Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - MRC slams "radical" NGOs, as donors urged to halt funding

MRC slams "radical" NGOs, as donors urged to halt funding

MRC slams "radical" NGOs, as donors urged to halt funding

THE man who brokered the formation of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has hit out

at two NGOs who he says are at the forefront of opposition to dam the Mekong and

its tributaries.

The claim by UNDP's George Radosevich, who was instrumental in setting up the MRC

and is now its senior consultant, came on the heels of a call by the International

Rivers Network (IRN) to donors to stop $191m in first-year funding to the MRC.

"The ones making the fuss now are [the Thai NGO] TERRA and the IRN. These people

don't even want you to put a hand in the river because that's a disruption,"

said Radosevich.

The MRC presently has billions of dollars worth of Mekong development plans in front

of it, including up to seven proposed hydro dams in Cambodia. The plans are now effectively

for "sale" to international donors.

Radosevich said it was "fundamental to the economic development" of, particularly,

Cambodia, to develop the Mekong for hydropower. It was one of the MRC's core issues,

he said.

He also defended the contentious issues of "sustainable development" and

"public participation" - areas that pressure groups claim the MRC has ignored.

IRN's call to the UNDP and other donors to stop funding to the MRC was endorsed by

28 groups from 15 donor countries.

IRN executive director Owen Lammers said that although public participation and open

access to information was promoted by the UNDP as critical to sustainable development,

"the MRC has openly opposed efforts to incorporate them into its activities."

Funding had to be halted until the people who were going to be affected by the MRC's

projects were no longer excluded "from the MRC's brand of human development,"

Lammers said.

Radosevich left Phnom Penh on May 25 after leading a 27-strong donor group that "physically

experienced" the "uniqueness" of the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam.

In an interview with the Post, Radosevich echoed the recent sentiments of his chief

executive officer, Yasunoba Matoba, saying: "The MRC can't reach out and have

town meetings and all this kind of stuff. It can make decisions in terms of approaches,

but when it comes down to individual projects, it is up to the country itself.

"[The MRC] can't dictate, and donors can't dictate, what countries do in terms

of their local populations.

"But more and more [it's becoming known] that successful basin planning has

a high degree of public participation," he said.

Radosevich said that while "participation" was not mentioned in the agreement,

it was "implicit... that the interests of the stakeholders be taken into account."

However, he said that "unfortunately" public participation was being equated

to mean "NGO participation." While some NGOs could have a "very real

benefit... talking to the grassroots," others were "radical... who'll say

anything to stop whatever."

One of the MRC's first stabs at "participation" fell flat last month when

TERRA, after weeks of discussion with the UNDP, led an NGO boycott of a UNDP-sponsored

MRC workshop.

The NGO Forum in Cambodia backed TERRA's boycott.

TERRA, concerned that no NGOs were represented from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, consulted

with Thai NGOs, regional community groups and villagers before deciding not to participate.

TERRA had also asked that a presentation be made to the meeting by someone from a

community that had been affected by a river scheme - and not an NGO. This was apparently

rejected.

The main speakers at the meeting, complained NGOs, were from multilateral donors,

dam builders and "promoters... of the most controversial large-scale river development

projects" in the world.

Radosevich, however, said he had no sympathy for either IRN or TERRA, and "if

they don't want to go in because [we didn't] structure a meeting in the way they

wanted, and they stand outside and shout, then I say let them shout..."

Radosevich said the object of the meeting was to focus on planning, and hear about

the successes and failures of other basin developments around the world.

"It wasn't to discuss the merits" of specific dams and various other plans,

he said. "We can have all kinds of other meetings for that."

Radosevich said IRN and TERRA were "not representing their constituents' interests

- if indeed they have [local constituents].

"In my opinion, they're not going out to these villages. These organizations

are focused around the objectives of one or two people... they have a constituency

in the sense of who provides them funding.

"Are they [instead] reaching out to the pocketbooks [of their own funders] to

get support to push their ideas," Radosevich said.

He added that the two groups used distortion, were subjective and had "a commitment

to a principle [which] is very blinding."

IRN recently visited the proposed Sambor dam site in Kratie province, called the

plan ludicrous, and vowed it shall never be allowed to go ahead. Many have been highly

critical of the scope and what they say is the in-house secrecy and "dam building

agenda" of the MRC.

The dams, Radosevich countered, could however be used to "better" control

the flow of the Mekong from its wet-season floods to its dry-season lows, for irrigation

and other industrial uses.

He said that hydropower was a "core" issue for the development of the Mekong

countries.

He asked what options the NGOs were putting forward to governments under pressure

to provide power to their expanding populations.

"They are in a wonderful position to discuss it fairly and objectively with

the grassroots communities, and look at it as if they were in the position of that

government - having to provide power to an expanding population with increasing economic

capability. Would they expand the lignite power plans, would they build a dam, would

they put a nuclear plant in Chanburi, or would they increase the oil-fired plants.

What are the options?" he said.

The NGOs say they are also concerned about the rights of the people using the Mekong

and how their grievances are going to be heard by the MRC.

States have traditionally come into conflict when left to negotiate their own solutions

under international water laws, under the principle of not doing harm to one's neighbor.

NGOs are concerned how the untested rights countries have under the MRC agreement

will work, and why there was no power of veto in the new agreement for down-stream

countries to stop up-stream developments affecting their water supply.

Radosevich said that the power of veto was a "misconception," and something

that was not a principle in international law.

Mekong development projects had to be approved by unanimous vote - unless the MRC

decided that a particular project "may not affect, or even be of any interest"

to the other countries, Radosevich said. In such cases, the MRC could decide that

the voting be done "by majority, or by no objection," he said.

International law decreed that any country can use water without the consent of its

neighbors, he said, "but they do so at the risk of causing harm and subjecting

themselves to great liability."

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