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ENVIRONMENT: Mekong River Commission Remiss – Activists

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Nov 14 2007 (IPS) - The campaign to save South-east Asia’s largest waterway from being blocked by a series of massive dams picked up pace this week, with activists accusing a regional river authority of abandoning its mission to protect the Mekong River.

Dams planned on the Mekong may affect the livelihood of people in Laos and adjacent countries Credit: Wiwat Pandawutiyanon

Dams planned on the Mekong may affect the livelihood of people in Laos and adjacent countries Credit: Wiwat Pandawutiyanon

Local and international environmental groups are incensed at the initial work underway to build the six dams on the mainstream of the Mekong River, which, till now, has flowed freely along the borders or through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Four of the six hydropower dams are to be built in Laos, while one each has been earmarked for Cambodia and Thailand.

If constructed, the dams could displace nearly 75,000 people in the Mekong River basin who have always depended on the river for their livelihood and culture, the conservationists warned. Also in danger of being washed away are over a thousand fish species, including those unique to the area, such as the rare Mekong giant catfish and the Irrawaddy dolphin.

But such troubling prospects have not prompted a serious response from the Mekong River Commission (MRC), charged a letter signed by 201 organisations and individuals from 30 countries. The MRC, which is currently based in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, has ‘’remained notably silent’’ in the wake of these new hydropower projects, the letter added.

‘’If the MRC does not act now to uphold the 1995 Agreement and defend the ecological integrity of the Mekong, the institution is a river authority in name only and does not deserve the tens of millions of dollars worth of grants and technical assistance that it receives from international donor agencies,’’ the letter declared.

The missive from the green groups was released this week to coincide with a meeting of the MRC and its international donors, which began Thursday in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where the inter-governmental river authority’s performance will be reviewed. The MRC was created in 1995 to manage the environment and promote sustainable development between the four countries that shared the lower stretch of the Mekong.

According to that founding agreement, the MRC is required ‘’to make every effort to avoid, minimise and mitigate harmful effects that might occur to the environment … from the development and use of the Mekong River Basin water resources.’’

As worrying to the activists is the MRC’s lack of transparency, since little information has been released about the impact of the new dams on local communities in the four countries that are its members. ‘’Studies and surveys conducted by the MRC have never been released to help discussions among the people who will be affected,’’ says Premrudee Daoroung, director of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), a Bangkok-based independent green lobby.

Academics who have followed the development debate in the Mekong region are as caustic, hinting that the MRC is increasingly losing its relevance in the eyes of grassroots communities living in the Mekong basin. ‘’The MRC cannot continue as if it is business as usual. It has to be reformed,’’ says Surichai Wun’gaeo, director of the Social Research Institute at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. ‘’It has to prove its usefulness or be in danger of being sidelined.’’

The river authority, however, views the concerns differently, arguing that it is a body created by its member states and that its work is shaped by the agendas of the four governments that conceived it. ‘’The responsibility of the Mekong River Commission is to support its Member States. It is an intergovernmental organisation, not a supragovernmental one,’’ says Do Manh Hung, officer-in-charge of the MRC secretariat, in an e-mail to IPS. ‘’It is owned and governed by its Member States, and as such cannot nor should not presuppose decisions of the governments of the Member Sates.’’

Regards the proposed dams and the conservationists’ concerns, the official’s note that if the four governments ‘’request the MRC Secretariat (MRCS) to become involved in environmental impact assessments or supply technical data which would help them in their decision making, then of course the MRCS will respond.’’

He conceded, though, while the MRCS ‘’provides commentary to Member States on both a formal and informal basis on numerous matters relating to the use of the Mekong’s resources,’’ it ‘’does not share such commentary with the public.’’

The 4,880 km-long Mekong River begins its journey in the Tibetan plateau and then curves its way through Yunnan, in southern China, before travelling along or through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam till it flows out into the South China Sea. An estimated 60 million people who live along the Mekong’s banks from Burma southwards depend on it for food, water and transport.

Fisheries, in fact, is an economic mainstay for the communities living in the basin, states the MRC. The annual fisheries in the lower Mekong accounts for nearly two percent of ‘’the total world catch and 20 percent of all fish caught from inland waters of the world,’’ adds a study conducted by the commission.

But this natural bond between the local communities and their environment will be drowned out if the new dams are built. ‘’The communities in southern Laos and all of Cambodia will be the worst affected in terms of loss of fisheries,’’ Pianporn Deetes, coordinator or the South-east Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN), told IPS. ‘’This is an invisible cost of dam construction that continues to be ignored.’’

And getting this message across is proving to be daunting given that the main players behind the proposed dams are private companies, who have a record of placing profit over environmental and social costs as a priority. These companies, three of which are from China, stand in contrast to the previous players involved dam construction, such the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, who were sensitive to the criticism of conservationists.

‘’These are the new actors in hydropower development in the region,’’ Carl Middleton, a consultant with the International Rivers Network, a global green lobby, said in an interview. ‘’We are witnessing a watershed moment in dam building.’’

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