Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - New plans to tap the Mekong River under early fire

New plans to tap the Mekong River under early fire

New plans to tap the Mekong River under early fire

I T was never likely that the Mekong River - the last of the world's great waterways

not yet "developed" - would be dammed without a murmur.

But the battlelines have now been drawn, and the focus is a sleepy little village

in northern Kratie called Kam Pi, near the town of Sambor.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has two plans currently under review, one of which

the MRC is determined to see become the first in history to tap the hydro-power of

the Mekong mainstream.

Both plans begin at Kam Pi.

International Rivers Network (IRN), the world's foremost river activists helping

local groups, visited the area this month and called one plan "disastrous",

the other "dubious".

The bigger plan involves building a 30-km long, 35-meter high dam that could generate

3,300-megawatts of power. It will cost $4 billion; flood more than 800 sq. kms of

land; and displace more than 5,000 people.

The other involves building a two-meter high concrete "diversion" across

the Mekong, pushing water into a 20-km long, 350m wide, 30m high canal that will

be run along the riverbank. A powerhouse would generate 465-megawatts of power; and

cost $700 million.

The $700 million option has recently been endorsed by Cambodia's National Mekong

River Commission (NMRC) and its director Khy Taing Lim.

Taing Lim told the Post he considered that the ecological and social impacts of a

big dam would be too great, compared with the less damaging canal.

Taing Lim said that it was not his decision to make. The MRC could yet chose the

dam option or a "balance" between the two.

A $910,000 feasibility study for the "Sambor Project" is currently up for

grabs by donors, and Taing Lim said this could be discussed at the first Donors Consultative

Group meeting in April.

Critics say that Taing Lim's support is significant to carry the Cambodian vote on

what will be done to tap the Mekong for hydro-power.

However, they say that Cambodia is the weakest partner of the four countries that

make up the MRC. They fear that Vietnam and Thailand - where the electricity from

Sambor is going to be sold - may want the bigger project.

Critics say that even the canal would severely damage vital fisheries. Taing Lim

said that modern technology should be able to solve this and the problem of sedimentation

being trapped by the concrete wall.

The canal proposal has been drafted by the Thai Chao Phraya Engineering Consortium.

It has a 98.75 point "priority" ranking with the MRC.

The dam project - resurrected from a 1969 study - was prepared by Acres International

of Canada and Compagnie Nationale du Rhone of France, and part-funded by UNDP. It

has a 91.24 priority ranking under the MRC system.

"We came to see the lunacy," said IRN director Owen Lammars, "and

I can't believe they're serious."

The San Francisco-based IRN, funded by US foundations and philanthropists, help local

groups "promote the wise management of freshwater systems," Lammars said.

"We hope the Cambodian government will look beyond the dam builders and consultants

to get the real picture," he said.

"We are not conservationists," he said, adding that some of IRN's biggest

battles are against traditional conservation groups. IRN provides technical critiques

on river developments. "We examine the entire developmental equation. Most importantly

we argue on their own turf about the economic nonsense of these big dams."

Lammars said the Mekong was the last of the world's great river systems to remain

untouched.

"The Amazon, the Nile, the Mississippi, the Yangtse... on a comparative scale

there is no river system more diverse, less developed, and supporting such a large

number of people as the Mekong".

Lammars argued about the social and engineering problems inherent in such huge projects.

Fisheries would be destroyed "and no amount of money can compensate for people's

lost livelihoods."

"It's clear that Sambor has many of the constraints that would discourage people

from moving forward with a hydro project on this site.

"It's clear too that whoever has proposed this has spent little time assessing

the impacts [on the people and environment], as well as the significant economic

risks and technical constraints.

In a trip to the area, it became clear that people living along the river had no

idea of the MRC's plans.

Before the trip, Lammars talked to MRC head Yasunobu Matoba, who told him that it

was not incumbent on the MRC to ensure public participation.

"The people should have a right to know," Lammars said. "The Mekong

River Commission talks about sustainable development and participation. Well, this

is a perfect example of how that's not happening."

"I'd like to pack up these [MRC] people to Guatemala or Honduras or Brazil,

and look at what's happened to those places and people affected by big dams, and

say: 'You're doing the same thing.' [Cambodia] wants to have power, and wants to

have foreign income, but it shouldn't have to duplicate the same mistakes everyone

else has made in the past."

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