“Xayaburi and Pöyry: What Lies Behind”

“Xayaburi and Pöyry: What Lies Behind” (41 mins. in English, August 2013).

Watch it on Youtube: http://youtu.be/vSKZTYIY-ho

The documentary film provides critical perspectives on the decision-making, scientific studies and planning of the Xayaburi dam being built in Lao PDR. It highlights the role of the Finnish company Pöyry who did the study used by Laos to justify the project.

Xayaburi is the first dam being built on the main stream of the Lower Mekong River. Since its inception, the dam has proved controversial for many social and ecological reasons but most importantly for its potential effects on the wild capture fisheries of the Mekong River that thousands of people depend upon for food, trade and livelihoods.

Pöyry was hired by Laos in May 2011 to evaluate the project’s compliance with the requirements of the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

Pöyry downplayed the project’s environmental and social impacts. Although identifying that over 40 additional studies were still needed to understand the project’s impacts, Pöyry recommended that construction continue. In November 2012, Pöyry was appointed the Lao government’s chief engineer for the project.

The film interviews a range of local people and fishers, the region’s leading scientists, civil society representatives, and the media to explore the dubious politics, bad science and conflict of interest behind engineering the Xayaburi dam.

Script, camera and direction: Rajesh Daniel
Editor: Plengvut Plengplang
Produced by: Siemenpuu Foundation

DVD cover_Xayaburi film

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My new book … is out

Governing the Mekong: Engaging in the Politics of Knowledge

Editors: Rajesh Daniel, Louis Lebel, Kanokwan Manorom

Governing the Mekong_CoverThis book is an edited volume of case studies exploring the knowledge-engagement efforts on water governance in the Mekong region. It is the fourth volume in the M-POWER book series.

Publisher: SIRD, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (June 2013)

Download book flyer Governing Mekong Flyer_with TOC.

My next documentary film … started production

Xayaburi Dam: What Lies Behind

June 2012

20-25 mins. (DVD) with English language narration and subtitles

Final film scheduled for release: April 2013

Synopsis

The US$3.5 billion (107 billion baht) Xayaburi Dam along the Lower Mekong, if built, would irreversibly change the ecology of the Mekong River, and threaten the fisheries and food security of millions of people in the Mekong region and beyond.

The first of a planned series of mainstream dams on the Mekong River, the dam is a joint development between the Government of Laos (GoL) and Thailand’s construction company Ch. Karnchang. Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has agreed to purchase 1,220 MW of electricity at a cost of 2.159 Baht per kilowatt-hour.

The Finnish Pöyry PLC  (Publicly Listed Company) and its subsidiary Poyry Energy AG, one of the leading international consultant firms is involved as a consultant hired to do the impact assessment. Poyry has portrayed itself as a pioneer of green and sustainable economy with a slogan “Preparing the Plant”.

Although the social and ecological impacts of the dam could be huge and extending all the way to the Vietnam delta, the information and decision-making process appears less than transparent and the centralized energy-planning model is a point of controversy. Even before discussions went underway, Laos had started extensive construction work in preparation for building the dam.

For instance, the Pöyry study gave the green light for the project. But the Mekong River Commission (MRC) panel of experts declared in their Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) that the dam would disrupt the flow and likely affect fish habitats and life cycles. More than 200 species are found in this part of the river and the catch is estimated at 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes per year.

The SEA panel specifically recommended that a “10-year deferral be placed for mainstream hydropower development … to ensure that the necessary conditions to strengthen understanding of the natural systems as well as management and regulatory processes are conducted effectively”.

The film aims to:

1) give a human face for the project and its impacts so that people in different countries  could relate to it and understand its importance

2) enable people to be heard that are normally less visible and/or underrepresented in the decision making

3) examine the international global linkages (Laos-Thailand-Finland) and the role and responsibilities of international actors such as consultant companies.

The film will highlight five critical questions and issues:

1)    How transparent is the decision-making over the dam? What kinds of information are used to justify (consultants reports) and what is being missed (perspectives of fishers and others dependent on the river).

2)    Is this dam necessary for electricity; whom does the hydropower benefit? Do Thailand’s existing energy plans mostly serve the interests of the state-owned electricity utility, energy companies, and the construction industry, rather than the needs of the regions’ electricity consumers?

3)    What is the role and responsibilities of international actors/global linkages such as consultant companies in the region? For example: Pöyry is a company of significant national importance to Finland and it has portrayed itself as the pioneer of green and sustainable economy. How does this image match with its role in the Mekong dam projects (Xayaburi also Nam Ngum 2 and Yali)?

4)    How sound is the energy planning of EGAT (Thailand) and Laos? Is EGAT’s energy planning part of the problem as it heavily promotes the development of new large-scale electricity generation plants, such as fossil-fuel fired power stations and hydropower dams, increasingly locking Thailand and the region into a “centralized electricity supply model”.

5)    The impacts of the dam on the Mekong fisheries and the importance of capture fish to the people in the region.

Rajesh Daniel

March 2012

Bangkok

The Mekong: Grounds of Plenty

Documentary (DVD), 47 min., in English w. subtitles in four Mekong region languages, 2011.

For about a year from mid-2010 to early 2011, my friend Carl Middleton and I travelled across the countries of the Mekong region with a video camera. Our objective was to film the extraordinary fish biodiversity of the Mekong River and its ecosystems not only through the eyes of the fishers who depend on the fishing but also those who make their livelihoods from selling and processing as well as those who cook and eat the fish as part of their daily meals.

We filmed fishers and fish sellers near rivers, streams, canals and wetlands, and talked to them about their relationship to the river, its fish and to markets near and far. We marvelled at the incredible number of ways that the fish catch is processed: fermented, smoked or dried, salted or marinated in spices. We ate many kinds of fish preparations in homes, markets and restaurants and talked to cooks and chefs and fish sellers about their favourite recipes and fish dishes.

At the end of a year we had about 50 hours of tapes that we edited into this 47 minute movie called …

“The Mekong: Grounds of Plenty”

A film about how the plentiful fisheries of the Mekong River and its tributary ecosystems provides a web of connections across livelihoods, food and culture in the Mekong region and beyond.  

A healthy Mekong River is central to mainland Southeast Asia’s food security.

The rich fisheries and ecosystems of the Mekong River not only feed people living alongside the river but are crucial for the livelihoods of millions of people across mainland Southeast Asia.

The film shows how the fish from the Mekong River and its tributaries are caught and sold, cooked and consumed, by the people in the Mekong region.

Caught using an array of nets, baskets and traps, and cooked in many amazing ways, the wild fish catch provides protein and essential nutrients. Yet, the interconnection between the Mekong River’s well-being and the fish on a family’s plate is not so apparent in the urban centers. The film shows the Mekong River’s wild fish being caught and processed, and its passage through networks of trade as people work through the night and day to transport the catch to villages and towns, to markets, homes and restaurants (read more).

Filmed in over 30 locations across the Mekong region from Cambodia and Laos to Thailand and Vietnam.

Camera, Script and Producer: Rajesh Daniel

Executive Producer: Carl Middleton

Editor: Plengvut Plengplang

Produced by: Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience (M-POWER), Unit for Social and Environmental Research (USER) and International Rivers

Available for onscreen viewing at: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/7225/The-Mekong—Grounds-of-Plenty.

The film was screened at:

Siirretyt (Displaced)” film festival organized by the Siemenpuu Foundation on 10-12 October 2011.

Lifescapes Southeast Asian Film Festival in Chiang Mai on 2-5 February 2012.

Doing documentary films in social science research

Explorations on using video for improving research and communication in resource governance by Rajesh Daniel. Paper presented at the panel session on Filmed Ecologies: Possibilities and Challenges in Environmental Communication at the 11th International Conference on Thai Studies – Visions of the Future, held in Siam City Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand on July 26-28, 2011.

Introduction

In recent years, it has become increasingly common to take cameras and videos to meetings, interviews and for fieldwork. In my research work in Thailand and the Mekong region, video was frequently used to complement a research project.

The use of video in social research has become more widespread and my own work and that of colleagues has evolved and benefited from learning about similar efforts in various fields. For example, Bateson and Mead (1942) were the pioneers in using visual image observation in the field of anthropology.[2] Later the term “visual anthropology” gained wider use after Collier and Collier (1986) [3] who wrote a practical guide for using photography as a research method.

My primary use of video has been as a research tool in interviewing people and filming where and how they live and practice their livelihoods. One of the positives of video is it clearly communicates who and what we see, who we choose to listen, and to reach our conclusions. At the same time, the interviewees also grasp not only their own but also other’s viewpoints especially when put next to each other in an edited film.

Filming interviews and watching the recorded footage of seminars, as people’s perspectives were shown side by side on film, often helps to better understand the issues and people’s views, afford new insights into local resource or governance politics, and act as a more direct format for communicating ‘ethnography’.

There are also experiments using the video filming as a “process” and not just documentary film as a “product” that is obtained after hours of filming and editing. It seemed that the process of interviewing people and watching/listening to them on film by itself often helped break through difficult research situations such as when ethnic language was a barrier. The process of filming helped improve understanding of resource conflicts and sometimes even facilitated dialogue meetings on resource management.

This paper explores some experiences with video in Thailand and the Mekong region to draw lessons and reflections on the use of video in social science research and, in particular, in resource governance. It also poses some questions and ethical concerns about video technology as the format can lend itself to abuse. With digital video, it is as easy to show genuine scenes, as it is to move content and people out of context to serve certain interests and agendas.

The paper is structured in five parts. After this section one, the introduction, section two provides a brief background and literature review of the use of video in social science especially in the fields of anthropology and sociology. Section three briefly explains the use of video and some ideas about visual research, and why I think it’s useful to incorporate video, in particular as complementary to research.

Section four illustrates some of my video experiences from Thailand and the Mekong region, with some lessons and reflections as well as questions. For example, can video/visual research improve resource governance? Can the process of filming foster empowerment and participation? Or improve efforts to raise awareness on health and ecosystem related issues?  It also looks at some of the challenges both technological and practical. The last section five is on video politics and ethical concerns related to the use of video in research that explores how video is not a neutral technology and there are significant questions of simplification, power and control when used in research.[4]

For the full paper, please contact the author.

Thailand’s floods … aftermath

The floods are over. We have lived through Thailand’s worst floods in almost half a century. All of Oct and Nov we waited tensely for the floods to descend on our home on Bangkok. We bought and stocked up on provisions, moved things to the 2nd floor, sealed the house and moved to Rawin’s grandparents on 22 Oct. A few days later, the floods peaked and hit the outlying areas of Bangkok. In Nov, our house and surrounding areas were considered at risk.

After weeks of tense waiting, by mid-November, the waters finally came around and flooded the nearby roads and some of the streets of our house in Bangkok. It was perversely a relief to know that the waters were finally all around us. Our house remained dry. We have been more fortunate than most people in central Thailand and Bangkok. We are totally grateful for this.

Now the floodwaters have finally decreased in many areas and people have been returning to their homes and fields to assess and repair the damage and try to return their lives to some semblance of normalcy.

Now, a look at what happened. Granted Bangkok and most of the central Thailand provinces that form a large floodplain do receive northern run-offs every year. As an ecological activist pointed out recently in a detailed presentation in Chiang Mai, floods happen every year. A number of provinces in the lower north and central Thailand suffer damage to crops, orchards and rice fields as well as homes and property. On occasion, some people are also swept away by fast-flowing rivers and lives are lost. And every year, the government doles out compensation to farmers and families. And life goes on … until the next year’s floods.

So in 2011 what was different? At least three major factors. One, the sheer volume of water was a lot higher than in the previous years. Two, this was because of a lot more rain: the 2nd monsoon rains usually lasts for several weeks in July/Aug but this year continued all throughout Sept aided by a couple of tropical storms. Last, the large volume of water did not all come from the rains, but 4 dams in the lower northern region stored then released their “excess storage” water around the same time that the northern run-off was reaching the central plains.

In a rare moment of political candour, the Agriculture Minister admitted that he had ordered the dams in the lower north to store water despite being in “excess” of capacity for irrigating rice fields in the central plains. When the rains did not stop, the 4 dams were forced to release a large volume of water suddenly and very late in Sept, rather than releasing smaller volumes starting from Aug, making the entire situation far worse than it could have been.

Then when the flood situation worsened, there came the complete and gross mismanagement of the disaster relief operations mainly featuring misleading information (and cover-up of the extent of flooding) and administrative quarrels and cock-ups.

Infighting among bureaucracies, and between the ruling Pheu Thai Party government’s Ministers and the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (headed by an elected Governor from the opposition Democrat Party) – Petty quarrels continued on whether a letter had reached the relevant minister’s office or not, or about borders and administrative jurisdictions.

The lack of up-to-date information on the volume and timing of the flood waters and what often seemed to be a “people will cope with it as best as they can” attitude – Sometimes communities were assured they were completely safe, then suddenly given orders to “evacuate within 2-3 hours”.

Misleading official proclamations (more often soundbites) that only made situations worse – For instance the Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Surasawadi (who gave us the infamous Night Safari and the Salween timber logging scandals) telling a press conference not to worry, he will use 1,000 speedboats to propel the floods into the sea through the Chao Phraya River.

But then at least he was around albeit either being really useless or at best providing tragi-comic relief. But some other politicians went completely missing from the action not giving a rat’s arse whether the rest of the country was drowning or not. Most notable was deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung (he later popped up along with a secret decree to sneak the fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra back to Thailand), who disappeared from the public eye for almost the entire month of October when the flood disaster was at its peak.

Flood relief was not always reaching everywhere and everyone on time, leaving large areas of people waiting and waiting – Many supply trucks were hastily covered in banners and signs by opportunistic politicians more interested in advertising their names and getting political mileage out of relief efforts.

Among these watery ruins, bickering and political delinquency, the newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ran around in boats and helicopters, giving out relief packages, holding meetings and trying to secure some vestige of leadership but often giving the impression of someone not fully able to cope.

But there were also some very good things. The Thai media has been doing a great job, especially television, taking up the slack and providing updated information and analysis. Many TV reporters went everywhere, working from 6 am to midnight, getting interviews, doing analysis back at the studio, providing maps and data, taking calls from people who were stranded without food or water, and TV channels even rushing their own relief supplies to many areas. Many newspaper reporters wrote heart-wrenching stories about farmers and communities, and a few even about their own experiences in evacuating from their flooded home.

And of course, many newspaper cartoonists had a great time.

For once, the Thai army was a big help to people rather than relying on its usual method of staging coups or shooting civilians. The army’s large cadre of young soldiers often waded neck-deep in waters pulling and pushing boatloads of people, distributing supplies using trucks and helicopters and providing technical know-how in building sandbag barriers.

Then there were the hundreds of people helping each other, friends and neighbours and students and many others who took boats and distributed food and water or volunteered to put up sandbags or repair flood barriers through the night.

So what happens now? The clean-up after the flood waters has begun.

And the clean-up in terms of governance and accountability? Well, a few things that could take place (in a perfect world probably) where decision-makers would show or take accountability for their mistakes, lessons would be learned, and preparations put in for the next potential natural disaster.

At least one official, the Agriculture Minister, would be asked to resign. Or even better, is it possible to charge him with criminal negligence causing several billion baht damage to crops, industry and property, and culpable homicide for the loss of more than 500 lives in the floods? The many politicians who went missing in what was arguably one of the worst flooding disasters in Thailand’s recent history would have to explain where they were and why they did not help, and be penalised for their truancy.

A complete stock-taking of dam operations would begin, especially their water storage and release plans, and how these decisions are now made given that the period and duration of the monsoon rains are not as predictable as before.

Another stock-taking would begin of the infrastructure development, both past and planned, especially construction of large industrial estates that are situated right in the flood plain channels and that have drained wetlands and swamps, and blocked canals and natural river run-offs.

Also a closer look at what works and doesn’t (and why) in disaster prevention and mitigation, and how these can be improved.

None of this has happened so far.

No one is holding their breath.

Local politics of watershed management in the uplands

Local institutions and the politics of watershed management in the uplands of northern Thailand

Rajesh Daniel and Songphonsak Ratanawilailak

Book chapter in: In Lazarus K., Resurreccion B., Dao N., and Badenoch N. (Eds.) Rites of Access: Seeking Justice in Managing Mekong Region Waters. Earthscan, London. Vol 3 of the M-POWER book series.Introduction

Introduction

Upland watersheds in northern Thailand are arenas of social interaction and political contestation around the values, uses and management of natural resources and ecosystem services. Differences in definitions, perceptions, objectives and interests among actors abound and often lead to misunderstandings and misrepresentation of alternative land-use and watershed management practices (Luangaramsri, 1999).

Tensions in these arenas have grown in recent years with intensification of land-uses and market-oriented cultivation in both upland and downstream areas. Upland farms now widely use fertilizers and pesticides and in some locations even have overhead-sprinklers and associated infrastructure for irrigation water storage, delivery, and distribution (Badenoch and Wanitpradit, 2006).

The nature of the governance challenges are not dissimilar to many upland forest areas in the countries of the Mekong region as national parks and watershed conservation areas expand while upland farmers try to maintain their livelihood security and resource use.

This chapter explores how upland farmers in northern Thailand, predominantly ethnic communities, are using local-level institutions to manage not only  resource scarcity such as seasonal water shortages but also resource constraints posed by state conservation laws and official development strategies.

The local politics of watershed management in northern Thailand is affected by wider watershed management discourses, government policies related to the uplands, in particular regulations and classification systems for land, and the feedbacks from actual livelihood and conservation practices.

Based on the authors’ research in the Upper Mae Hae and Khun Kan watershed areas, the chapter shows that upland farmers attempt to maintain farming livelihoods by using and adopting a range of local institutions such as traditional definitions and practices as well as local government agencies. Individual actors are seen taking on greater responsibilities and roles with respect to local institutions for watershed management.

Upland farmers attempt to frame their own definitions of “watershed” based on their cultural or customary values, transform earlier village-level institutions (Wanitpradit, 2005), drive collaboration among individual actors in positions of power, or redefine other new institutional set-ups from activities of several actors to retain control over livelihoods and upland landscapes (Prasit et al, 2006; Lebel et al, 2006).

The chapter uses case studies in the Upper Mae Hae and Khun Kan watersheds in northern Thailand to illustrate the negotiation and contestation between the different definitions and meanings of watershed and those who use it. The cases show the on-ground efforts of local-level actors including individual leadership, watershed networks that cut across administrative boundaries, and the local administrative organisation play their roles, shape their definitions and perspectives as well as further their diverse objectives in watershed management.

We think that the policy challenge for watershed governance in Thailand and the Mekong region is to provide an enabling policy framework that can be inclusive of upland—especially ethnic community—livelihoods, address resource access and scarcity, and resolve resource conflicts and tensions. This chapter is an attempt to further our understanding of upland watershed management and the roles of local institutions in order to widen the options for watershed governance policies in Thailand and the Mekong region.

The chapter is structured with the following sections: outline of the key contestations over upland watersheds in Thailand including how watershed as a concept is constructed; the different ways of viewing the watershed; case studies illustrating the local institutions and watershed management practices, and; discussions and conclusions.