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Project Background

Home to approximately 280 million people, the Mekong region is a geo-political sub-region with great ethnic diversity where rice farming, fishing, and harvesting of non-timber forest products form the backbone of rural livelihoods. This way of life is currently under threat from the rapid expansion of large-scale resource and infrastructure projects that due to a week regulatory environment often pay little heed to the impact on farmers and fishers who rely on the Mekong.

Oxfam’s Mekong Regional Water Governance Program (MRWGP) aims to increase the number of women and men in farmer and fisher communities who have secure and sustainable livelihoods. To reach this goal, Oxfam is working with communities, to help people understand their rights and improve their livelihoods, national governments, to influence changes in policies, and regional governments, to ensure better water management practices across borders.

This is complex work with long time frames and yet each year there are reasons to celebrate. We are excited to share some of these highlights below. Thank you for your generosity and support.

In the fast-changing Mekong context, Oxfam nurtures relationships with 44 partner organisations, ranging from formal and informal entities, civil society organisations, river networks, academia and research institutes as well as key government institutions. Oxfam is addressing one of the most politically sensitive issues in a region where there is evidence of widespread human rights abuses. By developing and maintaining these strong relationships, we are able to raise issues with governments but also provide technical support to them where possible. This is recognised both internally and externally as a strength of our program, supporting and facilitating the voice of civil society in the region.

Key Project Activities and Outcomes

The following section gives a detailed account of how the program is progressing against its key outcomes.

Outcome 1: Supporting civil society networks

The MRWGP continues to support key regional and national actors and river networks to facilitate the participation of communities affected by large hydropower projects in water governance. Specifically:

  • Supporting Save the Mekong Coalition by assisting in organizing strategy meetings and information sharing among its members. A key achievement was the first Mekong People’s Forum, held in An Giang Vietnam and attended by dam-affected communities from Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. The forum enabled communities to share information and raise joint concerns over dams planned and under construction on the Lower Mekong mainstream.
  • Supporting youth groups to raise awareness about hydropower dam development in the Mekong and for formal stakeholders to understand that youth are interested in these issues.
  • Supporting Social and Environmental Protection Youth (SEPY) in Cambodia to utilize social media channels such as Facebook and radio to raise awareness of the impacts of dam building on biodiversity areas as well as on the livelihoods of communities who are resource dependent for their survival. Their strong voices were heard and the third Committee of the Cambodian National Assembly responded positively, promising that the Government will conduct visits to affected communities and further study the causes of water pollution in that area.
  • Oxfam played an active role in facilitating youth groups to access regional and international platforms where their concerns on environmental and natural resources could be heard by key decision makers. An example was the annual ASEAN People Forum (APF), which was organised in Malaysia alongside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting.

Outcome 2. Holding infrastructure developers to account and promoting standards

It is vital that infrastructure developers, both in the private sector and governments are held accountable for creating better standards and safeguards for communities impacted by their work.

Oxfam continues to provide support to the Development Watch Program (DWP) of Equitable Cambodia (EC). This program is the core human rights defender work and promotes a human rights approach through monitoring, research and evidence-based influencing on trade and investments that violate community rights to access to and maintain control over their land.

Providing Critical Perspectives on Environment and Development in Southeast Asia is the Mekong Commons (MC) project supported by Oxfam. The project promotes knowledge generation and critical analysis within the region by making it accessible online via the MC website.

In an environment where space for civil society discussion is being restricted more and more, the wide usage and coverage of the Mekong Commons website is enabling young researchers and groups to have a place to discuss critical development issues and shape and form ideas and express them. These ideas are being underpinned by materials and evidence produced by Mekong Watch. This enables members of civil society (particularly the young) to be better informed on development issues which are closed off from public scrutiny.

As a result of being better informed, communities are contributing their views through available opportunities such as through Oxfam programs.

Outcome 3. Strengthening sustainable alternatives and community resilience

Outcome 3 promotes Mekong communities, especially women, having strengthened sustainable livelihoods and increased community resilience.

  • The Earth Rights International Mekong School, an Oxfam partner, supported 12 students (six women) (from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, China and Thailand) to develop leadership skills to more meaningfully inform planning and decision-making on water governance in the Mekong Region.
  • We also worked with 3SPN to implement Community Fisheries in Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. They provided training to protect and restore the fisheries resources including conserving deep pools and patrolling to prevent illegal fishing. The project enhanced the networking of 14 community fisheries along Sesan and Srepok tributary rivers; the members of the community met on a quarterly basis to share the key challenges and facilitate local communities to prevent illegal fishing. 3SPN also worked with the fishery administration to discuss fishery conservation mapping.
  • Oxfam worked on an innovative Local Energy Planning project with partner GreenID. The project empowers men and women in the community to enhance their awareness on alternative energy options and collectively identify and develop local energy plans that address household energy needs.

Challenges and Risks

A significant trend in the region is the increasing role of the private sector in the financing, development and operation of large-scale resource projects such as dams and mines. Growing private sector investment poses a challenge, particularly with increasing intra-regional investment, as developers and financiers from Thailand, Vietnam and China tend to pay relatively less attention to social and environmental protection in their policies and practice. The challenge is compounded by the fact that engaging the private sector in policy dialogue and advocacy is still relatively new to many civil society networks and Oxfam partners in the Mekong, who have tended to target governments, inter-governmental bodies (such as the Mekong River Commission and ASEAN) and international financial institutions (most significantly the World Bank and Asian Development Bank).

Perhaps a greater challenge however is that political space for civil society continues to reduce in Mekong countries. National and regional sensitivities around natural resource management, in particular water governance and large hydropower dam development, have increased. This presents particular risks for young people who want to actively engage in policy and decision-making and organise public awareness-raising gatherings that the government may deem as political activities. Oxfam is identifying a number of ways to support youth informal groups to make informed decisions about their activities.

The practices of the military government in Thailand is leading to challenges to civil and political rights and recent developments with Thailand drawing water out of the Mekong to address drought and industrial needs poses new challenges to cross border cooperation. Throughout the region, civil society engagement in decisions on natural resource management remains the most politically sensitive topic.

Case Study:

Oxfam is supporting communities in some of the poorest districts in Vietnam’s southern Ca Mau province to switch to renewable energy, solar PV, more efficient cooking stoves and energy-efficient LED lights as part of a local energy plan to boost household incomes and reduce carbon emissions. So far, 122 households have been helped to set up simple systems to create methane gas from pig manure to create enough clean, green bioenergy to meet all their cooking needs. These save people time and money, keep homes smoke-free and healthy and stop manure from contaminating rivers.

Kum Van Nguyen (pictured above) is a farmer in Number 18 Village, Nguyen Phich commune, in the southern province of Ca Mau in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. He lives with his wife Giau Kim Ly, two of their five children and four grandchildren. Rising sea levels, salt water intrusion and climate change are threatening the farming and fishing-dependent communities in the low-lying Delta. Oxfam and partners are supporting some of the province’s poorest and most vulnerable families by introducing renewable energy systems to save them time and money and help them to develop sustainably.

Kum says, “The best thing about the pigs and the biogas is that it costs almost nothing to run and keeps the environment clean. Before, the pig manure made the river dirty. I’d never heard about bioenergy before so I was very surprised when it was suggested. An expert came to show us how to set up a biogas system using a plastic bag, tubes and pig manure and now I can help my friends and neighbours to create their own. Everyone wants biogas now!

“I’m very happy – raising pigs for biogas is a very good business. I’d recommend it to anyone. Most farmers here keep several pigs anyway so it’s cheap to set up. The biogas system produces all the gas we need for cooking. My wife is so pleased because she no longer has to spend lots of time collecting wood for burning and making charcoal – she is able to rest and we can enjoy time together.

“I was born in Ca Mau province and I’ve lived here in the commune for 18 years, farming rice. We’re about 60km from the sea but I’ve noticed that the salinity in the water is growing worse each year. Before it was more brackish. About 10 years ago we started shrimp farming to take advantage of the salty water in dry season, along with everyone else in the commune. Shrimp farming is more profitable than rice but you can only do one season each year. In wet season the rain washes away the salt so we can grow rice in fresh water. I think my rice is poorer quality now because of the increased salinity but we can still grow enough to eat and to sell.

“In the past you could predict the weather but about seven years ago the seasonal patterns changed and now it’s almost impossible to forecast. The heat is more intense and the rain is heavier, which can damage production on the farm. I’m concerned that there may be more big storms and cyclones that could hurt the house and farm. Like everyone, I hope that the future will be safe and prosperous for my family.”

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