Mekong needs accountability, now
Last Wednesday, Pitsanukorn Deekaew, a resident of Chiang Khong district in Chiang Rai, received a welcome message from his lawyer. The appeal motion in his lawsuit regarding the Pak Beng dam project in Laos had been admitted for consideration by Thailand's Supreme Administrative Court.
Mr Pitsanukorn filed the lawsuit in June, together with fellow plaintiffs Niwat Roikaew, Jeerasak Inthayot, and the Chiang Khong Conservation Group. They represent the interests of people who live and work along the Mekong River in northern Thailand and are concerned about impending ecosystem impacts of the dam. The plaintiffs live just 97km from the dam site. Seven other Mekong provinces in Thailand -- Loei, Nong Khai, Bung Kan, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan, Amnat Charoen and Ubon Ratchathani -- are also expected to face cross-border impacts from the project.
The Central Administrative Court dismissed the plaintiffs' case in the first instance, but the plaintiffs appealed, and the lawsuit is now pending consideration by the Supreme Administrative Court.
The lawsuit targets the director-general of the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the DWR, and the Thai National Mekong Committee Secretariat as defendants. These agencies have obligations under Thai law and the 1995 Mekong Agreement to share information transparently and impartially on the impacts of the project to potentially affected communities. They must address and also gather local concerns, and employ these concerns to inform Thailand's official response to the dam project at the regional level. The plaintiffs charge that the defendants failed to properly execute their duties as part of the prior consultation process for the project as required by the Mekong Agreement. The lawsuit asserts that the defendants' acts should be construed as a violation of the rights of Thai citizens living along the Mekong.
The court's acceptance of the case for consideration is an acknowledgement of Thai governmental agencies' responsibility to inform and consult with Thai people on the cross-border impacts of projects such as the Pak Beng dam.
Government and regional institutions need to listen to riverine communities and local people such as Mr Pitsanukorn. The river's resources provide for the economic and social well-being of the Thai people and have guaranteed the living conditions of riverine communities for generations. The Mekong nurtures and sustains people. It is these Thai citizens who face potential impoverishment and irreparable damage to their way of life, from the Pak Beng project and 10 other dams proposed and under construction on the Mekong mainstream.
The 11 dams are not the only developments threatening ecosystems and livelihoods on the Mekong. Broader plans to industrialise the river basin include China's navigation channel improvement project. The project proposes to widen sections of the Mekong in Thailand and remove rapids, in order to allow the passage of 500-tonne commercial barges travelling from Yunnan to Laos. The project would benefit Chinese traders at the expense of local people.
These impending developments and resulting socio-ecological impacts on the lower Mekong reveal critical and growing challenges for cross-border accountability. However, existing regional institutions appear ill-equipped to protect vulnerable populations.
Case in point: The chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) secretariat last week penned his opinion on the navigation channel improvement project in the Bangkok Post. The piece sought to minimise the fears and concerns of local communities, as well as scientists, researchers and other stakeholders, over the project. The article claims the method to be used to clear the channels -- "rapids blasting" -- is "barely a surgical intervention", and blasting will not kill fish, damage fish habitats or transform the river's natural ecosystems.
The CEO makes vague reference to general case studies on rapids clearing. Yet without context-specific examination of the Mekong's social and ecological system, and studies that take into account how these complex dynamics might be affected, there is little reason to believe the navigation project will operate with the delicate precision claimed.
The CEO states, "development needs are legitimate, but they must take into account legitimate concerns of the environment and society". We agree. Yet the CEO's comments appear to gloss over the concerns of local people and environmental conservationists without addressing the issues at hand. By doing so, the CEO aligns himself with the "other side"; that is, the position that the transformation of the Mekong -- from ecological treasure to industrial waterway -- is inevitable, and the only development pathway for the region.
While his comments refer to the navigation project, they also reflect the highly contentious regional deliberations that surround Mekong mainstream dams. The MRC's prior consultation process on proposed hydropower projects has been plagued by weak scientific analysis and a lack of due regard to the legitimate concerns of local people, who stand to lose the most from damage to the river's resources. The response of Mekong governments and regional institutions to these issues has consistently been diplomatic acrobatics, instead of improved science and consultation. Government and regional institutions are talking around the issues to please each other at the state level, rather than facing transboundary impacts head on and working together to solve regional institutional problems.
The Mekong urgently needs regional institutions that listen to people's concerns and facilitate better regional coordination. Two weeks ago, the MRC released an "emergency notification" just a day in advance, announcing the Jinghong dam in China was to boost water discharges by 400%. Locals such as Mr Pitsanukorn were "extremely worried" about the short notice and "that there would be a huge flood, as the dam is just 340km away". To make matters worse, the information was incorrect -- the change was an overall discharge decrease, which locals discovered when the water level dropped a metre overnight. Incorrect information and a lack of notice only add to decades-long problems with unseasonal water fluctuations occurring since the first Upper Mekong dam was built in 1996.
Cross-border accountability is urgently needed for the Mekong River. The latest court's decision to accept the Pak Beng lawsuit is a small step in the right direction. The failures of regional hydro-diplomacy are clear -- and their impacts greatest -- for the Mekong's local populations.
Pianporn Deetes is Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director with International Rivers.
Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of International Rivers
Pianporn Deetes is Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of International Rivers.