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Power Plant Becomes Power to The People

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Maggie Callahan
November 12, 2019

Pollution and its effects often cross international borders. This makes the process of controlling and regulating polluters difficult and nearly impossible. Despite any nation’s best efforts to reduce its carbon foot print, these changes may be ineffectual if any neighboring country does not adopt similar measures.

A microcosm of this international relations dilemma is a coal-fired power plant at the border of Laos and Thailand. Like all coal-powered power plants, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and heavy metals like mercury are emitted. This type of energy generation is one of the dirtiest forms of energy creation and has severe negative impacts on the local communities’ health and environment.

The power plant, despite being technically located in Laos, negatively affects the health and environments of both the Lao and Thai communities surrounding the plant. Laos’ government regulations required the plant to undergo an environmental impact assessment and mitigate the potential negative consequences of the plant for the Lao community close to the plant. The assessment, however, did not include the Thai community next door.

The Thai community next to the plant belongs to the Lau ethnic group. This minority and native group is a predominantly agrarian community who’s residents drink unfiltered water from the nearby mountain stream and rely on it to sustain their rice, coffee, mulberry, lychee and banana plants. The power plant’s potential for contamination in this community’s main water source and soil was never studied but can be readily imagined. Not only does this threat of contamination threaten the local community, but it also threatens the broader Thai and international community because the produce from this area is taken to market throughout Thailand and exported abroad.

An environmental lawyer, law professor, health impact practitioner and an environmental engineer banded together to write a project proposal to the Health System Research Institute Center of Thailand. The project aimed to empower and mobilize the Lau community through a community-led health impact assessment. This method equips local communities with the information and tools requisite to make meaningful and healthy decisions on policies, projects and development activities. The co-creation of knowledge from experts’ technical knowledge and locals’ expertise allowed the project to be technically sound and sensitive to the needs of the local community.

After three moderated and guided workshops and many community deliberations, the Lau community decided to take a plan to the Thai government for managing the plant’s pollution through a community monitoring system. By documenting the ongoing changes to their farming and livelihoods before and after the plant, the local community was able to demonstrate the effects of the power plant and justify the need for such a monitoring system. This system was refined by multiple lawyers and presented to the government with lawyer and community representatives. The findings of this monitoring system will be presented to the Thai and Lao government for resolution.

The Lau community monitoring program provides helpful insights to dealing with the issues of transborder pollution. This power plant was no match for the power of the people. Making change, even international change, is possible with the right tools and effective lobbying.

To learn more about this case visit https://participedia.net/case/5751. To read about other innovative applications of public participation, visit www.participedia.net

Author: Maggie Callahan is a master’s student of public diplomacy at Syracuse University and a graduate assistant for the Participedia Project at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She holds a bachelor’s in political science and economics from Mercer University and has worked in Georgian, Moroccan and Nepalese nongovernmental organizations and the American government. Follow her on Twitter: @laissezmaggie

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