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SOUTH-EAST ASIA: River Deal May Help Dam Debate in Mekong Region

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, Aug 16 2009 (IPS) - The Mississippi River may be on the other side of the world from the Mekong River, but Vietnamese environmentalists say they hope a new link between the agencies that look after these two river systems can lead to new thinking about ways to manage water resources in the Mekong region.

They were referring to a move by the Mississippi River Commission (MiRC) and the Vientiane-based Mekong River Commission (MRC) to become "sister rivers" and share expertise in areas ranging from hydropower development to climate change and floods.

In the weeks following this cooperation’s endorsement by U.S. officials and foreign ministers of the four lower Mekong countries – Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam — experts said the agreement may provide more objective room for discussion of how to juggle different interests at a time of often-controversial dam development in the Mekong region.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed support for the cooperation between the two commissions. The foreign ministers of the four lower Mekong did the same at the end of their South-east Asia meeting in Thailand in July. News reports said it was the first discussion of this sort between the United States government and the lower Mekong basin countries.

In early August, the two river commissions announced that they were working on a formal agreement on water resource management. "This agreement could help raise the MRC’s political and technical role while encouraging countries in the lower (Mekong) basin enhance their cooperation on environment and natural resources management," Nguyen Duc Hiep, a Vietnamese-Australian environmentalist told Radio France International earlier this month. MRC, an intergovernmental body comprising Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, is charged with governing the use of the Mekong River’s recources.

"The MRC and the MiRC are very similar in terms of their principles and mandates," Jeremy Bird, chief executive officer of the MRC said in a statement.

"Both organisations strive to sustainably manage water resources and are therefore well-placed to benefit each other through a technical exchange and learn how to best manage their respective complex transboundary rivers," he added.

Environmentalist Nguyen Chinh Tam says the upcoming cooperation with an external organisation outside the Mekong region may bring additional vigour to the MRC.

But critics say the Mekong commission has not been able to manage the development of dams sprouting up in different parts of the Mekong and its tributaries even though they can cause transboundary impacts that hurt neighbouring countries.

Several downstream countries have expressed concern about the lack of consultation about such projects, including the ones done by China in the upstream Mekong it calls the Lancang. But it has not been easy for lower Mekong countries to find a venue to officially engage China on its plans for the upstream Mekong, even if these affect them across the borders.

Burma and China’s being observers instead of full members of MRC has affected the commission’s ability to engage these countries and get them on board over discussions on hydropower management, according to researchers working on Mekong issues.

China does provide the MRC with hydrological information that is useful for, but is not part of, the commission’s water management guidelines that cover its members.

Against this backdrop, Vietnamese environmentalists hope the agreement with the Mississippi commission as an external body can help create a venue for more openly generating a consensus among all countries that Mekong River crosses and put pressure on China to follow this, given its plans to harness the upper mainstream for more hydropower generation.

"The U.S. cooperation will help greatly in finding a solution to the problem of sustainable development for the region," Tam recently wrote in the state-owned magazine ‘Doanh Nhan Cuoi Tuan’ (Businessmen Sunday).

China is working to finish its fourth dam on the upper reaches of the Mekong in south-western Yunnan province, after the Manwan dam, which was completed in 1993, and the Dachaoshan and Jinghong dams, which started operations in 2001 and 2009, respectively. Chinese engineers have been filling the reservoir of the Xiaowan dam in the Yunnan and expect to start the first turbine in a month or two. The 262-metre structure is the world's tallest, and its 15-billion cum reservoir will cover an area more than 190 square kilometres.

By 2014, Chinese engineers will have completed the Nuozhadu dam, which will be less high but will have an even larger reservoir.

Following China’s lead, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are also planning major dam constructions on the Mekong mainstream.

These plans have aroused considerable concern throughout the lower Mekong basin, particularly in Vietnam. Seventeen million people live along the stretch of the Mekong that runs through Vietnam before it goes out into the South China Sea.

"The first impact (of upstream dam construction) would be a remarkable reduction of water and aquatic resources," said Ngo Dinh Tuan from the Hanoi Water Resources University.

"Broken ecosystems, soil erosion and changes to water flow are among the key concerns of Vietnamese farmers and citizens living along the River," according to Ngo Xuan Quang, an expert at the Vietnam’s Institute of Tropical Biology. "When the Mekong’s waters are blocked upstream, seawater will further encroach into the Mekong Delta, and exacerbate problems caused by rising sea levels because of climate change."

Upstream dams could also "limit the deposit of silt, acidify agricultural land, and decimate upstream fish stocks, affecting hundreds of thousands of fishermen and their households," added Quang.

Parts of south Vietnam are already suffering from severe soil erosion and saltwater intrusion, which local experts blame on the impacts of dam building.

In late May, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Asian Institute of Technology warned China’s plan for a cascade dams on the Mekong is "the single greatest threat" to the future of the Mekong and its fecundity.

Chinese officials counter that their dams actually help by holding some water back in the wet season, thus helping control flooding and erosion of riverbanks downstream.

Conversely, releases from its hydropower reservoirs to generate power in the summer will help ease water shortages in the lower Mekong during the dry season, they say.

Rising concerns about dam development have pushed the MRC to take steps such as a July announcement that it will carry out an assessment of the impact of mainstream hydropower development on the lower Mekong basin. The results are due next year.

China indicated its willingness to provide experts who will take part in the MRC’s study of the dams’ impact, MRC officials have been quoted as saying.

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