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MRC position

I would like to respond to the article "Mekong dams a disaster" (Post October

22), which misrepresents the position of the Mekong River Commission with regard

to hydropower development in the Mekong basin.

As mentioned by the author himself, the article was based on a "draft copy"

of a report on Cambodia's inland fisheries, which has not yet been published by the

MRC. It is unfortunate that some statements on dams and fisheries made by one fisheries

expert are presented in the newspaper as being the opinion of the MRC on hydropower

dams, which they are not.

As the new Chief Executive Officer of the Mekong River Commission, I wish to take

this opportunity to present to the readers of the Phnom Penh Post a more balanced

and constructive vision on how we address the difficult and delicate questions of

trans-boundary and trans-sectoral impacts of development projects, including hydropower

dams.

The position of MRC regarding hydropower has always been one of reflecting, on the

one hand, the increasing need for electricity and, on the other hand, the concerns

regarding environment and social aspects in the scope of an integrated approach at

basin level. If not used for irrigation or water supply, hydropower dams do not "consume"

water, but they tend to increase the river flow in the dry season, while reducing

it in the flood season. Even when these impacts are relatively small, they should

not be neglected, but looked at carefully and objectively with consideration for

the necessary mitigation measures and compensations. In 2001, MRC published a hydropower

strategy that embodies these principles.

Our approach reflects the positive cooperative spirit that exists between MRC's member

countries, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam. The same spirit also applies

to our regular dialogue with the upstream countries of China and Myanmar. The recent

dialogue meetings held in Vientiane in August 2004 found dialogue partners discussing

future development on the Mekong with very open consideration of the impacts of Chinese

dams on the lower Mekong countries, particularly on fisheries.

There is indeed no question that fisheries are essential to the well being of tens

of millions of poor people. Unfortunately, the increasing population in this poor

socio-economic environment is placing huge pressure on this fragile resource, both

directly through increased fishing and habitat loss, and indirectly through modification

of water quality and quantity.

In addition to this worrying reality, exceptionally low rainfall conditions in 2003-2004

in the region had dramatic consequences on the levels of fish catch. We have enough

evidence today to believe that the Chinese dams are not responsible for this decrease

of fish catch. Fisheries in the Mekong basin are more affected by climatic variations

and by lack of socio-economic development than by hydropower dams.

"Zero development" in the Mekong Basin is not considered an option. The

Mekong River system still offers high potential for development in the sectors of

agriculture, fisheries, hydropower, navigation, flood management, water supply and

sanitation.- And if we are to see the alleviation of poverty and an increase in the

socio-economic welfare of the growing Mekong population, more developments and investments

are needed in all water related sectors, including hydropower, which has to meet

rapidly increasing energy demands.

We all know very well that water resources development in such a large, international

river basin is not without risks and difficulties, but we believe that the risks

of non-development or of insufficient cooperation are much higher. It is true that

we have a lot to learn from river basins where poor development decisions have sometimes

impacted negatively on communities, rivers and ecosystems. But we should not generalize

and transpose to the Mekong region problems which might have been encountered in

a different context.

MRC, created on the basis of a very good cooperation agreement and benefiting from

a very strong international support, is in a privileged position to act as a facilitator

of the development and investment process in the water sector, promoting and coordinating

sustainable management of water and related resources, using the principles of integrated

water resources management. The agreement signed in 1995 was designed to allow for

a reasonable and equitable utilization of the waters of this river system, respecting

agreed rules, while protecting the environment and the ecological balance of the

Mekong River.

I am confident that with this constructive and integrated approach, based on close

cooperation between sectors and between countries, we will be able to meet the challenge

of an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound river basin,

for the benefit of the Mekong people, especially the poor.

Dr Olivier Cogels - CEO, Mekong River Commission, Vientiane, Laos

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