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SOUTH-EAST ASIA: Chinese Dams Expose Fault Line in Mekong Region

Marwaan Macan-Markar

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Dec 9 2009 (IPS) - A heated debate about the future of the Mekong River at a media conference in this northern Thai city exposed a fault line triggered by the regional giant China’s plans to build a cascade of dams on the upper stretches of South-east Asia’s largest waterway.

“The most important issue for people who live along the banks (of the lower stretches) of the Mekong are the dams and how these affect them,” said Pipope Pantichpakdi, a Thai filmmaker who made the documentary ‘Mekong: The Untamed’. “They cannot see the river as a pretty sight.”

Another documentary film about the Mekong made by Chinese filmmakers overlooked some serious issues, he added during a session on contrasting perspectives of the river at the Mekong Media Forum. “There was nothing about a lot of villages disappearing, that there are floods and the doubts people have about the Chinese dams.”

His views were echoed by Manote Tripathi, the scriptwriter of the hour-long synthesis of the 10-hour Thai documentary series. “A number of countries are becoming aware of the consequences of the mega-projects,” he told some 200 participants at the forum, which runs from Dec. 9-12 in this northern city of Thailand.

A Chinese journalist on the panel conceded that the planned development targeting the Mekong would provoke a range of responses. “It is natural that different people will have different perspectives on similar issues,” said Zhu Yan, a senior editor at the national broadcaster China Central Television. “In China there is a debate (around the question) of environment or dams.”

Tan Keng Ooi, a journalist based in Laos, confirmed that the feelings of the countries in the Mekong River Basin towards China were shared. He said Laos was already feeling the impact of the Chinese dams due to sudden fluctuations of the water level near the capital Vientiane, he raged.

Similar sentiments from the people in Vietnam were captured in the film ‘Mekong: The Untamed’ screened to participants at the forum organised by IPS Asia-Pacific and Probe Media Foundation, a Manila-based media educator.

The Thai film narrates the journey of Suthichai Yoon, a leading Thai media personality, from the headwaters of the Mekong River in Tibet to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The question he seeks to answer through his travels is how the planned Chinese dams affect communities who live along the banks of the river.

“My Mekong journey goes to the heart of Asia’s complexities,” says the narrator as he makes his way from China’s southern province of Yunnan to the north-eastern Thai town of Chiang Kong. The scenes he passes range from the raging waters of the Mekong and hills swathed with mist to riverside communities being torn apart by a building frenzy.

“I wonder if the Chinese realise what the people who are impacted by the dam feel?” Suthichai asks at one point.

A Thai activist interviewed on the banks of Mekong offers an answer. “There is no response from the Chinese government to the concerns we are expressing,” says Pianporn Detees. “We don’t want the Mekong River to end up a silent river.”

The undercurrent of resentment towards the Chinese dams that surfaces in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam hardly surprises Steve Van Beek, a seasoned adventurer who has journeyed down the Mekong four times and chronicled his discoveries in a series of books. “There is a fear of Chinese hegemony,” he told IPS.

Chinese journalists themselves come in for a shock when they encounter anti-dam sentiments in the Mekong River Basin, he revealed. “They realise that all the stories they had been told about China pursuing its development plans in a spirit of brotherhood are not true.”

The silence of policymakers in China to address the worries of the lower Mekong countries has a reason, he added. “Deep down among the policymakers there is an awareness of the tension. Otherwise, they could have opened up a dialogue with the affected communities.”

The 4,880-kilometre-long river flows from the Tibetan plateau, through southern China, then passes Burma, before coursing into the Mekong Basin shared by Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and empties out into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam.

China has already built three of a planned nine cascade of dams in the upper Mekong to quench its thirst for more hydropower. They include the Manwan and Dachaoshan dams.

The impact of these dams has begun to affect the diet and livelihood of communities living along the lower Mekong. Irregular fluctuation of water levels during the dry season has damaged the river’s ecosystem and seen a drop in fish catch, which is a major source of income – an estimated two to three billion U.S. dollars annually – for the 60 million people living in the Mekong Basin.

However, Chinese officials have said that the Lancang, as the upper reaches of the Mekong are called in China, in truth contributes less than 20 percent of the water flows in the river and that its dams help ensure water supply in the dry season to downstream countries.

The concerns of the communities in the basin have also been aired by a United Nations agency.

“Although the Mekong River Basin is not characterised either by water shortages or open conflicts, its water issues have attracted considerable attention due to the potential threats arising out of development pressures and transboundary issues,” the United Nations Environmental Programme stated in a report released in June.

Among the potential sources of conflict is the “major dam-building programme in the upper reaches of the Mekong that China has embarked on,” revealed the report, ‘Freshwater under Threat – South East Asia’. “Significant impacts in terms of changes in (water) flow patterns and sediment transport are likely.”

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