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Water access an issue in dam debate

Washington
CAMBODIA will become increasingly dependent on water controlled by China if proposed dams along the upper Mekong River are allowed to go forward, a researcher warned at a press conference Wednesday marking the release of a report on the projects.

The proposed dams – including several in China and Laos, as well as one each in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces – have the potential to generate much-needed revenue from electricity sales, according to the report from the Henry L Stimson Centre, titled Mekong Tipping Point: Hydropower Dams, Human Security and Regional Stability.

However, Richard Cronin, the report’s lead author and a senior associate and director of the Stimson Centre’s Southeast Asia programme, said the Chinese dams in particular could pose two significant problems for Cambodia due to their ability to regulate the release of water during the dry season.

First, Cambodia would become dependent on China to release enough water upstream to keep the Kingdom’s power-generation projects online during the dry season, particularly the proposed US$5 billion Sambor Rapids dam in Kratie, Cronin said.

In addition, he said, the altered hydrology of the river could threaten domestic fish production.

By green-lighting the dams in Kratie and Stung Treng, Cronin said, Cambodia is in danger of “incurring a dependency that it may not want”.

This argument is also emphasised in the report. “Several if not most of the lower Mekong projects,” it states, “will not be commercially viable without the release of water from the [China] dams at the right times and in the right amounts to allow them to operate uninterrupted throughout the dry season, when the normal flow is a tiny fraction of that during the flood stage.”

The lower down the mekong you build the dams, the worse the impact is for fisheries.

Without a regional water-management mechanism, the report says, the “dependent relationship between the downstream countries and China will create an inherent and unhealthy geostrategic advantage for Beijing”.
Cronin also said that the proposed US$300 million Don Sahong dam in southern Laos poses a serious threat to Cambodian fisheries, and that the impact of that project in conjunction with the two proposed Cambodian dams could be “extreme”.

“The lower down the Mekong you build the dams, the worse the impact is for fisheries,” he said.

Damian Kean, communications adviser for the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a regional water-resources management body, said its members – Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos – were “well aware of the potential negative impacts of hydropower dams on the mainstream Mekong”, and noted that the body was conducting an environmental assessment of mainstream hydropower dams.

That assessment, which will include the Don Sahong project and its impact on Tonle Sap fisheries, will be released in “late 2010”, he said.

“All hydropower dams have both opportunities and risks that need to be taken into account, and the proposed dams on the mainstream Mekong are no exception,” Kean said.

He pointed out that the dams would generate revenue for all MRC countries, and said they would also provide renewable energy, reduce flood risks and increase the amount of water available during the dry season.

“These positive aspects need to be balanced against the potential environmental impact of dams, which could include changes in sedimentation, water quality and erosion,” he said.

“Of particular concern are the barriers that dams present to migratory fish and the impact that this could potentially have on breeding behaviours,” he added.

Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem said Thursday that the Cambodian government was in the process of studying the potential effects of the various projects mentioned in the Stimson Centre report. He said the government had granted permission for the China Southern Power Grid Company to conduct a feasibility study for the Sambor Rapids project – which the report argued could be especially harmful to human and food security and livelihoods – but that the results had not yet been made available.

“We are studying all impacts, including those on the people and environment, and we are also studying water levels from the upper stream,” he said. “If there is no water, the dam project will be stuck.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY WILL BAXTER AND CHEANG SOKHA

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