What do we mean when we talk about a right to food? What does such a right involve for individuals? For communities?

These were some of the questions that arose during a recent conference I attended on Food Security in the Mekong – The Water, Food and Energy Nexus Revisited, in Chiang Rai, Thailand. The conference gathered together a number of key groups and researchers in the region and presented cutting edge data around food security challenges and threats looming for the Mekong basin.

The threats to the right to food are both important and increasingly urgent. Communities in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) countries (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand) are likely to suffer food shortages in coming years due to factors such as changing climate and weather patterns, sharp population growth and shifting patterns of production and consumption. While the rich and fertile environment of the Mekong wetlands is naturally abundant in food resources, there are challenges around who has access to these and whether this access is in qualities sufficient to sustain human nutrition and well-being.

Dams, food and people

These issues are all thrown into sharp relief against the backdrop of a planned series of eleven hydropower dams on the Mekong mainstream, creating an increasingly stark arena for the above factors to play out.

The Xayaburi dam in northern Laos is the first in the proposed cascade of large scale hydropower projects on the mainstream of the Mekong below China, with subsequent projects intended for Pak Beng, Luang Prabang, Pak Lay, and Sanakham in northern Laos; Pak Chom and Ban Koum on the Thai-Lao border; Lat Sua and Don Sahong in southern Laos; and Stung Treng and Sambor in Cambodia (see map). An additional 77 dams are planned along the complicated Mekong tributary system that threads through the lower basin. Up to 21 dams are planned or are already in operation on the upper parts of the Mekong River, or the Lancang as it is known in China.

The net impacts from the dams will have drastic implications for food and nutrition for 65 million people in the Mekong basin, around two thirds of whom are people in rural communities who depend on the river for their livelihoods and survival.

The Mekong is a biodiversity hotspot for fish species and houses the most intensive capture fishery in the world: over one million tonnes of freshwater fish are caught annually in Cambodia and Vietnam, mostly on a small scale by local fisher-folk who have lived in this way for generations.

The dams will cause a dramatic reduction in fish migration, meaning far fewer fish available in the river’s capture fisheries. Loss of fish catch signals major changes in available food protein for the populations of all four lower Mekong countries. Hardest hit will be Cambodia and Laos where communities depend heavily on fish consumption for their protein needs and other food elements vital to human nutrition. In Cambodia fish represents 80% of all animal protein consumed. Substantial drops in fish protein in the diets of local people is likely to have very serious implications for nutrition in the basin, and if not addressed will lead to rampant malnutrition and related diseases. The impacts will be more severe for pregnant women and children, potentially causing widespread developmental problems in coming generations.

In addition to the loss of fish and other animal and non-animal food sources because of changes to river and wetland eco-systems, the dams will result in other significant impacts on food availability and livelihoods. Reduced sediment flows in the river, for example, are likely to produce major effects on the fertility of agricultural areas downstream, disrupting the rich rice yields from the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam, often referred to as Asia’s rice bowl, which feeds millions of people.

Recent studies have shown that it will be extremely difficult to replace the vital elements of human nutrition currently obtained through fish consumption with other food sources. While these options have not been fully explored, research suggests that resource challenges and land scarcity mean replacing protein with reservoir fisheries or raising other livestock or protein rich crops is very unlikely.

Yet the dams are proceeding. On 8 November 2012 construction of the Xayaburi dam officially began with a ‘groundbreaking ceremony’ at the site and in January 2013 the project developer indicated that the project was already 10% complete.

In the absence of other choices, a further option is for local people to adapt their current subsistence livelihoods to a cash based economy and rely on imported food to replace lost nutrition. Again, the feasibility of this has not been properly studied, but it would mean huge and lasting changes to the lifestyle patterns, social arrangements and cultural practices of peoples whose lives have been intimately entwined with a free flowing Mekong for generations.

The decision-making process around the Xayaburi dam has been marked by a distinct lack of consultation by project developers and participation by downstream countries and affected communities. Policy decisions reflect a one-sided emphasis on economic development and benefit at the expense of the needs and interests of local peoples who will be most affected. Moreover, there are no clear development plans in Laos on how the revenues for the dams will be used to supplement the livelihood and diets of the dam affected communities. With so much at stake for the well being of communities, will their say in the way in which they access food, or their ability to access adequate food at all, be any different?

What does this mean for the way we talk about food?

There’s been ongoing debate in recent years around the respective meanings of ‘food security’ and ‘the right to food.’ Discussing the difference between these terms might seem like word play or idle semantics. But it has vital implications for rural communities in the Mekong basin.

After all, food is fundamental. The way in which communities can obtain and access food is likely to change the way they live, work, interact and develop social relationships. It is inextricable from people’s sense of dignity and control over their lives.

Developed at the 1996 World Food Summit, the most widely recognized definition of states:

“Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

This definition includes a number of important elements. It shows that to be food secure people need both physical and economic access to food; food needs to be safe, nutritious and fit the food preferences and needs of people in question. These elements have to continue over time.

The problem is that this definition doesn’t take into account power structures or differentials in the level of control and say people have in policy decisions which intimately affect their lives. If you have little or no say in the type of food you receive or the way it reaches your plate, even if it meets nutrition requirements or is deemed suitable by someone else, it is hard to say that you are food secure.

Debates over food challenges in the Mekong need to move beyond the concept of ‘food security’ towards a model based on the Right to Food. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has defined this as: “the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.” – Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, A/HRC/7/5, paragraph 17 (italics added).

This definition sees access to food as an essential question of human rights. It is important to not only guarantee access, availability and suitability of food, but to recognize the connection between obtaining food and human dignity and fulfillment, through the ability to participate in decisions about how to provide food for oneself, one’s family and one’s community.

Some groups have gone further, conceptualizing the right to food in terms of Food Sovereignty. This term was coined by members of La Via Campesina, a global movement of peasants, farmers and indigenous peoples. It focuses in particular on the community and collective elements of the right to food stated above: the right of peoples to define, develop and control their own sustainable food systems as they see fit.

Discussions around food security and the relationship between economic, energy and food policies in the Mekong need to be re-imagined in terms of an individual and collective right to food for marginalized groups, such as the indigenous and rural communities of the Mekong basin. This would place the people and communities who produce and consume food at the centre of decision-making, rather than at the periphery, where they are now shut out of policy decisions by the dominant demands of markets and economies.