River of controversy

Asian Times Online 9 August 2002

What may prove to be some of the most important decisions on the fate of Cambodia's environment are being shaped not in Phnom Penh, but in Beijing. With China's investment sphere of influence increasing each day in Cambodia, there seems to be no single government agency, no one in Washington, nor any independent environmental body casting a critical eye on dam construction in the upper reaches of the Mekong River flowing through China. Some observers charge that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is abandoning its charter of cooperation and sustainable development along this great river system. Although China is now an important investor in and ally of Cambodia, it refuses to become an MRC member. Meanwhile, hydropower development's ascendancy appears to offer a questionable solution to the region's pressing economic and energy needs. This exclusive report from Cambodia for Asia Times Online examines the conflicts affecting this ancient watercourse and the millions of people who depend on it in the six countries through which it flows.

Phnom Penh - Cambodia's ominous blue-gray clouds signal the annual arrival of the southwest monsoon. This low-lying landscape that nurtured the civilization of Angkor is home to 62-year-old Meas Eng, a survivor of Pol Pot, Vietnamese invasions, US bombs, land mines and the seasonal changes along the Mekong. Flowing since time immemorial, this river remains the heart and soul of Southeast Asia - a reservoir of life and a vital transport artery.

Sadly, the river no longer offers this spry old fisherman his once abundant daily supply of fish. No more than a decade ago "the Mother of Rivers" supplied to Eng and many other villagers who live not far from the Laotian border in Stung Treng province more than enough fish for their families. It was once easy living as these seasoned fishermen only needed to cast their kramas, traditional scarves, as nets in one fell swoop into the sacred water source, effortlessly hauling in their bountiful catch.

Today many of the families living in a myriad bamboo thatched-roof houses jutting up from the Mekong's red-clay banks almost 700 kilometers upstream from Phnom Penh and within earshot of the Laotian border lament the daily challenges the changes in their river have imposed.

"It is difficult for us now, and we also see many bad people even using poison and electricity in the waters to kill what fish they can find, and than they sell it to Laotians so they can have some money," said the old man.

The might of the Mekong is indeed being challenged, and perhaps has already been partially eclipsed. For years the river has remained a silent and enduring witness through numerous Indochina wars and other sorrows. Wild and free, subject to its own transient rhythms - annual monsoons, floods, drought, bountiful fishing - flowing through the eons without regard to national borders, the murky river is fast becoming a pawn for economic development involving Beijing, Phnom Penh and Washington.

Chinese government officials are moving at breakneck speed with their plans to construct massive dams and to blast out a navigational channel in the upper reaches of the Mekong River near Yunnan province. For the People's Republic of China (PRC), a nation of 1.3 billion, the six large dams planned along the river and another nine along its tributaries mean electricity for an impoverished rural population, and the scheduled navigational channel will offer a valuable trade and tourism route.

Although Chinese researchers argue that these dams will reduce flooding and drought for countries downstream, other scientists fear that this development will prove disastrous for Cambodia and will also harm Vietnam's lower delta. "We are very concerned with the dam construction. Of course, the Chinese say there is no impact from their dam projects. The reality is otherwise: the dam's release or flow of water during the monsoon season creates more flooding in Cambodia," said Dr Touch Seang Tana, an environmental scientist who belongs to a think-tank at Cambodia's Cabinet of Council Ministers.

The four countries that share the lower basin of the Mekong - Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam - have understood all too well for more than a half-century how their river became a turbulent and, at times, political channel for numerous government agencies and well-intentioned donor countries. The river's hydropower development has become a lighting rod for policy shapers and marine scientists in the countries that line its banks, as well as in far-off Washington. War, endless bureaucratic mismanagement and heartbreaking poverty along the river's edge have gradually eroded the Mekong's promises of prosperity and idealized regional cooperation.

"We are now dealing with one of the most important river basins in the world, and we need to make some accountability on the injustices and damages done to this precious river system over the past 45 years," said Joern Christensen, the chief executive officer at the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

This extremely well-funded river-management body was re-established in 1995 when the governments of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam jointly signed the Agreement on Cooperation for Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin. The politically motivated document provides the institutional and legal framework for exhaustive basin-wide studies and joint development projects.

On the surface, the agreement appears to reflect a major shift from development planning or dam construction to a regional ecosystem policy designed to foster resource-sharing among countries. The document promotes "cooperation in all fields of sustainable development, management and conservation of the water of the Mekong River Basin, including but not limited to hydropower, navigation and flood control".

The vision for the MRC was created to offer all countries in the region the freedom of navigation along any part of the great Mekong as long as they avoid damage to other countries as each pursues an economic and environmentally sound purpose.

Yet at the MRC Secretariat's modern office on Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh, controversial questions are being raised behind closed doors that are creating inter-departmental dissension and confusion among donor countries. And many of these questions involve a country that does not belong to the MRC: China.

Will the alterations to the Mekong's flow resulting from the newly constructed dams upriver in Yunnan province have a serious effect on the fisheries requirements in the regions of the river downstream from China? Will the reduced wet-season flow of the Mekong, and its converse, an increased flow in the dry season, have a negative impact on the ecosystem of Cambodia's Great Lake, Tonle Sap? Most importantly, what will happen if the pro-development forces for hydropower prove to be wrong and the Mekong's ecosystem is irreparably damaged in the name of progress? Will Cambodians still be able to feed themselves from the Tonle Sap?

Asia Times Online has accessed an internally circulated document commissioned by the MRC Secretariat that carefully states that while "the scheduled removal of 21 upstream shoals and reefs [the blasting is already in progress by the Chinese] will cause limited impact on the environment, no further stages of this project should be permitted until a comprehensive environmental-impact assessment is completed to international standards".

According to fisheries expert Tana, the issues associated with the present dam construction go far beyond the flooding. There is ample and increasing evidence that the existing dams are already changing the ecology of the wetlands. This is especially noteworthy since more than 20 percent of Cambodia's present land mass consists of wetlands. "People are much better at adapting to flood-region changes than marine life, and we are seeing a dramatic detrimental impact not only the destruction of coral life near Yunnan province but downriver with an increasing dramatic decline of fish," remarked Tana.

Keen observers maintain there's increasing evidence at MRC that a cold war has been in place for some time between some directors who still support hydropower development and many who acknowledge the efficacy of a sound and socially responsible environmental plan. The proper resolution matters daily to the more than 70 percent of Cambodians dependent on the Mekong or on the linked Tonle Sap for their food supply. At least 8 million poor people subsist on less than a dollar a day, including Meas Eng and, farther downstream, Sok Lim, a 64-year-old fisherman living near Kombor. For these families, their daily fish caught from Tonle Sap and the Mekong is essential for their livelihood and that of their families.

"Production of clean and renewable energy like hydropower development is an attractive option to meet the urgent needs for Cambodia's economic development, and for exporting and rural electrification," says Khy Tainglim, Cambodia's minister of public works and transport and a ranking member of the MRC.

No one disputes that the Lower Mekong Basin's population is expected to increase by more than 60 percent to about 100 million by 2025. With this anticipated growth will come a dramatic corresponding increase in the demand for food and clean water. It is this primary concern that bolsters ongoing financial support from a large consortium of donors including Australia, Denmark, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

The dilemma facing the Cambodians is protecting their bread basket, Tonle Sap, from increased sedimentation while pursuing the needs for power generation brought by economic and industrial development. Meanwhile, for the Lao People's Democratic Republic, the Mekong is a navigational backbone and hydropower earns the poor country nearly a quarter of its total foreign-exchange revenues through the sale of electricity to Thailand.

Inside the MRC itself, the dialogue is heated. The battle lines are demarcated between those who strongly advocate dam construction to meet hydropower generation needs and those arguing for a far more cautious, environmentally sound policy.

Meanwhile, upstream north of Laos, the Chinese, who have chosen not to become a part of the MRC, and whose construction history is rife with a gross disregard for the environment, are now blasting a channel along the Mekong River's course that will allow large boats to travel from Yunnan province to Vientiane throughout the year. Marine scientific evidence suggests that the clearing away of rocks and sandbars leads to increased river flow and with it dramatic erosion.

All along the upper reaches of the Mekong, including the northeastern river towns of Kratie and Stung Treng, the hardwood trees that once stood tall as sentries, hugging the shores of the river, have been logged, resulting in more erosion and in dramatic changes in the quality of the water.

"I know the water is much dirtier as it travels down from Laos and I do not know what has happened," said Sok Lim, another bewildered and challenged fisherman living in his traditional Khmer bamboo home with its plain thatched-leaf roof.

Compounding the challenge is the volume of illegal fishing on the Mekong. In many Cambodian provinces, some fishermen use as bait sticky-rice balls laced with poison, and many resort to electrocution of fish to meet their increasing fishing needs. Many fishery officials and experts are in agreement that overfishing, deforestation, erosion and an increase in the population place ever greater demands on the fragile river system.

Sin Niny, vice chairman of Cambodia's National Mekong Committee, has urged China to take another look at the ecological impact of the navigation channel, although this appears a little late. As for the construction of the dams, Chinese officials show no hurry to provide any environmental assessments.

The boat captain on the Mekong steers clear of the shoals since he does not dare run aground. Even with experience and well-marked concrete channel markers, boats still manage to get hung up. The same can be said for the Mekong River Commission, who appear eager to negotiate their way through potential areas of water-use conflict, development, and damage to a traditional way of life for millions of people along this precious and fragile river system.


Part 1 of the Series by James Borton.