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ENVIRONMENT: UNEP Faults Asian Development Bank Project

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul 17 2007 (IPS) - A sharp difference of opinion between the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) and the United Nations Environment programme (UNEP) has surfaced over a flagship venture of the Manila-based financial institution.

UNEP has dispensed with diplomatic-speak to expose in clear terms the shortfalls and damage to the environment arising from ‘development’ in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), an AsDB project.

Although it has become one of the fastest growing regions in the world, ‘’much of the growth has bypassed more than 70 percent of its rural population, many of whom are directly dependent on natural resources for livelihoods and incomes,’’ reveals the ‘Greater Mekong Environmental Outlook 2007’, just released by UNEP’s Asia-Pacific regional office in Bangkok.

‘’Economic growth, coupled with growing population pressures, has also led to widespread pollution, land degradation and depletion of natural resources,’’ adds the report, a groundbreaking study that examines the vital links that ecosystems and natural resources have in supporting livelihoods and poverty reduction. ‘’Unless addressed, these changes may cause irreversible ecosystem damage with far-reaching implications for economic activities that depend on natural resources.’’

Attempts by the AsDB to address the environmental costs appear to have left authors of the report cold. They say that ‘’the GMS still lacks a strong, credible body with the mandate to develop and coordinate its responses to environmental challenges. Establishing such a body is a key priority.’’

Part of the problem is rooted in the manner in which the GMS initiative operates. ‘’The GMS programme was created only for economic cooperation, and it is being pushed by the bank,’’ Uwaree In-na, environmental affairs officer at UNEP’s Bangkok office, told IPS. ‘’There is no local ownership and there is no real association for the countries to cooperate. It lacks a regional institution to deal with the environment.’’

But the AsDB official tasked with environment brief disagrees with the UNEP view. ‘’We function within the GMS economic programme. Within this framework, the environmental issues are addressed,’’ says Javed Hussain Mir, the chief natural resources management specialist at the GMS Environmental Operations Centre. ‘’We are now looking at how the transportation sector’s investment is being developed and its impact on the environment.’’

The centre he works for, in fact, was set up in 2005 to ‘’address the environmental concerns of the GMS,’’ Mir explained during an interview. ‘’We think that the informal framework under the GMS is working well.’’

The GMS has in its fold five countries – Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand – and China’s southern provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi. All areas with the exception of Guangxi share the 4,800 km-long Mekong River that flows through southern China and empties out in southern Vietnam.

It was created in 1992 to increase development, trade and cooperation within this sub-region. The AsDB and other investors saw countries like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam ripe for opportunity as they came out after decades of bloodshed during the United States’ war in Indo-China. The tone for this transformation to build a new economic area had been set in the late 1980s by then Thai prime minister Gen. Chatichai Choonhavan. He called for ‘’battlefields to be turned into marketplaces.’’

Plans to build a regional power grid, billed at 4.5 billion US dollars, was one scheme the AsDB pushed. Through it, countries in the Mekong region were to benefit from cheap and extensive supply of energy from hydropower schemes. Laos, for instance, will feed power-hungry Thailand.

The East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC) is another initiative of the bank under its GMS programme. This will see a network of highways due for completion by 2008, linking parts of Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to facilitate more overland and cross-border trade. Part of the 1,500 km-long roadway will connect Vietnam’s central seaport city of Danang to Moulmein, in Burma’s Mon state which faces the Andaman Sea.

But environmentalists and grassroots activists have been consistently troubled by these cross-border schemes. When the GMS marked its 10th anniversary, in 2002, Bangkok-based green groups expressed concern about the impact the over 60 million people who depend on the Mekong for food, water and transport will feel when the GMS’s integrated power grid is complete. Plans were drawn to build 32 dams to harness the waters of South-east Asia’s largest river for this electricity generation project.

And as the GMS marks 15 years, the tone among civil society groups has hardly changed. ‘’The Mekong power grid was developed by the AsDB only based on economic criteria. Environmental sustainability was a secondary issue,’’ says Carl Middleton, Southeast Asia campaign consultant for the International Rivers Network (IRN), a global green lobby. ‘’It has gone ahead with the GMS projects despite massive cumulative environmental and social cost.’’

What the GMS programme has failed to grasp are the ecosystems and natural resources that are part of the Mekong River countries, Middleton noted during an interview. ‘’The Mekong River is an integrated system, where development in one area of the Mekong basin can have unintended consequences in other areas.’’

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