end of the world,” is a saying widely believed by generations of locals who live on the banks of the river in Mae Hong Son province. In a proactive move, the locals, including many young people, gathered recently to oppose the proposed construction of a dam.

Marking the International Day of Actions for Rivers on March 14, many members of Generations Y and Z turned up on the banks of Salween River in Sop Moei district to join the call of the elders on the need to protect the river.

“I trust that Gen Y and Gen Z have the power to change their countries for the better. We will be the voice that authorities must pay heed to,” Lameethor “Som” Dangdanwiman said. She was among more than 50 youngsters aged 15 to 30 years old who decided to carry on the mission of protecting rivers and the many beings whose lives could be endangered if the authorities went ahead with the dam construction without paying heed to nature.

Their presence at the recent event reaffirms that the campaigns against dams will not die down when the familiar faces on the environmental conservation front are too old to engage in the battle.

Proud of her and other youngsters’ determination to fight for the rivers and the local small riverside communities, Lameethor said her group was working with ethnic youth groups in Thailand’s North as well as in Myanmar to push their agenda.

“We are going to take the torch from our grandparents and parents,” she said with confidence.

Locals, young and old, join forces on International Day of Action for Rivers in Sop Moei district of Mae Hong Son province. Standing on the bank of the Salween River, they declare their shared stance against dams that threaten both the environment and local way of life. (Photo by Pakpoom Pongbhai)

Belief in the young

Chiang Khong Conservation Group founder Niwat Roykaew, the chairperson of the Foundation for Integration of water Management (Thailand), Hannarong Yaowalers, and the president of YMCA for Northern Development Foundation, Pongpipat Meebenjamatr, have expressed their full support for youth playing a greater role in the movement for protection of the river.

The transnational river runs over 3,289 kilometres, flowing from the Tibetan Plateau south into the Andaman Sea. Although the Salween flows primarily within southwest China and eastern Myanmar, it forms a short section on the border of Myanmar and Thailand.

Speaking at the recent event by the Salween River, Niwat clearly said he was now placing his hope in the young people because they shared his aspirations.

“Some old people were born in the world but failed to recognize it,” the prominent environmentalist said, “But now many young people are showing that they have the heart for the Salween River just like I do.”

He believes it is necessary that veteran environmentalists urgently inculcate these valuable ideas in the “green minds” of the young because they can lead the movement to ensure the protection of rivers and the planet.

Mekong is half-dead

Lessons from the ailing Mekong

Niwat said because so many dams had been constructed along the Mekong River, another transnational river close to 5,000 kilometres long that flows through six countries — China, Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam, — its natural course has been impaired, with adverse impacts on people living on its banks.

“When dams go up, the authorities and investors control the seasons. Gone is the normalcy,” he lamented, “We need to protect the Salween River. We need to protect it so that future generations will know what a real river is like. Today, the Mekong is already ailing. It has struggled for more than 25 years already.”

Several studies suggest that the dams along the Mekong River have affected around 60 million people because of the abnormal changes in the water level and the extinction of some species. Local fishermen say they are hardly able to make a living through the Mekong anymore.

Natives of the northern province of Mae Hong Son are worried that if the Yuam Water Diversion Tunnel is constructed, their local environment would also be ruined.

According to a plan, this tunnel will be built at a budget of at least 100 billion baht. If it materializes, this tunnel will stretch through three northern districts affecting the local way of life, livelihood, farmlands, the ecosystem, and spiritual areas.

Dr Malee Sitthikriengkrai of the Chiang Mai University’s Center for Ethnic Studies and Development said agricultural crops in Nam Yuam Nam Ngao River Basin – which is in Mae Hong Son – were worth 8 million baht a year on average.

2 Youth have played a bigger role in campaigning for environmental protection. (Photo by Pakpoom Pongbhai)

New hope

A young environmentalist, who joined the “No Dam” event in Mae Hong Son last week, said she intended to communicate with the powers-that-be and hope that they would understand the adverse impact on the locals.

“If the tunnel is built, our water, food, home and farmland would never be the same again,” she said. Raising her fist high, she warned, “If the powers that be won’t listen to us, we will step up our campaign. We will fight to the end.”

Lameethor said agencies planning a dam or a tunnel construction should take a hard look as to whether they could take responsibility for the serious adverse impacts on the ecosystem, communities and the local way of life.

“Will you be able to take care of our lives? If not, you must respect our voice,” she said.

Preeda Kongpan, a National Human Rights commissioner, said her agency had already accepted the complaint from three districts of Mae Hong Son, including Sop Moei, about the Yuam Water Diversion Tunnel Project. This tunnel, if connected, will connect to the Salween River.

The complaint focuses on whether the project’s environmental impact assessment has violated human rights or the rights of communities.

“The ruling will come out in late March. I think it will be good news,” Preeda said, without elaborating.

By Thai PBS World