The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Valuing the environment in contested peripheries

Posted in ASEAN-Canada Partnership by NTSblog on July 15, 2014

In a previous entry, I wrote about the planned hydro dams integral to ASEAN’s long-term economic and energy strategies. The size of the dam cascade to be built on the Salween River will be the first of its kind globally, justifying close scrutiny of resulting impacts on natural resources, ecosystems and communities. Systematically studying these environmental impacts and related risks can inform local discourse on human and environmental security in the face of “economic development” (a topic of much academic study, particularly “development” impacts on marginalized groups, i.e. Ferguson 2009,).

The Total Economic Value (TEV) framework places monetary value on changes in environmental features, including those that cannot be traded in markets (such as aesthetic value). TEV is widely accepted as a tool for estimating environmental values compatible with Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA), a component of the Canadian government’s suite of regulatory decision-making tools.[1] A notable outcome of TEV is a list of economic and non-economic environmental features of relative importance for the well-being of communities affected by the change(s). Directly eliciting these features from community members provides valuable evidence on which to inform public debate and conceptualize losses and damages to groups most impacted by the project.

In early June 2014, I spoke with village leaders upstream from the Hat Gyi site about their concerns for the environment and their livelihood. Transparent information about the dam’s effects on local ecosystems and environmental risks has been limited[2]; in its latest consultations with these villages, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) “promised only two of our houses would flood.”[3] Distrustful of EGAT’s claim, village leaders fear damages will exceed EGAT’s predictions. Leaders are concerned about flooding of village houses and crops; any resettlement process could be complicated by legal issues. For instance, government-owned parklands entirely surround existing homes.

Worse, relocation to arable land is not guaranteed, putting villagers’ agriculturally-focused livelihoods at risk. Fish navigation could be interrupted, despite dam designs for a fish ladder and conclusions from a preliminary RFID tagging study near the site concluding otherwise (arguably, neither method is efficient as a fishway management technique[4]). Tourism, which brings income through hospitality services, food and handicraft sales, may suffer if the main port floods.

Further complicating the issue is Thailand and Myanmar’s discouraging record compensation, resettlement and (in Myanmar’s case in particular) human rights abuses, for investment projects. Villagers are also disappointed at a lack of meaningful input in public consultations about the Hat Gyi project.[5] The dam site itself is in a war zone, rendering it effectively inaccessible; EGAT has limited its presence at the site after the death of one of its workers near the dam site.

Eliciting environmental values for losses near the Hat Gyi site in isolation seems short-sighted in a context of deep political nuances and limited transparency. We should seek to modify economic methods to capture these intricacies and to create a framework for human and environmental security.


[1] Treasury Board Secretariat (2007) The Canadian Cost-Benefit Analysis Guide: Regulatory Proposals.

[2] EGAT and Chulalongkorn’s 2007 Environmental Impact Assessment lacks a full sensitivity analyses or full disclosure on compensation calculations. See: Hutgyu Hydropower Project Environmental Impact Assessment, Environmental Research Institute, Chulalongkorn University, 2007

[3] Interview, Sob Moei district, June 2, 2014

[4] Cooke, S.J. and Hinch, S.G (2013) Improving the reliability of fishway attraction and fishway passage efficiency estimates to inform fishway engineering, science and practice. Ecological Engineering 58 (2013) 123-132.

[5] Interview, Sob Moei district, June 2 2014


This blog post has been written by Liliana Camacho. Liliana is an economist and policy advisor with the federal Department of Environment in Canada, and Junior Fellow (2013-2014) under the ASEAN-Canada Research Partnership. For more information on the ASEAN-Canada Research Partnership, please click here.


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