This week, as Vietnamese environmental activist Nguy Thi Khanh is honored with a Goldman Environmental Prize, we reflect on her long and inspiring career.
Nguy Thi Khanh has an amazing capacity to convene cross sections of people to work on complex and seemingly intractable issues.
I first experienced Khanh’s great organizing and convening skills when she was working with the Vietnamese NGO WARECOD (Centre for Water Resources, Conservation and Development). Khanh, along with her co-leader Ms. Nga Dao, helped bring the Vietnamese experience into shaping our regional civil society network – the Save the Mekong coalition.
Working with other Vietnamese NGO groups, Khanh also coordinated the campaigns and research of the Vietnam Rivers Network (VRN). Khanh provided great insights into Vietnam’s interests and concerns regarding Mekong dams, and she advocated for the importance of hearing from local communities while protecting river ecosystems. Khanh and VRN helped organize community-to-community exchanges, helping develop a “Mekong spirit” between peoples living in different parts of the river basin.
Bolstering women’s voices
Khanh also has an amazing capacity to bring together young people and support women leaders. When we worked together to organize a consultation workshop on gender impact assessment in hydropower, she and her team drew together a disparate group of women leaders from government, think tanks, NGOs and minority communities. She structured inputs so that young and old alike were heard, and so that both government and community perspectives were shared. These perspectives helped to shape a user gender impact assessment manual for hydro developers. Green ID went on to translate this into Vietnamese, helping disseminate it to hydropower companies and government ministries.
Promoting energy alternatives
Khanh went on to found the NGO Green Innovation and Development (GreenID) to continue her advocacy work for rivers and environmental sustainability, while also encouraging action from progressive government and private sector actors. Khanh co-founded the Energy Alliance, and Green ID helped develop local energy plans to both support the uptake of renewable technologies and manage pollution.
This work helped both households and entire communities minimize pollution into rivers, turn waste into energy, and acquire new, affordable technologies such as solar lights and worm farms. The alliance also encouraged more community-level investments such as biodigesters for schools and kindergartens (which turn waste into cooking gas), solar hot water heaters, and reverse-osmosis drinking water provision. The success of the work has shown that there are very real, effective and affordable alternatives to energy from large hydropower and coal-fired power.
As Khanh prepared to extend this local energy planning work into the Vietnam Delta, I was lucky to join Khanh and her team on the ground in Thai Binh province. We heard from community organizers that they valued both the awareness-raising and the practical tools and services. The standout for me, personally, was seeing the biodigesters at work as they literally turned pig manure into cooking gas at the turn of a switch.
Women who had invested in the two-burner stoves told me how this new biogas made a real difference to their lives – they could boil water much more quickly, with less effort and less smoke than when they were burning corn and rice husks. They also explained that they could have hot water to wash in the evening!
Working with the alliance, which included other Vietnamese and international NGOs, Khanh and her team built trust in this approach with local authorities. They convened “marketplaces” for introducing technologies and convening suppliers, and helped communities access the resources.
A gifted communicator
I have also had the pleasure of presenting with Khanh in many meetings and conferences, where I saw Khanh’s skills as a listener and learner in action. She is a true communicator – she draws together Vietnamese knowledge and political smarts, and can place these also in the greater Mekong context. Ultimately she is a collaborator and a bridge builder – but one grounded in local community perspectives and the importance of sustainability in development decision making.
We at International Rivers offer our congratulations to Khanh for winning the esteemed Goldman Prize. Her work in fostering and strengthening environmental alliances is inspirational, and we trust the award will help her deepen this work in coming years.