Citizen Science Supports a Healthy Mekong

Kirk Herbertson
Monday, December 3, 2012
Mapping the Mekong: In 2011, villagers mapped fishing grouds, river-bank farmland, river morphology and sub-ecosystems.
Mapping the Mekong: In 2011, villagers mapped fishing grouds, river-bank farmland, river morphology and sub-ecosystems.

The Mekong is not a one-size-fits-all river. One of Asia’s longest rivers, it begins in Tibet and flows through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Ask someone in one of these countries how they depend on the Mekong River, and you will get a unique answer that reflects the local realities of the village, city, or culture you are visiting. More than 60 million people live and work here. For the poorest villagers, local knowledge of the river may be their most valuable asset. Millions make a living by understanding the behavior of fish and animals that provide food, the local farming conditions, and the annual cycles of flooding and dry season. Countless people’s lives are closely intertwined with the river.

This is why dam building has become such a concern for local communities living in the Mekong region. China has already built several large dams on the upper part of the river. Now governments propose to build 11 dams on the lower part of the river, nine of them in Laos. The purpose of the dams is to create electricity, but they could come at high cost to the many other ways that people use the river. Together, the 11 Lower Mekong dams would dramatically change the lives of millions of people, flooding more than half of riverbank gardens, reducing fisheries catch by 26-42%, and reducing the flow of sediments and nutrients to agricultural areas in the Mekong Delta.

Most of the Lower Mekong governments have laws in place to compensate and resettle communities that are affected by dams and other large development projects, but too often these laws do not stave off poverty for project-affected people. The decision to build dams is most often made behind closed doors. By the time communities find out they will be affected, they have had no opportunity to contribute to the debate. Often they learn with only short notice that they will be moved from their homes. Compensation is determined by consultants who conduct an inventory of the market-value of families’ trees, houses, and crops. After the communities are moved, local knowledge of the river is lost, and the risk of impoverishment is high.

Under such difficult conditions, “citizen science” is becoming a powerful tool for communities to ensure their voices are heard in the debate over dams. Traditionally, governments in the region have depended on consulting companies to assess environmental and social impacts of projects. The quality of these assessments can be poor because the companies have an incentive to portray the project in a favorable light to their clients. By systematically documenting the ways that they depend on the river, communities are improving their ability to provide governments with accurate information about the risks and benefits of projects. As efforts continue to build Lower Mekong dams, citizen science initiatives have emerged in several countries based on a methodology designed by Thai communities over the past decade.

Thai-Karen ethnic villagers along Thai-Burma border conducted community  research on the Salween using Thai Baan research methods. Here, a local boy demonstrates the size of one of the Mekong’s giant fish species.
Thai-Karen ethnic villagers along Thai-Burma border conducted community research on the Salween using Thai Baan research methods. Here, a local boy demonstrates the size of one of the Mekong’s giant fish species.
Photo: SEARIN/Living River Siam

But even after overcoming the challenges of conducting this research, communities face the challenge of convincing governments to take their findings into account. In mainland Southeast Asia, the public does not have a strong history of participating in major government decisions. Corruption is pervasive in development projects. In countries such as Laos, local people risk retaliation against themselves and their families for being critical of government decisions. Despite these challenges, efforts are underway in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to promote and expand the use of citizen science.

The Thai Baan Movement

Pai Deetes, International Rivers’ Thailand campaigns coordinator, previously led a Thai organization called Living River Siam, which has worked over the past decade to promote the use of citizen science (commonly called Thai Baan or “villager” research). She explains, “We believe that every single community living in the river basin knows best about natural resources and how to manage these resources in a sustainable way. Most of the time we see that the studies done by experts or academics depend only on scientific information. They ignore local knowledge and they ignore local use of the natural resources.”

Communities in Thailand first began to conduct their own research on rivers in the early 2000s in response to the controversial Pak Mun Dam. The dam was built in 1994 by the Thai government and World Bank on the Mun River, the largest tributary of the Mekong River. Community opposition to the project grew as the dam builders ignored concerns that the dam would devastate fisheries that people along the river depended upon. After the dam was built, fish catch decreased 60-80% even though the project developers included a “fish ladder” technology intended to allow fish to pass through the dam. More than 20,000 people suffered significant reductions in fish catch as a direct result of the dam.

The dam’s impacts gave rise to a strong people’s movement in Thailand, which became known as the Assembly of the Poor. In March 1999, some 5,000 villagers began a long-term occupation of the dam site, demanding that it be decommissioned. In June 2001, the Thai government agreed to open the dam’s gates to restore natural flows, so that studies could be conducted on impacts to fisheries and communities. A university conducted the studies on behalf of the Thai government. To ensure that people’s concerns were heard, the Southeast Asia Rivers Network (now called Living River Siam) developed a research method for communities to conduct their own scientific studies. In what became known as Thai Baan research, Pak Mun villagers systematically documented how the dam had affected their lives and the fisheries they depended on.

The Pak Mun villagers completed their research and recommended that the government decommission the dam. The university study recommended keeping the dam gates open for five years. Nevertheless, the Thai government rejected the recommendations and decided to open the dam’s gates for just four months each year – an improvement, but not a solution to the problems the dam caused. Dramatic declines in fisheries have continued.

Nevertheless, the network of Thai communities and NGOs emerged strong and unified after the experience. The Assembly of the Poor continued to support people who were affected by development projects. And interest in Thai Baan research grew.

In 2001, China agreed with Laos and Thailand to blast several rapids along the Mekong River to make it easier for large ships to travel past. China led the environmental impact assessment, which concluded that the blasting of the rapids would not cause significant harm. Soon after, blasting of rapids began. In Chiang Khong district, Thailand, the governments planned to blast away a 10-kilometer-long system of rapids, rocks, and sandbars called Khon Pi Luang that was an important fishing ground for local villagers.

Thai villagers living in Chiang Khong responded with a combination of political pressure and Thai Baan research. From 2003-2004, 146 village researchers studied the Khon Pi Luang rapids and held focus group discussions to learn how people depended on the area. Altogether, they documented that the rapids were an important ecosystem that supported 201 plant species and 96 fish species, including the endangered Mekong Giant Catfish. They also found that 2001 blasting of rapids on the Burma-Lao border had cut the local fish catch in half. The villagers submitted their findings to the Thai government and national human rights commission. Through a combination of Thai Baan research and political pressure, villagers convinced the Thai government to halt the blasting and preserve the Khon Pi Luang rapids.

The Chiang Khong villagers’ research was published in a book and has continued to serve as an important source of scientific data about the Mekong. Thailand’s human rights commission and several senators continue to build the legitimacy of Thai Baan research by organizing public forums when development projects are proposed. Journalists have also spread awareness of the research. Thai Baan research has expanded to other countries in the region, including Cambodia and Vietnam, where people have found their own local names for this type of research.

Bringing Citizen Science to the Mekong Dams

As plans to build the 11 Lower Mekong dams have advanced, NGOs and communities have been planning their response. Thai Baan research is already underway in several areas of the river that would be affected if the dams go forward.

Mapping the Mekong

In Thailand, several NGOs have worked to facilitate the research. Living River Siam has been active in organizing exchange trips between community leaders across the river basin. The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces has worked to mobilize Thai communities living along the river to build awareness about the impacts of the Xayaburi Dam. In the past year, TERRA has also facilitated participatory community research on the impacts of the Xayaburi Dam on Thai communities. Despite requests from neighboring countries, the government of Laos and Thai dam builder Ch. Karnchang have not studied the transboundary impacts of the project. Village researchers identified 25,676 Thai citizens in 58 villages whose livelihoods would be harmed by the dam.

In Cambodia and Vietnam, it is difficult for people to speak openly against sensitive development projects. However, both governments have taken a strong public position in favor of further impact studies before more Mekong dams are built. Many view Thai Baan research as a safer and potentially less politically sensitive way to empower communities. Political space has opened, at least temporarily, for communities to provide some input into the process. In Cambodia, Thai Baan style research (called Sala Phum or “village school”) has been underway for more than seven years on the Mekong. Research is now beginning in Vietnam as well.
In Laos, communities face a particularly difficult situation. Villagers do not have access to information about proposed projects and do not have a culture of questioning the government’s decisions. Because the Lao government proposes to build nine of the 11 Mekong dams on its stretch of the river, the issue is particularly sensitive. When International Rivers visited the Xayaburi Dam site last June, we interviewed people living in 15 of the villages that would be affected if the dam goes forward. Many indicated that they could not question what the government decides, and hope that they receive enough compensation. Others described how they risked retaliation by local and national government officials if they became too vocal against the project. Yet the government has no plans to compensate villagers for lost fisheries, and plans to crowd several villages into areas where land is scarce. Despite such difficult conditions, a few experiments in Thai Baan style research are underway.

Science is often assumed to represent the neutral voice of reason. In the Mekong region, governments are more comfortable speaking about science than they are about political topics such as human rights. But even science can be politicized. A poorly written environmental impact assessment can legitimize harmful projects. A well-documented recommendation to open a dam’s gates can be ignored. By collecting local knowledge in a systematic and credible way, local communities have a tool to provide input into the development process. As renowned Thai activist Niwat Roygaew said, “If we know who we are, we will have the strength to get our voices heard.”