Mekong body says communities should have a say in river development

Chian Rai, THAILAND, 16th Oct 2009

Villagers who live on or near water resources in the Mekong Basin should be given more of a voice in the planning of future infrastructure and other water development projects says the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

"Water has the potential to act as a powerful tool for economic development," said Jeremy Bird, CEO of the MRC at a meeting of water management organisations and river based community leaders in Chiang Rai today.

"However, if governments are to balance hydropower; fisheries; irrigation; navigation; and flood management in the Lower Mekong Basin, views of stakeholders need to be reflected. Poor and marginalized groups should be included in the decision making process. This means that communities of the region should be able to articulate their own objectives and the development paths to meet them."

Several groups at the meeting echoed the need for a more open process, such as Thailand’s Sustainable Agriculture Network who said the forum like this should get together affected people to join and think together with all stakeholders including developers.

"A lot of forums are for governments, donors, NGOs and developers who come with different interests. We should listen more to affected people," said Laothai Nilnuan, a river based activist from the Network.

The MRC says today's 2nd regional forum brought together community representatives and river based communities, but their views should be voiced more.

"When the economic interests of one group take too much precedence over the interests of other less powerful people, the environment, livelihoods and the ecology suffer. It is only by working to engage with communities and other stakeholders that we can ensure the potential impacts are assessed and that the benefits resulting from any water resource development in the Mekong Basin are fairly redistributed to affected people," Suparerk Janprasart, a sociologist for the MRC.

"How, for example, will salinity intrusion and agriculture downstream be affected if water is used for irrigation upstream? How do you assess the economic and social benefits of hydropower against the value of a potential reduction in fisheries that it could cause? How do we ensure a fair benefit-sharing and development?" he said.

The MRC says that because the river system is trans-boundary, all of these issues have international implications and can be resolved through the existing framework of regional cooperation.

Hydropower development, especially on the mainstream of the Mekong currently generates debate among the people of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam, the four countries of the Lower Mekong Basin. The meeting was a forum for a number of NGOs, government agencies and human rights groups to voice their concerns over the 11 hydropower schemes planned for development on the river, over the value of biodiversity and rights of the affected people. Developers, donors and governments to explain why governments of the region are seriously considering building dams as part of their development planning.

"The problems related to dams or climate change are human-made. It is not that affected people alone who need to adapt to the climate change, such as living with floods," said Director Pham Quang Tu of Consultancy on Development from Hanoi. "All must take responsibility. Governments, NGOs, researchers, donors, developers come together to a dialogue. And the MRC facilitates," he added.

However, hydroelectricity is widely seen as a source of sustainable economic development when planned and managed properly.

"Among energy production options including gas and solar, harnessing water through hydropower is a potential we can tap," said H.E Watt Botkosal, Deputy Secretary-General of Cambodian National Mekong Committee.

"We understand that building dams is a trade off. So, we need to seriously study the socio-economic and environmental impacts of dams so we can sustain economic gains. It is not only about generating energy. We need to see if the benefits can reach out to the peoples, to explore all options for energy generation and the pluses and minuses of the impacts. Only then, the government can decide to build the dams or not," he added.

In Cambodia, two dams are planned on the Mekong mainstream in northeastern provinces of Kratie and Stung Treng, about 200 km the Capital Phnom Penh.

Experts also gave presentations on the positive aspects of planned hydropower, including market opportunities for electricity supply in the Mekong region.

Alternative energy production options, Mekong fisheries and basin development planning and how these relate to poverty reduction were also on the agenda.

As well as community representatives, international NGOs, researchers, government agencies, the private sector and financing institutions from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam were also present at the meeting. Seven-member delegation from China participated. China indicated its commitment to protect the Basin environment and to work together with MRC downstream countries.

The MRC says that the two-day stakeholder engagement forum builds on the first forum in 2008 and on continuous efforts to consult with communities that have in the past included regional consultations; engagement with people, NGOs and other organisations that are able to represent community groups; community based surveys and questionnaires; and a website where people may make public submissions regarding planned hydropower developments.

-ends-

Notes to Editors

The Second Regional Stakeholder Forum on the Basin Development Plan, took place 15 - 16 October 2009 at the Rimkok Resort & Hotel, Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Among the questions up for discussion at the meeting: How do governments balance hydropower, irrigation, navigation, flood management, fishing and ecosystem services in the Lower Mekong basin? What are the needs of stakeholders and how can a fair Basin Development Strategy be developed? How can poor and marginalized groups be meaningfully included in the decision making process?

The MRC is committed to meaningful stakeholder participation to ensure that water resource management helps to reduce poverty. Involving stakeholders provides a communication channel for the needs and interests of member states and their people to be reflected in decisions that affect them.

The Forum outcomes will be used to inform the MRC’s Basin Development Strategy.

See http://www.mrcmekong.org/MRC_news/2nd-BDP-regional-stakeholder-forum.htm to find out more information about this event and contact Mr. Suparerk Janprasart, Suparerk@mrcmekong.org; + (856 21) 263 263, ext: 2108; for a list of participants.

The MRC is the intergovernmental body responsible for cooperation on the sustainable management of the Mekong Basin whose members include Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam. In dealing with these challenges, it looks across all sectors including sustaining fisheries, identifying opportunities for agriculture, maintaining the freedom of navigation, flood management and preserving important ecosystems. Superimposed on these are the future effects of more extreme floods, prolonged drought and sea level rise associated with climate change. In providing its advice, the MRC aims to facilitate a broad range of dialogues among governments, the private sector and civil society on these challenges.

For More Information

Mr. Damian Kean, Interim Communication Advisor
Tel: +856 56120695 or +856 21 263 263 Ext. 4703
Email: damian@mrcmekong.org

Mr Khy Lim, Communication Officer
Tel: +856 20 5622 8131
Email: khy@mrcmekong.org

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