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Tunnel under Mekong could feed jasmine rice growing area
Tung Kula Rong Hai could run dry, but saline soil is a risk

Kultida Samabuddhi, Bangkok Post.  June 18, 2002.

The Irrigation Department plans to divert water from a Mekong tributary in
Laos to supply water to Tung Kula Rong Hai, Thailand's most famous jasmine
rice growing area.

Department chief Kijja Polphasi yesterday said a tunnel would be built under
the Mekong river to divert water from the Xe Bang Hiang river, in southern
Laos, to Mukdahan province.

The irrigation departments of the two countries had already agreed to ask
the Japan Bank for International Co-operation (JBIC) to sponsor a
feasibility study.

``The department will try in every way to protect Tung Kula Rong Hai from a
water shortage because the 2.1-million-rai area is the most suitable in the
country for jasmine rice plantation,'' Mr Kijja said.

He admitted that the department had failed with a practical irrigation
scheme in the Chi-Mun-Siew river basin.

As a result, it was possible that Tung Kula could run out of water in the
near future.

He said the water diversion plan would also benefit farmers in southern
Laos, where floods were severe.

``Xe Bang Hiang River in Laos' Savannakhet province has plenty of water. It
floods around 180,000 rai of farm land every year.

``So, the proposed project will help reduce floods in Savannakhet as well as
provide water to Isan farmers,'' said Mr Kijja.

But Chainarong Sethachue, of Southeast Asia River Network, said the project
could have far-reaching harmful environmental and social impacts on both

Mr Chainarong said under the project, initially proposed by Japan-based
Sanyu Consultants Inc, a dam would be built on Xe Bang Hiang river.

``The scheme also involves the resettlement of people in many villages in
Savannakhet province. The dam construction would also block the migration
route of fish species that swim upstream from the Mekong to Xe Bang Hiang,''
he said.

Mr Chainarong said diverting large amounts of water to northeast Thailand
would increase the area of saline soil, already a big headache in the

``According to geological studies, the northeast soil cannot absorb water
outside the rainy season. Therefore, farmers will not benefit from an
irrigation scheme. This raises a serious question if a costly water
diversion project is really necessary,'' he said.

A coalition of 17 grassroots and environmental organisations in Thailand
last month sent a petition to the governor of JBIC demanding the
organisation pull out from the project.


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