Fishing in the World Heritage site of Luang Prabang, now under threat by the planned dam of the same name. Photo by SayanCHUENUDOMSAVAD

Strengthening pathways for rights-based livelihood adaptation in Mekong hydropower development

On the occasion of World Water Day on March 22, Diana Suhardiman writes about a “rights-based approach” to Mekong hydropower development that tries to ensure local communities just outcomes, as hydropower development continues to be promoted among the Mekong countries especially in Lao PDR

Mekong hydropower is developing rapidly, albeit not without controversies. Presented as a key means to promote economic growth and reduce poverty, hydropower development is occurring at a fast pace throughout the different countries of mainland Southeast Asia. 

At present, there are 78 dams already commissioned in the Mekong River Basin, with 33 dams under construction, 89 proposed or planned dams, in addition to those that are already under operation (WLE, 2018).  Most of these dams are in Laos, with twelve planned to be built on the Mekong mainstream.

Laos embarked on its first hydropower dam project on the mainstem of the Mekong river with the commissioning of the Xayabury dam in April 2011. Next to the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams which are already operational, Laos has proposed a series of four more hydropower dam projects to be built next on the Mekong’s mainstream: Pak Beng, Pak Lay, Luang Prabang, and Sanakham.

The construction of these mainstream dams will significantly impact national and regional fish migration, change the river’s flow regime entirely, affect the river’s biodiversity, and force local communities living along the river to transition and adapt their livelihoods. With power generation of 912 MW, the Pak Beng dam construction alone will affect 26 villages across the three provinces of Oudomxay, Bokeo, and Xayabury, incorporating 923 households and 4,726 people.

Balancing the need for local communities’ livelihood adaptation to ensure successful livelihood transition in the aftermath of hydropower dam project construction, with national socio-economic development strategies and forces behind regional economic integration is crucial for more inclusive and accountable development. 

“How do you ensure that a hydropower project protects the rights of those most directly affected by construction and supports their livelihood adaptation towards more sustainable livelihood pathways?” Or, in a more practical terms, “How can resettlement policies ensure a just outcome that sustains livelihoods and improves development prospects for affected villagers?” 

Recent research from the project, “Strengthening pathways for rights-based approaches in Mekong hydropower”, funded by the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET) and led by International Water Management Institute (IWMI) helps to unpack the complexities of what is now a highly polarized debate in the Mekong, suggesting that there are ways in which the country and the region can link national and regional development with wider efforts to push for more inclusive and accountable development. 

Filling the gap in the current institutional vacuum

Partly responding to the global dam debates, in Laos the central government has promulgated policies and legal frameworks to ensure affected communities are properly resettled and compensated.

At provincial level, this has resulted in the formation of Provincial Resettlement and Compensation Committee (PRCC) for each planned hydropower project. The PRCC is responsible to lead the overall process of resettlement and compensation, including reviewing the compensation rates, rules and procedures proposed by the company, conducting asset registration and measurement, and carrying out actual resettlement and compensation payment.

In practice, however, achieving more inclusive and sustainable development outcomes requires that local communities’ views, development need and aspirations are captured in hydropower decision making processes.

The way discussion and to a certain extent negotiation processes surrounding resettlement and compensation has been done mostly between the company and the PRCC, with little or no involvement from to be affected farm households and local communities living along the river reveals a key institutional gap in hydropower decision making.

Institutionally, this results in villagers’ inability to convey their views and concerns, on one hand, and the company’s ability to define, impose, and enforce, without accountability, the compensation rules with local communities. 

Top-down hydropower planning approach creates an institutional vacuum at the village level especially on matters pertaining to resettlement and compensation, especially when village authorities are not even formally incorporated as part of the PRCC. 

In order to fill this institutional vacuum, villagers and village authorities must have equal playing field in the discussion on resettlement and compensation. Such a playing field can be created through giving villagers and village authorities greater roles and responsibilities in the PRCC, through, for example, the establishment of inter-villages discussion and negotiation platform as part of the consultation processes between affected communities and the company. 

Livelihood making, making livelihood

The livelihood pathways that rural farm households are taking in response to hydropower development project in Laos are being shaped by decisions and processes embedded in national and regional exigencies.

Local communities’ (in)ability to adapt their farming strategies and livelihood options are rooted in the resettlement and compensation rules defined by the company, including how the latter directed the specter of change, not necessarily change itself, to drive farm households’ livelihood adaptation. 

Farm households’ livelihoods were linked with their (in)ability to convey, discuss and negotiate their development needs and aspirations in relation to resettlement and compensation rules and procedures as defined and demarcated by the company and approved by the PRCC.

Power asymmetries in hydropower decision making were materialized in highly localized village-level settings where discussion on compensation valuation, rules and procedures, in effect, never took place. Consequently, the livelihood pathways emerging became the sheer political embodiment of households’ limitations.

Farming systems analysis is key to designing compensation rules and procedures that enable affected farm households to adapt and transition their livelihoods. To understand how farm households can, and do, (re)shape their farming strategies and livelihood options in the context of hydropower development it is necessary to focus on adaptive capacities and incapacities.

Farm households’ ability to successfully adapt and transition their livelihoods depends on the composition of their livelihood assets before and after resettlement and compensation, how they (re)shape their (new) farming strategies based on these assets, and the challenges and opportunities they foresee, including their (in)ability convey and negotiate their views and concerns with the company and PRCC. 

Read the full article “Aspirations undone: Hydropower and the (re)shaping of livelihood pathways in Northern Laos”

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