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Widespread criticism of environmental prize

The award of an international prize for excellence in river management to the Mekong

River Commission (MRC) has drawn strong criticism from regional and international

NGOs. They said the MRC was an "ineffective force" and did not demonstrate

either excellence or best practice.

Dave Hubbel from regional environmental NGO TERRA said there was "nothing excellent"

about what it was doing to the Mekong river basin.

"The Mekong is being dammed, its rapids being dynamited, the fisheries - the

most important source of protein for millions of people in the Mekong basin - are

being killed off by MRC-sanctioned dams," Hubbel wrote in an emailed statement.

"The MRC is not managing the Mekong River."

MRC was awarded the annual Thiess Services International Riverprize in Australia

on September 5. MRC chief executive Joern Kristensen rejected NGO criticisms and

said the US$54,000 award confirmed that its approach towards river basin management

was correct.

"We are now confident that MRC represents international best practice and responds

adequately to the needs of the people of the Mekong region," Kristensen said.

The MRC noted this was the first time the prize had been awarded for the management

of a river shared by developing countries.

However the MRC's cheerfulness was not shared by one anonymous Mekong expert, who

said the only gong the authority deserved was "an improvement award" having

moved from "really bad to mediocre". He said the body had ignored the rights

of local people.

"They certainly don't deserve an award of excellence," he said. "They

have utterly failed in what could be argued as their most important test of river

management issues involving two or more of their member countries in the Basin -

Vietnam and Cambodia."

The award was also condemned by local NGO Non Timber Forest Products Project (NTFP),

which said people's lives in Ratanakkiri had been made "anything but secure"

by upstream hydro-power developments.

"As far as we can see there has been no consultation with local people at all,"

said Gordon Paterson, NTFP's project advisor. "So I'm very surprised to hear

that MRC is saying this award shows they are responding adequately to the needs of

people."

Kristensen countered that his organization had nothing to defend and that NGOs had

misunderstood the MRC's role. He said its job was to facilitate dialog between the

Vietnamese and Cambodian governments, and it had also organized communication between

Oxfam and the governments to "bring in the people's concerns".

"We have not failed," Kristensen said. "It is not our role to do consultation

with the people, it is the role of the two governments."

Oxfam said the MRC had not yet responded adequately to the needs of the people or

demonstrated best practice, but held out the hope that the award would encourage

it to do so.

"We hope this award will mean [the MRC] will begin to practice what it preaches

in terms of good river management," said Oxfam's Mike Ounsted. "We urge

the MRC to take a much stronger line in ensuring member countries adopt the best

practices for which the prize was given."

TERRA's Hubbel noted that the award's sponsors, Thiess Services, was a garbage disposal

company in Australia. The Australian Yellow Pages website lists Thiess Services as

providing rubbish removal, waste reduction, disposal services, and consult on the

environment and pollution.

The MRC countered saying the judging panel included river experts, water management

agencies and academic institutions, and said Thiess did not decide the winner.

The MRC is an international river basin authority created in 1995 by agreement between

the governments of Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. It assists member countries

to carry out basin-wide planning and development and is funded by overseas donors.

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