WORKSHOP & POLICY BRIEF: Science and Policy Interface: People Engagement in Environmental Action for the Mekong Sustainability: A case of Phou Ngoy dam

Ubon Ratchathani University, along with three other universities, organized the “Science and Policy Interface: Young People Engagement in Environmental Action Mekong Academic Consortium 2024” running from February 22nd to 23rd, 2024. It featured panel presentations and dialogues focused on the Phou Ngoy Dam. A field trip was also arranged to visit the Mekong village affected by the Phou Ngoy dam, specifically to Hauy Maag Tai village and Tamui village, to be affected by both Phongoy and Salavan dams in Khong Chiem District of Ubon Ratchathani Province before a policy brief was formulated and presented to the public

The primary objective of the event was to encourage young people, academics, NGOs, media, and government representatives, to actively participate in environmental action for the Mekong. Furthermore, the event included a press tour and content creation training under the concept of “Green Heart Youth.” Young people from various universities across Thailand participated in the project, addressing key issues related to their learning about the Phou Ngoy dam and its potential impacts on the local ecology and livelihoods of riverine communities.

In particular, young people’s engagement in defending the Mekong River is of paramount importance. They possess the ability to communicate the stories of Mekong communities to a wider audience through digital means. It is crucial that the problems and challenges faced by these communities are not only heard by policymakers involved in hydropower planning but also by society at large.

Young people have the potential to employ innovative communication techniques to raise awareness about the potential impacts of the Phou Ngoy dam. Furthermore, they can engage in learning and knowledge-sharing with older generations to co-produce a comprehensive understanding of the Mekong communities. Intergenerational learning on Mekong protection and the transfer of this knowledge through environmental action are crucial ways to amplify the voices of dam-affected people and empower them.

Photo: ©Wararat Phomruk

Key policy messages

During the workshop, many important issues related to the Phou Ngoy, Salavan, and Pak Mun dams were presented and discussed. The challenges posed by these dams were particularly highlighted during the field trip. These challenges include significant alterations to the Mekong River systems, leading to a loss of biodiversity. These changes have profound impacts on local communities and society at large, especially for young people who will have to bear the consequences for the longest part of their lives.

Young people possess the knowledge and capacity to address the challenges facing the Mekong River through innovative ideas. They expect to take action through advocacy. During the workshop, they demonstrated a remarkable sense of responsiveness, awareness, and willingness to defend and act to protect the health of the Mekong River and the local livelihoods impacted by existing hydropower dam projects.

Therefore, meaningfully engaging young people in environmental action to protect the Mekong would ensure better, more sustainable, and resilient decision-making on hydropower policy for the Mekong River. This inclusion would foster a more inclusive approach, taking into account the diverse perspectives and needs of all stakeholders involved.

Below are key policy messages that were addressed in the workshop, emphasizing the importance of the participation of all participants, especially young people, who expressed their willingness to defend healthier Mekong River systems:

  • The Mekong River and its rich resources are crucial not only for the more than 70 million people living along its banks but also for those residing far from the Mekong River basin who benefit from the electricity generated by Mekong dams. Additionally, those affected by expensive electricity bills are impacted by the excessive electricity reservation of the Thai government.
  • People living in the eight Mekong provinces have long accessed, used, and controlled the resources of the Mekong, including fish, aquatic animals, plants, and all biodiversity, for generations. These resources have sustained local livelihoods, providing food and income security, as well as non-human and cultural significance and attachment.                                
  • Currently, the Mekong River system is facing numerous threats from operational, planned, proposed, and under-construction dams. These dams pose a significant risk of fundamentally altering the Mekong’s ecological systems and the livelihoods of local communities who rely on the Mekong River resources for their daily needs.
  • From the fieldwork and seminars organized for young people on the Phou Ngoy dam, it has become evident that the livelihoods of local people living along the Mekong River and its tributaries in Ubon Ratchathani Province have become increasingly complicated, difficult, and precarious. These communities are not only impacted by existing dams, including the Pak Mun and Xayaburi dams, but also face threats from national and fishing laws. In particular, communities located next to the Pa Tam National Park and Kang Tana National Park are being threatened by these laws regarding land ownership and utilization.
  • Fishing livelihoods, in particular, are highly significant for local people, yet they have often gone undocumented and unrecognized by the government. As a result, the social and cultural characteristics and interactions of local people have been largely disregarded by hydropower dam owners and developers. Non-human actors, including animism and cultural beliefs that have bound local people’s social interactions and maintained kinship and social bond systems, have also gone unnoticed and consideration in the decision-making processes by policymakers.
  • Additionally, residents of Ubon Ratchathani, both rural and urban, living along the Mun River, the longest of the Mekong mainstream, have already been impacted by recurrent flooding and will face even more floods due to the backwater generated by the Phou Ngoy dam, which is to be located in Champasak Province of Lao PDR.
Photo: ©Kunpoj Wattanachonlasit
  • Issues related to gender, disability, and social inclusion (GEDSI) for all social groups are often overlooked when dams are planned, proposed, constructed and operated. There are significant gaps in addressing social issues alongside technical aspects in hydropower development, leading to inconsistent and application of policies and practices regarding gender, social, and cultural issues in dam policies.
  • Data regarding the transboundary impact assessment of the Phou Ngoy dam is not easily accessible to local people, civil society organizations (CSOs), and academics in Ubon Ratchathani Province who will be affected by the dam. Even if data is provided, it is often available only in English, which is not widely used and understood in Thailand. Key information, such as backwater levels, fisheries impact, water level changes, pre-existing problems of local impacts generated by the existing dams, water discharge rates from the dam, and potential flood risks, is not clearly provided. This lack of clear and timely information leaves people feeling confused, insecure, and uncertain about the potential impacts of the dam and how the people in Ubon Ratchathani will cope and manage with the associated problems.
Photo: ©Hudsawat Rattanakachen

Policy recommendations

1. Thai language of comprehensive information of Phou Ngoy dam’ TbEIA report

Comprehensive data sharing of the Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment (TbEIA) report conducted by the consultant company on the Phou Ngoy dam with potentially affected Thai communities and individuals can facilitate evidence-based decision-making and ensure a fair impact assessment process. Key policy recommendations are:

1.1 All the information presented in English within the Phou Ngoy TbEIA should be translated into Thai, including key executive summaries highlighting the main transboundary impacts. This translation effort will make scientific data and information more transparent and accessible to the public.

1.2 Web-based platforms and portals should be established to provide easy access to this information for interested parties.

2. Data collection and provision of all information provision by the Thai government agencies

By addressing these key aspects in the TbEIA, stakeholders can gain a thorough understanding of the potential transboundary impacts of the project on Thai citizens and their environments. These include:

2.1 Geographical Scope: The TbEIA should clearly define the geographical scope of the assessment, specifying the areas along the Mekong and Mun rivers that will be included in the study. This scope should encompass all potentially affected regions in Thailand.

2.2 Number of Water Monitoring Stations: The TbEIA should outline the number and locations of water monitoring stations that will be established as part of the assessment process. These stations are essential for collecting and compiling scientific data on water quality, quantity, and river flow dynamics.

2.3 Comprehensiveness of Scientific Water Data: The TbEIA should detail the methods and protocols that will be used to collect scientific water data. This should include information on the parameters that will be measured, the frequency of monitoring, and the analytical techniques employed.

2.4 Livelihoods of Thai People: The TbEIA should assess the potential impacts of the dam on the livelihoods of Thai people living along the Mekong and Mun rivers. This should encompass a comprehensive analysis of how the project/dam may affect local economies, cultural systems, traditional livelihood practices, access to natural resources, and community well-being.

3. Potential impacted people in the Negotiation platform and MRC PNPCA

Local people who are potentially impacted by the Mekong Dam are not always invited to participate in the negotiation process regarding policies on hydropower dams, like the Phou Ngoy Dam. Only high-ranking government officials, company representatives, and other authorities are typically invited to participate in the negotiating arena. Key policy recommendations are:

3.1 The relevant Thai Government agencies and the Thai National Mekong Committee (TNMC) should conduct the Prior Consultation Process on the Phou Ngoy Dam by encompassing representatives from all potentially impacted communities located both near the confluence between the Mun and the Mekong rivers and along the stretches of the Mun river to Ubon Ratchathani town.

3.2 Apart from PNPCA (the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement) undertaken by MRC member countries, dam-affected people should be invited to present and address their concerns about the dam in the negotiation room regarding policies, TbEIA and EIA process in Thailand on the Phou Ngoy dam.

3.3 The diversity of knowledge for an inclusive Phou Ngoy dam project should be prioritized. Knowledge from Mekong communities should be actively received and deliberated upon to facilitate the ongoing exchange of ideas, public and stakeholders’ participation, and contribution of information to decision-making in transboundary impact assessment governance.

4. Young people program to support young people to learn more about sustainable development in the Mekong

Young people require additional knowledge and experience to transition toward alternative energy and acquire green skills to promote sustainable development in the Mekong region. However, there are significant gaps preventing young individuals from accessing new experiences, knowledge, and skills in sustainable Mekong development. These gaps hinder their ability to contribute effectively to the transition toward alternative energy sources and green practices. Young people should be provided with better opportunities to develop sustainably innovative environmental action projects, leveraging their courage, ingenuity, and agency. Key policy recommendations are:

4.1 English language skills are essential for young people who have studied at regional or local universities. Proficiency in English will enable young individuals to access information about hydropower and energy development in the Mekong region, as many important documents, such as Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports, are primarily written in English.

4.2 Young people should be invited as youth delegates to participate in various key environmental events, workshops, and actions, as well as side events of international meetings such as the United Nations. This involvement would provide them with the opportunity to showcase their thoughts and innovative ideas and to collaborate with other young individuals from diverse countries on these key issues including

4.2.1 recognition of the urgent need to address the challenges facing the Mekong River, including the impacts of existing and proposed hydropower dams;

4.2.2 emphasis on the importance of involving young people in environmental action and decision-making processes related to the Mekong River;

4.2.3 acknowledgement of the valuable knowledge and capacity of young people in addressing Mekong-related challenges through innovative ideas;

4.2.4 advocacy for more inclusive and participatory approaches to decision-making on hydropower policy, ensuring that the voices of young people and other stakeholders are heard and considered;

4.2.5 commitment to promoting sustainability and resilience in the management of the Mekong River, prioritizing the health of the river ecosystem and the well-being of local communities.

The “Science and Policy Interface: Young People Engagement in Environmental Action Mekong Academic Consortium 2024,” sponsored by the US Embassy. It’s organised by Ubon Rathathani University, in partnership with Mae Fah Luang University, Chulalongkorn University, Thammasat University, Nakhon Phnom University