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A water diversion project that China is funding in Thailand is raising eyebrows

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Thailand, plans for an ambitious water diversion project are raising lots of questions from environmentalists and from others who question a Chinese state-run company's offer to pay for it. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The Thai parliament sits on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, and that's where I meet the project's chief proponent.

VEERAKORN KAMPRAKOB: I'm Mr. Veerakorn Kamprakob, the chairman of the subcommittee of Chao Phraya watershed.

SULLIVAN: And that watershed, he says, has a problem - not enough water for agriculture or industry or to combat saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Thailand.

KAMPRAKOB: Right now, we are in the situation that we don't have the water for what we need.

SULLIVAN: He says this project will help - water pumped from the river in the northwest of the country, then piped 60 kilometres underground to a reservoir for distribution in the Chao Phraya Basin. A preliminary environmental impact assessment has already been completed. Best of all, he says, a Chinese state-owned firm has offered to foot the entire bill up front for about half the government's initial estimate of $2 billion.

KAMPRAKOB: It's astonishing. It's amazing. Very, very good deal.

SULLIVAN: Especially during COVID, he says. The cost of construction - to be repaid over time once the water starts flowing.

KAMPRAKOB: After I tell prime minister about this offer, the prime minister very glad.

SULLIVAN: Because the government, Veerakorn says, may not have the money for this mega-project right now.

KAMPRAKOB: So if there is kind of offer, why not, you know? So he pushed this project. That's why it go quite, quite rapidly.

SULLIVAN: Too rapidly for some 450 miles to the north.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER RUSHING)

SULLIVAN: I'm standing on this little rocky island in the middle of the Yom River in northwestern Thailand. And it's gorgeous here. There's a thick canopy of green on either side of the river. And it's just below the village of Mae Ngao. And the villagers here say if this dam gets built, their entire village is going to be underwater, and they are not happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE RUNNING)

SULLIVAN: In Mae Ngao, farmer Singkran Reunhom, who's lived here for 30 years, remembers when proponents of the dam came to sell the idea just before COVID hit.

SINGKRAN REUNHOM: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: They only told us of the benefits of the project, and they didn't let us ask questions, he says. They said only four families would have to move, but we don't believe them. We all live next to each other, so we know we'll all be affected. His neighbor, Thongchai Lertphichinphaiboon, runs the local grocery store.

THONGCHAI LERTPHICHINPHAIBOON: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: I'm worried my shop will have to move, but to where? And what about the environment, he asks. We catch fish from the river and eat from the jungle. What will we do if they're gone? Pianporn Deetes of the environmental group International Rivers is also concerned. She says there are less intrusive alternatives to blasting 60 kilometers of tunnel, some of it through protected forest.

PIANPORN DEETES: Thirty to 40% of the water irrigation system in Chao Phraya basin been leaking. So why don't we, like, fixing all those systems so that we can save enough water and we don't have to destroy this forest and watershed?

SULLIVAN: And she says there's another question.

DEETES: Why do we need to invite Chinese company to build such a huge project in this area? Is there any other political or financial reasons?

SULLIVAN: Maybe both.

BENJAMIN ZAWACKI: The Chinese have perfected the art of underbidding, undercutting other bids by other countries, other companies in the region, even on infrastructure projects that, on their face, do not have a strong chance of paying economic dividends.

SULLIVAN: The Asia Foundation's Benjamin Zawacki is author of the recent book "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between The U.S. And A Rising China."

ZAWACKI: It's addition by subtraction. If they can get a project in one of the Southeast Asian countries and in so doing, prevent the Americans, the Japanese or the Taiwanese from getting the project, that's a plus for them in geopolitical terms.

SULLIVAN: Especially in Thailand, which has been more wary than its neighbors of embracing China's big infrastructure projects. But the ties are pragmatic, he says - both the government and its people.

ZAWACKI: For example, if Huawei is chosen as the vehicle through which to roll out 5G in the country, there will be no blowback whatsoever as long as it works well, as long as it's fast, as long as it allows Thais to do what it is they want to do. It's only when those things fail that allegations of, you know, corruption or incompetence or things raise their heads above the parapet.

SULLIVAN: The politician Veerakorn says bids for the project could go out by the end of the year. He thinks chances are good the Chinese firm will get the nod. For NPR news, I'm Michael Sullivan in Mae Ngao, northwestern Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.