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
"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
"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."