T HE Mekong River Commission (MRC) held its historic inaugural meeting in Phnom
Penh early this month, kicking off the battle of the dams - economics versus the
environment - in earnest.
In a debate that will continue for decades to
come, the Mekong River countries are eyeing up the potential for hydro-electric
power dams along the river - while environmentalists fear the
Hydro-electric power, particularly with the huge, ready
market of Thailand just next door, offers the prospect of unparalleled profit
for poorer countries in the region like Cambodia.
Some 70 development
projects to dam or divert water from the Mekong - including a huge dam in Kratie
province - are to be considered by the MRC.
But with some 50 million
people estimated to depend on the Mekong for a living - including five million,
around half the population, in Cambodia - the potential impact is
It is countries like Cambodia, at the lower end of the Mekong,
which stand to suffer the most from reduced water flows.
The MRC has its
genesis in the original Mekong Committee established in 1957 and an interim
committee set up in 1978. Cambodia has not been a member since
After peace and investment began to flow back to Indochina, the
idea of mutually-beneficial and "prosperous" development along the Mekong
The MRC was formed - under the auspices, and with much
urging, of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) - in Chiang Rai,
Thailand, last April.
It is made up of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and
Vietnam. China and Burma have been invited to join.
representatives met in Phnom Penh August 2-3 for preliminary discussions, with
much of the hard talk expected to come at the next meeting in Bangkok in
The same disputes which have dogged the formation of the MRC and
its predecessors - mostly relating to whether consensus by all the member
countries is necessary for all projects - is sure to continue.
year's agreement produced three MRC bodies: a ministerial council, an
implementation committee and a secretariat.
The secretariat has produced
a report outlining the most significant development proposals - the building of
eleven major hydro-electric dams along the mainstream of the Mekong.
largest, generating around 3000 megawatts of electricity, would be near Sambor
village, 15km from Kratie, in Cambodia.
Thai-based environmental groups
say the dam would displace about 5000 people, and have untold impact on ecology
and the livelihoods of Khmers.
For Laos and Cambodia, the prospect of
producing and selling hydro-electric power to Thailand is tempting. Laos has
proposed constructing more than 20 dams to do so.
It is even more
tempting, given that international donors such as the UNDP and the Asian
Development Bank - key supporters of Mekong River development - would likely pay
much of the construction costs.
But several Cambodian government
officials, including Minister of Environment Mok Mareth, have spoken out against
such dams for environmental reasons.
"It is most dangerous if we still
have this idea of building dams across the Mekong River," Mareth said last
"We would gain electricity and quick economic income...but only for
a short time because after that it would change our natural
If Sambor produced 3000 megawatts of electricity, and it
was estimated Cambodia would require about 500 megawatts by the year 2005, there
would be a huge surplus to sell to Thailand.
But the profit from that,
Mareth said, would cover only the short-term economic and social losses from
He said he had sought the support of the co-Prime Ministers to
put long-term sustainable development ahead of short-term profit.
personal viewpoint is we should not support the building of dams across the
Mekong River, but study the possibility of building them on the
Touch Sean Tana, fisheries adviser to the Ministry of
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, also opposed dams.
He said Cambodia
would suffer the most from dams, particularly those in China, Burma, Thailand
and Laos, because of significantly reduced water flows.
He said the
amount of irrigated, fertile farmland would be reduced, fish stocks would be cut
by up to 50 per cent, the migration and spawning habits of fish interrupted and
the livelihoods of farmers and fishers upset.
While fish products
produced only about $2 million in profit for Cambodia each year, he estimated
the social value of fish - in helping Khmers to survive - was in the region of
Tana said the 50 million people from Burma down to Vietnam,
including around five million Khmers, who relied on the Mekong's water resources
must be considered in any development plans.
Ieng Kiet, Cambodia's
Minister of Transport and chairman of the MRC's ministerial council, said the
idea of building dams should at least be studied.
"If we don't have
energy, how can we develop our country? If Sambor dam can be built, we will have
the possibility of selling electricity to Vietnam, Laos and Thailand".
said international donors would not help build dams without deep confidence that
it would not jeopardize the countries affected.
At the Phnom Penh
ministerial meeting, a Japanese agricultural expert, Yasunobu Matoba, was
appointed as chief executive of the MRC.
The next meeting of the
ministerial committee, to discuss a "regional master plan", will be in Bangkok
Key issues will be where the headquarters of the MRC should
be - hotly sought after by each country
- and whether countries should have the right to veto others' development
plans, something Thailand has strongly opposed.
The wider debate -
whether the MRC will meet its much-vaunted goal of "peaceful, prosperous and
sustainable" development of one of the ten largest rivers of the world - is set
to rage on.