The Mekong River is very important for millions of local communities along the mainstream and its tributaries who depend heavily on the river’s natural ecosystem functions. The health of the river is the health of the communities. Changes in the river basin mean a lot to those marginalized people who too often have no voice and have limited alternatives for sustaining their livelihoods.
The villages along the Mekong mainly depend on fishing and agriculture that require irrigation water from the river. Dam construction in China has already caused impacts to the river ecosystems and subsequently downstream communities. Water-level fluctuation has been the most destructive impact from unannounced releases at upstream dams in China. Most of the Mekong’s fish species are migratory and their migration instincts depend on the natural flow of the river and the health of ecosystems. Some of the fish that are vulnerable to these changes are endangered species such as Mekong Giant Catfish.
Local fishermen depend heavily on migratory fish species. They have learned for generations how to successfully fish each migration for a given season, and how to manage the resulting food and income literally harvested from the river each season. Although the fish population decline already witnessed in parts of the Mekong is the result of many factors, dam construction is the most serious. Already, many restaurants in a province along the Mekong in Thailand are forced to import fish from the Tonle Sap Great Lake of Cambodia.
Riverbank gardens are another important source of food and income generation for locals. In the dry season, when the water level is low and villagers are not growing rice, gardens along the riverbank serve as their main resource. Upstream hydropower operations result in unpredictable water levels, which locals have never experienced before, and result in damage or loss to their crops and investment. Consequently, these conditions cause more negative impacts beyond just food and economic insecurity, including social and cultural problems.
Local Responses and Empowerment
In response to these developments, communities along the Mekong River have established the “Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces” because of their concern for the impacts they’ve already experienced from dams in China and those anticipated to result from the construction of additional dams in the lower basin. The problems they are already experiencing make locals realize that the dams planned for the river in Lao and Cambodia will be even more devastating.
One of their main strategies has focused on conducting local-level Thai Baan (villager) research to develop scientific evidence for use in their fight with those in support of more dam development. For example, this data could be used to sue the government and related authorities if the proposed Xayaburi dam is allowed to proceed. The research and data will also serve as an important tool for mobilizing, uniting, and empowering local communities in many other ways. Recently the “Network” organized a protest in Bangkok and engaged in other activities to campaign against the planned dams, including the creation and installation of big posters stating their opposition to the planned projects along the Thai-Lao border in all eight provinces.
Of course, another important avenue has been the Thai media who have increasingly covered Mekong hydropower development issues. This coverage reflects the concern of Thai people for protecting their natural resources. Although these concerns are not uniformly widespread throughout the whole country, the people in the eight provinces and those involved in environmental and social movements are intensely aware. In some cases, domestic dam construction is still a controversial issue and can cause conflict among Thais between supporters and those who oppose additional domestic hydropower development. As for the Mekong mainstream dams, it seems no one supports them.
The issue of the dams played a small role in the national elections this past July. People in the eight provinces of Northern and Northeastern Thailand form the core supporters of the Pheu Thai Party. During the election, the “Network” organized a forum aimed at sending a message to the politicians. The new Yingluck Administration has not yet made any statements on the proposed Mekong dams. However, the “Network” plans to send a message to the new government and their representatives stating their concerns and interests. Local people in the eight provinces believe that the new government should want to listen to their concerns because they won the election largely with the help and support of people in these areas.
The first strategy of Living River Siam is to strengthen civil society enough to participate meaningfully in water management. The second strategy is focused on the politics of knowledge. This means using information and knowledge as a tool for the local communities to engage on policy decisions. Living River Siam organizes trips to meet with local communities in the eight provinces to give them information, collect data, and listen to their concern. We work with them to set up the network and support local activities. We also spread their voices by organizing conference, produce publications, organizing a field trip for media and decision makers to visit the local communities, working with the media, cooperating with international organizations, and working with governmental sub-committees on the issue. One of our main activities is working with the communities along the river to collect data and conduct Thai Baan (villager) Research, research done by villagers based on local knowledge. We also use the research model as a tool for building a Mekong civil society network. The first goal is to elevate the voices of locals and ensure that their rights are recognized in water resource management. The second goal is to protect and maintain river ecosystems that are healthy enough to sustain local livelihoods.
Multilateralism and Institutional Improvements
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) should do more to work with civil society partners. This should include producing and providing information and knowledge for civil society organizations which could be used to support their outreach and engagement activities. Conversely, local communities, NGOs, and other civil society organizations can help the MRC conduct necessary research. This sort of relationship would also help to level the current power imbalance that exists among many of the main actors. An important new mechanism that should be established is a Mekong Community Fund. Such a fund will provide a path for communication while also supporting local participation in the various activities of the MRC. Ideally, the MRC office in each member country should establish an appropriate mechanism that allows for people’s participation in research, education, and engagement.
Furthermore, the creation of a People’s Commission of the Mekong River or Mekong Community Network set up by local communities, NGOs, and academics that have been working or directly experiencing these issues would be an important linkage between the MRC and citizens of member countries. It can either be an independent organization or established as a department of the MRC. The first step would be to organize a meeting for representatives of local communities. Past activities of the MRC have not served as a genuine forum for Mekong communities. In 2012, Living River Siam plans to organize an international meeting of Thai Baan Research network in the Mekong Basin. As we know that each Mekong country has different political and social system and are in different stages of development, this research model can provide a strategy for the Commission or Network as it is not necessarily a politic tool aimed at dam supporters or government.
Such an organization would also be a great target for support from the donor countries that traditionally fund the MRC. Their contributions to this new People’s Commission of the Mekong River would support the further development of an active, engaged, and responsible civil society in the Mekong Basin, while also developing new educational tools and providing a clear mechanism for the two-way transfer of knowledge.