Dams and Child Rights in the Mekong: Campaigning Across Borders

Mueda Nawanat
Mueda Nawanat

As a young public interest lawyer working to secure the rights of stateless children, Mueda Nawanat is constantly on the move, traveling by boat, motorcycle, and on foot deep into the jungles of the Thai-Myanmar border to register undocumented children. She is also founder of the Mekong Youth Assembly, a regional network of youth advocating for ecological child rights. 

Mueda recently traveled to Manila to attend the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Youth Forum, where she submitted a petition  to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) calling for the protection of child rights in the context of hydropower dam development on the Mekong and Salween Rivers

International Rivers: What motivated you to take time from your busy schedule to travel all the way to Manila?

Mueda Nawanat: This is an important part of my work for the Mekong Youth Assembly. My goal is to protect the rights of children, particularly within the context of large-scale development projects here in the Mekong region. We are campaigning to create space for children to participate in decisions affecting their lives, for their voices to be heard, before projects such as large dams are approved.  

People tend to think of child rights as preventing child abuse within the family, but they fail to see that large-scale development projects can also violate the rights of children. I want to call attention to this issue so that policy makers are aware of what’s occurring.  

I learned about child rights violations caused by the Lower Sesan 2 Dam from Cambodian friends in our youth network.  

The Lower Sesan 2 Dam was inaugurated in September of 2017. Over one hundred families directly affected by the dam have continued to refuse relocation and have committed to staying in their old villages even as floodwaters rise. Armed forces have cut off community access to the nearest town for social services and education. Children in these communities have not been able to attend school for two years, and teachers attempting to resume classes in village schools have been subject to intimidation. The children are beginning to suffer from skin diseases from the stagnant water that floods their homes, and rely on volunteers to deliver medicine by boat.

In addition, approximately five thousand people, many of whom are indigenous people, have been forcibly evicted to make way for the dam’s massive reservoir.  Families that have accepted resettlement lack access to clean water for drinking and household use. There is no grievance mechanism in place to identify and address reports of child rights violations caused by the project. 

Mueda Nawanat: When I saw the photos my Cambodian friends shared, I thought, “These are indigenous children, just like me. If I were in that situation, what would I do?”  They have no rights and no voice. They are no longer able to attend school.  They have to live with the floodwater that has inundated their community. Who is keeping them safe? This violation of child rights is happening right before our eyes. That’s why I used the Lower Sesan 2 Dam as a case study in petitions to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC), calling for protection of child rights in the context of dam development.  

Under the current political situation, Cambodian youth activists face extreme danger. They see the issues clearly, but are not able to protest in their own country. They were so happy when I joined them at the ASEAN Youth Forum and expressed concern for children affected by the Lower Sesan 2 Dam. They didn’t expect others to care. It gives us hope to be able to exchange and support one another. This is the power of youth. It’s hard for us to demand the right to participate in decisions affecting our lives, so we have to hold hands and move forward together. We have to take on risks for one another. We may not be able to criticize our own government, but our allies in the region can do it for us. This is how we extend support to one another across borders.  

Children in Srekor village make their way home through floodwaters caused by the Lower Sesan 2 Dam.
Children in Srekor village make their way home through floodwaters caused by the Lower Sesan 2 Dam.

As an indigenous child growing up along the Salween River in an area rich in natural resources, I have a special understanding of the experience of indigenous children at the Lower Sesan 2 Dam site. As indigenous people, we share similar beliefs around the importance of protecting our natural resources, and we face similar barriers to public participation and communication. How many of these children’s voices are getting out by themselves? Or are outsiders representing them? 

For indigenous people, political risks make this work even more dangerous. I have to do something if I can. I choose to focus on children who need support and protection. Adults build large dams, but don’t have to face the consequences. A six- or seven-year-old child has to live with that dam her entire life – for the next 70-80 years – but has no right to participate in decision-making. What kind of a life do children want? Does anyone ask? Children have their own thoughts, ideas, and desires. Children can understand what kinds of changes a large dam such as Lower Sesan 2 will bring to their lives, their environment, and their community, and are capable of expressing themselves.  

In the petition we demand that child rights protection be recognized as an important part of the social and environmental impact assessment process for hydropower dam projects, and we call for procedures to be put in place to identify and address specific risks to children. 

The sign on the post reads, “We would rather die than leave our homeland.” Srekor village, Lower Sesan 2 Dam inundation zone
The sign on the post reads: “We would rather die than leave our homeland.” Srekor village, Lower Sesan 2 Dam inundation zone.

International Rivers: Can submitting petitions to regional and international bodies such as AICHR and the UN really help to secure the rights of children within the context of dam development?  

Mueda Nawanat: From my own life experience as a stateless child, I was alone with no protection under Thai law. Once Thailand signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, this put pressure on the Thai government. Now it is generally accepted that every child has the right to a nationality, and Thai law has changed in accordance, opening channels for stateless children to register for legal status.  

What we are seeing now is just the beginning of the era of ecological child rights within the context of development planning.  

The Lower Sesan 2 Dam construction site
The Lower Sesan 2 Dam construction site

Mueda’s petition calls for governments and hydropower developers to abide by the Child Rights and Business Principles (CRBP) set out by UNICEF to ensure respect and support children’s rights. She demands that dam developers engage in meaningful consultation with potentially affected communities so that risks of adverse impacts on children are identified early on, and calls upon governments to adopt clear procedures to prevent, identify and address any alleged child rights violations.

Mueda’s petitions to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment on behalf of the Mekong Youth Assembly and International Rivers can be found here.   

Mekong Youth Assembly and International Rivers submission to John Knox, United Nations Special Rapporteur

Date: 
Wednesday, December 20, 2017