Mekong in Deep Water

Country/area: Thailand

Organisation: Bangkok Post, SE Asia Globe, South China Morning Post, Vientiene Times, Viet Nam News, Nguoi Dothi, VOA Cambodia, FM100 CMU

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

Mekong In Deep Water is a data-driven special that digs into the data to reveal the secret forces at work driving decisions about dams, droughts and diplomacy in Southeast Asia. Each story analyzes complex dynamics that drive environmental destruction, the impact of decisions that put livelihoods at risk and political and economic drivers that ultimately foreshadow irreversible damage to local communities, economies and ways of life.The project was managed by the Internews Earth Journalism Network, led by local data evangelistis, reported by teams of local reporting fellows from the region, and published by leading media houses. It harnesses data to understand how these political, environmental and economic forces play out, with dramatically divergent results, in different countries and communities.
The five countries covered by the stories share one of the world’s great rivers, the Mekong, as their main ecological artery and a similar vacuum in accountability and governance mechanisms to protect it. Environmental and socio-economic issues intertwine and span across their borders: dams upriver in Laos affect health of fisheries and mangroves in Cambodia and Vietnam; while electricity demand from rapidly developing Thailand incentivises the building of more dams in neighboring Laos. However, due to historic disparities between these countries in levels of economic development, systems of government, levels of press freedom, and language barriers, collaborative data reporting by journalists from Mekong countries on cross border issues is rare. Our project put particular emphasis on bringing together local environmental journalists and local open data evangelists who worked together to exchange contextual knowledge about neighbouring countries’ environmental issues and data sources that are available only in local languages.

In addition to the environmental challenges that span the region, the space for press freedom is also rapidly disappearing in these countries and the project harnesses public data to push for accountability where traditional reporting on the same issue would likely be censored. In 2021, after years of democratic backsliding and outright coups, all five countries are under authoritarian governments that are hostile to independent journalism that is critical of those in power. Nevertheless, the stories published in our project investigate infrastructure projects that benefit business and political elites, the disparities between officially published statistics and realities on the ground, and how well-intentioned but misguided policies are strangling ecosystems.

Globally, much of the challenge of mainstreaming data-driven accountability reporting is reluctance by media houses to invest resources and take editorial risks. The project prioritized multi-platform production in local language media houses that would reach both policymakers and impacted communities. For example, a radio piece on coal exploitation ran in Thai on a station that reaches those who live in the shadow of the coal plant and a story on Laos energy price rigging ran in one of the most widely read newspapers in the capital. When a story was deemed too sensitive for local media, it was published in regional media such as the South China Morning Post or Southeast Asia Globe and when possible, republished locally.

In order to grow a sustainable data journalism community, the project formalized relationships between traditional environmental journalists and local open data evangelists through a process of training and co-production. The partnership focused on fostering data literacy among journalists working for mainstream media through intensive training and mentoring following a proven hypothesis-driven approach to data storytelling. Transparency, reproducibility and accuracy were vital in an environment where journalists engaged in accountability reporting run an enormous risk of legal retaliation by the government and business interests. All data sources are available on the project site both to encourage wider use but also to safeguard against libel charges.

Description of portfolio:

Stories focused on issues that are difficult to investigate through traditional journalism due to the governments’ political clout over media, including resource extraction and economic inequality, the transboundary nature of environmental issues, and the impacts of local environmental mismanagement by the government. In many cases, the only reason the journalists felt they were able to evade censorship is because the stories are based on data. Many stories ran in both English and the respective local language.

The major challenge for all these stories was the lack of access to accountability data. Though we requested over a dozen disaggregated data sets over the course of the year, the most we received were summary tables. Thus, data findings were able to measure the extent of the problems and their impact on livelihoods, but find shortfalls on who to hold accountable and who exactly the “winners” are. However, many stories were still able to shine a light on policy shortfalls by comparing data findings to human stories on the ground and comparing locally produced public datasets to global ones. This was one of the highlights of the project, an outcome of the close collaboration between the local data evalengalists and reporting fellows.

Driven in large part by economic interests of elite enterprises from both the state and non-state sectors, many stories shine a light on a landscape of sacrificing people and progress for profit. In Locked in – Why Thailand buys electricity from Laos, Wanpen Pajai from Thailand explains how Thai firms reap profits from cheap imported hydropower, energy that citizens pay for under rigid contracts that divert risk to Thai citizens & environmental damage not only to Laos, but also to countries further downstream. Similarly, on the other side of the border, Ekaphone Phouthonesy reporting for the Vientiane Times in Laos, finds that despite Laos’ huge growth in hydropower energy production, tight market control by commercial interests, driven in large part by private investments, keeps electricity prices high for Laos citizens. Along similar topics of prioritizing profits over people, Kannikar Petchkaew from Thailand produced a series of episodes on a local radio show where she tells the story of continuing Thai investments in coal power in Laos, where Thai firms reap profits from cheap imported coal power and Laos suffers the environmental damage.

In addition to cross-border stories on energy and infrastructure, journalists contributing to this portfolio also developed stories that use data to track the impact of transboundary environmental issues. Sokummono Khan writing for VOA Khmer explores how despite official statistics showing increasing fish catches in the Tonle Sap Lake, the livelihoods of Cambodian fishers are under threat due to the overall decline of the natural river ecosystem, a problem that is exacerbated by upstream dams that impede crucial seasonal floods and rich sediment flows and commercial overfishing. In Mekong Fishermen Struggle to Survive published by VietNam News Van Nguyen brings attention to plummeting fish catches in the Mekong Delta caused by climate change and dams restricting water, leading hundreds of thousands of fisherfolk to migrate.

In other cases, fellows opted to focus on local environmental accountability, using data to bring communities’ attention to whether their natural environment is being managed effectively or not. Pratch Rujivanarom for the Bangkok Post finds large irrigation dams in northeastern Thailand fail to account for climate change induced floods and droughts, causing loss of rice harvests as extreme weather becomes the norm. Le Quynh writing for the Straits Times & Người đô thị shows that Ho Chi Minh’s mangrove forest is dangerously sick, shrinking & mismanaged by the local government, compromising its ability to clean air and store carbon.

Project links: