Water over the Bridge

Tom Weerachat and Preksha Kumar

Residents complete a community-based survey on the Tanahu Hydropower Project

Facing the construction of a mega-dam project, communities in Tanahu, Nepal use research to reclaim their rights

We walk along unpaved and dusty roads. Groups of women cut rice crops in paddy fields while the men, wearing traditional Nepali “topis” or hats, smash stalks against threshing rocks. Water buffaloes graze in the fields. Along the main road, children in uniforms carrying small, dusty backpacks walk home from school. They cross a suspension bridge and I watch as they make their way uphill and out of sight.

The suspension bridge hangs across a clear and rapidly-flowing river. As I approach the bridge, my heart starts to pound and I cannot bring myself to look down. Instead, I walk away and sit down on the lush grass nearby, next to an elderly resident who is gazing into the river. “I helped build this bridge” he says “It was the only way people living across the river could go to town and kids to school. If this dam is built, the bridge, all these houses — everything — will be underwater.”

He is speaking about the Tanahu Hydropower Project, a massive hydropower project that is threatening the homes, livelihoods and resources of communities in Damauli, Tanahu. I was visiting the area to learn more about the proposed dam and understand what communities thought about the project.

The Tanahu Hydropower Project, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) website, involves the construction of a 140-megawatt power plant with water storage facilities and a transmission system. The project is estimated to cost approximately 550 million USD and is expected to be completed by 2020. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), European Investment Bank (EIB) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) are providing funds for the project.

In its assessments, the Asian Development Bank has noted significant risks involving involuntary resettlement, the rights of indigenous peoples and impacts to the environment. According to the bank, the dam is needed to expand access to clean and sustainable energy. They state that this investment will enhance trade, productivity, job creation and quality of life for citizens, as well as bring “community development” to a rural area. This narrative sounds positive on paper but I quickly learned that the people directly impacted by the project have a very different story to share.

According to local residents in Tanahu, more than 750 households will be affected by the hydropower project. Residents are concerned about the specific impacts to their traditional lands and environment. Community members belong to different indigenous groups such as Magar, Gurung, Newar and depend on the land for their livelihoods. For indigenous communities, meaningful participation in consultation and decision making is a key pre-requisite to any development project. This has not been the case for Tanahu. As one resident noted “We don’t have any information about who exactly is funding this project. There was no public hearing.”

To address this gap in access to information, Community Empowerment, Social Justice Foundation (CEMSOJ) and Indigenous Women Legal Awareness Group (INWOLAG) with support from Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), Accountability Counsel, and International Accountability Project, organized a training in November, 2016 to share information about the project and understand the situation of affected communities. As a group, we were committed to support communities in their efforts to engage with banks, government and the company about their needs. During the training, community members learned about relevant national laws from a senior indigenous rights lawyer. They also heard from AIPP representatives about international legal frameworks to defend indigenous peoples’ rights and relevant ADB policies. I shared a presentation about how communities in Thailand and Mekong countries have responded to ADB financed projects in the past. I also shared recent examples and strategies from community-led research supported by the International Accountability Project in Malawi in response to a similar dam project.

In one activity, I invited community representatives to draw a map of their villages and consider what would be important for the the preservation of their livelihoods and culture. They were then asked to prepare questions to ask an ADB representative, as if they would meet one in the next hour. Each group of participants came up with a long list of questions. Most asked about the lack of information available about the project and how their losses would be compensated. We then asked a community member to volunteer to act as the ADB representative. Each group had one chance to meet them and ask questions. Even in a role-playing setting, residents were nervous. Some groups used their community maps as evidence to present their questions. At the end of the activity, residents reflected on what they took away from the exercise. They concluded that communities themselves should research and prepare information about how their rights would be affected by the project.

Drawing from this activity, residents agreed to set up a community-led research group, with support from the Indigenous Women Legal Awareness Group (INWOLAG) and IAP. Together we drafted a questionnaire, adapted from the one prepared by communities in Malawi. The questionnaire asked participants to share their knowledge and recommendations about how the project was disclosed and discussed with affected communities.

We then reviewed the survey questions and community representatives began interviewing each other. After the first round of interviews, we reviewed the responses and reflected on the experience. One researcher, quoting from the responses of one of his interviewees noted, “Nobody ever asked us questions like this before” Researchers are now in the process of collecting 150 surveys, traveling to villages and remote areas that are only accessible by foot. In the next phase, IAP will support community members analyze the data collected.

While conducting the community-led research, the affected communities in Tanahu have also been actively engaging with the national government and private companies. In December, 2016, a memorandum was submitted to the Minister of Energy in Nepal raising concerns about the project. Communities have demanded copies of project documents, meaningful consultations with a policy of informed consent and inclusion in relevant committees making decisions about the project. They have also traveled to Kathmandu to submit their memorandum to the Tanahu Hydropower company and the National Human Rights Commission. The government and the company have promised to respond to their demands. Communities are also contesting the government’s decisions on the scale and scope of compensation. In February this year, approximately 350 villagers rallied and assembled in front of Tanahu District Office asking the government to follow the ADB safeguards policy. More recently, the Tanahu Hydropower Limited has responded with a letter to affected communities to form a local consultation forum. Residents are planning further mobilizations as they continue to push for their demands to be heard.

It has been several months since my visit to Tanahu but I keep coming back to that memory of the bridge and the fear I had experienced trying to cross it. Flooding the bridge, and all that lies around it, would only affirm the fundamental disconnection between local people and financiers of the project. Notwithstanding the challenges, I continue to be inspired by the people in Tanahu who are collecting information and organizing each other to protect their homes and livelihoods. They are also building a different kind of bridge, one that reaches towards an idea of development that improves lives and respects rights.

Tom Weerachat works as IAP’s Program Coordinator based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Tom is a community trainer, a teacher, a traveler, and a Mekong activist.

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.