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Summit sets Mekong agenda

Summit sets Mekong agenda

Leaders pledge to preserve river basin, while Cambodian-Thai tensions ease.

REGIONAL leaders at a summit of the Mekong River Commission released a declaration on Monday vowing to devote greater attention to the preservation of the river basin, as Thailand and Cambodia showed signs that they may be ready to move beyond the diplomatic enmity of the last few months.

The prime ministers of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam – as well as delegates from China and Myanmar – met at the Mekong River Commission (MRC) summit on Sunday and Monday in Hua Hin, Thailand, to discuss issues pertaining to the river basin.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said Hun Sen had assured Thai delegates in Hua Hin that former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra would not be allowed to travel to Cambodia during the ongoing antigovernment protests in Thailand. Thaksin, an ally of the protest leaders, has aroused the ire of the Thai government in the past year with his repeated visits to Cambodia. The dispute caused the countries to revoke their respective ambassadors in November.

“The comment he made is to assuage the suspicions of Thailand,” Koy Kuong said, though he added that this did not constitute a severing of relations with the fugitive billionaire.

“The stance of Samdech Hun Sen is that His Excellency Thaksin is still his eternal friend,” Koy Kuong said.

Though Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva did not hold direct talks, Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said other Thai officials had an encouraging “brief chat with Mr Hun Sen”.

The Thai News Agency reported Monday that Abhisit said the Thai government would consider the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cambodia after the meeting with Hun Sen.

Koy Kuong said such restoration was “up to the Thai side”, as Thailand had been first to withdraw its ambassador.

“If the Thais want to upgrade the diplomatic relations by returning their ambassador to Cambodia, Cambodia will also return her ambassador back to Thailand,” Koy Kuong said.

Planning a new course
In his closing statements in Hua Hin, Abhisit said the summit had focused on issues including climate change, drought response and the hotly debated topic of dam management.

He called on the countries present to “avoid the risks of harmful effects that might result from natural occurrences and manmade activities, and to protect the immense value of the basin’s natural ecosystems.”

Jeremy Bird, CEO of the MRC, praised in a statement what he called a wide-ranging commitment to management of the river by the Mekong countries.

“Besides committing to increasing efforts to adapt to climate change across the basin, the Mekong governments have agreed to intensify efforts to protect people at risk from flooding; encouraging river navigation and trade; improve basin water quality, and evaluating the opportunities and challenges of proposed hydropower schemes,” Bird said.

In a side meeting at the summit, China provided hydro-meteorological data about the operation of its dams on the upper Mekong for the current dry season. China had previously released data on the Jinghong power station and the Man’an tributary.

“This is a significant step forwards in engagement between China and the countries of the Lower Mekong Basin as it improves transparency. It is the first time that China has shared this dry season data with downstream countries,” Bird said. Abhisit said he hoped this sort of cooperation from China would become “more regular” in the future.

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao shrugged off accusations that China’s hydropower projects were responsible for the Mekong’s low levels, noting that southwestern China is suffering from its worst drought in a century.

“Statistics show that the recent drought that hit the whole river basin is attributable to the extreme dry weather, and the water level decline of the Mekong River has nothing to do with the hydropower development,” he said.

Lim Kean Hor, Cambodia’s Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology, said that some parts of China, Thailand and Laos are currently facing drought but added that the cause was low rainfall and climate change.

“The current drought situation on the upper stream is not caused by the hydropower dam projects,” he said, adding that the dam projects have been studied and found not to cause any significant environmental impact.

“The Chinese have promised to try their best to exchange information with countries along the Mekong River about the changing of water levels in the upper stream,” Lim Kean Hor said.

Environmental groups, however, have said that the low river levels have resulted in part from Chinese dams disrupting the flow of water downstream, a concern also voiced by the Thai government.

“The Mekong River is being threatened by serious problems arising from both the unsustainable use of water and the effects of climate change,” Abhisit said Monday.

The Thai Peoples’ Network for the Mekong (TPNM), a group of Thailand-based environmental NGOs, released a statement Monday that China’s development of the upper Mekong had been affecting people downstream for more than a decade, blaming four dams – the Manwan, Dachaoshan, Jinghong, and Xiaowan – for the recent drought and falling water levels of the Mekong.

“The dams have caused huge impacts on ecosystems, natural resources, food security, cultures, social well-being, local economies, trade and tourism in the lower Mekong countries,” the statement read.

Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator for the International Rivers organisation, praised regional leaders for recognising the “serious contradictions between plans for extensive hydropower development and the negative impacts these dams would have on ecology, local livelihoods and food security”.

As the countries work at resolving this contradiction in the years to come, Middleton added, they must work closely with members of riverside communities themselves.

MRC leaders agreed to hold another meeting within four years in Vietnam, and called on China and Myanmar – dialogue partners with the MRC since 1996 – to become full members, Lim Kean Hor said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP AND JAMES O’TOOLE

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