How local movements can enhance inclusive decision-making in Mekong hydropower: Insights from the Pak Beng dam in Laos

Dam-building continues unabated in the Mekong River’s mainstream and tributaries in Lao PDR. SUMERNET’s Mekong experts explore why the absence of effective local community movements in the country makes it difficult to push for inclusive hydropower decision-making

In Lao PDR, and in the Mekong region in general, developers have framed hydropower as a technical and managerial issue, positioned to generate revenue and promote economic growth through electricity production.

Dam rhetoric places rural populations as joint beneficiaries but experience to date shows the exact opposite. Dam-affected communities in Laos often suffer degraded livelihoods as they lose access to rivers and farmlands or communities become fragmented due to reservoir displacement.

Hydropower decision-making rests solely with government agencies and private sector actors, with local communities and local-level government (provincial, district and village levels) coming into the picture only during the project implementation stage.

This top-down, centralised hydropower planning means local communities are unable to voice legitimate concerns of how hydropower projects impact their and families and livelihoods.

The Mekong People’s Forum meeting last year in Chiang Rai province. Credit: Assoc.Prof. Kanokwan Manorom

Pak Beng dam consultation in Thailand: Local communities not informed

In its Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment (TbEIA) for the Pak Beng Dam in Laos, the Kunming Engineering Corporation Limited (KHIDI) consulted only seven villages in Thailand. However, grassroots civil society groups like the Chiang Khong Conservation Group and the Thai Mekong People’s Networks have identified 33 villages from eight provinces as being affected by the dam.

Even in these seven villages, consultation was limited and conducted in a top-down manner, mainly focused on the results of the TbEIA rather than addressing local grievances about fishing and farming livelihoods.  

Thailand’s civil society has been working with local communities to ensure that KHIDI responded to local community concerns so that information dissemination and consultation processes are in line with the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) Procedures for Notification Prior Consultation and Agreement.

But in practice, the company’s consultation meetings fell short of local communities’ expectations and there was no follow-up assessment to address many shortcomings in the TbEIA report such as the inadequate information regarding proposed measures to mitigate the impacts on fish migration, and social impacts for local communities living along the river.

Thailand’s local communities have negotiated their access to decision-making processes surrounding the Pak Beng Dam TbEIA consultation and review through both established institutional pathways and informal procedures including a series of policy dialogues and the formation of the Mekong People’s Forum in December 2020.

Moreover, strategic alliances among CSO networks and international environmental groups have helped local communities build an understanding of the multi-scale complexities of hydropower decision-making, access information to identify entry points for negotiations and exert pressure on dam developers through different decision-making venues.

Locals’ fishing boats at Pak Ing village potentially affected by the dam, Lao PDR. Credit: Assoc. Prof. Kanokwan Manorom

Inter-village competition undermining local efforts in Laos

In comparison to Thailand, there is an absence of effective social movements in Laos to push for more inclusive hydropower decision-making. This often means that local households fall back on their own individual strategies to even get compensation. This also results in inter-village alliances where villages come up in competition against one another, blocking the possibility for collective local efforts at negotiation.

Farm households in two villages, for instance, lacked information about how the company defined and calculated compensation values and payments. But rather than joining forces to push for more information sharing, households held the little information they did have to themselves, believing that sharing this with others might reduce their chances of compensation.

In Laos, villagers did not view inter-village relations as something important or relevant. Indeed, quite the reverse was the case, with villagers seeing themselves as in competition, one village with another, and one household with another, in an individualized effort to access money from the company.

Unlike in the Thai case where civil society networks played an important role in mobilizing local communities and forging an effective social movement, the dam developers were able to fragment and divert local alliance building in Laos.

Local movements play an important role in influencing local communities’ efforts to voice concerns and rights in hydropower planning in the Mekong region. But a cautionary note is that the formation of strategic alliances does not automatically result in a local community’s ability to act collectively.

How local communities perceive their relationships with other actors and negotiate with civil society networks, government agencies, academics, and even dam developers often define whether and to what extent local concerns are heeded even before the decision to build a dam is made.

The piece is based on the recent research “Strengthening pathways for rights-based approaches in Mekong hydropower” project, undertaken by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), funded by the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET), Transboundary Environmental Commons in Southeast Asia (TECSEA) project, and the Singapore Social Science Research Council. The project looks at how local communities create and shape their political spaces of engagements in relation to hydropower decision making across scales.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect an official stance of Bangkok Tribune.