By Emma Coats
After three and a half years working as a community engagement officer in the Murray-Darling Basin, Emma has recently moved to Laos and is currently working for CPWF.
Last year in Broken Hill, Australia, talking with river communities about Australia’s proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan, Evelyn, an Indigenous elder, said to me:
If someone offered to pay me $1000 every day for the rest of my life to leave the Darling River, I would not.
The river is our home: our meeting place, our ceremony place, our swimming place, our supermarket. The river is everything.
I suspect it would not take long to find people along the Mekong and its tributaries who feel as deeply about their rivers. The Mekong is a region of river-based identities and livelihoods and has been for millennia.
Evelyn’s comment was made as part of a consultation between Indigenous people of the Murray Darling Basin and the Australian Government. The discussion centred around better understanding indigenous needs for water. It was set in the context of a potentially declining water supply (drought and climate change) and many competing uses for that limited and valuable water.
In Australia, there are many perspectives on water: who should own it, how it should be managed, and why it is important. These value perspectives are all valid points of view in the water debate. There are environmentalists, farmers, manufacturers, indigenous people such as Evelyn, urban water users, rural communities, and others. Sometimes their values and requirements align. Often they don’t.
Since moving to Laos, I have wondered if there are as many value perspectives in the Mekong basin as in the Murray-Darling Basin, despite the apparent differences between the two. Economic development through hydropower is a well-known point on the value scale here. The environment and its relation to food security is another point on that same scale. What about the values in between? The quieter voices?
Some of the CPWF Mekong projects ask and aim to answer these questions. One project aims specifically to document the many different values of water in the Mekong, and notes that this is critical for multi-stakeholder engagement and policy development. A CPWF small-grant project looks at the unique situation and perspective of fisherwomen in southern Laos. Another project looks at indigenous water values and exposes the low level of institutional knowledge about these values.
The ‘Mekong’ film airs many lesser known voices in the Mekong, such as the tourism industry, the children of fisher families who are now finding work in different industries, and indigenous minorities in Cambodia who will be displaced – along with 5000 villages – in anticipation of the Lower Se San 2 dam. A powerful quote from the film shares the indigenous sense of place, which reminds me of Evelyn’s attachment to the Darling River:
When the dam is built, my house and crops will be flooded. If I have to leave the village, I will lose everything, especially the spirits and culture. Why must I leave the bones of my parents, uncles and aunties here? I can’t leave. I refuse to go. Even in Pol Pot’s time we were able to live here.
The CPWF thai baan project is also committed to the quieter voices. This is displayed in its empowerment and education of local communities – in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – through film. Using thai baan – a participatory research approach – the project entrusts villagers to become local researchers who produce educational outputs for their communities. The project provides many interesting insights on impacted livelihoods (pre- and post-dams) and human resilience and adaptability in the face of change.
Through CPWF, these projects aim to increase knowledge, equity and understanding in the water debate. They increase the level of institutional knowledge about local experiences and diversify the media coverage. In turn, these voices rising from the deep help to paint the complex truth: that in the Mekong basin, as in every river basin, water has an economic, environmental, social, cultural, even spiritual and aesthetic value.
For Mekong governments, allowing many voices to be heard is difficult – as it must account for people’s livelihoods, cultural traditions and world views – but understanding different water values and uses is key to policy management and the long-term sustainability of a river basin. Policies run the risk of long-term failure if the people they affect have no buy-in. Working to understand these perspectives will take time and money in the first instance, but will also save time and money later.
Changes to a river system that will affect the lives of 70 million people is no small matter. Sooner or later the river shallows out and the rush of the rapids will be heard.