The Mekong River, lifeblood of the six countries through which it flows, is getting
a facelift. Around 330 kilometers of reefs, rocks and rapids in China, Thailand and
Laos are being dynamited, opening up one of Asia's most famous waterways for mass
trade and travel.
The 150MW Japanese-built Nam Ngun dam in Laos. More than 80 potential dam sites have been identified on the Mekongís tributaries. Environmental organizations say Cambodia has consistently found itself on the losing end of hydroelectric projects.
China claims its Mekong navigation channel improvement project will facilitate trade
and bring prosperity to the region. But environmentalists in Burma, Thailand and
Cambodia have condemned the work, which resumed in December 2002. They say the Mekong
could suffer disastrous consequences if the blasting does not stop.
Staff from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Oxfam America say the risks are manifold:
mammoth cargo boats will traverse the length of the river, toppling small vessels
in their wake; the risks of oil spills and pollution will increase; an influx of
cheap goods from China will threaten Cambodia's domestic industries; the Tonle Sap
could dry up, paralyzing the vital fishing industry and causing widespread flooding;
and the spawning grounds of endangered fish will be destroyed.
It is the lack of research into the negative effects of the project that most troubles
its opponents. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) carried out by the Chinese
government is widely considered to be below international standards with insufficient
analysis of the downstream effects.
Marc Goichot, WWF coordinator for its Living Mekong Initiative, says that without
an internationally recognized EIA the possibly disastrous long-term effects of current
clearance work will not be known until the damage is done.
"You cannot base any decisions on the [current] EIA," says Goichot. "Our
objective is to halt any future work until the proper EIA is done."
Kelly Brooks, policy and outreach officer for Oxfam America's Mekong initiative,
agrees. She says that issues such as the effect on local communities have not been
"The EIA is lamentable," says Brooks. "I do not doubt there will be
an impact, but they haven't studied it so they should not go ahead with it."
But their opposition is falling on deaf ears: the Mekong River Commission (MRC),
the body responsible for cross-border issues, insists the impact will be minimal.
The MRC maintains it has done all it can.
And the Cambodia National Mekong Committee (CNMC), the government's body that attends
the MRC, agrees with that assessment. It says no pressure will be put on China to
halt the blasting.
"I can't imagine that such small activity for the removal of rocks and reefs
[will have an effect]," says CNMC deputy secretary-general Pich Dun. "I
think the MRC assessed all the issues."
The work that is currently being carried out was made possible by the Commercial
Navigation Agreement, a deal signed by China, Laos, Burma and Thailand in April 2000.
The aim of the agreement was to open the Mekong to commerce, notionally bringing
the economic benefits to all signatories.
But Cambodia and Vietnam, the other two countries sharing the river, were not consulted,
a move that angered the government.
"We got a surprise," admits Dun. "Why could the agreement not extend
to the two downstream countries?"
A three-phase plan was put forward by China. The first phase involved blasting eleven
rapids and ten reefs in the river to allow vessels weighing between 100-150 tons
to traverse the waterway. The second and third phases proposed more extensive destruction
to allow ships of up to 500 tons to ply the waters.
The Chinese government carried out an EIA on the blasting. The MRC was also asked
by member countries Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to perform an independent
assessment of the Chinese EIA.
Ian Campbell, senior environmental specialist for MRC, says its study determined
that the Chinese EIA was not up to scratch.
"There was almost no data ... on fish, ecology or social communities,"
explains Campbell. "We concluded that it was not an adequate study."
The result was that the MRC and its member countries asked China to halt phases two
and three, which were thought to be the most destructive on downstream countries.
The Chinese government agreed to progress with phase one only.
MRC chief executive Joern Kristensen says he is happy with the outcome.
"Our experts concluded that phase one would have insignificant downstream impacts,"
he says. "That was the purpose of our involvement. That's not to say what the
impact on individual member countries will be ... that is the responsibility of the
national governments. Our response was to look at the downstream impacts, and our
conclusion was drawn on that basis."
But environmentalists still harbor concerns about the blasting, and feel the MRC
has not done enough to protect its downstream members. WWF's Goichot thinks Cambodia
could see many negative side effects of the phase one work taking place upstream.
"There is a possible impact on the river dynamics," he says. "It is
determined by the slope, flow and sediment [and] it should be looked at."
Goichot also points to the situation of the critically endangered giant Mekong catfish,
which migrates between the Mekong countries. Some research, he says, shows that the
particular area being blasted is an important area for them.
Oxfam's Brooks says that the MRC's assurances of no downstream effects in phase one
were based only on its assessment of the Chinese EIA, which the MRC agreed was practically
useless. She says the current blasting could make Cambodia more prone to flooding.
"Any impediment that is removed will make [the river] go faster," she says.
"If it is flowing faster, the water is not going to be absorbed into the rice
fields and this may increase the risk of flooding."
She is also concerned that China may proceed with the later phases of the project,
despite its assurances otherwise.
"Commitments are not proof ... that China will stop after phase one. Who know
what will happen in a few years?" she asks.
And the close relationship between Cambodia and China, says Brooks, could be a barrier
to honest dialogue.
"It is political," she says. "China really needs this project to happen
and Cambodia is closely aligned with China, so it is hard for them to take a strong
stand against it."
Even CNMC's Dun concedes there is a chance China will go back on its word.
"We could not say anything because we don't know exactly whether China will
change its mind or not," he says.
He agrees that maintaining good relations with China is an important consideration,
but insists Cambodia would stand up for itself if the blasting work had a visible
"If damage is affecting Cambodia and we can find evidence, I think we can claim
[against] China," he says. His main worry, he admits, is the effect the blasting
could have on the Tonle Sap.
"If the flow regime changed, it may erode the bank and the sediment may deposit
causing the Tonle Sap to become shallow," he explains. "If the Tonle Sap
is dry, it will not just affect Cambodia but the whole region."
Yet despite these concerns, Dun is confident in the MRC's independent analysis. Goichot
disagrees, saying downstream effects are inevitable, and hopes the MRC and the government
will realize this before it is too late.
"Rivers will act with a time frame that is very long so you cannot tell what
is caused by a dam or by blasting ahead of time," he says. "[The blasting]
will contribute. I don't know to what extent, but it will contribute."