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NGOs criticize Greater Mekong Summit, ADB

NGOs criticize Greater Mekong Summit, ADB

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)

summit.

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

earlier.

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.

"Many

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

effect.

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

before.

"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

subregion.

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

ahead.

"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

rivers."

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.

In

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

society.

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

livelihoods.

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.

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