The Mekong River Commission (MRC) and Facebook have launched a joint collaborative initiative to share flood and drought warnings—a move rural Lao villagers said was a vast improvement over the previous system.
The partnership aims to increase awareness among citizens of the four MRC member countries, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, the MRC said in a recent press release.
“We see the utmost importance of providing timely and reliable information on water levels to Mekong countries and communities exposed to flood and drought and an ever changing climate so that they can take action in time to avoid or reduce their risk and prepare an effective response,” said Dr Anoulak Kittikhoun, the MRC’s Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer in the release.
“At Facebook, we always look for new ways to support development efforts in this region,” said Shanti Alexander, Asia-Pacific Community Affairs Manager at the U.S.-based social media giant.
“With a suite of tools that supports communities to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters and build resilience, we’re pleased to partner with the MRC to keep millions of people in this region informed on possible floods and drought so that they are better prepared for a crisis,” Alexander said.
Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries, with ultimate plans to build scores more under a plan to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” to export the electricity they generate to other countries in the region.
Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers without adequate compensation, and questionable financial and power demand arrangements.
The country’s worst fears about dam safety came true without warning on July 23, 2018, when billions of cubic feet of water from a tributary of the Mekong River poured over a collapsed saddle dam at the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy (PNPC) hydropower project in Champassak province.
The water that escaped the failed dam swept away homes and caused severe flooding in villages downstream in Attapeu province, killing 71 people and displacing 14,440 when it wiped out all or part of 19 villages.
The MRC Secretariat said Facebook would promote the MRC’s Mekong Flood and Drought Forecasting System—which draws water level and rainfall data at 22 hydrological stations along the main channel of the Mekong River in the Lower Mekong Basin
Proponents of the partnership hope that data from the forecasting system will be more easily and efficiently disseminated through Facebook, which is widely used in Southeast Asia.
Several rural Lao residents told RFA that the collaboration is welcome news.
“They did not warn us that the river went up that high or this high. We never saw information about that,” a resident of Xayaburi province’s Paklai district, who requested anonymity for security reasons told RFA Sept. 1.
“If they did warn us, people might not have known about it, but if the warning comes through Facebook, people will have a greater chance of seeing it,” he said.
The resident added that he was not aware of any government warnings about imminent floods, droughts or water released from upstream dams.
Another villager, who lives near the banks of the Mekong in Champassak province’s capital of Pakse, told RFA that under the previous system, government warnings reached only those who had businesses they ran from small boats.
The villager said that no warnings were issued for those who live along the banks, as the government believed they were not at risk because of embankments that the country constructed.
“They built the embankments, so they only informed boat people. I think it’s better that they are going to inform everyone,” the villager said.
An official from the province’s natural resources and environment bureau told RFA that digital warnings would enhance the government’s capacity to warn citizens, even through existing channels.
“Now we are in the middle of looking for ways to get the warning out fast,” said the official, who declined to be named.
“Whomever was aware of the warning would send it online through Facebook, and the heads of each village would announce through loudspeaker to the villagers so that the villagers could prepare in case of any calamities,” the official said.
Not the end
Two Thailand-based civil society organizations commended the initiative but pointed out that a collaboration with Facebook alone would not necessarily improve the response to disasters.
“I look at this as positive. It’s a good plan with good intentions, but it’s more important to bring the information further out,” Souvith Koulapvong, the coordinator of the People’s Network in the Lower Mekong-Northeastern Thailand.
A representative of the Chiang Khong Loving group in Chieng Rai, Thailand told RFA that even with the help of Facebook, warnings still would not make it to the region’s most vulnerable.
“Out of the people who have access to Facebook, I wonder what percentage of them are Mekong riparian people,” he said.
“I don’t think we’re quite there yet. Maybe sending a letter of warning to community leaders or through local civic networks would be better, as that goes straight to the target,” he added.
“A step forward”
Two U.S.-based experts said the collaboration was a good development but hoped more would be done to continue to improve warning mechanisms in the region.
“A lot of people use Facebook on their cell phones. Therefore, it seems like a good idea for the MRC to partner with Facebook to distribute useful information about drought and floods,” Ian Baird, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told RFA.
Brian Eyler, a senior fellow and director of the Washington-based Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program, told RFA he thought that the collaboration would lead to more transparency.
“Facebook and MRC should provide more details on the collaboration. Undoubtedly this is a step forward for U.S.-based engagement in the region and data transparency from Facebook.”
The MRC Secretariat told RFA that its partnership with Facebook will proceed on a trial basis until the end of 2021, at which time the partnership would be reevaluated.
Reported and Translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.