In November 2013, with funding from the Finnish government-financed Mekong Water Dialogues, IUCN lead a team from the Mekong Delta to Thailand to observe a public hearing organised by local NGOs on an expensive and controversial flood prevention plan that the Thai government has developed after the devastating floods of 2011. The US$12 billion plan proposes the construction of dams, dikes, and water diversions schemes. Very little is earmarked for “soft” approaches such as restoring floodplains to increase floodwater retention capacity, despite that fact that climate change models indicate more intense rainfall events.
The most controversial scheme, accounting for 10% of the budget, is the proposed construction of flood-diversion channel capable of draining 1,500 cubic metres of water per second out to sea. The team first visited the mouth of the Me Klong River, which is threatened by the flood-diversion channel. The area is a rich in fisheries (locals claim it produces the best mackerel in Thailand), seafood processing, and ecotourism, all of which would be severely impacted if the floodway was built.
We could feel the public hearing, held in nearby Samut Songkhram, before we saw it. Banners hung everywhere and cars drove past with “Say No to Floodway” slogans and loud speakers calling everyone to the public hearing. Although the event was organized by NGOs, panellists included senators, vice-governors, university professors, and an official from the Department of Water Resource Management (DWRM), which supports the plan. The Vietnamese visitors were taken aback by the thousands of local people who joined the event. While the language barrier meant we didn’t understand everything, it was clear that the participants were well informed and well organised.
Two senators, the DWRM official, two professors, and an NGO leader made presentations and the crowd applauded, shouted, and whistled in response. Most of the panelists expressed concern about the floodway and all raised the need for a careful EIA before proceeding with detailed planning. DWRM announced that an official consultation would be held later in November.
After the presentations, the public asked questions, most of them directed at the DWRM official who (like the professional civil servant he was) did his best to avoid answering them, instead deferring them to the official consultation.
For the Vietnamese visitors, it was the first time we’d seen such active public participation. It was very different from what passes for public consultation in Vietnam where such big investment decisions are rarely subject to public scrutiny. We were particularly impressed by how well informed the public were and how willing they were to argue their case.
The question remains, however, whether or not such public consultations improve decision making. The evidence is mixed. Plenty of liberal democracies have made terrible mistakes managing flood risk. But given the importance of such decisions, particularly in the Mekong Delta, which is a single hydrological unit, we came away convinced that Vietnam would benefit from this kind of open and participatory process that is grounded in the best available knowledge about how to manage floods in a changing climate.