Mekong School’s Lessons for Change: One Activist’s Story

Hoang Duong
Hoang Duong
Hoang Duong

One day late in November, after a long period of preparation, public meetings on Don Sahong Dam finally started to move forward. I was traveling in the Mekong Delta. It is the time of year local people in the Delta start to collect and sell Ca Linh, a traditional fish, lotus trunk, and flowers only found in the rainy season. Livelihoods in the Mekong Delta are becoming harder since there’s more consumption and fewer natural resources than before. 

This year, construction on the second dam of 11 proposed hydropower projects on the lower Mekong mainstream starts in Laos. Despite all debates about loss and gain of this development project so far, the river will be stopped in order to produce electricity and definitely, its rhythm will change. 

Local people are the last ones to know about the dam, but they will be the first to suffer from decline of fish, the changing of river flows and also the impacts of climate change. Recently, people are experiencing abnormal tides and flooding. Some say the flooding comes earlier and stays longer than before. Some common dishes that are found in the rainy season now become rare and very expensive. This year, in An Giang province, the flooding didn’t come; the water level is lower than usually. It means there’re no traditional fish (just found in flooding season). There’s no abundant sediment so that famers have to use more chemical fertilizer next crops. 

I had never thought how human livelihoods and sustainable development can be connected until I attended the Mekong School in 2011. The Mekong School was founded in 2006 by Earth Rights International to create change. It gathers students from six countries in the Mekong Region with different backgrounds and diverse cultures; they can be recently graduated students, researchers, freelance journalists, lawyers, or community leaders. The common point among us is our commitment toward local communities, the desire to build community capacity, or plan advocacy strategies. During seven months of training, students learn about human rights, the environment, international standards, and the relationship between human beings and nature – particularly in relation to development projects. The students not only learn from teachers but also from one another.

During my time at the Mekong School, we met with affected communities in Thailand who for generations have been committed to protecting their motherland from the impacts of development projects. During a visit to the site of the Pak Mun Dam, students witnessed a healthy river now changed into a big polluted reservoir full of water hyacinth. Local people desperately try to fish in it, with little luck. I saw people gathered around a van buying fish from another town. Such projects, when built without accountability and transparency of implementation, cause disaster for local communities. The campaign is never easy and it will takes a very long time before people really can stand up and fight for their rights or the Government to listen and respect their opinions. 

I could say I’m a lucky person because I have seen first-hand what will happen when a dam stops a flowing river. Now, all of that will surely come true in my country – Vietnam. The Laos Government has plans to build the Don Sahong Dam along with 10 other dams on the mainstream of the Mekong, a Mother river that is main source of food and livelihood for millions of people in the Mekong Delta. For them, the river is too precious to gamble with. 

With the ability to share my experience and raise awareness among local people about these impacts and the threats posed by dams, I cannot keep silent. Now working as part of the Vietnam Rivers Network, I am engaged in building capacity and knowledge within communities in Vietnam about the impacts of the Don Sahong Dam. Vietnam Rivers Network is an open platform to dialogue among experts, environmental non-government organizations and other stakeholders who care about the river systems in Vietnam. One of our missions is monitoring, and doing campaign and advocacy on water resources management. In November, we’re aiming to conduct six public meetings with local farmers, fisherman and with women in the Mekong Delta. 

I know this kind of work is not easy, but it’s not impossible. Talking about my commitment and where my motivation comes from, as my colleague said “If I don’t try anything to make change, I will regret it later.” Indeed, this is not only for my generation, but also for many future generations of the Mekong Delta. I cannot say if just six public hearings will make changes we need to protect the Mekong, but at least local people will be aware and informed about these dams that will affect their lives and their rights to be consulted.