18 February 2014

Xayaburi Dam Documentary Film Critique

Documentary about Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong

This documentary about Xayaburi Dam was posted to Youtube in December of 2013, and was produced sometime in 2013. It is a good attempt to capture the complexity of issues surrounding development in the Lower Mekong River, centered around the most current and noteworthy development projects: Xayaburi Dam. The movie tells an alarming story that is captured in one of the interviewees who states that in the past the Mekong River belonged to the people, but now the benefits of the river are going to the private sector.

I think this sort of thing can be seen around the world, but most especially in places like Southeast Asia where the environmental resources are exploited and/or removed by numerous interests, companies, and other countries. I said more than once, when I was in Laos and heard about yet another resource being exported to China, China eats the World.

Now, of course it isn't always China. There is also some responsibility of the country governments in this process. There is also responsibility of outside institutions, like the World Bank, who lends money for large controversial projects. And certainly Western countries, like the United States, aren't off the hook for development elsewhere - electricity demands in Thailand are related to the booming industry that produces more stuff, like expensive outdoors-active clothing, to buy in the West.

Back to the film. Well-enough made, not well-enough balanced. No one is interviewed directly from the Lao government, or from the villages. Was the film crew not even allowed in Vientiane? Some of what is presented contradicts. Some of the opinions given are too conspiratorial for me, I think reasons are usually much simpler. Some of the opinions are xenophobic.

 The one big point as I understand, and contrary to how it is presented in this film, is that the legal processes through which the Lao government had to proceed given teh 1995 agreement and through the MRC for prior notification, requires just that - some 6 months of notification of some development project that will touch the Mekong mainstem. However, this notification does not require CONSENSUS from the Lower Mekong countries. Consensus is required only when water will be diverted from the mainstem. That Vietnam first asked for further studies or that the MRC recommends further studies or that the US government has given funds for further studies, does not obligate the sovereign government of Laos to halt construction of this project. That the European company Poyri is slimy or corrupt or bias is not relevant to the issue of a sovereign decision to build the dam. Xayaburi is not an illegal dam, it is a controversial dam.

 Although the ideas put forward for public participation are ideal in the case of shared resources management, Laos is a communist state. Public participation is not a valued participation. Most governments in the world do not ask consent of people before they make a decision about a national-level resource. Perhaps this film is pointing to a larger trend of people wanting more participation in national resource issues.

I take exception to the statements made by Ian Baird about regions or governments like Laos not being capable with expertise (or having political will or having the budget) to assess an environmental impact assessment. There are plenty of educated and intelligent people in the government of Laos, and in the civil society to be called upon if needed. If the insinuation in this film is that Poyri is pulling the wool over the Lao government's eyes or that the Lao government is attempting to pull the wool over other people's eyes, I am not sure what to say. Also, when Ame Tranden from International Rivers Network states that there has been enough scientific research done to indicate that this dam will adversely impact systems downstream in Cambodia or Vietnam, or even locally in Laos and Thailand, I am not sure what science she is referring to. Is this the same science that is lacking in capturing what types of fish species live in this section of the river? There is not enough known about the species in the river - there are two places for fish assessment - at the mouth of the Tonle Sap and in one of the big waterfalls in the south of Laos. Those two transitional spaces are not sufficient to collect data on an entire river - especially in calmer reaches, like where Xayaburi is happening. Not enough is understood about the hydrology or sediment transport post-China dam commissions. Not enough time has elapsed.

Finally, the question of fish runs deeper. Great presentation of the situation of fish in the Mekong. Much is unknown, but so many people depend on this protein source. This is especially important for communities that experience malnutrition and are, as often is the case in Laos, cut off from markets - both economic and trade. When we are considering Xayaburi specifically, it is still a reach to relate this development to Cambodia, especially when Cambodia has its own dams planned north of the Tonle Sap that threaten to change the entire delicate balance.

There is a real issue of fish changes in Laos. This is due to several compounding factors, as I understand from my interview collection.

  1. Many more people are fishing the Mekong. There are no regulations in Laos on fishing other than a restriction on fishing with electricity - this is outlawed. In some places I heard about seasonal moratoriums, but this requires local enforcement - and enforcement depends on the village chief. Some villages along the Mekong cannot be reached by road. More people are fishing the Mekong now than in the past. Many people come from outside the villages to fish for profit. The village fishing tends to lean toward subsistence. 
  2. The seasonal patterns are changing. Local communities responded over and over again that the rains do not come at the same time anymore. The river fluctuations were more predictable in the past. As were the seasonal monsoon flooding. People would know this since they plant and fish and live right on the banks of the river. 
  3. Not only are there less fish, but the size of the fish has changed and some types of fish are no longer found in the river. The fishermen I spoke with stated this over and over again as well. The actual fish population has changed. And this is in the wild reaches of the Mekong in Laos, just upstream from the Xayaburi project site. 
These existing changes should be amplified - something is already strange with the system. Changes are visible as of the last 5 years. If these changes are ignored or discounted, people in the future may be pointing the finger once again at the wrong culprit - Xayaburi dam or its brother projects - instead of pointing at the overall major changes that the Upper Mekong is going through - the Lancang River in Yunnan - to include major dam commissions, rubber plantations, and land-use changes in Chinese modernization efforts. Also, what is happening in the tributaries in Northern Laos where Sino-hydro is constructing a cascade of something like 8 dams. Where rubber plantations and clear-cutting are trimming riparian forests in upper Laos. Tributaries, I am told, impact the hydrology of the Mekong much more than is understood and are important for fish spawning as well. Some huge amount of fish were lost due to damming of important spawning tributaries in Thailand.

I do think people have their hearts in the right place when they oppose environmental resources exploitation in favor of private industry, in favor of diplomatic dealings out of the public eye, in favor of sustaining local traditional lifestyles. The documentary brings up important facts and figures about fish consumption and how many people are dependent on the river system for fish. What it does not do is point the finger at the right culprit. It is not so simple to say that the problem is the Xayaburi dam or some sketchy Finnish company cashing in on Lao contracts, the government of Lao, the Thai cement companies or engineering firms or electricity network. Dams were planned on the Mekong River decades ago.

Global economies have shifted and where before dam development wasn't possible because of lacking funds (unless you and the World Bank could make a deal), they are now being constructed, and quickly. Hydropower is popular again as an alternate to the deadly disasters from nuclear energy, and carbon heavy emissions from petroleum-based burning. Energy markets are viable for sharing and selling across borders. Communist regimes are changing economic policies. No mention at all in this documentary about the changing water itself - the quality change due to upstream land-use change and development - the volume change due to localized climate changes, weather pattern changes, and upstream Chinese dams.

The documentary brings up great talking points - and it sets the stage for more discourse about development. I am thankful that Rajesh Daniel took the time to make the film. More needs to be discussed.

The Mekong is undergoing major change and it is the river dependent people who will suffer most of all - the original quote from this entry - that the river was once for the people, but now the benefits are in private hands - is a chilling thought for now and the future of a place where modernization is coming in the form of top down modifications to the economic system. I am interested to see what solutions will come from such challenging issues.