Going online a possible way out

Amid imminent threats to their way of life and a future strewn with potholes, people of the Songkhram River Basin desire to take their future in their own hands by safeguarding the natural resources that have sustained them through generations.

They are single handedly fighting to make a better life for their families, unfortunately devoid of any tangible support from the government.

In their latest endeavor, they have acquired online tools to enhance greater participation and dialogue to gain bargaining power against authorities while shaping their future via their management of natural resources in the Lower Songkhram River Basin, which for one they believe is more sustainable and on the same track as Ramsar Site’s directive.

Jarasrawee Chaiyatham and Kamol Sukin, GreenNews Editorial team, bring readers the insightful portrait of these interesting movements that are transpiring as we speak in this concluding story of the “Songkhram [war] at the Songkhram River Basin” Series.

(Photo : GreenNews / Preecha Srisuwan)

Attempting a new venture

“The location of the proposed dam site should be around here, as far as I heard,” a voice filled with hesitation is heard while the person points a finger in the air to direct everyone’s attention to the opposite side of the river bank; seconds before that, he was fiddling with his mobile phone in the other hand while attempting to send the photo of the location.

Unable to control his growing frustration, he turns towards a friend nearby, and bellows: “Hey, how to send it again, press button on the right.. right?”

“Yeah, that’s correct, just press it. Yes, you got it. I can see it,” his friend replies with an upbeat tone, as he shows the photo he just received on his mobile screen.

“This is the first photo I have ever sent on my mobile phone, ” mused a gleeful Thana Kaenkham, a newly-elected village headman of Ban Napiang, located at Nakhon Phnom’s Tha-uten District, to a group of reporters. Using his very first online communication tool had obviously put a big smile on his face.

The photo of proposed dam site was eventually sent to a Line group titled “Hug Maenamkhong Namsogkhram Nakhon Phnom” where members can get the latest updates of the site, and include over 50 head of communities residing along the Lower Songkhram River Basin.

“We use this Line group to communicate with each other regularly. This helps us to keep the group members updated on the latest happenings at the site. Like today, it’s an update about your group’s press visit.” 

Referring to his friend next to him, who was in the closing remarks of his presentation to the press, Thana said: “Some members are naturally shy and quiet, and public speaking is not their cup of tea .’’

The brief presentation comes to an end as the speaker apologies for making it short. Thana offers a candid smile and leads the press crew back to the car park.

“Shall we go to another destination?” he asks with a tone of excitement.

“The entire 1,000 rai that all of you see sprawled across is the area which was purchased over a decade ago for what we heard will be used to build a dam site.

“Nothing is yet clear and no one has told us anything, the only information is the sign over there saying it belongs to the ministry,” Thana explained while the press crew sat on an ‘e-taek’, a modified farming vehicle, as we headed to next destination along a dirt road leading us through lush green rice fields.

“Stop, stop here for a minute. There’s the sign,” Thana said, jumping off the vehicle in a rush while the engine came to a sudden halt.

He leads us to the metal sign behind the only tree in the middle of rice field: the sign reads “Reserved land Department of Energy Development and Promotion, Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment” .

“We don’t know what it means? The ministry owns the land but is it related to the dam project? No one explains anything to us, only the sign is put up. What are we to make of this?

“The only positive thing is that they have allowed the former land owners to continue growing rice for years now, may be until they want to use the land,” said a concerned village headman of the community where the proposed dam site is situated.

While news photographers were busy capturing footage, we could see village leaders who had accompanied us, recording what was happening on their mobile phones. Many photos taken that day were sent to the Line group of their network “Association for Lower Songkhram River Conservation, Nakhon Phnom.”

(Photo : GreenNews / Preecha Srisuwan)

Clear direction, yet path needs clearing

In a house by the river that evening, 50 km upstream of Nakhon Phnom’s Ban Pakyam, a group of parents sit around a mobile phone watching a live broadcast of an online meeting via Zoom.

“We arrange to meet online every Friday, 7.30 pm,” remarked Amnart Trijak, a representative of Nakhon Phnom province network called ‘Association of Lower Songkhram River Basin Community Organization’.

“In the past, we always met in person regularly for years, now it has to be online due to Covid-19 pandemic,” Amnart continued.

“It’s a way to keep our members updated on the latest movements taking place, in particular ground reports from each location. This mode of communication helps us to express and exchange our opinions within the group,” shared Ormbun Thipsuna, former president of Network of Council of Mekong River Community in Seven Northeastern Provinces.

She explained how the online Zoom meetings work for the network. It has been primarily set up as a new initiation among key network members, a core communication channel for them since they realized that the pandemic won’t end anytime soon and face-to-face meetings for the time being were a thing of the past.

“The Songkhram River Network is part of the Seven Province Mekong Networks which has for over 13 years worked on the Mekong issue. The lower Songkhram River basin used to have networks working in the area before the arrival of the first dam plan years ago but their presence eventually faded out after the project withdrawal, she claimed.

Sharing her concerns further, Orumbun added: “Today the situation the villagers find themselves in can no longer be put on the back burner.

“Those communities residing along the Mekong Basin are seriously hit by the fluctuation found within the Mekong River that has resulted from the operation of the electricity dams in China and Lao PDR, which has adversely impacted the ecological system in the area, often ensued by the Mekong turning blue in color, bloom of freshwater algae (Gai) and marked depletion of fish.

“Further impact can be seen in key tributaries like the Songkhram River, which is currently experiencing both a shorter period and less Mekong water flow into the Songkhram River. This is unlike its natural hydro cycle, and is destroying its womb-like function to the Mekong River.

“Due to this crisis urgency, we have been closely monitoring this shift by working with local networks belonging to the Songkhram River Basin. We have found a strong network of community leaders under the support of WWF [World Wide Fund for Nature] which has further cemented our resolve to this cause. ”

Both are key networks that have been working in the Lower Songkhram River Basin for years and now facing similar threats to the future of their existence in the area. That is why their common goal is to adapt to using online tools to help reach their aim.

“The crisis we face is obvious, the question is how to cope with it,” Ormbun asks with a tone of uncertainty.

(Photo : GreenNews / Preecha Srisuwan)

III. Hybrid networking

The Mekong network was formed in 2008, after the implementation of the Community Organization Council Act which allows local groups to form networks in the same administrative area, beginning from four groups out of a total of 93 groups in the six Mekong riparian provinces [later seven after Buengkan was promoted to become a new province].

Sharing the moment Ormbun was caught in a major flood, she said: “On Aug 12, 2008, the first big flash floods phenomenon happened as the Mekong River spilled over. I vividly recall the moment as it was Mother’s Day and I had brought groups of visitors from Vietnam to the Nongkhai area. On the way back home, we faced a big flood; in fact it reached as high as half of the wheels of our 4-wheel car.

“As there was no rain on that day, where did the water come from, we questioned each other. Normally, local riparian villagers know well when it will flood and thus usually prepare for seasonal floods. Not this time around, as the first Chinese dam was built, and they were left to fend for themselves.”

Later that year, they received word about a Mekong network in the North of Thailand working to address this issue. They had a chance to meet in Maha Sarakham province and leant more about the situation with the Chinese dam and its multiple impacts on surrounding communities.

It was there that they decided to co-network with them on monitoring and researching the Mekong. While the North network focuses on dam blasting issues, their focus has been on water level fluctuation.

Ormbun said a life changing incident drove her to the work she does today.

“I once ran a small business along the Mekong River during summers and was hit by severe drought on Songkran Festival for two consequent years which later contributed to my business losing over Bt140,000.

“The fact that this incident could have been averted made me angry and drove me to join the network and continue until now.

“Our villagers network efforts have continued to raise awareness about the impact of mega dam developments. We have done this through street protests, submitting letters of our stand on the issue to state agencies. However, this hasn’t worked sadly.

“Finally we tried the middle way approach, having a firm stand in our demands while being flexible enough to cooperate with various sectors including state agencies, academics and NGOs all of whom share a similar goal.”

She said these 13 years’ experience should be enough for the lower Songkhram River network to adapt, thus there was no need to spend further time to explore the lessons learned

Online meetings have played a pivotal role in continuing their work during the pandemic. Familiarizing themselves with online tools such as Zoom meetings program and Line group has been a step in the right direction, according to Ormbun.

For another active network,  the “Association for Lower Songkhram River Conservation, Nakhon Phnom”, Yanyong Sricharoen, manager of WWF Thailand’s Management of Wetlands in the Lower Songkhram River Basin Project said its formation is quite different.

“We started the Songkhram River Network after four years of preparing data to propose for the lower Songkhram River to become a Ramsar site, due largely to its ecological benefits. This proposal was also approved by the cabinet on 3 Nov 2009. We had to collect data on site and had to work with key stakeholders including provincial and local state authorities and of course local residents. That’s how the network began.”

During the Ramsar process, one of the most contentious issues is the land area to be proposed. After years of working on this, she said an agreement was reached with the locals that the Ramsar area should include water areas such as Pa-Bugg Pa forest on the river bank and must exclude local farm lands.

This meant that thousands of rai area were excluded from the original Ramsar site proposal, in fact, it was about 38,000 rai area left in the final proposal which was approved by the provincial authorities, following the consideration of central authorities and National Environmental Board, both of which gave their green light as well. All together it took four years to complete.

“Once listed as Ramsar site, we continued working with 52 communities in the area through their leaders. At that stage, the dam project was proposed and we initially supported them after reading the necessary information about the dam and its impact. However, there was more than meets the eye. When we accessed it for ourselves, we found what we would be losing out on. So we had them see for themselves just how much of a negative impact their decision could have on the communities in the area. This was followed by the launch to oppose the dam construction plan and its withdrawal.

“We did not intend to oppose any particular dam project but stand for our principles. Our priority is to play a supporting role to local communities so they will be equipped with sufficient information to facilitate their dialogue with state authorities, thus the final decision will be in their hands.” he said.

Today, the Basin continues to face serious threats either via nature-made or man-made events. How communities along this basin cope with these incidents is the most challenging aspect for networks in the area.

As for the online tools that are being utilized in their fight to be heard, Yanyong said while Zoom and Line are getting popular among the locals, they are open to using other applications to help reach their future goals.

(Photo : GreenNews / Preecha Srisuwan)

Strategic planning when survival is the modus operandi

Ormbun acknowledged that online tools had helped them to efficiently update movements happening onsite to members of the Mekong network, encouraging better dialogue on pressing issues, as well as help spread necessary information and news from outside to the network member along the river communities in a much faster and cost effective manner than the past.

However, she said, they [online tools] also had significant limitations and obstacles , while explaining, she noted: “On a positive note, it helps reporting drastic change of flood or drought as well as problems villagers faced onsite rapidly, which could make help from outside reach quicker,

“It has also become a formal channel for communicating with state authorities and also outside helping hands like academics, NGOs and the media, without having to travel and meet in person.

“On the flip side, it consumes a lot of the villager’s time which they would otherwise use to work on their farm. It is also the villagers who have to foot the bill for the internet package to use these applications. Most of them don’t buy monthly internet packages.

“Long hours online meeting used to cost our members in Buengkan province as high as Bt400 for one meeting with us. We try to help shoulder the internet cost for them case by case as our own budget is low.’’

Ormbun said that apart from regular weekly meetings every Friday at 7.30 pm, the members now also have more frequent online meetings with state authorities including Fishery Department, Ministry of Agriculture, Office of National Water Resources (ONWR), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and also media. This has contributed to mental exhaustion among a number of members.

On top of all the adjustments they have had to make to become more online savvy, she said, the fact that having each individual authority opt to use a different application for online meetings, which mostly come with English instructions, has put a number of their members in a bind.

Elaborating on this further, she continued: “This puts villagers in a difficult position, even though some have tried to learn.

“They can sometimes get it wrong while filling in the basic details, for example adding their name or title / location before a log-in can all easily cause them to lower their confidence when participating in an online meeting.

“We attempt to arrange technical support as much as possible and plan for training workshops in the future for them.”

Apart from ironing out their struggles with online technical issues, she said research is another important piece of the network’s job description which they try to continue as much as possible through the ‘taibaan’ research methodology which means it is community-based and has a participatory approach, with support from academics.

“We realized that information is the key to gain bargaining power for participating in resource management in the Basin,’’ said the activist, “ so, we try to have more research on this by community members themselves .

“More information about the resources in the Basin will offer a better picture of what we should or should not be doing when development arrives in our areas. It will make our voice matter to the authorities when we have a deep understanding of the subject on hand.’’

Offering as an example, she said that they had found that the Basin has a plant called ‘chaiwan’ (Cephalanthus tetrandra) which constitutes of an amazing root system, similar to the mangrove plant, and is commonly found in this area. They also discovered that the Siberian migratory bird species visit every year.”

Ormbun said two fish species conservation projects have also been implemented in the lower Songkhram River area, in order to cope with decreasing numbers of fish diversity, and that they included the Nongkha Project and the Pla Naa Wat (fish in front of the temple) Project.

The Nongkha project is part of the ecosystem recovery research project supported by the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, one of 21 research sites which conducted a study in 2019-2020.

“The fish conservation committee selects 50 rai of land out of total of 500 rai swamp area to become the site for their research. This is done through the support of the community leader and in cooperation with the Department of Fisheries. It has had success to a certain level and continues until now to do so,” explained Montri Chantawong, a researcher from The Mekong Butterfly Committee.

“The Pla Naa Wat project will help in setting up a fish conservation zone on temple territory as Buddhist beliefs stipulate no fishing is allowed within the temple. We think this could work in the long run if it is expanded to more communities within the Basin,” he explained.

Water turbidity measuring is another activity of the network, monitoring physical changes of water in the Songkhram River and comparing it with the data from Mekong River.

“We use self-developed knowledge, thus this assistance can easily be used by villagers along the Mekong River from Chiang Khong to Ubon Ratchathani, expanding the route now to Songkhram River. This could help indicate the physical changes found in both rivers. Initially we discovered that water in Songkhram River which is naturally clearer than that from Mekong River this year went vice versa, the Mekong is clearer,” Montri remarked.

“All of these attempts are in conjunction with a policy agreement made on 11 March 2021 with government representatives who will support monitoring activities to implement this further.”

Ormbon continued: “After our gathering in Bangkok in March [last year], our demands were agreed only in principle by 12 authorities involved in state policy and measures for dealing with the impact of the fluctuation found in the Mekong River caused by mega dam developments. In addition to the impact on the monitoring systems, compensation for victims and remedy.

“This is another salient reason we need online meeting tools today than ever before so we can keep pressing on to reach our goals.”

(Photo : GreenNews / Preecha Srisuwan)

Dim light at the end of the tunnel, amidst the raging storm

Ormbun believes that despite the long and often tedious negotiation process they have had to encounter with authorities, she is hopeful for a better tomorrow.

“We believe we are on the right track, fighting with information that justifies our struggle. I see more signs of positive response even though the result is still far from what we want and would like to see happen.”

What she means by positive sign has been the response from the Department of Fisheries. Ormbun said their official meeting had been satisfactory, contributing to some internal movement, which came in the form of the ministerial internal team setting up a plan to work out the bilateral negotiation issues with countries like China and Lao PDR that own the dams.

Moreover, she added: “ONWR has also shown more sign of two-ways communication with our

villager networks, while agreeing to set up a Line group to daily update the Mekong River situation.

“Even though our situation is still in the ‘difficult to understand mode’ we do see light at the end of the tunnel. We are receiving faster updates and responses to our queries which might lead to a more systematic and hopefully positive response to flash flooding and droughts in the future. This is our hope as local residents can now share their issues in a more formal line group channel.”

Ormbun said that the fact that the on-going studies of the proposed dam project are open to public participation should be deemed as a positive signal for the future.

As for Montri, he said: “In terms of policy, nothing has come out of it that could make locals feel satisfied.

“Okay, at a practical level there might be more cooperation from authorities, however, we don’t know if this involves people in the decision-making position.”

For example, he said, that the March 2021 agreement between village networks and government, PM Prayuth Chan-ocha had ordered ONWR and MFA to be core authorities to integrate working with another ten relevant authorities, in order to respond properly to the network’s seven demands.

“It has not happened,’’ said a dejected Montri. “We still see no sign of integration but solely seem to work under an organization’s authority. They seem not to realize that this is a complicated issue, and requires integration to expect results.

“A newly formed organization like ONWR will also be able to determine that the manner with which we are going now there is no hope. The government’s understanding of integration seems to be adhering to its bureaucratic frame of working.”

On the use of online tools to reach greater participation by local residents, he said: “As I view it, while embracing online activities by both sides is vital to progress, it can also make authorities obstruct access to important information for villagers to properly participate in the process.

“For example, they may invite villagers to participate in an online meeting with a 20 pages document. Can you go through a 20 pages file via a small mobile in hand?”

“ The reply is probably not, and even if you do, nothing much will sink in.”

Yanyong concluded by saying: “Solidifying the network for the villagers so they are better prepared to face challenges is our future goal. They should be equipped with the know-how required to stay ahead of state authorities. We will continue our supporting role to accomplish that.

“More options should also be put in place for the local economy to grow. This should be taken more seriously considering that we are talking about strengthening sustainable development in the area!”

Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’s Earth Journalism Network