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The Mekong region's politics of power

The Mekong region's politics of power

B illions of dollars are slated to be spent on developing the Mekong River; millions

of people will have their lives affected, for good or bad. The Post begins a series

of reports on the Mekong plans - this issue, Maja Wallengren and Andrew

Nette report.

Signed amid much fanfare by the governments of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia

in April, the Agreement on Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong

River Basin has been applauded as ushering in a new period of co-operation in the

use of the Mekong's resources.

The agreement has been a long time in coming.

Established in 1957, the Mekong Committee was put on hold during the Vietnam war,

and re-established in 1975 minus Cambodia, which withdrew under Pol Pot.

The fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 then triggered a bitter debate over the terms

of Cambodia's re-admission.

Bangkok saw it as a chance to recast the objectives of the Committee, to allow for

the diversion of a significant amount of the river's water to Thailand's water starved

north eastern provinces, a move fiercely opposed by Vietnam for fears it would cause

further salt water intrusion into the delta and ruin highly productive rice lands.

Vietnam wanted a return to the original rules established in 1957, which required

detailed studies and the approval of all member states, before any projects affecting

the mainstream of the Mekong or any of its major tributaries could be implemented.

The row culminated in a threat from Thailand to pull out, a situation only prevented

after the intervention of UN mediators at a specially convened meeting in the Malaysian

capital of Kuala Lumpur in December 1992.

Even so, many observers believe that the Committee has since operated at a much reduced

status, until now.

But while commentators agree on the need for a new framework in light of the significant

political and economic changes that have taken place over the last decade, they maintain

the newly created Mekong Commission will have a difficult job ahead of it.

Despite the end of the Cold War and talk of increased cooperation, the Mekong Basin

remains a mixture of complex and diverse cultures and politics.

These tensions are further heightened by the rapid socio-economic changes gripping

Indochina, which as one Bangkok based analyst put it: "have created a competitive

environment that threatens to strip away any pretence of implementing a more equal

economic order."

Difficulties are also inherent in the new agreement's departure from the old rules

requiring detailed prior assessment of potential projects for their impact on the

quantity and quality of water flowing downstream.

Under the new agreement, downstream nations are denied the power to veto water diversion

from the mainstream and its tributaries, except when it is carried out in the dry

season.

More directly, the Commission will face a number of problems arising from projects

presently under way along the Mekong.

First, there is the expansion of Laos' hydro-power industry, which many fear is happening

too fast, on too large a scale, and with little consideration of possible negative

downstream impacts on fisheries and water flow.

Approximately 60 percent of the water in the Mekong originates from tributaries in

Laos, and the government is pushing to harness this for electricity generation, mainly

for export to Thailand.

The Ministry of Industry in Vientiane has identified 59 possible hydro-power sites

in Laos, among several hundred projects covering transport, agriculture, navigation

and power generation that have been identified basin-wide by international consultants.

Possibly the most serious problem for the Commission is large-scale dam construction

on the Mekong by China.

Many in Laos already suspect this is responsible for the drastic fall in river levels

recorded near Vientiane for the last two years in a row.

Beijing calls the river the Lancang, and considers its waters its own with no need

to consult anyone before using them

Although China and Burma were present as observers to the Chiang Rai conference,

the Commission still has no official cooperation with China, a key weakness given

that China is the source of nearly 20 percent of the Mekong River.

China is pushing ahead with little publicized plans for 15 dams on the mainstream

of the river - a total capacity of 13,700 megawatts.

The first of these, the Manwan dam in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan is

reportedly nearing completion, one of three which reports say will be on line by

2009.

Chinese authorities have released little information about the dam other than the

fact that it has a 1,000 megawatt capacity, and is connected to a grid serving the

growing power demands of Kunming.

"There is no information on the dams and you can't go near them," said

one Australian academic who regularly visits Yunnan, who wished to remain anonymous.

"No one, not even the Commission knows what is going on."

They also maintain that dam construction presently under way on the river has the

potential to render impotent clauses in the new Mekong agreement specifically aimed

at maintaining minimum water flow to Cambodia's Tonle Sap to take place.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is planning massive funding for the Mekong Region.

ADB executive director Peter McCawley said in a recent visit to Phnom Penh "it

wouldn't be difficult to think of a billion dollars that could be spent up and down

the Mekong".

"The Mekong River is a huge highway that has been neglected for an awfully long

time," he said.

He added that regional peace was the best chance to bring about improvements.

"There are quite obviously very sustainable prospects for the development of

the Mekong."

Projects within the Commission's framework will go hand-in-hand with those planned

for the Greater Mekong sub-region, which has drafted an ambitious plan for highways

linking China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The Mekong was first bridged just over a year ago with the opening of the Thai-Laos

Friendship bridge.

Another bridge across the river in Cambodia is on the drawing boards.

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