Home to approximately 280 million people, the Mekong region is a geo-political sub-region with great ethnic diversity where rice farming, fishing, and harvesting of non-timber forest products form the backbone of rural livelihoods. This way of life is currently under threat from the rapid expansion of large-scale resource and infrastructure projects that due to a week regulatory environment often pay little heed to the impact on farmers and fishers who rely on the Mekong.
Oxfam’s Mekong Regional Water Governance Program (MRWGP) aims to increase the number of women and men in farmer and fisher communities who have secure and sustainable livelihoods. To reach this goal, Oxfam is working with communities, to help people understand their rights and improve their livelihoods, national governments, to influence changes in policies, and regional governments, to ensure better water management practices across borders.
This is complex work with long time frames and yet each year there are reasons to celebrate. We are excited to share some of these highlights below. Thank you for your generosity and support.
In the fast-changing Mekong context, Oxfam nurtures relationships with 44 partner organisations, ranging from formal and informal entities, civil society organisations, river networks, academia and research institutes as well as key government institutions. Oxfam is addressing one of the most politically sensitive issues in a region where there is evidence of widespread human rights abuses. By developing and maintaining these strong relationships, we are able to raise issues with governments but also provide technical support to them where possible. This is recognised both internally and externally as a strength of our program, supporting and facilitating the voice of civil society in the region.
Key Project Activities and Outcomes
The following section gives a detailed account of how the program is progressing against its key outcomes.
Outcome 1: Supporting civil society networks
The MRWGP continues to support key regional and national actors and river networks to facilitate the participation of communities affected by large hydropower projects in water governance. Specifically:
- Supporting Save the Mekong Coalition by assisting in organizing strategy meetings and information sharing among its members. A key achievement was the first Mekong People’s Forum, held in An Giang Vietnam and attended by dam-affected communities from Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. The forum enabled communities to share information and raise joint concerns over dams planned and under construction on the Lower Mekong mainstream.
- Supporting youth groups to raise awareness about hydropower dam development in the Mekong and for formal stakeholders to understand that youth are interested in these issues.
- Supporting Social and Environmental Protection Youth (SEPY) in Cambodia to utilize social media channels such as Facebook and radio to raise awareness of the impacts of dam building on biodiversity areas as well as on the livelihoods of communities who are resource dependent for their survival. Their strong voices were heard and the third Committee of the Cambodian National Assembly responded positively, promising that the Government will conduct visits to affected communities and further study the causes of water pollution in that area.
- Oxfam played an active role in facilitating youth groups to access regional and international platforms where their concerns on environmental and natural resources could be heard by key decision makers. An example was the annual ASEAN People Forum (APF), which was organised in Malaysia alongside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting.
Outcome 2. Holding infrastructure developers to account and promoting standards
It is vital that infrastructure developers, both in the private sector and governments are held accountable for creating better standards and safeguards for communities impacted by their work.
Oxfam continues to provide support to the Development Watch Program (DWP) of Equitable Cambodia (EC). This program is the core human rights defender work and promotes a human rights approach through monitoring, research and evidence-based influencing on trade and investments that violate community rights to access to and maintain control over their land.
Providing Critical Perspectives on Environment and Development in Southeast Asia is the Mekong Commons (MC) project supported by Oxfam. The project promotes knowledge generation and critical analysis within the region by making it accessible online via the MC website.
In an environment where space for civil society discussion is being restricted more and more, the wide usage and coverage of the Mekong Commons website is enabling young researchers and groups to have a place to discuss critical development issues and shape and form ideas and express them. These ideas are being underpinned by materials and evidence produced by Mekong Watch. This enables members of civil society (particularly the young) to be better informed on development issues which are closed off from public scrutiny.
As a result of being better informed, communities are contributing their views through available opportunities such as through Oxfam programs.
Outcome 3. Strengthening sustainable alternatives and community resilience
Outcome 3 promotes Mekong communities, especially women, having strengthened sustainable livelihoods and increased community resilience.
- The Earth Rights International Mekong School, an Oxfam partner, supported 12 students (six women) (from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, China and Thailand) to develop leadership skills to more meaningfully inform planning and decision-making on water governance in the Mekong Region.
- We also worked with 3SPN to implement Community Fisheries in Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. They provided training to protect and restore the fisheries resources including conserving deep pools and patrolling to prevent illegal fishing. The project enhanced the networking of 14 community fisheries along Sesan and Srepok tributary rivers; the members of the community met on a quarterly basis to share the key challenges and facilitate local communities to prevent illegal fishing. 3SPN also worked with the fishery administration to discuss fishery conservation mapping.
- Oxfam worked on an innovative Local Energy Planning project with partner GreenID. The project empowers men and women in the community to enhance their awareness on alternative energy options and collectively identify and develop local energy plans that address household energy needs.
Challenges and Risks
A significant trend in the region is the increasing role of the private sector in the financing, development and operation of large-scale resource projects such as dams and mines. Growing private sector investment poses a challenge, particularly with increasing intra-regional investment, as developers and financiers from Thailand, Vietnam and China tend to pay relatively less attention to social and environmental protection in their policies and practice. The challenge is compounded by the fact that engaging the private sector in policy dialogue and advocacy is still relatively new to many civil society networks and Oxfam partners in the Mekong, who have tended to target governments, inter-governmental bodies (such as the Mekong River Commission and ASEAN) and international financial institutions (most significantly the World Bank and Asian Development Bank).
Perhaps a greater challenge however is that political space for civil society continues to reduce in Mekong countries. National and regional sensitivities around natural resource management, in particular water governance and large hydropower dam development, have increased. This presents particular risks for young people who want to actively engage in policy and decision-making and organise public awareness-raising gatherings that the government may deem as political activities. Oxfam is identifying a number of ways to support youth informal groups to make informed decisions about their activities.
The practices of the military government in Thailand is leading to challenges to civil and political rights and recent developments with Thailand drawing water out of the Mekong to address drought and industrial needs poses new challenges to cross border cooperation. Throughout the region, civil society engagement in decisions on natural resource management remains the most politically sensitive topic.
Oxfam is supporting communities in some of the poorest districts in Vietnam’s southern Ca Mau province to switch to renewable energy, solar PV, more efficient cooking stoves and energy-efficient LED lights as part of a local energy plan to boost household incomes and reduce carbon emissions. So far, 122 households have been helped to set up simple systems to create methane gas from pig manure to create enough clean, green bioenergy to meet all their cooking needs. These save people time and money, keep homes smoke-free and healthy and stop manure from contaminating rivers.
Kum Van Nguyen (pictured above) is a farmer in Number 18 Village, Nguyen Phich commune, in the southern province of Ca Mau in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. He lives with his wife Giau Kim Ly, two of their five children and four grandchildren. Rising sea levels, salt water intrusion and climate change are threatening the farming and fishing-dependent communities in the low-lying Delta. Oxfam and partners are supporting some of the province’s poorest and most vulnerable families by introducing renewable energy systems to save them time and money and help them to develop sustainably.
Kum says, “The best thing about the pigs and the biogas is that it costs almost nothing to run and keeps the environment clean. Before, the pig manure made the river dirty. I’d never heard about bioenergy before so I was very surprised when it was suggested. An expert came to show us how to set up a biogas system using a plastic bag, tubes and pig manure and now I can help my friends and neighbours to create their own. Everyone wants biogas now!
“I’m very happy – raising pigs for biogas is a very good business. I’d recommend it to anyone. Most farmers here keep several pigs anyway so it’s cheap to set up. The biogas system produces all the gas we need for cooking. My wife is so pleased because she no longer has to spend lots of time collecting wood for burning and making charcoal – she is able to rest and we can enjoy time together.
“I was born in Ca Mau province and I’ve lived here in the commune for 18 years, farming rice. We’re about 60km from the sea but I’ve noticed that the salinity in the water is growing worse each year. Before it was more brackish. About 10 years ago we started shrimp farming to take advantage of the salty water in dry season, along with everyone else in the commune. Shrimp farming is more profitable than rice but you can only do one season each year. In wet season the rain washes away the salt so we can grow rice in fresh water. I think my rice is poorer quality now because of the increased salinity but we can still grow enough to eat and to sell.
“In the past you could predict the weather but about seven years ago the seasonal patterns changed and now it’s almost impossible to forecast. The heat is more intense and the rain is heavier, which can damage production on the farm. I’m concerned that there may be more big storms and cyclones that could hurt the house and farm. Like everyone, I hope that the future will be safe and prosperous for my family.”
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The Mekong region is home to approximately 280 million people and is a region of great ethnic diversity. Many communities live along or near the Mekong River, which links six countries in the region. With its headwaters in the Tibetan plateau, the river flows through China’s Yunnan province, past Burma into Laos and Thailand, and into the lowlands of Cambodia, meeting the sea in Vietnam.
Rice farming, fishing, and harvesting of non- timber forest products form the backbone of rural livelihoods and are pillars of the lower Mekong economies.
The region’s incredible ecological diversity sustains the livelihoods and food security of most of the rural population. Of the 60 million people who live in the Lower Mekong basin, it’s estimated that 80% rely directly on the river system for their food and livelihoods.
The Mekong has the second highest fish biodiversity in the world and is the world’s largest inland fishery. It is estimated that 40 million people are involved in the Mekong’s fishery at least part-time or seasonally.
The rapid expansion of large-scale resource and infrastructure developments intended to boost economic growth is increasing pressures on the environment and people in the basin. This is exacerbated by weak regulatory systems and lack of capacity or political will to enforce existing policies and regulations.
Farmers, fishers and natural resource dependent communities in the Mekong region have little or no say over the major development decisions that reallocate their lands, waters and resources to state and new private sector industries and uses. The impact on vulnerable communities is overlooked, especially when projects cross national borders. How can communities in Cambodia have their voices heard about the effects of a dam built in Laos?
The Mekong region is in the midst of rapid change. Major cities are expanding and rural regions are industrialising with highways linking urban centres to ports and trading hubs. To meet projected increases in energy demands, there are extensive plans to build hydropower dams on the Mekong mainstream and its tributaries. While infrastructure development has the potential to help poor communities improve their well being and livelihoods through increased access to markets, goods and services, too often affected communities have little or no information and influence on the planning and decision-making surrounding these developments.
Working with communities, the Mekong Water Governance Program seeks to support farming and fishing communities in the Mekong Region to have more secure and sustainable livelihoods and access to food by influencing the policies and practices of those driving development processes, including financiers, multilateral institutions, governments and intergovernmental bodies and the private sector.
The program aims to empower communities residing in the Mekong Region, so that they can effectively engage in formal processes of resource consultation and impact assessment. The program also seeks to make the development process accountable and sustainable so that future generations can share in the region’s wealth.
Through its long history of involvement in the Mekong, Oxfam Australia has developed a strong understanding and network of partners and allies working on water governance-related research, advocacy and monitoring. In November 2012, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recognised the impact and influence that Oxfam is having in the region.
Oxfam has already succeeded in increasing the understanding of risks to ecosystems and livelihoods, and is pressing governments – both in and outside the Mekong Region – to take their responsibilities for project affected people, and nature, seriously. A major achievement of the campaign has been to succeed in reframing the perceived threat from simply an environmental protection concern to one of food security and an impact of communities’ abilility to make a living. This has contributed to greatly elevating the issues in the minds of regional and international policymakers.
Having closely monitored and engaged in advocacy on Lower Mekong mainstream dams, Oxfam and its partners have ample experience in advocating for improved transboundary governance.
Key Project Objectives
The overall aim of the program is, through strengthening and
empowering communities, more women and men in rural areas (farmer and fisher
communities) in the Lower Mekong and Salween Watersheds will have secure and
sustainable livelihoods and access to food.
This will be achieved through:
women and men in rural communities of the Mekong Watershed to be able to
realise their rights to secure and sustainable livelihoods through increased
knowledge and understanding of how to protect their rights;
communities and local organisations will be linked and networked across the
region, with coordinated influence on the developers and financiers who operate
at a regional and international level; and
financial institutions, and private sector developers will respond to civil
society calls for more accountability by increasing dialogue space,
implementing int. standards and safeguards. Emerging evidence demonstrates this
leads to more equitable development.
Chan Thun poses for a portrait in Srekor Village / Photo Credit: Nicolas Axelrod
Chan Thun's Story
“When they will build the hydropower dam, this village will be flooded. If it will be flooded, it means that people in this village will need to relocate. I have met with the national assembly members to raise the concerns of my village. If they build the dam, it will have an impact on the health and the agriculture of people. But they replied to me that it will bring development and prosperity.
Regarding the compensation document, we don’t really know what they have written about it, and people didn’t receive any copy of it. And villagers never had any discussion about compensation with the company. And the same was for relocation; we never were consulted about it. In terms of compensation, you could exchange the plot of land and all the rest but you cannot compensate for the loss of tradition and culture, because it’s something so valuable that it cannot be compensated.”
What will the funding be used towards?
The Mekong Water Governance Program aims to gain more power and influence for farmers and fishers in natural resource planning, management and governance.
$10 can support two young men from Karen and Shan states in Myanmar to attend three days training on conservation and river protection, helping them to speak up on issues that affect them and their communities.
$50 can support Indigenous women displaced by a dam in Cambodia to buy four rolls of bamboo and reed ropes to make hats and baskets to sell at local markets, providing them with a source of income.
$80 can support the Women-on-Air radio program to discuss river changes and issues facing indigenous communities in northeast Cambodia.
$250 can buy a water tank and cooking stove for 20 families displaced by the construction of a dam in Cambodia, helping them to avoid the risk of deadly illness from uncooked food.
$500 can send 20 women from a small community in southern Laos to a national-level meeting with dam developers to discuss the impact of dams and have their voice heard.
Your generous gift of $30,000 can lead to ecosystems being better protected, communities being involved as partners in development and the benefits of natural resource flowing directly to poor communities.