Living in Fear, a Price Too Steep For People of Mekong

A woman carries a child in the flood ravaged village in Sanamxai, Attapeu province, Laos, on July 26. Photo: Nhac Nguyen/AFP

The collapse of a dam at the Xe Pian -Xe Nam Noy Hydropower project was tragic. Immediate assessments say that 39 people died, many suffered injuries, and thousands are left homeless, with their means of income lost for the foreseeable future. However, beyond these numbers, we’re yet to find out the real damage. The Government of Lao PDR will investigate what led to this massive calamity, and we urge them to present the findings to the people of Lao. 

Going a step further, the Lao Government announced a review of all dams - both fully operational and under construction, suspended the plans for new hydro-dam projects, and committed to re-examining their hydropower strategy and plans. We commend these decisions by the government. However, this step in the right direction lost some of its shine due to the plans to continue with the assessments for the proposed Pak Lay dam, and it leaves us worried as previously many evaluations have failed to identify the risks correctly.

In working with women and men from the Mekong region for over a decade, what we’ve realized is that positive change can only be achieved through giving their communities a say about the development projects. After all, as the locals, they should be the intended beneficiaries of development; However, unfortunately and too often, they end up bearing the brunt of consequences when things go wrong. Policy or practice designed by experts, economists, and engineers often lead to mediocre outcomes at best, exactly because they forgot to heed the needs of the communities.

Xe Pian -Xe Nam Noy is not the first dam failure in the region with deadly consequences for the communities felt beyond the national borders. Yet, there was no transboundary impact assessment done before the dam’s construction; nor was there a transboundary evaluation conducted for the Yali Falls Dam before construction, where a sudden release of water into the Sesan River in Vietnam in 2000 resulted in flash floods downstream destroying lives, communities, and livelihoods in Cambodia.  

From far away in our urban dwellings across Asia, it’s hard for us to imagine what it must feel like to be living in a community downstream of a dam; for so long they have been touted as milestones of progress. But for the people of the Mekong, now acutely aware of the looming threat and having witnessed the worst come true for those just like them, the reality is bleak. Especially given they have little or no power to lessen the risks and take action to protect their family, home, and livelihood.

This was a human-made disaster that could and should have been avoided. There should have been effective and timely warning systems in place. Mistakes have been made, and we hope that there will be an open and public discussion with lessons taken to heart and acted upon. However, as found out by Oxfam partner, My Village, the people of the Mekong have their doubts.

 “We are still worried and scared to replant the vegetable crops destroyed during the flood. Villagers who have relatives in Laos claim floods from the dam will come again,” said Pheng Sivath, deputy president of a Community Based Organization in Siem Pang District, Stung Treng Province, Cambodia.

Their worries are well justified because there’s a clear lack of functional early warning and information dissemination systems in place.

“Mechanisms for information dissemination, such as disaster warning and flood prevention between Laos and Cambodia for tributary rivers like the Xe Kong, are weak to non-existent,

“Clearly more trans-boundary cooperation is needed. Perhaps this crisis will drive progress in the conversation,” said Brian Eyler, Director of Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program in a conversation with South China Morning Post.

These fears and communication breakdowns can easily translate into unbearable economic losses for poverty-stricken communities living downstream in Cambodia struggling to make ends meet. Losses like these can tip them into indebtedness with negative consequences for their families. Their worries remain intact as they are yet to see any compensation for their losses or moves to allay their fears despite having been directly impacted by last month’s calamity.  

Oxfam has been working with communities across Asia and around the world helping them to reduce risks and make their communities safer. We find early warning systems where people can access information quickly, reliably, and in ways that make sense to them, to be effective in saving lives and communities. Properly designed systems allow communities to access the same information as the authorities, and often they cost little.  We are piloting such systems with communities across borders in South Asia; however, sharing information, even about rising water levels, between countries remains a challenge due to sovereignty concerns.

Across the region and elsewhere, we are already seeing unexpected repercussions of hydro-dams affecting women and men who live downstream. Many communities of the Mekong are left worse off due to the reduction of soil fertility exacerbated by climate change, reduced fish stocks impacting their livelihoods and dietary habits, and the resettlement of villages to make way for development. The governments’ and developers’ promises of prosperity have failed to deliver.

If we are serious about learning from this catastrophic collapse, we need to think beyond merely pushing the same development agenda with some safety precautions. We need to look at sustainable, long-term development solutions that put people at the center. We need initiatives that take into account the communities, their lifestyles, viewpoints, and issues, whether they are up or downstream or across the basin. If we fail to do that, we’d be left with development that benefits only a few at the cost of the many. And, that is too steep a price to pay.