Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Plans to dam the Mekong causing widespread concern



Plans to dam the Mekong causing widespread concern

Plans to dam the Mekong causing widespread concern

T HE Mekong River Commission (MRC) held its historic inaugural meeting in Phnom

Penh early this month, kicking off the battle of the dams - economics versus the

environment - in earnest.

In a debate that will continue for decades to

come, the Mekong River countries are eyeing up the potential for hydro-electric

power dams along the river - while environmentalists fear the

consequences.

Hydro-electric power, particularly with the huge, ready

market of Thailand just next door, offers the prospect of unparalleled profit

for poorer countries in the region like Cambodia.

Some 70 development

projects to dam or divert water from the Mekong - including a huge dam in Kratie

province - are to be considered by the MRC.

But with some 50 million

people estimated to depend on the Mekong for a living - including five million,

around half the population, in Cambodia - the potential impact is

massive.

It is countries like Cambodia, at the lower end of the Mekong,

which stand to suffer the most from reduced water flows.

The MRC has its

genesis in the original Mekong Committee established in 1957 and an interim

committee set up in 1978. Cambodia has not been a member since

1975.

After peace and investment began to flow back to Indochina, the

idea of mutually-beneficial and "prosperous" development along the Mekong

gathered pace.

The MRC was formed - under the auspices, and with much

urging, of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) - in Chiang Rai,

Thailand, last April.

It is made up of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and

Vietnam. China and Burma have been invited to join.

Ministerial

representatives met in Phnom Penh August 2-3 for preliminary discussions, with

much of the hard talk expected to come at the next meeting in Bangkok in

January.

The same disputes which have dogged the formation of the MRC and

its predecessors - mostly relating to whether consensus by all the member

countries is necessary for all projects - is sure to continue.

Last

year's agreement produced three MRC bodies: a ministerial council, an

implementation committee and a secretariat.

The secretariat has produced

a report outlining the most significant development proposals - the building of

eleven major hydro-electric dams along the mainstream of the Mekong.

The

largest, generating around 3000 megawatts of electricity, would be near Sambor

village, 15km from Kratie, in Cambodia.

Thai-based environmental groups

say the dam would displace about 5000 people, and have untold impact on ecology

and the livelihoods of Khmers.

For Laos and Cambodia, the prospect of

producing and selling hydro-electric power to Thailand is tempting. Laos has

proposed constructing more than 20 dams to do so.

It is even more

tempting, given that international donors such as the UNDP and the Asian

Development Bank - key supporters of Mekong River development - would likely pay

much of the construction costs.

But several Cambodian government

officials, including Minister of Environment Mok Mareth, have spoken out against

such dams for environmental reasons.

"It is most dangerous if we still

have this idea of building dams across the Mekong River," Mareth said last

week.

"We would gain electricity and quick economic income...but only for

a short time because after that it would change our natural

environment."

If Sambor produced 3000 megawatts of electricity, and it

was estimated Cambodia would require about 500 megawatts by the year 2005, there

would be a huge surplus to sell to Thailand.

But the profit from that,

Mareth said, would cover only the short-term economic and social losses from

such dams.

He said he had sought the support of the co-Prime Ministers to

put long-term sustainable development ahead of short-term profit.

"My

personal viewpoint is we should not support the building of dams across the

Mekong River, but study the possibility of building them on the

tributaries."

Touch Sean Tana, fisheries adviser to the Ministry of

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, also opposed dams.

He said Cambodia

would suffer the most from dams, particularly those in China, Burma, Thailand

and Laos, because of significantly reduced water flows.

He said the

amount of irrigated, fertile farmland would be reduced, fish stocks would be cut

by up to 50 per cent, the migration and spawning habits of fish interrupted and

the livelihoods of farmers and fishers upset.

While fish products

produced only about $2 million in profit for Cambodia each year, he estimated

the social value of fish - in helping Khmers to survive - was in the region of

$100 million.

Tana said the 50 million people from Burma down to Vietnam,

including around five million Khmers, who relied on the Mekong's water resources

must be considered in any development plans.

Ieng Kiet, Cambodia's

Minister of Transport and chairman of the MRC's ministerial council, said the

idea of building dams should at least be studied.

"If we don't have

energy, how can we develop our country? If Sambor dam can be built, we will have

the possibility of selling electricity to Vietnam, Laos and Thailand".

He

said international donors would not help build dams without deep confidence that

it would not jeopardize the countries affected.

At the Phnom Penh

ministerial meeting, a Japanese agricultural expert, Yasunobu Matoba, was

appointed as chief executive of the MRC.

The next meeting of the

ministerial committee, to discuss a "regional master plan", will be in Bangkok

in January.

Key issues will be where the headquarters of the MRC should

be - hotly sought after by each country

- and whether countries should have the right to veto others' development

plans, something Thailand has strongly opposed.

The wider debate -

whether the MRC will meet its much-vaunted goal of "peaceful, prosperous and

sustainable" development of one of the ten largest rivers of the world - is set

to rage on.

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