From Spectators to Partners in Change

How a diverse group of experts is strengthening public participation

Nguyen Thanh Van, Programme Officer - Vietnam, Mekong Partnership for the Environment


As I grew up in Hanoi, Vietnam, I saw the different phases of change in the city. The city has been tremendously transformed due to fast-paced economic advancement. It is now a country of high-rise buildings, busy streets full of cars and motorcycles, new businesses, roads and bridges. This development has significantly changed the way of life for people in Hanoi. Vietnam today is much different from what I remember when I was a child. As everyday citizens, we can often feel like a spectator to all these changes.

The last few decades of Vietnam’s economic development can be witnessed on modern streets throughout Hanoi. Foreign Direct Investment has been pouring into the country, increasing the incomes of Vietnamese and modernizing the nation’s infrastructure. However this economic development has also caused environmental degradation across the country, especially in the Mekong Delta. In addition, as economic development progresses, it leads to higher demands for energy. And that leads to more energy projects – many with investments and impacts flowing across the border of the region.


The busy streets of Hanoi, Vietnam (Wikimedia)


I used to work for a climate change project called the Urban Environmental and Planning Program where I often traveled to communities in the Delta region. There I saw firsthand how peoples’ lives were affected by pollution and environmental activities from the upstream of the Mekong River. The livelihoods of Delta communities are mainly based on the river, therefore any changes in the water flow can seriously alter the environment and livelihoods of people in the community.  So I began to understand how dams and other projects can radically change people’s lives.

With my current work, I get to connect with colleagues in the region who see similar changes in their countries. I now work as Program Officer for Vietnam for the USAID-supported Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE). My project helps civil society, governments and businesses connect with each other to ensure development projects in the Mekong region are planned, built and managed responsibly. We promote public participation in these processes. And we are trying to ensure communities are engaged through robust Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) processes. We are trying to help citizens and communities be more than just spectators to change.



Myself with colleagues from MPE and AECEN at the second meeting of the Regional Technical Working Group on EIA in Tam Dao, Vietnam


In May 2015, we hosted the event Impact Assessment and the ASEAN Economic Community: A Way Forward for Regional Collaboration, in Hanoi. Following the event government officials and civil society representatives from across Mekong region agreed to established the Regional Technical Working Group on EIA (RTWG on EIA).

The RTWG on EIA is an active group of key government and civil society experts from countries across the Mekong region. The group aims to strengthen regional cooperation on EIA to contribute to sustainable development in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and across the Mekong and ASEAN regions. One of the RTWG’s key activities is to develop regional guidelines for public participation in EIA.

EIA is a process that evaluates the possible environmental and social impacts of a proposed project, such as dams, transportation or industrial projects. Its use has been very dynamic in Vietnam, matching the rapid progress of socio-economic development in the country. Public participation in EIA receives a lot of attention from the government and many organizations. However, making public participation in EIA more effective requires consensus from civil society and government. It also needs detailed guidelines with broad buy-in.



The RTWG on EIA members from Vietnam at the second meeting of the group in Vietnam


In response to this need, MPE brought the RTWG members back together for their second meeting in December 2015 in Tam Dao, Vietnam. This meeting focused on developing an outline for the content of the regional guidelines on public participation in EIA.

My colleagues and I had a chance to talk with many of the participants about their opinions on public participation. We asked them about why it’s important, how good public participation can improve the outcomes of development projects, and how the RTWG can help improve public participation in their respective countries and the region.

We have collected a few of these voices in this video. These RTWG members who work to contributing to improving regional development and safeguard the region, believe very strongly that public participation is a necessity as the region grows.



Some thoughts from members:

  • Mr. Trinh Le Nguyen, Founder and Executive Director, People and Nature Reconciliation (PanNature) said “Public Participation is a way to ensure the rights in the policy-making processes of development projects. Good public participation can also ensure the quality of policies and development projects.”
  • “Good public participation improves sustainable and responsible development, minimizing socio-economic and environmental impacts on the communities. The mandate of the RTWG is important to promote responsible development of mega-projects and minimize transboundary conflicts between countries.” said Mr. Mam Sambath, Executive Director of Development and Partnership in Action (DPA).
  • Mr. Chea Leng, Vice Chief Officer of Department of EIA and Director of Division, Division of Coastal Natural Resources Management, Ministry of Environment, Cambodia added, “Cambodia is currently developing National Guidelines on Public Participation in EIA. The work of the RTWG in development of the Regional Guidelines on Public Participation in EIA is parallel with Cambodia’s initiative. The Regional Guidelines will benefit the Mekong Region, where all 5 countries will have the same standard guidelines, and this can be expanded to the ASEAN level in the future.”

I am excited about the work the RTWG is bringing to the region. With many new large-scale development projects in the region, it is very important that all the countries work together to ensure they are sustainable and do not deteriorate our regional environment. The Regional Guidelines on Public Participation in EIA will be an important tool to use to prevent social and environmental impact to the Mekong Region.

It is important to me that our work contributes to the well-being of those who live along the Mekong River and across the region. The people need a say in the decisions affecting them. We want to make sure they are not just spectators to change anymore.


The RTWG on EIA members with the organizers in Tam Dao, Vietnam



Lead image: Fruit seller in the Mekong Delta, where the author saw first-hand how peoples’ lives are affected by development decisions (Mekong Partnership for the Environment).

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