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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Out, dam spot, say rafters

Out, dam spot, say rafters

Rafters launch at Kampi for their float downriver. Photo by: ZAC TIONGCO

SCHOOL pupils and townspeople gathered to watch 21 people set off along the river from Kratie – accompanied by 20 police escorts – for a float down the Mekong River in inner tubes to raise awareness of dams and their consequences.

The group brought banners to parade from the pavilion along the riverside, before clambering into waiting tuk tuks and heading for the start of their flotilla at Kampi.

Accompanied by police and with their bright orange lifejackets serving as beacons, the convoy drew plenty of attention from villagers along the way last Thursday.

The diverse group of 21 people taking part in the 20km float included staff and volunteers from local NGOs Cambodian Rural Development Team and Community Economic Development, staff from international organisations VSO and IPADE, Kratie business owners and interested tourists.

“This is a great way to celebrate the river and have a great time with people who share the same ideas,” said Julie, a CRDT volunteer.

One of the organisers of the event, Walker Stephens, explained that the flotilla was to raise awareness of the proposed 1,200-megawatt Xayaburi Dam in Laos.

He drew attention to the seriously flawed environmental assessments, the dramatic impact on food security and its irreversibility, should construction take place. He also highlighted the impressive work of NGOs such as CRDT which bridges the gap between sustainable development and conservation.

Sun Mao, executive director of CRDT, emphasised the substantial impact the Xayaburi Dam would have on tourism in Kratie. He said each year 180,000 tourists came to Kratie each year to marvel at its unique biodiversity. “Today we will float amongst four of the world’s top six biggest freshwater fish, including the legendary Mekong catfish which is as big as a bear.”

Kampi’s chief of security, Pak Sokhan, said he feared that each year as the river level sank, there were fewer dolphins and would be fewer tourists if this continued.

Last week a letter was signed by 263 NGOs, from 51 different countries, calling for the cancellation of the Xayaburi Dam. The Mekong is the lifeblood for more than 60million people for jobs and fish, and irreversible changes to the Mekong’s ecology will push a number of species closer towards extinction, including the critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphin.

Tola, one of the event’s organisers, said: “I have spent a lot of time taking tours along the Mekong and each time I feel that there is a union, a coming together of two forces.” Respect for the Mekong enables him to enjoy its beauty and adventure.

Before setting off from Kampi, Tola gave necessary safety instructions and everyone fitted their lifejackets. The first 10 minutes were full of laughter as everyone struggled to get into the float, but patience and persistence left the group easing along in the jet streams, avoiding the fast moving navigation columns from the French colonial era and swirling in the rapids.

Joining inner tubes together for the final push from Koh Trong to Kratie, The Mekong for Life event signified the united effort to celebrate the river and raise awareness of the detrimental consequences of the Xayaburi Dam. Despite some sunburn and one stubbed toe, the group is eagerly looking forward to the next float in 2012.

However, the 2 million employees of the US$300 million-a-year freshwater fisheries, and the 24 tourism boats at the dolphin pool in Kampi, await their fate. For more details,  contact Walker Stephens at Mekongforlife@asia.com

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