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ASIA: Dams Across the Mekong Could Trigger a ‘Water War’

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jun 25 2009 (IPS) - For now, the lower stretches of the Mekong River remain a symbol of peace and tranquillity in a region that was once bloodied by war. But for how long?

That question is gaining attention following fears expressed by environmentalists that plans to build 11 large hydropower dams on the mainstream of Southeast Asia’s largest waterway could trigger a “water war.”

The delta in southern Vietnam, which is one of the four countries that shares the water flowing through the Mekong River basin, is being singled out as a potential flashpoint. It was this flat terrain, in fact, that featured prominently during the U.S. war in Vietnam, which ended over 30 years ago.

“If those dams are constructed, it will limit the volume of fresh water from the upstream to downstream. This will lead to more sea water flowing inland,” says Ngo Xuan Quang, a specialist in aquatic ecology and biodiversity at the Vietnamese Academy of Science and Technology, based in Ho Chi Minh City. “The acid levels in the soil, which is already high, will also increase.”

“The rice fields in the Mekong Delta will be destroyed,” Quang revealed in an interview. “It will impact the 17 million people living in the delta.”

“It will create the conditions for a conflict among the countries in the basin,” he warned. “Governments should be aware of such a conflict over this important natural resource.”

Quang’s concern about the impact the dams will have on lives in the delta will add to the troubles these Vietnamese communities are expected to face with regard to the looming threat of climate change. This area, known as the “rice basket” of the country, could see large areas inundated for some months during the year if the sea level rises by one meter, a U.N. report states.

This grim forecast for the Mekong Delta is part of a disturbing picture being painted by a new environmental movement opposing the four countries that share the lower Mekong – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – giving approval to construct the 11 dams.

This movement, rallying under the banner of Save the Mekong, is a coalition of green groups and grassroots activists from the four countries in the basin. It was started early this year to petition the governments to shelve plans for the dams.

So far, over 16,300 people have signed postcards and an on-line petition to turn the heat on decision-makers in the region’s capitals. “No dam constructions! Or else, there will be problems,” writes Mak Wangdokmai, from Thailand’s Roi Et province, in a postcard.

The anti-dam campaigners have singled out the river’s thriving fisheries sector as another area that could take a hit. “If built, these dams would block major fish migrations and disrupt this vitally important river, placing at risk millions of people who depend upon the Mekong for their food security and income,” states Save the Mekong in a background note.

“The Mekong River supports one of the world’s most productive inland fisheries, which feeds over 60 million people,” it adds. “Official estimates put its value at between 2-3 billion U.S. dollars annually.”

“There are 50 species of commercial value,” says Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator for International Rivers, an U.S.-based environmental lobby. “They migrate over long distances.”

The dams would also threaten endangered species such as the Irrawaddy Dolphin and the Mekong Giant Catfish, which are among the over 1,200 fish species that inhabit the river.

The pressure on governments to stop the dams also points to a lack of faith the activists have in the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a regional body whose members include Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and which has a mandate to manage the lower Mekong basin.

“The mechanism of the MRC has completely failed in listening to the people who will be affected if the dams are built,” says Premrudee Daoroung, co- director of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, a Bangkok- based green group. “Every time we talk to the MRC they say we have to go back to our own governments to get answers to our concerns.”

In September last year, the Vientiane-based MRC hosted an initial round of discussions to shape a blueprint to build the mega dams across the Mekong. The growing demand for electricity, high oil and gas prices and hydropower as a renewable technology were behind the push for the new dams, Jeremy Bird, the head of MRC, said at that time.

But these planned dams will not be the first effort to harness the waters of the 4,880-km-long river, which flows from the Tibetan plateau, through southern China, and then Burma, before coursing into the Mekong basin, and emptying out into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam.

China has already built three of a planned nine cascade of dams in the upper stretches of the Mekong. They include the Manwan and Dachaoshan dams.

The completion of these Chinese dams had green groups complaining that their impact was affecting the diet and livelihood of communities living along the lower Mekong. It stemmed from damage to the river’s ecosystems due to irregular fluctuation of water-levels during the dry season and a noticeable drop of the fish population in Cambodia.

In fact, the first mention of a “water war” erupting in the Mekong region surfaced in the wake of the Chinese dams blocking the flow of water in the upper stream. “The conflict over resource use will be a challenge in the future,” an expert said at the time.

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