Large scale development projects on the Mekong River are destroying the
environment and could ruin the livelihoods of some 65 million people living in
the six countries through which the river flows. That was the charge leveled by
NGOs at a press conference on the day of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS)
The GMS summit, held in Phnom Penh on November 3, brought
together leaders from six countries: Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand
and Laos. NGOs held their own parallel summit several days
Activists said the GMS Initiative's dam, power, transportation
and navigation projects were undertaken without consulting local people, and
disregarded what were often substantial environmental impacts.
people in the region have been displaced from their families and homes and lost
their livelihoods," said Mak Sithirith, coordinator of the Fisheries Action
Coalition Team (FACT), a local NGO.
Sithirith criticized the Asian
Development Bank (ADB) for focusing on projects that prioritized private sector
development at the expense of local people. The billions of dollars ostensibly
spent on poverty alleviation, he said, were having the opposite
Leakhana Kol of the NGO Forum on Cambodia said many of the 1,000
Cambodian families displaced by the project to upgrade National Highway 1
between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City were now worse off than
"Displaced families have been promised compensation for their
land and houses," she said. "But after more than a year, many families are still
waiting for adequate compensation."
However a joint statement by the GMS
leaders saluted "a decade of fruitful progress" for the GMS program, and
declared as its key initiative a transportation network to link the
The leaders also signed a Regional Power Trade Agreement, to
build an electricity grid to connect hydropower markets in the region. NGOs said
this would support further dam building on the Mekong and should not go
"This scheme is preposterous for a number of reasons, and shows
the ADB has learned nothing from two dams [previously built in Laos]," said
Aviva Imhof of the International Rivers Network (IRN). "Of course people are
entitled to electricity, but they are also entitled to healthy
She added that the plan was economically flawed because Thailand
had a surplus of electricity.
That was denied by Urooj Malik, the
country representative of the ADB. He said the power trade agreement was a broad
framework allowing energy rich countries to share their surplus.
response to criticisms that NGOs had not been consulted for GMS projects, Malik
said his organization had gone to great lengths to have an open dialogue. He
cited the six hours of meetings ADB representatives had with members of 75 NGOs,
organized by Oxfam. He said that was the third such meeting the ADB had had this
year, and the bank had made "deliberate efforts" to include civil
NGOs remained concerned that GMS projects were being undertaken
with little regard for local livelihoods.
China too came in for heavy
criticism from NGOs. They charged that constructing seven dams and blowing up
rapids to improve navigation on the Mekong would destroy the river and people's
Activists disputed the Chinese premier's recent statements
that all six GMS countries stood as equal partners. IRN's Imhof said her
organization had found it very difficult to talk to the Chinese government.
"China doesn't care what the downstream countries think," she said.