Women must be central to Mekong dam decisions

Women must be central to Mekong dam decisions

In this 2014 photo taken prior to the construction of a series of dams, a woman collects weeds from the Nam Ou River in Laos. (Photo courtesy International Rivers)
In this 2014 photo taken prior to the construction of a series of dams, a woman collects weeds from the Nam Ou River in Laos. (Photo courtesy International Rivers)

Today, on International Women's Day, a recent trip to the Mekong Basin serves as a reminder that women's voices must be central to decision-making on hydropower, and in broader energy planning for Thailand and the region.

The Nam Ou River, a longest tributary of the Mekong in Laos, is quiet during the early morning. Community activities, such as fishing and collection of river weeds, are merely a memory. A cascade of dams under construction along the Nam Ou block this important tributary. The once mighty river is being transformed into a series of seven reservoirs by the Chinese developer PowerChina Resources.

The Nam Ou was known for its kai, a famous freshwater weed. Kai used to be an important source of income for women and elders during the dry season. In the past, people gathered kai in the river bed of the Nam Ou during the few rainless months of the year when the water was low and clear. Women could collect up to 10kg kai each day. They sold kai, both fresh and dried, to the local market and to the ancient town of Luang Prabang, earning around 10 million Lao kip or more each season (47,000 baht).

When the dams began construction, villagers whose houses would be flooded received cash compensation for their involuntary displacement to resettlement sites. But the lost value of kai and similar resources was not taken into consideration by the dam developers. The loss of the kai industry is an example of a gendered impact -- and all too often when we are talking about women's industries, and women's labour, these are issues not considered by dam developers. As such, developers do nothing to avoid or compensate for their loss.

"Don't ask about compensation. No compensation was given for what was lost in the flood. When the Chinese team came to see their reservoir, they couldn't see what was there prior to their dam. They don't pay," a women in her 60s told us during a recent visit to the area.

Many of the women affected by the Nam Ou dams in this way are ethnic Khmu, an indigenous ethnic group in Laos. The impacts of hydropower and other large infrastructure projects can disproportionately affect women, particularly women from minority ethnic and indigenous communities and rural areas. These socio-economic groups are already marginalised in Lao society.

The loss of livelihoods and independent sources of income for women through a resource such as kai can disrupt gender relations within families and communities, and push women into situations of greater poverty and vulnerability. Despite this, women's concerns are often overlooked. Gendered impacts of dams tend to be systematically disregarded in the design of consultations and assessments, which lack reference to basics such as disaggregated data or more specific identification of gender-related issues and vulnerabilities.

The Nam Ou cascade under construction is a model of what is proposed for the mainstream of the lower Mekong, with two of the planned 11 dams under construction. According to a Strategic Environmental Assessment commissioned by the Mekong River Commission in 2010, the dams' combined impacts will transform the ecosystem of the lower Mekong, converting the river's flows into a series of stagnant reservoirs and reducing its rich fisheries by up to 42%. A study released in November by the Stockholm Environmental Institute predicted that all of the planned dams in the Mekong Basin could reduce sediment flows in the river, which sustain agriculture in the floodplains and the Mekong Delta, by a staggering 96%.

While the impacts of Mekong dams are well-studied, gender specific issues have been largely ignored in assessments and planning. Last year, International Rivers commissioned an independent review of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Pak Beng Dam, the third to proceed on the Mekong mainstream. The 912-MW hydropower project is led by Chinese developer Datang Corporation, with power proposed to be sold to Thailand.

Assoc Prof Kanokwan Manoram, Director of the Mekong Sub-region Social Research Centre in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Ubon Ratchathani University, conducted the review of gender issues in the EIA. She found that the study lacked disaggregated data on key issues, and failed to distinguish between women of different ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds. The EIA report provided little indication of specific efforts to include women in the consultations for the assessments.

"Gender is a critical component of impact assessment," Ms Kanokwan told International Rivers. "If we ignore it, the proposed project will fail to address major concerns of women and men in the development process. The Pak Beng EIA did not examine women's livelihoods and levels of dependency on affected resources, in particular aquatic resources and non-timber forest products. Women risk losing livelihoods, food security, and local knowledge, together with their identities and power to negotiate."

Women facing impacts from the Pak Beng Dam have some hope. In mid-February, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand advised in a letter that a decision on signing the power purchase agreement for the Pak Beng Dam has been deferred, awaiting a review of Thailand's Power Development Plan (PDP). The review is expected to be completed this month. A move to re-think the Pak Beng Dam in Thailand's PDP would be a very welcome development for Thai Mekong communities, who have been voicing concerns over the transboundary impacts of the project in campaigns and in court.

Energy policy in Thailand has typically lacked opportunities for public participation, including participation of women. The current review of the PDP was reportedly spurred by the emerging role of disruptive technologies and the recognition that renewable energy is swiftly becoming competitive in the global energy market. The rapid growth of solar and wind power and improved energy storage technologies means real alternatives are increasingly available, raising questions over the need for new fossil fuel and environmentally destructive hydropower projects.

A re-think of Thailand's energy plans could open opportunities to include gender concerns more holistically in the way energy projects are selected, developed and planned.

The Mekong River belongs to the women of the region as much as it belongs to men. It is time to take stock of the ways in which decisions on energy projects exclude women -- and to insist on impact assessment, consultation and planning that make women central to the process.

Maureen Harris is the Southeast Asia Program Director at International Rivers.

Maureen Harris

Southeast Asia programme director at International Rivers

Maureen Harris is the Southeast Asia programme director at International Rivers.

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