Cambodia raps Laos over Mekong dams

Bangkok Post (DPA) 15 November 2007

Siem Reap, Cambodia (dpa) - After facing the wrath of environmental groups earlier this week, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) member countries engaged in their own battles Thursday during a meeting of the four-member body with donors and observers.

Although the meetings were closed to media, Cambodian delegates made their frustration with what they called neighbouring Laos' lack of transparency clear outside as tensions over six proposed hydro-electric dams in a number of countries on the lower Mekong mounted.

Scientists said in May they feared Laos' proposed dams in particular could destroy fish migration and spawning, decimating the catch people in MRC member countries Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam rely on and causing irreversible environmental damage.

"We sent an official letter to Laos months ago to voice our concern and ask for an explanation, but so far we have received no answer," vice chairman of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, Sin Niny, told Deutche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Cambodian MRC representative Lim Kean Hor said the MRC was a complicated organization which relied on cooperation from members and donors - which include energy-hungry China - to reach consensus. However, that cooperation may be fraying in some areas, he added.

"At the moment this is just an initiative by Laos. When they begin to build them we will stop them," he said, saying the MRC needed independent expert studies of environmental impact assessments.

The six dams across the Lower Mekong River are currently in the planning stages, more than a decade after they were dismissed as too costly and environmentally damaging, non-government organizations said in a press conference in Bangkok earlier this week.

At least one is believed to be the project of a powerful Lao politician's son, raising questions about whether the environment is taking a backseat to money, one environmentalist said on condition of anonymity, adding now was the time for the MRC to stand up.

"Since early 2006, Thai, Malaysian and Chinese companies have been granted permission to conduct feasibility studies for six large hydropower dams on the lower Mekong mainstream," they said in a press statement.

China delegate Biao Ling Sheng, however, urged a balance of development and conservation Thursday as that country announced continued strong funding for the MRC. "We need sustainable conservational development," he said.

In the end, however, the onus remained on the MRC to prove its role as a strong, independent forum for member countries and other interested parties to raise concerns which was transparent and had teeth, World Conservation Union representative Kate Lazarus said.

"The role of local communities should be given a higher priority by the MRC. There is some important information which is not being made public by the MRC," the Laos-based representative said