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SOUTH-EAST ASIA: Opposition to Mekong Dams Overflows at Meet

Lynette Lee Corporal

BANGKOK, Nov 16 2008 (IPS) - In what looked like a blitzkrieg rally, about a dozen hand-held 'No Dams' signs appeared out of nowhere in the packed conference hall at a public forum here on the construction of dams in the Mekong region.

Dam-affected residents at Mekong meet.  Credit: Lynette Lee Corporal/IPS

Dam-affected residents at Mekong meet. Credit: Lynette Lee Corporal/IPS

This happened while Sompong Viengchan, from the north-eastern Thai province of Ubon Ratchathani, was delivering an impassioned speech on the negative impact of dams on the lives of residents along the Mekong River and its tributaries.

"I will not give up and I will fight to the end. My family has lived along the river for generations. If you want to build dams, do it in your own house!" she told the more than 200 participants at the Mekong Public Forum on mainstream dams, held here Nov.12-13.

"We've been fishing there for generations and lived our lives not dependent on the government. Now we can’t even find enough fish for our families," added Sompong, who was displaced by the construction of the Pak Mun dam. For 20 years, she had been protesting plans to build the dam along the Mun river, a Mekong tributary, as well as its destruction of fisheries after its completion in 1994.

Her statement echoed the sentiments here of other representatives of communities among the six Mekong countries that have been affected by dams on the Mekong’s tributaries, or fluctuations in river flows in the last few years.

The 4,880-kilometre Mekong River starts from the Tibetan plateau in China, then flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, before spilling out into the South China Sea through the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

Over two days here, community groups took turns citing the problems brought about by dam projects and the questions that hover over many similar projects now being planned for the Mekong, the world’s 10th longest river.

There are different estimates of the number of dams planned for the Mekong region. But among those most closely watched are hydropower projects in Laos, which is keen on using income from these resources for its development. The country has six big dams in operation, seven under construction and 12 more in the pipeline, according to a report by the advocacy group International Rivers, in September.

The proposal to build the Sambor hydropower project in north-eastern province of Kratie prompted Yoth Theary Cambodia's Community Economic Development, to question the government's motive for pushing this dam project.

"We found out that 40 percent of the energy that will be generated by this dam will be used within the country and 60 percent will be exported. My question is where will the income from the 60 percent go – to the investor or to the country?" asked Yoth Theary.

He maintained that the demand for energy within the country is much less than the desire to sell energy.

For China's Zhang Chun Shan, it was quite upsetting to hear about the problems that downstream communities say they are experiencing because of dams that China built on its stretch of the Mekong River, which it calls the Lancang.

China has three dams on the Mekong mainstream – the Manwan dam completed in 1995, the Dachaoshan and the Jinghong one – and a fourth is under construction.

"I hope in the future we will come back to a period where people have (an abundance of) fish, rice, water. It is difficult but it is our goal and mission," he said.

Pham Quang Tu from the Consultancy on Development-Hanoi publicly apologised to Cambodians "for the negative impact" caused by Vietnamese dams, specifically the one billion US dollar Yali Falls hydroelectric dam in central Vietnam.

In 1999 and 2000, the release of water from the Yali dam across the border from north-eastern Cambodia caused the deaths of some 25 people, media reports said. Local communities reported the destruction of fisheries and farms, floods and water contamination.

This has been a sore issue between the two neighbouring countries, one that resulted in talks to get early notification of water releases across the border and encouraged residents in affected Cambodian areas to form a network to make their situation known.

"We are committed to finding solutions to this problem and let us work together because this has gone beyond borders," Tu said. He suggested that Mekong countries share information about their activities that affect the river, stressing the importance of having a "strategic assessment for hydropower in the region".

"This region is a big seller of electricity, but a very small buyer. Everybody wants to be the seller, but who will do the buying?" he asked.

While it may sound contradictory, he said that it is important for civil society to both "confront and cooperate with the government". It should present the government with good evidence – including the practical experiences of communities about the dams’ negative impact, he added.

As for Laos, "many people are still confused by the impact of the dams," explained Boumtiem Keophouvong of Laos' Global Association for People and Environment. "Not many people are interested in collecting more information about dams because of the lack of interest in environmental issues."

He added that non-government groups usually do not want to get involved in the dam issue due to concern that this could "scare away investors".

For his part, Burmese environmental activist Sai Sai noted the big gap between the government, dam builders and local communities. Policymakers usually present a rosy picture of sustainable development projects, he said. For many locals, however, these are impossible to implement.

Citing as an example the Lawpita hydropower station, Sai said: "They said the dam will directly benefit the people. After the dam was built, the electricity went straight to the capital city of Rangoon and not in the Karenni state."

For Sai, the dam project also symbolised the persecution of the Karenni people especially since the Lawpita dam was located in a conflict area. Some 100,000 people were reportedly directly affected by the dam, he told the forum.

At the same time, a lot of the frustration of the community representatives from the six countries was directed at the Vientiane-based Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental organisation tasked to ensure the sustainable use and management of water and related resources in the lower Mekong basin.

At the Mekong public forum, critics had varied accusations of the MRC, calling it weak and ineffective to virtually being a supporter of governments and private developers bent on pursuing dam projects.

"We'd like to ask them to expand their role and help facilitate in bringing the government and local communities together, to dialogue and find solutions together," said Tu.

MRC chief executive office Jeremy Bird explained that clearly there was a "resurgence" in hydropower plans along the Mekong River, but that the commission was not a supra-governmental or enforcement agency.

It also consists of member governments – the lower Mekong countries of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – to whom it reports to, he explained. At the same tine, Bird said the MRC is committed to carrying out its tasks of reviewing plans for hydropower development under its notification and review process with a view to "sustainable hydropower development".

In September, the commission took the major step of organising in Vientiane a dialogue with different players in the hydropower picture – governments, hydropower companies, civil society – in order to open venues for discussing the testy issue of dams along the Mekong.

But Theary added: "The MRC's role should be changed to reflect more support to the people. If civil society is given a chance to engage the MRC more, then we will have a stronger voice, which will hopefully affect any government decision in the future."

Sompong begged the MRC to "listen to the people".

Said Zhang: "If we have good friendship (among communities in different Mekong countries), we can help each other and promote sustainable development. But if we're in a situation where we are constantly in conflict, development is hard to achieve".

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