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August 2017
REGION: East Asia and the Pacific

In Thirsting For Justice, Carole Excell and Elizabeth Moses explore the barriers that rural communities in Mongolia, Thailand, and Indonesia face in receiving environmental information and the impact that the lack of information has on communities’ ability to address pollution and health concerns. Around the world, more than two billion people use contaminated water for basic necessities, such as drinking, bathing, fishing, and watering livestock and crops. Using contaminated water causes disease, disability, and even death, and rural communities that still rely on natural water sources are disproportionately affected by water pollution. These communities lack proper access to environmental information that would help them determine if their water is safe to use. More information would also empower them to speak out against pollution and hold those who are responsible accountable. While governments are typically required to disclose information about water pollution, rural communities usually do not receive this information, or do not receive the type of information that they need.

In writing this report, the authors worked with the Strengthening the Right to Information for People and the Environment (STRIPE) Projects in Indonesia, Thailand, and Mongolia. Their report summarizes the findings of a three-year investigation into the effectiveness of proactive and reactive environmental information laws in Indonesia, Thailand, and Mongolia. To begin the report the authors first discuss the consequences of poor informational transparency on the communities. They next look the proactive and reactive disclosure laws to determine their effectiveness. They do this by comparing the type of information that communities want and need with the type of information they are receiving from governments. Finally, they make recommendations for the future.

Consequences of Poor Transparency on Communities:

All three communities in Mongolia, Thailand, and Indonesia reported growing problems from water pollution. These communities are located downstream from local industries such as paper plants, petrochemical plants, oil refineries, iron and steel factories. Members of these rural communities have noticed their water has acquired abnormal colors and smells, their livestock get sick from drinking the water, and they are no longer able to harvest as many fish as they once did. This pollution has also caused great public health concerns in the communities. For example, in Thailand, arsenic was found in community members’ blood samples.

The authors found that all three of these communities spent years speaking out against the growing pollution problems in their communities, but the lack of information availability, or the inability to obtain information, has limited their success. As a result, many communities have resorted to protest to voice their concerns about increasing pollution and public health. Community members need accurate and specific information to be able to meaningfully voice their concerns about pollution and public health and to hold those who are responsible for the pollution accountable.

Proactive Disclosure Laws:  

In all three countries, the government is legally mandated to release certain water quality and pollution information proactively without any need for a request from its citizens. Proactive disclosure laws can be helpful because citizens do not need to learn the procedure to request information. To study the effectiveness of Indonesia, Thailand, and Mongolia’s proactive disclosure laws, the authors compared the information that is released proactively by governments with the information that community members want and need to be able to voice their concerns.

The quality and quantity of information released varies by country, but the authors found that in general, governments in practice are not releasing the information local communities want and need. A chart can be found on pages 30-31 of the report that compares this information in detail. For example, governments do not release information about the types of chemicals used by companies, nor do they detail information about individual facility discharges and permits. Indonesia is the only country with legislation that mentions the proactive disclosure of discharge permits, but they are not actually released in practice. Without this information, community members cannot hold individual facilities accountable for their pollution.

Additionally, governments are not proactively releasing information about public health. Economic Impact Assessments (EIAs) disclose the impact of development projects on many things, including public health. All three countries studied use EIAs, but they do not release them in a timely fashion, so the information provided is often no longer relevant. Additionally, the information presented in EIAs often very technical and difficult to understand. All three countries also release water quality and pollution data, but typically the data is aggregated per body of water rather than listing information about pollution at a local level. Without more specific and understandable EIAs and water quality reports, communities have a difficult time mitigating their health risks.

Finally, the information that is released is not easily accessible. Information is published in an official publication or website rather than released by notice to local communities. The websites are often not centralized or easily searchable. Indonesia’s website is password protected. These barriers to access, as well as the information provided, limit the proactive disclosure system’s usefulness to local communities.

Right to Information/Reactive Information Disclosure by Governments:

In addition to proactive disclosure laws, all three countries have reactive Right to Information (RTI) laws. These laws give citizens the right to request specific information from their governments. All three countries recognize the right to information both in the Constitutions and in specific RTI laws. To evaluate the effectiveness of these laws, the authors look again at the information needs of local communities to determine if RTI processes are meeting those needs. Table 7 on Page 59 of the article summarizes the type of information that is required by proactive information release, if it is actually released in practice, and if the information is available through reactive RTI laws.

The authors found that when community members request information, they are often met with no response, which the authors call a “mute refusal.” In Indonesia and Mongolia, almost 60 percent of information request responses resulted in mute refusals. Thailand’s mute refusals were only 15 percent of responses. Further, when governments do respond to requests, the information received often is not the information requested. The authors found the information received to be only tangentially related to the request even though the information should have been available. For example, in Thailand, a request for specific water discharges at a specific date and time returned average annual discharge estimates. Additionally, in response to requests, governments typically provide technical information or raw data that community members cannot understand.

The authors also found through their study that community members do not clearly understand their rights to information or the procedures to obtain that information. Many requesters stopped their request process at the first denial or mute refusal. Some community members were even afraid to request information on specific facilities for fear of intimidation if the company found out they had made that request. The authors also found that community members were uncomfortable contacting government officials.

Recommendations for the Future:

The authors make several recommendations for governments. The first is the need to including prioritize, track, and synthesize the information needs of local communities. They recommend prioritizing certain kinds of information, such as water quality monitoring reports, with more specific information, such as the types and quantities of pollutants discharged; public health assessments, facility-specific discharge permits, EIAs and compliance and enforcement reports.

Governments not only need to identify the type of information communities want and need, but find better formats, such as social media, that will be easily accessible to community members. The authors point to the Colombian government as a model to follow. The Colombian Intersectoral Bureau for Environmental Democracy has been mapping and identifying the information needs and preferences of its citizens on how to receive information and will use that to reform their proactive disclosure system.

They also recommend better oversight of information requests and improving the capacity of environmental agencies to ensure that information is released efficiently and effectively. The authors recognize that these vulnerable communities often need support of other stakeholders to make change, but access to accurate, comprehensive information will help empower them to seek change from factories and government officials.

NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).

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