Hey, big spenders

Asian Times Online 23 August 2002

Phnom Penh - Over the past 40 years, US$1 billion has been poured into the murky Mekong River, covering environmental reports, scores of proposed infrastructure plans and countless fishery management studies. Some Mekong observers say that if you took all the reports and their pages and dumped them into the river, they would easily choke its flow.

Keo Mohamat, 60, lives along the Mekong in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, in an extremely weathered and leaky seven-meter pirogue (wooden fishing boat). Keo has never seen any of that money flowing into the river, nor read any of these expensively produced reports. His family, including seven children, still lives on less than a dollar a day from the fish caught and sold near the market.

"Before, I used to catch a lot of fish with my bare hands, but things have changed now. There's less fish than ever before and the river just seems to be changing," says Mohamat, a slightly built chamese (Muslim Cambodian) fisherman.

The second Indochina War ended in April 1975 and Thais, Laotians, Cambodians and Vietnamese found themselves under the same roof, living by the banks of the same river, the Mekong, that has coursed through their nations, binding them together as brothers and sisters in times of war and peace.

By 1975, hardened by its defeat in the Vietnam War, the United States abandoned not only Vietnam but Laos and Cambodia, a policy maintained by the administrations of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and fully supported by Congress or, at times, compelled by it. This was institutionalized when Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Appropriations Act of 1976, which in effect prevented any direct aid to these three countries.

"The Mekong River Commission's origins date back to 1957 when the Committee for Coordination of Investigation of the Lower Basin (the Mekong Committee) was established to ensure the full and equitable use of the Mekong resources," said Khy Tainglim, Cambodia's minister of public works and chairman of the MRC.

It was in April 1965 in a speech presented by US president Lyndon B Johnson at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore that the United States made its dramatic offer to finance the Mekong Project at a reputed cost of $1 billion. This speech and its subsequent impact, followed by a spate of international media coverage, was interrupted by the course of US military commitments to the escalating conflict in Vietnam. And although it did not deflect the course of the war, the proposed Mekong Project left an imprint on Southeast Asia.

The United States was unable to keep its promise to Cambodia and other countries along the river. Johnson's vision was an idealized attempt to demonstrate that the US was capable of constructive actions, not dissimilar to the nation-building process in Afghanistan today. In many ways, LBJ's grandiose plans for the Mekong, an Asian version of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project, appealed to this Texas river man. He desperately wanted the Mekong to flow as a river of peace just when US anti-war groups were feverishly marching on Washington demanding an end to the Vietnam War.

While the Mekong projects conceived during the war in the 1960s and 1970s were multi-purpose, aimed at the production of electricity, irrigation, flood control and navigation, the revised reports and directives of the 1990s almost exclusively emphasized hydropower production to be marketed to Thailand. At the time, Thailand was the only nation advanced enough to require the power produced by these future dams and close enough to receive it.

According to the World Commission on Dams, large-scale dams constructed over the past 50 years amount to a $42 billion industry. With more than 45,000 large dams in the world, one-third of all countries rely on some form of hydropower for more than half their electricity supply, and large dams generate half of electricity overall. But clearly the past 40 years has witnessed a more critical assessment of the social and environmental impact of large dams. The harnessing of water does fragment and transform river systems. Some global estimates suggest that 40 million to 80 million people have been displaced from their traditional villages by reservoirs alone.

China's Great Gorges Dam Project on the Yangtze is considered one of the largest infrastructure projects ever conceived at at cost approaching $30 billion and climbing each day. Upon completion, the dam will displace millions of poor farmers.

From 1994 to 2001, the Mekong River Commission's annual reports reflect a total donor contribution of almost $80 million. Denmark has been one of the leading MRC donors, pledging $13,294,062 between 1994 and 1998. The Danes have historically spent almost 1 percent of their annual gross national product (GNP) on overseas direct assistance (ODA), amounting to almost $1.8 billion.

Denmark's funding in Cambodia directed toward the MRC flows through a program called Danish International Development Assistance (DANIDA). It is the Danish equivalent to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Given this interest in the MRC, is no coincidence that one of Denmark's leading engineering consulting companies, COWI, with more than 2,000 employees, has been engaged in numerous lucrative Southeast Asian environmental and engineering consultancy projects. Michael Davidsen, COWI's Washington representative, says he is always "looking for opportunities and the World Bank and IFC [International Finance Corp] still focus on capacity-building in Southeast Asia".

COWI has recently won a major multi-disciplinary project in Vietnam and another in Laos.

"One of COWI's strengths is its multi-disciplinary assets, along with the ability to design and implement multi-disciplinary solutions. This is probably the most important single factor in our being selected to undertake these projects," says COWI project chief Jacob Ulrich.

As part of the Danish government's commitment to Cambodia's development, the Danish consultancy firm Carl Bro has also recently received a contract to strengthen the capacity of four natural-resource ministries, including the Ministry of Environment (MoE), to improve coordination of environmental activities and screen natural resources and environment support projects.

Japan, also a significant donor to the Mekong subregion, has shifted its money diplomacy from big projects such as hydropower since its official development aid has shrunk by 10 percent. A Japanese official said the government's ODA office is putting more emphasis on global issues and environmental protection.

The World Bank has recently approved a Global Environment Facility grant of $11 million to support the MRC's promotion and improvement of sustainable water management in the Mekong River Basin, as well as protection of the environment, aquatic life and the ecological balance of the region.

Additionally, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has poured $40 million in assistance and $460 million in loans into the Greater Mekong Subregion for infrastructure projects aimed at facilitating trade.

All these figures are very removed from the Mekong Delta inhabitants, who are mostly farmers and fishermen. They have survived natural floods, not for merely a decade or a century, but for thousands of years without any dams or water-diversion projects. Their livelihoods have depended totally on the river, and the annual flood-drought cycle for the entire history of their existence. Below the Khone Falls are the Tonle Sap Lake and the Delta, a distinctly flat region commonly referred to as the Mekong Plain.

The Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake of Southeast Asia, covering 27,000 hectares during the dry season and 150,000 hectares during the rainy season. The Tonle Sap River reverses its flow seasonally and acts as a reservoir to regulate the flow of the Mekong. Fish migrations from the Tonle Sap into the Mekong River help restock fisheries as far upstream as Yunnan province in China.

The Cambodian Tourism Ministry fears that the country's power-hungry neighbors upriver may damage the Mekong since it is the ideal river system for eco-tourism. Cambodia saw tourist numbers up 25 percent in 2000 and in 2001 Siem Reap had more than 470,000 visitors. The river is the passageway to Angkor Wat, which is a compelling reason for an environmentally sound water-management program.

Phnom Penh's charismatic and powerful Governor Chea Sophara has joined the ranks of senior officials concerned about protecting the river system from pollution. "Keeping the river clean for the people is a top priority," he said.

The ADB in 1998 came under heavy external pressure from various environmental groups and was forced to establish its own special commission to examine the negative environmental impact of the Theun Hinboun dam constructed in Central Laos. This dam, owned by two of the world's largest power utilities, Statkraft of Norway and Vattenfall of Sweden (Nordic Hydropower), as well as the Lao utility and Thai developers, has systematically taken water and land away from people without their consent, and has caused damage to the fishery.

No one disputes the amount of dollars committed to the Mekong River Commission. But now many Mekong watchers are asking who is really controlling the pace and schedule of the Mekong's development.

On the face of it, the directors of the commission include many who are deeply concerned about the future of the water system and wish to include China as a contributing member. The voices not heard are those of the hundreds of thousands of villagers and fishermen whose lives depend each day on what they catch and how the silt replenishes their soil.

It is noteworthy that the people along the Mekong have historically practiced their own home-grown fishery conservation. Most of these poor fishermen can be seen on their small wooden boats with bamboo traps camouflaged with leaves slowly gliding upriver to their prized fishing spots. There they catch only the small fish they can eat and never overfish the deep forest-shaded pools where the fish breed.

"Hydropower from the river system should be viewed as an opportunity, but what is now more seriously considered is the impact," said Joern Christensen, the chief executive of the MRC.

The MRC knows that Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam all have one common goal, which is economic growth, but each is at its own stage of development, with its own form of dependency on the Mekong's resources. This geopolitical situation now must factor in China. The dams will continue to be built and there is no turning back the forces of development.

"Concentration on major infrastructure developments and their shortcomings carries with it the risk of overlooking the fundamental social and political problems of the countries within the Mekong Basin," writes Milton Osborne in his book, The Mekong.

The river itself remains a delicate ecosystem, challenged each day by development and urbanization, a place where more than 50 million lives and countless river and floodplain marine lives dwell, not always in perfect harmony with their neighbors, but always in rhythm with the river.

The Mekong is alive with activity - barges overflowing with goods, ferries transporting villagers from one bank to the other, women along the river's edge washing their clothes, children swimming, old women in straw hats each day displaying their farm products on the floating markets and newborn babies asleep on the gently swaying fishing boats.

Although it may seem to be an article of faith that building a nation means creating a Western-style democracy, the dark shadows of the past linger long over Cambodia. While many Cambodians voted enthusiastically for the promises of their local candidates several months ago in commune or rural elections, it is still not clear what the newly elected councils will actually be empowered to do. Decentralization has become a fashionable political reform around the world, and Cambodia's efforts to move power and authority to the local level make it one of the latest countries to join the movement.

Until there are village meetings for these poor fishermen to voice their stories and concerns, the river must be their messenger. The river speaks to fishermen like Sok Lim and Meas Eng, every day of the past and of the future, of the eternally recurring cycles of nature, of survival, of those mysterious floating currents of life that break your heart at every river bend.

Part 3 of the “Mekong Sunset Series” by James Borton