Women are at the heart of Mekong sustainable development


By Dokkeo Sykham

Lao women are concerned that the country’s energy development will not only harm the Mekong River and the basin hydrology, but will eventually bring an end to their livelihoods and survival of their families.

“The modernity, materialism, and development sometimes bring good things to people, but they are temporary. The moral development is essential, the real happiness,” said a 33-year-old villager at Hang Sadam, a Siphandone area in Laos.

“If this dam leads to unhappiness and disaster to our community, so do not build this dam,” she expressed.

Siphandone villagers are now concerned that the planned Don Sahong dam will cause the loss of livelihood and the means of earning income for their families.

The 260MW Don Sahong hydropower dam project (DSHPP), proposed to be built in Southern Laos, will block the only water channel that makes fish migration – and year-round fishing by villagers – possible.

The DSHPP will certainly result in the disappearance of fish, which are the most important source of food for millions of people in the Lower Mekong region. The Siphandone area, specifically is one of the richest fishery-areas in Laos and in the entire Mekong River basin.


Electricity vs. biological wealth

The DSHPP is located in the Siphandone (Khone Falls) area, less than 2km from the Laos-Cambodia border. Khone Falls is a natural tourism spot and assumed to be one of the last remaining habitats of the Irrawaddy dolphins.

The DSHPP is also one of nine dams that are officially proposed to be built in Laos along the Mekong River mainstream. The electricity generated from the DSHPP will be sold to Thailand and Cambodia.

Since the Government of Lao (GoL) opened the door for foreign investment in several hydroelectric dams, it seems the benefit is not for domestic usage, but for export to neighboring countries.

The GoL is gearing up to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”; while this hydropower industry is booming, the well-being of the whole Mekong River basin and the people are at huge risk.

“It is disappointing that we have many dams, but all those benefits go to other countries like Thailand and Cambodia,” said a 58 year-old villager from Hua Sadam.

She continued “we should also gain those benefits such as cheap price of electricity, but the price goes up every year, some areas have even had to use electricity from neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam”.

In picture: A woman and her fishing boat in Siphandone area, Laos, in September, 2014. (Photo by Dokkeo Sykham)
In picture: A woman and her fishing boat in Siphandone area, Laos, in September, 2014. (Photo by Dokkeo Sykham)

However, in the midst of major environmental and social concerns, the environmental impact assessment (EIA) and social impact assessment (SIA) took place with little public participation, despite being critical to the issue.

The communities in the Siphandone area reportedly received misleading and incomplete information about potential impacts of the dam from the developers. Downstream people in Cambodia also received very little information about the project though they will likely face major problems if the dam is built.

The justification of the Don Sahong dam is unreasonable; in providing 260 MW of electricity to export to Thailand and Cambodia, the dam will threaten the vital Mekong River fisheries and biological wealth. The dam would also undermine food security and tourism-based economy¹ – is it a good exchange?


I’m a wife, a mother and a fisherperson

In addition to the concerns over fish and the river, the social impacts on women also should be discussed more widely. The roles of women and the connection between fisheries, well-being of the family members, and food security are embedded in everyday-life of the local women.

Women are key to support the survival of their families. All women know very well how to manage food and they always make sure there is enough food for the family. Women are very skilled in food processing, collecting, fishing and preserving food, such as: dry fish, fermented fish (‘Padaek’), and sour fish.

The disruption of nature and fisheries will definitely affect the roles of women in maintaining harmony and food security for their families and communities.

In picture: ‘Padaek’ is a kind of fermented fish. Local women use this method to preserve small fish, that they caught from the river, in a container. Padeak is one of main dish for riverine people in this Lower Mekong Region. (Photo by Dokkeo Sykham)
In picture: ‘Padaek’ is a kind of fermented fish. Local women use this method to preserve small fish, that they caught from the river, in a container. Padeak is one of main dish for riverine people in this Lower Mekong Region. (Photo by Dokkeo Sykham)

For about 241 families in three villages; Dong Sahong, Hua Sadam and Hang Sadam, a total of 1398 people, 681 are women who will be potentially affected if the Don Sahong dam is built.

“I am both a wife and a mother, I’m concerned the most about the healthiness of my family members, I make sure that we have enough food to eat everyday. If we no longer catch fish, I cannot imagine how life will be. We will lose the source of food and we will lose our income to sustain our lives,” said a 36 year-old woman in Don Sahong village.

“We were born as fisherpeople. [If there are no fish], what we will do to feed our families,” she said.


Social impacts must be recognized

Local women are afraid that the Don Sahong dam will also bring health problems to their families. They expect that the water in the dam reservoir will be of very low quality. They wonder where they can get clean water to cook, to drink and to bathe.

“When I saw the situation of the affected villagers by the Nam Thuen dam, all villages were heavily flooded. The flood was like a huge lake. They told me that their lives were a hundred times more difficult than they were in the past,” said a woman from the Hua Sadam village.

“Then I think that if the Don Sahong dam is built, I am sure that my home will be flooded like the Nam Thuen dam area. When I visited the villagers there, they were very frightened. I also saw some of crying,” she continued.

In the affected communities, it is the women who bear the most social barriers. Even though the government and project developers promote a policy concerning gender issues, that policy is often not being practiced.

In picture: At the Nagasung market in the raining season, local women are selling many kinds of fish that they caught from Siphandone area, in September, 2014. (Photo by Dokkeo Sykham)

“If my husband is forced to work in the city, how can I stay home, look after the children alone, how can I take all responsibility in the household alone? It is going to be very hard for me to do that,” another female villager expressed.

This problem has already happened elsewhere, notably the Lasi Salai and the Pak Mun communities in Northeastern Thailand. After the Lasi Salai dam and the Pak Mun dam were built and operated, hundreds of thousands of villagers had to seek jobs in the big city when their farming and fishing livelihoods were impossible to continue.


Gender impact assessment (GIA)

The important roles of women in a community or a country’s development are key to reducing poverty. Also, women’s participation in decision-making will be highly beneficial to families in the community.

However, the principle of equality in Lao PDR promoted by laws and government programs it is not sufficiently practiced. For example, Article 13 of Lao PDR’s the 2003 National Constitution states that the citizens of both genders enjoy equal rights in the political, economic, cultural and social arenas and in the family.

Specifically, in the Article 3 of the 2004 Law on the Development and Protection of Women indicated that: “State has policies for the development and advancement of women, protection of the legal rights and interests of women by creating every condition to ensure that women have good health, knowledge, capabilities, revolutionary ethic, employment and equal rights with men without any discrimination based on political, economic, social, culture and family status”².

In picture:  A woman and her child are at the Mekong River bank, around the proposed site for constructing the Don Sahong dam site in September, 2014. (Photo by Dokkeo Sykham)

The Mekong River Commission (MRC)’s gender policy also states that it is a requirement to address gender issues in water and related resources development in the lower Mekong Basin. Men and women often play different roles in the development, due to having different needs, interests, access to, and control of resources ³.

Under the Don Sahong dam project, the GoL and all investors must take responsibility according to the regional and international legal obligations in any development plans. All stakeholders also must ensure the process of development respects and protects gender equality. Addressing the gender impact assessment is therefore required.

Local people want to see the development that makes their life better, not worse. Lack of participation in decision-making is a huge problem, especially for women. Women are part of reaching the goal of sustainable development and women’s participation in decision making regarding development projects is essential.


Protect and sustain our transboundary commons

If more dams are built, fish populations will decrease. Dams destroy agriculture land and ecosystem and it is likely that more people will slide into poverty. Moreover, women will have to bear more difficulties to take care of their families.

The GoL intends to reach the goals of poverty reduction and sustainable development, but these will be out of reach if the roles and interests of women are not taken into account.

Yet, all investors and developers must provide accurate information to the community about the dam project in every step, before, during and after construction. Conducting public consultations with community members, including women, cannot be omitted.

Moreover, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the only intergovernmental party that works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam, must adequately discuss gender issues and construction practices in the Mekong development.

At last, it is time for the GoL to recognize the voices from local communities and to seek consultation from the people whose livelihoods depend upon the free flowing Mekong River.

The GoL should consider a more effective and reasonable way to generate electricity in order to sustain the Mekong River – an essential transboundary commons – to flow freely and healthily.



[1] International Rivers, “Don Sahong dam”, Last modified August 20,2014. http://www.internationalrivers.org/campaigns/don-sahong-dam

[2] Virginia Simon and Michael Simon, Gender and Hydropower: “National Policy Assessment Lao PDR” (OXFAM: Australia, 2013), 4.

[3] MRC, Commitment on Gender Mainstreaming in Water Resources Development in the Lower Mekong Basin for Sustainable development, 2013.


About the author:

Dokkeo Sykham is an independent researcher. She is based in Laos focusing on environmental and social impacts from hydropower development.

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