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River event highlights dam fears

Fishing families’ livelihoods are threatened by the Laos dam plans. Photo by: LAURA HODGES

A FLOTILLA of inner tubes is preparing to journey 20 kilometres down the Mekong on Thursday from the dolphin pool in Kampi to the riverside of Kratie town.

Organised by Walker Stephens, a determined and passionate volunteer based in Kratie, the event is a “celebration of the free flowing water of the Mekong River”. The aim is to “have fun and celebrate the life which this river both produces and sustains, and raise awareness that the future of the Mekong river currently hangs in the balance”, he says.

The future of the Mekong is awaiting the impending decision concerning the construction of a 1,260-megawatt dam proposed for Xayaburi province in Laos. The Xayaburi dam poses serious threats, not only to the communities directly impacted in Laos, but particularly the populations of Vietnam and Cambodia, who will see little benefit from the sacrifices made, as 95 percent of the energy generated by the dam will be exported to Thailand.

The Mekong is the lifeblood for more than 60 million people and home to an exceptional range of biodiversity, including the critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphin.

In Cambodia, the Xayaburi dam threatens the nation’s US$300 million a year freshwater fishery and the successful rice production, reliant upon the unimpeded Mekong floodplain and fertilising silt flows. It threatens 41 species with extinction and risks depleting current fish stocks which provide 80 percent of the protein in Cambodia’s diet, according to International Rivers.

Local and international NGOs support the recommendation to delay construction of any dam on the lower mainstream. This recommendation is based on the Mekong River Commission’s independent Strategic Environment Assessment. This concluded that construction of a Mekong mainstream dam would irreversibly undermine the economic productivity and ecology of the river, putting livelihoods and food security at risk. The SEA recommended a 10-year delay to research and fully assess environmental and social consequences.

The construction of the Xayaburi is the most advanced of the 11 proposed mainstream dams and has been widely condemned by the international community; being called “an environmental disaster” by critics in Vietnam, with fears that the 10 other dams will soon follow if Xayaburi is approved. Many petitions have been sent to regional prime ministers – one of the first in October 2009 from Save the Mekong included 23,110 signatures.

On March 25-26, delegates from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand will decide whether to build the Xayaburi Dam. With Vietnam opposing construction activities and Thailand supporting mainstream developments, the Cambodian people are anxiously waiting to see what their country’s delegate will decide.

“The Cambodian Joint Committee member has the chance to be a strong leader who stands up for Cambodia and we trust that they act in the best interests of our country, and we look forward to a bright future,” says Sun Mao, executive director of the Cambodian Rural Development Team, a local NGO working to bridge the divide between development and conservation along the Mekong.

Uniting local NGOs, communities and tourists, this event in Kratie is entitled Mekong For Life and encourages all to participate, to celebrate the importance of the Mekong.

Khoun Tola, one of the event’s organisers, says: “The Mekong is everything to Cambodia – that’s why we call it ‘mother water’. We just want to celebrate and play in our river and keep it flowing free.”

Mekong for Life will begin at 8am on the riverside in Kratie  town, where there will be a short introduction on threats to the river. Following this, participants will travel to Kampi to begin their journey down the Mekong, floating freely past local communities, in rubber inner tubes. Those wishing to take part on Thursday can pay US$10 on the day, for tube rental, transportation to Kampi, a safety boat and lunch.

Participants are recommended to wear long-sleeve shirts, hats and sun screen.  The group hopes to return to Kratie by 4pm. For more information, please contact Walker Stephens at MekongforLife@asia.com.

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