By Paritta Wangkiat
Mekong Delta, Vietnam, June 2, 2017
It’s always difficult for the little guy to get his voice heard. For those who have found themselves downstream of the international river where transboundary development is taking place, like the Mekong River, your chances are nil.
That was my impression when I attended the International Media Dialogue Workshop for Water Security Risks and Narratives in Mekong Delta at Can Tho University, Vietnam, earlier this week.
Vietnamese academics, locals and civil society representatives have voiced their concerns over the effects the project on the upper part of the Mekong River will have on their livelihoods and the environment.
Over the years, Vietnamese villagers in the Mekong Delta — the fertile area that feeds millions across the country — have experienced irregular water flows and salt water intrusion, affecting their fisheries and farm production.
Sharing their concerns at the forum, it was almost like they were preaching to the choir.
Over the years, they have tried to attract attention from the government but, so far, have yet to get a response.
I can feel their despair.
And when it comes to talking of the impacts from development, all fingers appear to be pointed at China.
A Chinese hydropower dam has been blamed as its gates control water flowing from upstream.
Other causes include spikes in water consumption and irrigation as a result of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation in the Greater Mekong Subregion over the past several decades.
Excessive sand mining along the river has aggravated riverbank erosion. Massive amounts of sand are needed for the new construction sites sprouting up across the region.
But it would be wrong to place the blame solely on China. Thailand is also fingered as a major villain.
Look at the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi hydropower dam in Laos, which is set to serve growing energy demand in Thailand.
About 95% of the dam’s electricity will be sold to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. One Thai company and six Thai banks are involved in the project.
Despite relentless protests, construction of the project, which began in 2012, is about 70% complete.
The Thai government is also eyeing the Mekong diversion project, which will siphon water from the Mekong River into the Thai Northeast via an access point in Loei province.
This has proven cause for concern for Vietnam as the country is located at the lower end of the river.
Occasionally, when I’ve interviewed members of the local community in downstream countries, they’ve asked me: “Why are you doing this?”, referring to Thailand’s role in exploiting Mekong water.
I was speechless. Deep inside, I know their questions would never reach those policymakers who make decisions from their air-conditioned offices.
Obviously, there is a big disparity in the mindset of policymakers and the hoi polloi when it comes to the definition of “development”.
Development for policymakers in the six Mekong countries is seen primarily in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), the volume of investment and other macroeconomic factors.
But development for common people puts the onus on well-being, as their livelihoods depend on the natural world.
They are likewise frustrated that well-being, unlike GDP, cannot be presented in terms of figures.
I know we cannot ignore the economy and growth. But I don’t think policymakers can ignore public input for development projects, especially in the early stages.
There are always winners and losers. But it’s far too often that the little guy ends up on the wrong side of that equation. But this can be averted if normal people get a voice in the projects affecting their communities.
Unfortunately, leaders only pay lip service to this idea.
In practice, they hardly ever listen to the marginalised. Perhaps, it’s a matter of power structures.
Half of the six countries are run by a single party (China, Laos and Vietnam), while Thailand is under the control of a military regime. Cambodia is ruled by a strongman, Hun Sen, while Myanmar is slowly transitioning from a tatmadaw state to democracy.
More often than not, they reach decisions affecting millions behind closed doors, leaving those people to be the last to know.
This story was developed in partnership with The Mekong Eye through a regional workshop co-supported by Mekong Matters Journalism Network.