Environmental groups are taking on Asian firms, filing complaints from the Malaysia’s human rights body to Thailand’s courts as they seek action on the lack of transparency on hydropower projects along the Mekong River.
By Medilyn Manibo Friday 7 November 2014
A coalition of environmental non-profit organisations from Cambodia, Thailand and the United States have filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, seeking a probe into Malaysian dam developer Mega First Corporation’s role in endangering the lives and basic food source of communities relying on the Mekong River.
This follows a string of campaigns recently against Asian energy firms looking to tap the power generated from river flows in the Mekong for electricty.
This filing against Mega First Corporate Berhad (MFCB) is the first cross-border human rights petition involving dam projects along the transboundary river, which traverses the five Southeast Asian countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The six environmental groups, which include the Cambodian Rural Development Team, The NGO Forum on Cambodia and the Northeastern Rural Development, Thailand’s Community Resource Centre and United States-based environmental groups EarthRights International and International Rivers, signed and filed the petition dated October 20 at Malaysia’s human rights commission, also known as Suhakam, against Malaysia-based Mega First Corporation.
Mega First is building the Don Sahong Dam on the Mekong River in the Champassak province in Lao PDR, less than two kilometres upstream from the border with Cambodia.
The petition alleges that despite growing calls from neighbouring countries Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam for the suspension of the project, the power firm’s subsidiary – the Don Sahong Power Co – has been ignoring the threats of dam development to the food security of many communities which rely on fishing in the Mekong for their livelihood and sustenance.
“Large scale development projects, funded and owned by foreign companies, are being developed without the participation of affected communities and in countries where domestic accountability measures are weak.”
Tanja Venisnik, Mekong legal coordinator, EarthRights International
The NGOs claim that the dam will entirely block the main channel of the Mekong River that provides year-round fish passage through the Khone Falls area. This channel, if blocked, would have a huge impact on the highly migratory fish populations, they added.
“Unless the impacts on fish migrations are fully mitigated, and it is unclear if that is possible, the Don Sahong Dam can be expected to significantly reduce the number of migratory fish species that move between Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand,” stressed Dr Ian Baird, an expert in Southeast Asian geography and ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The environmental groups are calling for Suhakam to investigate Mega First, stating that its “actions are contrary to accepted principles of international law including the duty to consult with and inform affected communities, the duty to adequately investigate likely significant harms, and the duty to mitigate the harmful consequences of development projects”.
The petition has particularly sought Suhakam’s help to look into the violations of the company regarding communities’ right to information on the Don Sahong hydropower project and its right to participate in the decision-making and approval of projects that affect their interests.
The complaint has been elevated to Malaysia’s human rights body as earlier attempts to engage with the firm have failed, the petition added. The group has written to Mega First in November last year and once again earlier this September to reiterate their request for an adequate transboundary environmental impact assessment of the project.
They also asked Mega First to provide public access to information, including the details of its prior consultation with potentially affected communities and a clarification of the firm’s corporate social responsibility policy and compliance to the UN Guiding Principles in Business and Human Rights. Both letters did not receive a response from the firm.
Mega First has not given the Mekong communities any information on how – or whether – it intends to address concerns about the environmental impacts of the proposed dam and has offered little evidence that their proposed mitigation measures will work.
It is ignoring an unacceptable risk that the dam will destroy the livelihoods and threaten the lives of upstream and downstream Mekong communities, the NGOs said.
Ame Trandem, International Rivers’ director for Southeast Asia, said Suhakam listened to the concerns of the NGOs and community leaders who were present during the filing of the petition and has promised to investigate the case. However, Mega First has refused to meet with Suhakam and has not responded to the filed complaint, Trandem told Eco-Business.
Tanja Venisnik, Mekong legal coordinator for EarthRights International, commented: “The Don Sahong Project is representative of what is happening across much of Southeast Asia. Large scale development projects, funded and owned by foreign companies, are being developed without the participation of affected communities and in countries where domestic accountability measures are weak.”
The Xayaburi dam in Laos, another controversial hydropower project being opposed by Thai and other communities living in provinces along the Mekong, is being built by Thai developer CH Karnchang without the approval of neighbouring countries.
Despite the formation of the intergovernmental body Mekong River Commission in 1995, dam disputes in the riparian countries remain unresolved as the MRC works only to facilitate and gather a consensus from all member states before any dam construction along the mainstream Mekong can proceed.
Two weeks ago, a network of Thai individuals from the Mekong communities lodged a petition with the Administrative Court in Bangkok challenging the legality of the Xayaburi power project.
“Given the transboundary environmental and social risks associated with the [Xayaburi] project, all construction and further investment should be halted until the court has made a final decision,” Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, a lawyer and coordinator from the Community Resource Centre told The Nation.
In Myanmar, environmental groups also accuse Thai power firm Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) of using Myanmar and Laos as proxy suppliers of electricity through the hydropower projects.
EGAT, which signed an agreement in 2011 to buy 95 per cent of the electricity that will be generated from the Xayaburi power project, is also one of the chief financiers of the Hat Gyi hydroelectric dam planned on Myanmar’s Salween River.
“What EGAT have done on the Salween is part of a general trend to push Thai power projects outside Thailand into neighboring countries, for they cannot easily do this inside Thailand due to strong resistance from Thai communities and civil society,” Songkrant Pongboonjun, legal adviser for EarthRights International, told The Irrawaddy.
Venisnik emphasised that approaching a human rights body like Suhakam can be an important lever for ensuring human rights compliance of companies operating outside of their countries.
“We hope that this action will encourage Malaysian companies to take responsibility for their actions when operating abroad and as a first step Mega First should cancel this project,” she said.