Dams in the Mekong Region: Scoping Social and Cultural Issues


The standard social concern surrounding large dams and their associated reservoirs is the displacement and resettlement associated with these large infrastructure schemes. While such impacts remain of great concern, social and cultural issues associated with dams in the Mekong Region go well beyond questions of physical upheaval. This article examines a range of sociocultural issues associated with the existing and proposed large dams in the Mekong Region, including off-site impacts, issues of indigenous status, control over impact assessment and questions of public and private good.

Of all the large-scale projects normally associated with economic development, dams have provoked perhaps the greatest concern for the fate of indigenous peoples and other upland-dwelling minorities. The social and environmental impacts of dams are now quite well documented. The World Commission on Dams is currently undertaking a wide-ranging review of the experience of large dams, including impacts on affected peoples and environments. NGOs, the World Conservation Union, governments and affected people are involved in this re-appraisal, as are public utilities and private sector representatives of the dam building industry.

In the face of accumulated global concern over the past performance and impacts of large hydropower and irrigation dams, the Mekong Region has experienced an excess of dam planning activity during the 1990s. Drawn up in an entirely different climate of developmental and environmental thinking during the 1960s, the Mekong hydropower agenda has been revived as part of the "peace dividend" following the end of the Cold War and the regional rapprochement between former Mekong adversaries. Agencies such as the Asian Development Bank have taken advantage of this climate to draw up and support grand plans for the "Greater Mekong Subregion," including a series of mainstream and tributary dams projected for the Mekong Basin. The Mekong River Commission was established in 1995 to revitalize the limping Interim Mekong Committee, and dams have never been far from the center of MRC thinking.

Dams in the Mekong Region

To date, the Mekong River and its tributaries remain relatively unregulated by impoundment structures. Natural regulation of the river's seasonal hydrological cycle, governed by the June-October monsoon, occurs through macro-ecological features such as the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) of Cambodia. The Tonic Sap River reverses its flow each year as the floodwaters back up in the Delta and enlarge the lake fourfold. This water is then released through the dry season. Numerous backswamps and other smaller floodplain features also regulate the river's flow, which nevertheless remains highly seasonal. Benefits derived from this fluctuation include a rich fishery of up to one million tons per annum, an agricultural system whose fertility and diversity is dependent on exigencies of the natural flood cycle, and a way of life intimately bound to the river basin's aquatic and terrestial resources.

Plans to regulate the river artificially also seek benefits. The three major advantages put forward in support of dam construction are hydropower, irrigation, and flood control. All require impoundment of the river, displacement of communities and provision of their major benefits at some distance from the site of the dam. The geography of cost and benefit involved raises many questions of equity within and between countries of the Mekong Basin.

The early plans for the Mekong are encapsulated in the notion of a "Mekong Cascade." Such a scheme, devised in the late 1960s but still being promoted by the Mekong Secretariat as recently as the late 1980s, would have impounded much of the river from where it leaves the Burma-Lao boundary to the upper part of the Delta in southeastern Cambodia. Environmental and social concerns have modified these plans so that the latest mainstream agenda is for "run of river" projects that would not create such large impoundments, but would nevertheless have significant blockage impacts on fisheries. To date, no dams have been built on the Mekong mainstream in the lower riparian countries, although China has built a dam at Manwan in Yunnan Province, has one under construction and several more planned for the next decade. Much more immediate is the prospect of dams on the major tributaries. Most of these would be built in remoter upland areas, and as a result the major population displacements would be of ethnic minorities. Lao PDR in particular has a number of tributary dams planned. The Nam Ngum Dam has been supplying power and foreign exchange to Lao PDR since its completion in 1971, and the Xeset and Nam Theun Hinboun Dams have been completed during the 1990s for exporting power to Thailand.

Several other highly contentious dams are either under construction or being considered by the World Bank and by foreign investors. Controversial hydropower and irrigation dams have been built on the Chi-Mun tributary system of northeastern Thailand, most notably and recently the Pak Mun Dam completed in 1994 with World Bank assistance. Vietnam has nearly completed construction of the Yali Falls Dam in the Central Highlands section of the Mekong Basin, relying largely on its own resources and Ukrainian expertise -- resettlement and other sensitivities over ethnic minorities in this region precluded multilateral bank involvement.

More widely, Vietnam has experience of massive displacement associated with the giant Hoa Binh Dam in the northwest. While this lies outside the Mekong Basin, there are many lessons to be learned from the resettlement problems experienced by the approximately 60,000 people from ethnic minorities affected by this dam. The Vietnamese Ministry of Energy is intent on going ahead with the even larger Son La dam upstream on the same river, which would displace upwards of 100,000 people, also from minority groups (mainly Thai).

Mekong Dams, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Minorities

It is not coincidental that dams planned for the uplands of the Mekong Basin affect ethnic minorities disproportionately. Neither, though, does this reflect an evil design on the part of governments dominated by ethnic majority interests. Rather, it is mainly a consequence of siting hydropower in the hitherto inaccessible upland areas whose high rainfall and steep topography is attractive from an engineering point of view but which are also home to ethnic minorities who have historically lived in the uplands -- albeit often after having been displaced from more fertile areas. The inequities of projects whose major benefit is felt at some distance from the site of displacement are sharpened by the ethnic difference between affected people and lowland populations. Nevertheless, there are many cases -- for example Nam Ngum and Pak Mun Dams in Lao PDR and Thailand respectively -- where those affected are from the majority population. These cases give the lie to the idea that it is ethnic status per se that disadvantages those affected, but it nonetheless does not alter the fact that projected dams do affect ethnic minorities disproportionately. Furthermore, impact is often exaggerated by the difference between ethnic minority peoples' ways of life and the conditions under which they are expected to resettle.

A particularly difficult question revolves around the indigenous status of affected people. Under most definitions of "indigenous people," those affected by proposed dams such as the Nam Theun II Dam in Lao PDR are often indigenous. Yet the governments of the countries concerned do not accept this categorization, given its background in the aboriginality of invaded peoples in settler societies of North America and Australasia. The Lao government, in particular, claims the Lao (majority) to be every bit as indigenous as other ethnic groups. The World Bank's Operational Directive No. 6 on Indigenous Peoples gives a number of criteria under which affected people are to be considered indigenous and in which case special provisions and planning processes must be followed, including drawing up of an indigenous people's development plan. While there was resistance within the Bank to accept that the people of the Nakai Plateau who would be displaced by Nam Theun II are indeed indigenous, later resettlement studies carried out in face of international concern have confirmed that they do unequivocally meet the criteria. As such, dams and other projects politicize the very status of peoples as indigenous or otherwise, involving contestation between funding agencies, NGOs, national governments and affected peoples themselves.

Dams, Displacement and Resettlement

Inundation of large areas of territory in fiver valleys necessitates resettlement of large numbers of people from areas affected by dams. In the past, little attention has been given to the welfare of such people. Their marginalization has been compounded by their ethnic minority status, lack of recognition of land and other resource rights, and disproportionate attention to the narrow economic and engineering aspects of hydropower projects. Criticism of the World Bank and other agencies supporting hydropower development has led to greater investment of time, money and studies in the resettlement process, but to date the experience of those displaced by dams has remained overwhelmingly one of impoverishment, community breakup and marginalization.

Most dams in the Mekong Region have involved resettlement plans that include bright futures and grand promises of improved livelihoods for those who have to move. Most also involve serious under-enumeration of those affected, limited investment of project income in resettlement sites, and assumptions that people will be able to re-establish livelihoods quite close to their original residence with little involvement of affected people in the resettlement planning process. Little formal monitoring or follow-up of those affected by dams has occurred, but in most cases patch-up provisions have had to be made when the living conditions of people whose homes and farmland have been flooded have reached points of crisis. In the case of larger dams, some communities have had to be moved over long distances, for example Muong minorities from the northwestern Highlands of Vietnam have moved from Hoa Binh to the Central Highlands after abortive attempts to reestablish livelihoods closer to the reservoir. Senior authorities in China now accept that hundreds of thousands of people will need to be similarly dispersed throughout China due to the difficulties created by the Three Gorges Dam's massive displacement impact.

Scoping Social and Cultural Impacts of Dams

Dams have an impact far beyond their immediate location. While the main values claimed for dams (electricity, irrigation water, foreign exchange, flood protection) are reaped at a distance, it is often assumed that the main impacts are localized to the site of the dam and reservoir. In fact, the geography of cost and benefit is considerably more complex. There are still great weaknesses in the scoping of social and cultural impacts of large dams in the Mekong Region.

Expanding the Scope

Comprehensive scoping of dam impacts requires a revision of the spatial and temporal frames of reference. Societal contexts are also fundamental in modulating impacts, for example through dominant resource tenure systems. Furthermore, scoping requires a more inclusive process, whereby affected peoples are involved in determining the extent and limits of impact studies. Impact assessment procedures need to be removed from the realm of project imperatives and placed closer to questions of preferred livelihood options for people who are threatened with eviction and other impacts.

The spatial constraints on considering social and cultural impacts have partly arisen due to the dominant focus on the site of the dam wall and the reservoir area. There are significant upstream and downstream impacts that rarely get considered. Downstream environmental impacts of dams are well documented, for example reduced dissolved oxygen, reduced silt loads, greater river-bank and deltaic erosion. However, livelihood impacts such as those resulting from fisheries decline are poorly documented and systematically denied by dam authorities (notably at Pak Mun in Thailand and Nam Theun Hinboun in Laos), as are problems that arise from the control regimes that place water release in command areas in the hands of centralized irrigation authorities. Upstream impacts are even less well considered, probably because of the assumed downward flow of impact. Social flow-on effects include the indirect impacts on upland communities of those displaced by dams encroaching on upland resource systems, as has happened in the case of many dams such as Hoa Binh and Nam Ngum. Particularly pernicious is the tendency for resource pressures to take the form of conflict between communities that have been squeezed into artificial proximity as a result of displacements, and in upland Southeast Asia there is more often than not an ethnic expression of such conflict. Thus, whereas ultimate causation may be a large infrastructure development such as a dam, the proximate conflict is felt as an ethnic problem. Further hidden upstream social impacts arise as upper catchments of tributaries with dams, or even those where dams have been slated but not yet built (for example Sekaman in southern Laos), are targeted as protected areas to preserve the dam, resulting in pressures for resettlement of minority peoples living in upland areas.

Temporal aspects of scoping extend to quite well-rehearsed questions of intergenerational equity. However, much more immediate temporal questions arise in the operational regime of the dam, a subject which itself receives scant interest compared with the displacement effect. Thus, seasonal water release patterns are fundamental in their effects on communities situated downstream. A common problem is the uncertainty in timing of water release. Villages downstream of the Nam Song Dam in central Laos, completed in 1995 to divert water into the Nam Ngum Reservoir, are regularly either deprived of water or have their riverbank gardens flooded due to unpredictable water releases. Other temporal questions relate to dam longevity: a common phenomenon is higher than anticipated siltation rates due to upstream land clearance, in part by displaced people, resulting in shorter dam life. Such flow-on processes are rarely scoped into plans for dams.

Social context modulates impacts and the extent to which affected people are able to rebuild their lives, yet most technocratic studies place a taboo on such issues as political voice of affected people, human rights questions or resource tenure systems. In the case of the latter, the Nam Song Dam produced an impact that was steadfastly left beyond the scope of the dam assessment. Before Nam Song was constructed, the Nam Ngum Reservoir had been well below its full supply level for more than a decade. Communities surrounding the reservoir, some of which had been displaced in 1971 when the dam was completed and some of which had settled from elsewhere to take advantage of the initially high fish catch, had progressively extended their rice cultivation to the reservoir edge. Nam Song has allowed the full supply level to be reached every year, flooding more than 20 per cent of wet rice land in some communities. However, as this land is presumed to belong to the dam and not to the "encroaching" farmers, no compensation is payable. This is but one of many examples of the problems of ambiguous resource tenure for displaced peoples.

Although there is sometimes a degree of nominal local participation in impact studies, scoping continues to be left to outside consultant "experts" and frequently remains a desk rather than field exercise. As a result, minimalist approaches almost always underestimate impacts and result in the need for patch-up work. It is hard to separate such problems from the control over impact assessments by project proponents. The culture of impact studies is still dominated by the project imperative, that is the drive to find a way to make a dam acceptable to financial backers, the public, governments and at least superficially to affected peoples. Questions of preferred livelihood futures for those directly and indirectly impacted by the dam, whether on-site or at a distance upstream or downstream, receive little consideration outside what can be accommodated within the financing of the project.

Public and Private Good

Dams have always raised questions of trade-off between costs and benefits that accrue to different sections of society and to people living in different locations, as well as between maintenance of environmental values versus immediate economic returns. While dams were mainly in the public sector (albeit with large private-sector construction contracts), the discourse of trade-off could be set in terms of local sacrifice for the wider good, the latter often in the guise of "national interest." Privatization of the dam building agenda raises a host of new questions of public versus private goods. As ever larger parts of the benefits of dams are captured by private interests, while costs continue to fall largely on poorer, marginalized sections of society and on the natural environment, a new distributional dimension is added, as are questions of societal control over such large projects and their associated impacts.

Most new dam schemes in the Mekong Region are financed by a version of Build-Own-Operate-Transfer (BOOT), sometimes referred to more colloquially as "rent-a-river." In principle, this funding arrangement relieves host governments from the burden of taking on public debt liabilities, as a large part of the capital is raised through private banks on international money markets. In practice, these arrangements tie governments into a host of other obligations and put the dam building agenda into the international corporate arena. Many major international construction companies are now involved as BOOT partners in Mekong dams, including Trans field, Daewoo and Electricite de France, as are a number of Thailand-based corporations such as Italthai and MDX.

Public costs and private benefits are supposed to be balanced by appropriate compensation mechanisms. However, the problems of scoping referred to above continue to impose uncompensated social, economic and environmental costs on marginal people at and beyond the site of the dam. This occurs even before taking account of cumulative dam impacts which, in an interconnected and interdependent system such as the Mekong Basin, go well beyond the aggregated impacts of individual dams.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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