OPINION: What does Chinese ‘reciprocity’ mean for Mekong’s dams?

by Carl Middleton

  The Lancang Mekong supports 70 million people living in the basin(Photo: He Daming)

The Lancang Mekong supports 70 million people living in the basin(Photo: He Daming)

It is now two and a half years since the first Lancang Mekong Cooperation (LMC) leaders’ summit was held in Sanya city on Hainan Island, China. The aim of the LMC – a China led multilateral body involving all six Mekong countries – is to deepen economic, cultural and political ties between China and mainland Southeast Asia. Leaders have repeatedly declared the importance of the Lancang-Mekong River to this cooperation. Reflecting this, on 1-2 November, the LMC will host the “1st Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Forum” in Kunming, China.

The LMC’s second leaders’ summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in January 2018 revealed the swift pace of the initiative. This is reflected in the numerous senior-level meetings between governments, the initiation of almost 200 China-funded projects, and the LMC’s deepening institutionalisation through various LMC secretariats and working groups. Yet, while China has hosted people-to-people exchange programs and university scholarships, the LMC’s state-centric approach has afforded little opportunity for public deliberation about its overall policy principles and direction.

Through the LMC, some government officials and scholars from China have proposed that downstream and upstream countries have both rights and responsibilities towards each other. This concept of ‘reciprocity’ is not yet official LMC policy, but suggests a shift in government position compared to China’s earlier unilateral construction of dams on the Lancang River. Overall, the LMC and its proposition of ‘reciprocity’ appears to be an invitation to negotiate basin-wide water cooperation on the Lancang-Mekong River.

Much, however, remains uncertain. For example, how will the LMC build upon the existing inter-governmental Mekong River Commission, established in 1995 by the four lower basin countries? How will the LMC address concerns of riverside communities and civil society and ensure their meaningful inclusion? And how will countries ensure the river’s ecological health given the strong push for economic growth and associated water infrastructure projects? This article asks whether the LMC and the concept of ‘reciprocity’ is a promising approach to meet these challenges.

For the full article, please click here.

POLICY BRIEF: Reciprocal Transboundary Cooperation on the Lancang-Mekong River: Towards an Inclusive and Ecological Relationship

Publication date:
November 2018

Publication: 
Reciprocal Transboundary Cooperation on the Lancang-Mekong River: Towards an Inclusive and Ecological Relationship

Download the policy brief here.

Visit the Water governance and knowledge production on the Lancang-Mekong River project page here.

Author: 
Carl Middleton
 

Summary
It is now two and a half years since the first Lancang Mekong Cooperation (LMC) leaders’ summit was held in Sanya city in Yunnan Province, China. During this period, the LMC has become increasingly institutionalized. The overarching ambition of the LMC is to deepen economic, cultural and political ties between China and mainland Southeast Asia. This policy brief assesses emerging principles for transboundary water cooperation under the LMC, in particular the concept of reciprocity that expands upon the UN Water Courses Convention. It also assesses the role of the LMC vis-a-vis the Mekong River Commission in transboundary water governance. The analysis concludes that as the LMC becomes a more consolidated institution, a genuine and equal partnership for the Lancang-Mekong River cooperation is needed that could build upon principles of “inclusive reciprocity” between state and non-state actors, and “ecological reciprocity” that recognizes the need for an ecologically healthy Lancang-Mekong River.

 Mekong River at Chiang Khong, Northern Thailand (Credit: Carl Middleton)

Mekong River at Chiang Khong, Northern Thailand (Credit: Carl Middleton)

JOURNAL ARTICLE: The Public Regime for Migrant Child Education in Thailand: Alternative Depictions of Policy

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Publication date:
September 2018

Publication: Asian Politics & Policy

Authors:
Nongyao Nawarat and Michael Medley

Abstract:
This article analyzes the conceptualization and depiction of Thailand’s public policy on education for the children of migrant workers in the country by examining a cluster of fairly  recent  literature  on  the  subject.  The  studied  texts  broadly  share  the  view  that Thailand’s  policy  of  providing  full  education  to  these  children  is  subject  to  gaps  and patchy  implementation.  An  analytical  review  of  the  literature  on  conceptualizing  this policy shows, however, that this picture is misleading as it tends to reduce policy to an idealized  intention.  Rather,  Thailand  has  a  plurality  of  local  policies  ambiguously governed by a national policy, which in turn does not predominantly aim at education for all. We contend that our improved characterization of the situation helps create more productive openings for research and policy change on this important topic.

Read the article here.

JOURNAL ARTICLE: National Human Rights Institutions, Extraterritorial Obligations and Hydropower in Southeast Asia: Implications of the Region’s Authoritarian Turn

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Publication date:
June 2018

Publication: Austrian Journal of Southeast Asia Studies

Authors:
Carl Middleton

Abstract:
This article examines the role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and transnational civil society in pursing Extraterritorial Obligation (ETO) cases in Southeast Asia as a means to investigate human rights threatened by cross-border investment projects. Two large hydropower dams under construction in Laos submitted to NHRIs from Thailand and Malaysia, namely the Xayaburi Dam and Don Sahong Dam, are detailed as case studies. The article argues that the emergence of ETOs in Southeast Asia, and its future potential, is dependent upon the collaborative relationship between the NHRIs and transnational civil society networks. Whilst NHRIs are in positions of political authority to investigate cases, civil society also enable cases through networking, research, and public advocacy. Further institutionalization of ETOs is significant to emerging regional and global agendas on business and human rights, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that both the Thai and Malaysian governments have expressed commitment to. However, in Thailand and its neighboring countries where investments are located there has been an authoritarian turn. Reflecting this, there are weakening mandates of NHRIs and reduced civil and political freedoms upon which civil society depends that challenges the ability to investigate and pursue cases.

Read the article here.

BOOK CHAPTER: Branding Dams: Nam Theun 2 and its Role in Producing the Discourse of “Sustainable Hydropower”

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Publication date:
June 2018

Publication:
Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank's Model Hydropower Project in Laos

Author:
Carl Middleton

Editors: Bruce Shoemaker and William Robichaud

For further details on the book please visit the book's website here.

In the 1990s, the global hydropower industry – in particular the industry of Northern countries – was facing a growing crisis of legitimacy. Opponents of large dams grew in numbers and became increasingly vocal, claiming that development benefits were exaggerated. This cumulated in the publication of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) report in 2000, which affirmed many of the opponents’ criticisms.   In this context, the World Bank, seeking a means to once again finance large hydropower, put forward the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) hydropower project as a new, best-practice approach.  Meanwhile, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) sought to counter the WCD with its own sustainability guidelines in 2004 and subsequently a Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP) launched in 2011. From this significant and combined effort of large am proponents emerged the policy discourse of “sustainable hydropower,” the purpose of which was to re-legitimize the industry.

This chapter deconstructs how NT2 has been discursively produced as a “brand” and woven in to the “sustainable hydropower” discourse. The chapter argues that in public the World Bank and the hydropower industry have regularly drawn on the NT2 as a model to legitimize their claim that “sustainable hydropower” can exist. Needless to say, this claim is fiercely disputed. Indeed, behind closed doors amongst the project’s proponents and in specialist hydropower industry conferences, more provisos and nuances are considered that bracket the public claims of success. The chapter also addresses how NT2 has been represented in regional and global debates on “sustainable hydropower,” for example in relation to the Hydropower Sustainabilty Assessment Protocol led by the International Hydropower Association. 

Please contact Dr. Carl Middleton for more information.

Citation: Middleton, C. (2018) "Chapter 13: Branding Dams: Nam Theun 2 and its Role in Producing the Discourse of 'Sustainable Hydropower'" (pp 271-292) in Shoemaker, B. and Robichaud, W. (eds.) Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank's Model Hydropower Project in Laos. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison.

 

REPORT: Charting New Pathways Towards Inclusive and Sustainable Development of the Nu River Valley

REPORT: Charting New Pathways Towards Inclusive and Sustainable Development of the Nu River Valley

Development comes at a cost, but what that cost is and who bears that cost is not set in stone. China’s rapid economic ascent has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but it has also precipitated severe ecological crises. In many cases, a “pollute first, clean up later” mentality towards industrialization has led to inequitable and unjust outcomes for both people and the environment. The Chinese government’s efforts on maintaining high economic growth rates in an effort to modernize the economy and society has in many cases obscured the scale of damage done to the environment, though the Chinese government and other institutional actors are actively taking steps to mitigate and alleviate issues of environmental degradation. The story of the Nu River, also known as the Salween or the Thanlwin, illustrates how hydropower development on the river was actively contested and resisted by diverse stakeholders, opening up possibilities for other kinds of water resource management and development.

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CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS: Salween Studies Research Workshop - The Role of Research for a Sustainable Salween River

CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS: Salween Studies Research Workshop - The Role of Research for a Sustainable Salween River

The 2018 Salween Studies Research Workshop gathered researchers and experts from around the world on 26 & 27 February at the University of Yangon, Myanmar to discuss the present situation of this important river as well as the future of the basin, its people and natural ecologies. This research workshop was also the final meeting of the Salween Water Governance Project and as such, represents the culmination of three years of research and collaboration among the “Salween University Network.” The workshop was co-hosted by the University of Yangon, the York Centre for Asian Research and CSDS, with the kind support of CGIAR WLE and Australian Aid. Over sixty participants were able to spend two full days diving into important issues and developments all related to the unique Salween River, with topics ranging from the traditional conversations around water management and natural conservation to more contentious presentations on peace/conflict and alternative development planning. With great diversity in backgrounds, nationality and expertise, it can be concluded that the wealth of knowledge exchange and learning that took place during this workshop was not only inspiring to all those in attendance, but has set the bar for future gatherings on the topic, aimed at creating real action and planning for Salween River sustainable and inclusive development.

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JOURNAL ARTICLE: Infrastructure in the Making: The Chao Phraya Dam and the Dance of Agency

JOURNAL ARTICLE: Infrastructure in the Making: The Chao Phraya Dam and the Dance of Agency

The article explores the process behind the construction of the Chao Phraya Dam, the first World Bank-funded water infrastructure project in Thailand, developed during the 1950s. Employing Andrew Pickering's ‘dance of agency’ concept in examining the process of turning financial and technical assistance into a workable project, I argue that development infrastructure, like the Chao Phraya Dam, provides a space to explore the dialectic operations – accommodation and resistance – of agency and the unstable associations among diverse actors, expertise, institutions, and materials, as well as practices. Recounting the history of the dam in the making, I explore a series of entanglements through different dances of agency, namely initiation, assessment, mobilisation, negotiation, adjustment, confrontation, and settlement. Such a multiplicity of dances inside and in the making of infrastructure reflects the techno-political entanglement encompassing the manifold negotiation and adjustment of conflicting goals, interests, recognition, and cooperation among different agencies. The dam, often portrayed as an engineering achievement of the state, is in fact the result of unanticipated relations and the responses to the temporal emerging forms of practices.

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JOURNAL ARTICLE: Long-term recovery narratives following major disasters in Southeast Asia

JOURNAL ARTICLE: Long-term recovery narratives following major disasters in Southeast Asia

Most studies of major disasters focus on the impacts of the event and the short-term responses. Some evaluate the underlying causes of vulnerability, but few follow-up events years later to evaluate the consequences of early framings of the recovery process. The objective of this study was to improve understanding of the influence that recovery narratives have had on how decisions and actions are undertaken to recover from a disaster, and what influence this has had in turn, on long-term resilience. The study drew on comparisons and insights from four case studies in Southeast Asia: (1) local innovations that led to new policies for living with floods in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam following the 2001 Mekong River floods; (2) livelihood and infrastructure responses in Prey Veng, Cambodia, after the 2001 and 2011 Mekong River floods; (3) the role of the Panglima Laot, a traditional fisheries management institution, in the recovery process following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Aceh province, Indonesia; and (4) the challenges faced by small and medium enterprises in a market area following the 2011 floods in Bangkok, Thailand. This study identified alternative narratives on the purpose and means of ‘recovery’ with implications for who ultimately benefits and who remains at risk. The study also found both formal and informal loss and damage systems were involved in recoveries. The findings of this study are important for improving the performance of loss and damage systems, both existing and planned, and, ultimately, supporting more climate resilient development that is inclusive.

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BOOK CHAPTER: Chapter 2: Living with the flood: A political ecology of fishing, farming, and migration around Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

BOOK CHAPTER: Chapter 2: Living with the  flood: A political ecology of  fishing, farming, and migration around Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

This chapter shows how small-scale farmers and fishers around Tonle Sap Lake have been relatively resilient to flooding. However, changing flooding regimes have created more regular shocks for farmers, whilst declining fish stocks are increasing fishing households vulnerability. These flooding-related shocks and associated vulnerabilities link to the creation of debt for farmers and fishers, which influences the decision to send household members to migrate. Whether the incentive for migration is livelihood diversification or debt repayment, the influence of the Tonle Sap’s flood regime from year to year is significant as it is generative of the viability of farming and fishing livelihoods. Household livelihood viability and associated vulnerabilities, however, is in turn determined by social factors, such as the politics and contestations over access to resources in the village, as well as national level policies on fisheries and farming and transboundary water governance.

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BOOK CHAPTER: Chapter 5: Living with and against floods in Bangkok and Thailand's central plain

Publication date:
December 2017

Publication:
Living with Floods in a Mobile Southeast Asia: A Political Ecology of Vulnerability, Migration and Environmental Change

Authors:
Naruemon Thabchumpon and Narumon Arunotai

Editors:
Carl Middleton, Rebecca Elmhirst and Supang Chantavanich

For further details on the book and to purchase, please visit are Routledge Press.

For more information about our project Mobile political ecologies of Southeast Asia, please visit here and to view the full policy brief on the book's research, please visit here

In this chapter, Naruemon Thabchumpon and Narumon Arunotai present empirical research on the impacts of the major flood in 2011 in Thailand on three urban, one semi-urban and three rural communities. The chapter shows that whilst the rural communities are largely adapted to seasonal flooding, the 2011 flood increased vulnerability due to damage of property and livelihoods. In urban areas, communities were not well prepared and therefore were highly vulnerable. The chapter discusses the contentious politics of how vulnerability was exacerbated by government policy to protect core urban and industrial areas, leaving rural and suburban areas flooded. Thabchumpon and Arunotai nd that in the case studies selected the relationship between flooding and mobility is subtle. For example, some, but not all, rural migrants living in urban areas returned to their rural family homes, where living with floods was more feasible.

Please contact nthabchumpon@gmail.com for more information.

BOOK CHAPTER: Chapter 1: Migration and floods in Southeast Asia: A mobile political ecology of vulnerability, resilience and social justice

BOOK CHAPTER: Chapter 1: Migration and floods in Southeast Asia: A mobile political ecology of vulnerability, resilience and social justice

Flooding is a common experience in monsoonal regions of Southeast Asia, where diverse flood regimes have for centuries shaped agrarian and fisheries-based livelihoods. However, in recent public discourse, the link between flooding and migration is most often made with regard to catastrophic flood events. News images of frequent and intense weather-related flood events in the region’s low-lying megacity and delta regions in recent years has contributed to a perceived link between extreme environmental events and mass migration through displacement. Yet, this focus on mass displacement frames migration in largely negative terms. Mobility is seen as a failure of adaptation to a changing environment, with both trans-border and internal population mobility to some even regarded as a security issue.

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BOOK: Living with Floods in a Mobile Southeast Asia: Vulnerability, Migration and Environmental Change

BOOK: Living with Floods in a Mobile Southeast Asia: Vulnerability, Migration and Environmental Change

Flooding is a common experience in monsoonal regions of South East Asia, where diverse flood regimes have for centuries shaped agrarian and fisheries-based livelihoods. In this book, we highlight the need for a nuanced understanding of the connections between flooding and migration in Southeast Asia. The book provides key insights from eight empirical case studies in urban and rural areas across Southeast Asia. Overall, through a better understanding of the relationship between migration, vulnerability, resilience and social justice in Southeast Asia, we aim to sensitize flood hazard policy agendas to the complexities of migration and mobility.

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POLICY BRIEF: Living with Floods in a Mobile Southeast Asia: Vulnerability, Migration and Environmental Change

Flooding is a common experience in monsoonal regions of South East Asia, where diverse flood regimes have for centuries shaped agrarian and fisheries-based livelihoods. In this policy brief, we respond to the need for a nuanced understanding of the connections between flooding and migration in Southeast Asia. The policy brief summarizes key insights from a research project with eight empirical case studies in urban and rural areas across Southeast Asia. The policy brief outlines the multi-dimensional relationship between migration, vulnerability, resilience and social justice in Southeast Asia, cutting across the local, national and regional level, and offers recommendations on how to sensitize flood hazard policy agendas to the complexities of migration and mobility.

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POLICY BRIEF: Producing knowledge together for recovery of wetlands, agroecological farming and livelihoods in Southeast Asia

The Mekong Region contains extensive wetlands of great biodiversity that provide a wide range of ecosystems services and that are also important to human well-being (ADB, 2012). Within these wetlands, local communities often practice agroecological farming, including growing rice and vegetables, animal raising, fishing, and collecting non-timber forest products. Unfortunately, many wetlands in the Mekong Region have been degraded or even lost, including due to agricultural intensification, large-scale water infrastructure development, and land use changes associated with urbanization (Hughes, 2017). The loss of wetlands is a threat to regional sustainable development. Furthermore, as wetlands are lost, so too is the local knowledge associated with their ecosystems and how to practice agroecological farming there.

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POLICY BRIEF: Analyzing the Impact of Land Cover Changes on Socio-economic Conditions and its Policy Implications in Kayah, Myanmar

This policy brief aims to highlight and analyze the impact of land cover changes to the socio-economic conditions of four villages in Bawlakhe District, Kayah State and its policy implications in Myanmar. The study area lies in the Thanlwin (Salween) River Basin, home to communities of various ethnic groups including the Kayah, Yintale and Shan, as well as being rich in biodiversity. These local communities heavily depend on this watershed area for most parts of their lives, including food, water, security, fuel and income. The main economy of the people in these areas depends on forest production, which is the major economy in Bawlakhe. Moreover, local people depend on subsistence farming, especially shifting cultivation which is practiced in these areas. Their livelihoods are still closely related to the environment and largely contribute to the local economy. This policy brief shares geographical research to describe the role of forest use in support of livelihoods for the communities in the study area.Declining fish stock and catches within the estuary and out at sea have had deep impacts on community livelihoods, ecology and socio-economics within last ten to forty years. Encouraging the reduction and management of the natural and anthropogenic threats might encourage specific ways to improve the fishery status of the estuary.

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POLICY BRIEF: Thanlwin-Nu-Salween Estuary: Threats Challenging Brackish Water Fisheries

The Thanlwin/Salween River originates in China, where it is known as the Nu (angry) River and flows south into Myanmar, then eventually Thailand. It meets with two rivers (namely the Gyine and Attran Rivers) at the point of Mawlamyine and together discharge into the sea (Gulf of Mottama) by two channels (namely the Mawlamyine and Dayebauk Rivers). These four Thanlwin tributaries are experiencing daily tidal intrusion and freshwater discharge, forming estuarine environments and habitats for varieties of fresh, brackish and marine creatures. The term estuary refers to a mixing body of fresh and sea waters. The Mon and Kayin ethnic groups are dominant around the estuary and the riparian communities largely depend on fisheries within the river tributaries as well as those out at sea for their livelihoods and survival.

Declining fish stock and catches within the estuary and out at sea have had deep impacts on community livelihoods, ecology and socio-economics within last ten to forty years. Encouraging the reduction and management of the natural and anthropogenic threats might encourage specific ways to improve the fishery status of the estuary.

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POLICY BRIEF: Ethnobotanical Survey in Kun Lone, Lashio District: Documenting Traditional Medicine

Kun Lone township, situated in Lashio District, Northern Shan State, Myanmar is home to various ethnic groups, namely the Kokant, Wa, Kachin, Larr hue, Bamar, and Shan. It is also home to various medicinal plants that are essential for traditional medicine practices. In developing countries, traditional medicine is perceived to be an important part of human health care (WHO, 2002). In Myanmar, health care has even been provided to the people with potent therapies of traditional medicines at Yangon Traditional Medicine Hospital, Mandalay traditional medicine hospital and Monywa Traditional Medicine hospital. Myanmar traditional medicine practitioners aim to give health care services to people in accordance with their traditions. This policy brief documents traditional ethnomedicine use and practices in Kun Lone township and suggests ways that traditional medicine can continue to provide health care benefits for the future.

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POLICY BRIEF: Thinking Beyond Relocated Villages: Have We Overlooked the Impacts of the Dams on Downstream Communities?

Myanmar is a developing country trying to follow in the footsteps of its neighboring countries, which are rather more developed than itself. The Myanmar Government wants to harness its natural resources and sees the rivers of the country as a national asset in acquiring regular revenue for the government. The decision to build many mega dams on the major rivers of the country such as the Irrawaddy, Salween and Sittaung rivers is considered a natural resource development. With their high energy needs, Myanmar’s two neighboring countries, China and Thailand, want cheap energy by importing hydropower from Myanmar.

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REPORT: Water Governance and Access to Water in Hakha Town, Chin State, Myanmar

REPORT: Water Governance and Access to Water in Hakha Town, Chin State, Myanmar

By Carl Middleton, Naruemon Thabchumpon, Van Bawi Lian and Orapan Pratomlek

 

Hakha town is the capital of Chin State, Myanmar, located in the mountainous Northwest of the country. In recent years, the town’s population has faced growing water insecurity, which has created great hardship for the local population. Meanwhile, a major landslide in the town in July 2015 compounded these challenges, resulting in the resettlement of over 4000 people.

The purpose of the research presented in this report is to understand the underlying factors and dynamics that have produced water insecurity in Hakha town to generate policy recommendations towards attaining sustainable access to water for all.  

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