Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mekong hydro plans freed up

Mekong hydro plans freed up

Mekong hydro plans freed up

T HE Mekong River draft pact signed Nov 28 in Hanoi - after almost two years of wrangling - is set to free up multi-millions of dollars worth of Cambodian hydroelectric schemes.

And whereas other signatories to the agreement - Thailand, Laos and Vietnam - now have to attract huge investments to utilise the earning potential of the Mekong River, Cambodia appears to have willing investors "on tap".

However, the Mekong River Accord still has to be ratified, hopefully by early 1995, and China and Burma have yet to sign.

When the draft is ratified, several hydroelectric plants - funded in part or whole by Japan, Canada, Austria and Sweden, and another shared with Thailand - could be started.

Deputy Director of EDC (Electricite Du Cambodge), Ouch Thong Seng, told the Phnom Penh Post that several legal agreements have been "on hold" till the signing of the Mekong River pact.

The first was to rebuild the hydoelectric plant in Prek Tnaut, Kompong Speu province.

Sin Niny, permanent secretary of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, said Japan will loan Cambodia $200 million for the 30,000ha Prek Tnaut project.

Hydro Qubec Canada was looking to invest $400 million in a hydroelectric scheme in Kompot province, Seng said.

A $26 million project in Kiriom, about 70km west of Kompong Speu, could be funded by Austria and Sweden now - but Sweden at least was hesitating because of security concerns, Seng said.

"Now they have budget available and they want to release it as soon as possible. However, Sweden is reluctant to take the risk to bring their building experts here and is concerned over safety," Seng said.

Sweden had already sent hydroelectric experts here to study schemes, he said.

Another scheme in Menam, on the Thai border, might be shared with Thailand, he said.

"If the schemes are successful they will provide electricity to our people. We don't care to buy oil from any country because we will use hydroelectricity produced by water which is very cheap", Sin Niny said.

Other plans following the Mekong River draft pact include expanding the number of wide-body ferries, increasing passenger and vehicle traffic at river crossings at Neak Leurng, Prey Kdam and Steung Treng, Niny said.

Developing the Mekong resource would also provide water irrigation to rice fields and farms, increasing the standard of living of many rural dwellers, he added.

Seng called Cambodia's rejoining of the Mekong River Commission a successful step, and now Cambodia could negotiate free navigation through Vietnamese territory.

The draft, when ratified, would also concentrate on issues such as flood control, fishing, tourism and investment. The protection of the Mekong - the world's 12th longest river - against environmental damage was also central to the pact.

Successful hydroelectric schemes could provide power for Cambodians far cheaper than now, perhaps six to ten cents a kilowatt, Seng said.

The power could also be sold to neighbouring countries such as Thailand.

However, Seng said security problems were a very important issue to be solved before donor countries would put money into the projects.

Sin Niny said the UNDP and many other countries, such as France, Britain, Belgium, Holland, Japan and Denmark which used to help Cambodia before in 1975 are getting ready to help Cambodia again in this area.

Cambodia was a member of the former Mekong Committee from 1957 till 1975. It was reinstated to the new Mekong River Commission in Hanoi last year.

The 21-month hold-up prior to the Nov 28 signing of the draft was because Thailand wanted a statute that was used during Cambodia's absence, saying: "All countries have the right to use water, with no necessity to ask permission from other countries."

It was eventually agreed to reuse a 1957 statute that said: "Any country who wants to use Mekong river water must have consensus from the three countries".

However, Thailand demanded one condition, saying: "If there is water surplus, any country who wants to use that water must request and consult each other in advance. The consultation aims at reaching an agreement."

Sin Niny said he was worried that the definition of "surplus" water was vague.

He said Thailand was a developed country, with big hydroelectric plans themselves.

Thailand used a lot of water that could affect Cambodia, he said.

In the dry season Thailand used pump water from the Mekong River using 1600 pumping machines for farming and irrigation.

The Nation newspaper in Bangkok reported recently that the six Mekong river countries had to find innovative ways of raising the private funds needed to get the mega-million dollar projects off the ground.

In addition to the hydro-electric schemes that certainly Cambodia, and probably Laos and Vietnam have earmarked, massive investment was also needed to develop road, rail, air and water transport to link all countries.

The costs, estimated at $7.8 billion, far exceeded the capacities of each government and donor agencies, the paper reported.

The Nation also quoted the vice-president of the Asian Development Bank, Bong-Suh Lee, saying: "The projects will bring about a fundamental change in the economic map of the sub-region, creating conditions for raising incomes, reducing income inequalities and changing conditions for doing business."

Private companies demanded that "Mekong River" governments make further efforts to enhance economic reforms and provide environments conducive to economic investment at a conference called "The Greater Mekong Subregion" in Bangkok last week.

A lack of legal infrastructure was cited as the single most difficult constraint that investors had to deal with in deciding whether to invest in the region.

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