Thứ Sáu, 3 tháng 10, 2014

MEKONG – CỬU LONG 2011 A LOOK FORWARD INTO THE NEXT HALF CENTURY

Fifty four years have passed since the day the United Nations established the Mekong River Committee (1957) and sixteen years since the birth of the Mekong River Commission (1995). China has and will build mammoth hydroelectric dams on the main current of the Upper Mekong. On the other hand, Thailand entertains plans to divert water from the Mekong. In recent days, the three countries of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are also evaluating projects to construct twelve dams downstream the river.

To date (2011), China has finished building 4 of the series of fourteen hydroelectric dams in the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan. The fifth and largest dam Nuozhadu is under construction concurrently with the sixth one named Gongguoqio. The first dam named Manwan went into operation almost two decades ago. With the completion of the Nuozhadu Dam, two years from now, we can conclude that China has, for the most part, achieved the objectives it initially set for its series of hydroelectric dams in the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan and becomes the de facto “owner” of the Mekong. 

There are no signs showing that the building pace of hydroelectric dams along the Mekong’s current is slackening. With just four dams in Yunnan in operation, the immediate and undeniable impacts they cause are already being felt by the nations downstream: irregular flood waters during the Rainy Season, sections of the river drained dry in the Dry one, and severe salinization in the Mekong Delta. What should the approximately seventy million inhabitants of the Mekong Basin including about twenty million souls of the Mekong Delta need to do to adapt and survive?

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has shown its ineptitude when it failed to conduct any serious studies about the impacts the dams in Yunnan brought to bear in the Lower Mekong. The nations bordering this River can no longer rely on the ineffective MRC. It is high time for them to take matter in their own hands and carry out those studies to search for solutions and discuss them in international forums.

An innovative initiative is offered by the Viet Ecology Foundation calling for the establishment of a “Lancang-Mekong Organization” with six member states including China and Myanmar.
This is the first of a three-part article written by Dr Ngo The Vinh, the author of “Mekong – The Occluding River”. 

 
THE UNREALIZED “BIG DREAM’

In the early1940’s, American dam builders had shown a deep interest in the Mekong’s potential to generate hydroelectricity. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Mekong River Committee was established in the midst of the Cold War or more precisely in 1957. It maintained a permanent office in Bangkok and was comprised of four member states: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In the planning stage of its development projects, the United Nations divided the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) into two basins:

The Upper Basin encompassing the province of Yunnan in China, and
The Lower Basin covering the five nations along the Lower Mekong.

Those two Basins are separated by the Golden Triangle that borders Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. The development plan for the Lower Basin of the Mekong represents an ambitious “Great Dream” of the United Nations to improve the lives of all the people who live along that river’s current. [Even though half of the Mekong’s current meanders through Yunnan Province, China at that time was a closed society which went undetected on the radar screen of the world.]

But then, the Vietnam War spread to the three countries of Indochina for over three decades. Consequently, the building of large hydroelectric dams like Pa Mong, Sambor, Khemmerat on the Lower Mekong main current and other development projects were put on hold allowing the Mekong to retain her pristine state for some more time.

THE GHOST OF THE KILLING FIELDS

Though the Vietnam War ended in 1975, in the neighboring land of Angkor, the Khmer Rouge had consolidated their authority and launched their atrocious genocidal campaign. The moribund Mekong Interim Committee was established in 1978 without the participation of Cambodia. During that time, Thailand introduced a plan to divert a significant part of the Mekong’s water to irrigate its Northeastern provinces which were suffering from prolonged drought. This plan was met with tenacious opposition from Vietnam. As a result, claiming that this organization was no longer relevant to the changed political, economic and social conditions of the region, Thailand refused to acknowledge the Mekong Interim Committee’s legal authority. Facing such dissension, this body fell into a state of near paralysis.

FROM THE MEKONG RIVER COMMITTEE (1957) TO THE MEKONG RIVER COMMISSION (1995)

Immediately following the restoration of peace, the six nations in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) turned their focus to the exploitation of the Mekong River. These countries may all play host to the same river but they harbor conflicting interests as well as different priorities in their development outlook. Consequently, the creation of a multinational coordinating institution similar to the Mekong River Committee became the first order of the day.

On April 5, 1995 the four original member states of the Mekong River Committee met in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, to sign “The Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin” and changed the institution’s name to the Mekong River Commission. A fundamental modification was introduced into this Agreement: In the past, members of the defunct Mekong River Committee could veto any project they deemed detrimental to the main current of the Mekong. With the new by-laws, they were deprived of that veto power.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) headquartered in Vientiane consisted of three permanent bodies: the Council (ministerial level), the Joint Committee and the Secretariat. In contrast to the original ambitious goal of exploiting the Mekong River’s potentials for the long-run prosperity of the whole region, the MRC only set for itself much more modest objectives in both scale and scope (3), including:

• Three core programs: Water utilization program, Development of the Basin program, and Environment program

• Five sector programs: Agriculture, Hydro-forestry, Fishery, Transportation, Tourism

• Capacity Building Program

The Mekong River Commission was supported by international institutions, private organizations, research institutes, and national bodies. After sixteen years in operation (1995-present), the MRC was able to claim some early achievements like reaching an agreement for information sharing among the four member states; setting up an “internet website” for the forecasting of flood and monitoring of the current’s flow during the Dry Seasons; reaching in April, 2002 an agreement of historical import on the exchange of hydrological data with China… On the whole, the Commission is not highly regarded by its original supporters for its efficacy and prestige. It also proves to be a disappointment to the environmental organizations.

THE UPPER BASIN – THE OCCLUDING LANCANG

Lancang Jiang is the Chinese name for the stretch of the Mekong that flows within the Upper Basin. The strategic plan to build the 14 dams of the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan dated all the way back to the 1970’s. Over the last three decades, China has been vigorously exploiting the Lancang Jiang through the construction of giant hydroelectric dams blocking the main current of this river.
Of the 14 dams in the Mekong Cascades only four had been built so far: Manwan (1,500 MW), Dachaoshan (1,350 MW), Jinghong (1,350 MW), and Xiaowan (4,200 MW). Yet the Mekong’s water level has never reached such low levels during the Dry Season.

At several sections, the river practically dried up showing its bare bed. Fishing and agricultural activities were directly affected. All those phenomena could not be singly attributed to “lack” of rainfalls. In 1993, the Mekong’s water level dropped to an unusual low even though it did not occur during the Dry Season. It took place because at that time China was diverting the river’s water to fill the Manwan Dam’s reservoir.

To have enough water to operate the four existing hydroelectric dams, China frequently closes their flood gates causing the water level of the river to dip to its lowest levels. Beijing failed to disclose information about the operations of its dams leaving the countries downstream unprepared to deal with the arising situations on a timely manner.

At the Chiang Khong berth in Northern Thailand, the 38-year old boat skipper named Odd Boutha sighed: “If China continues to build dams like this, the Mekong will turn into a stream”.

Chainarong Sretthachau, Director of the Southeast Asia Rivers Network, remarked: “China really has the power to control the current of the Mekong”.(2)

Due to its fast growing economy, China now faces the formidable task of maintaining a 5% to 6% annual growth in its electricity production. Moreover, to satisfy its insatiable thirst for energy, it is totally unrealistic to expect China to relent in its quest to harness the rich potentials for hydropower the Mekong River has to offer.

Commenting on the Chinese plans to exploit the Mekong, Tyson Roberts at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (USA) remarked: “The construction of hydroelectric dams, use of the river as a navigation channel, and heavy commercial shipping will eventually asphyxiate the Mekong River… The exploitation steps China undertook will result in the degradation of the ecology and catastrophic pollution causing the Mekong to die a gradual death” (3)

In the case of Cambodia, the plain and simple truth is that her heart, the Tonle Sap Lake, can only keep beating as long as the Tonle Sap River succeeds in alternating the direction of its current. During the Rainy Season the Tonle Sap River must reverse course and flow into the lake. This is a matter of life and death to the supply of fish and rice cultivation in the Land of Angkor. Unfortunately, there is no assurance that things will remain that way in the future.

In 2005, before taking a flight to attend the Summit Meeting in Kunming, Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly voiced his almost unconditional support for China’s exploitation plan of the Mekong River in spite of desperate warnings from alarmed expert environmentalists. [Phnom Penh, AFP, 6/29/05]
After the recent Ayeyawady-Chao Praya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) Summit in November of 2010 in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen again dismissed all concerns about the impacts of the hydroelectric dams on the Mekong’s flow. He asserted that the cycle of floods and droughts was caused by climate change and carbon monoxide emission that had nothing to do with the series of hydroelectric dams in China. [The Phnom Penh Post, Nov 17, 2010]

Meanwhile, a respected Chinese scholar, Professor Qin Hui of the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, has voiced his criticism concerning the less than transparent way the Chinese government handles the issues pertaining to the dams in Yunnan. He noted: “Yes, only some 14% of the water at the Mekong’s mouth comes from China; but 70% of reservoir capacity in the Mekong Basin within China – and this will rise to 90% when Nuozhadu dam comes into operation. Moreover, all of China’s Mekong reservoir capacity is on the river proper, while other nations have built dams only on tributaries.
Particularly bizarre is the fact that China’s officials for some reason talk of “the three reservoirs of the Lancang”, when domestic media have reported on a much bigger fourth project: the Xiaowan dam.” (9)

The Tibetan High Plateau, also known as the Third Pole on earth, is the cradle of the major rivers in Asia. Even though his country Tibet is suffering from lack of freedom under Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama prefers to espouse a long run perspective when he advocates that the preservation of the ecology should take precedence over politics. (8)

XIAOWAN “THE MOTHER DAM” 
 
The gigantic Xiaowan Dam is second in size only to the Three Gorges Dam, the largest one in the world, straddling the Yangtze River. (1)

The Xiaowan is one of the two largest dams in the series of 14 of the Mekong Cascades that span the main current of the Mekong in Yunnan, China. It is also the fourth dam that has been built so far. This dam has four generator sets claiming a total output of 4,200 MW – almost equal to the combined output of the Manwan, Dachaoshan, and Jinghong Dams.



Being one of the two mammoth dams in the Upper Mekong, with a height of 292 meters, Xiaowan is considered the “tallest dam in the world”. As tall as the Eiffel Tower. The reservoir of this “Mother Dam” measures 169 km long, its surface area 190 km2, and its volume up to 15 billion m3. The water is drawn from the Mekong. The construction costs of this dam amounted to US$ 4 billion and it went into operation in 2010. The dam forms an integral part of China’s strategic plan to produce electricity. To date, the electricity it generates is enough to meet the demands of the provincial capital city of Kunming and the industrial zones in Yunnan. Any surplus is earmarked for the coastal cities in the east as far away as Shanghai.

THE NUOZHADU DAM – THE COLOSSUS OF THEM ALL

More formidable than the Xiaowan “Mother Dam” is the Nuozhadu Dam. Its construction begun in 2006 and required the relocation of 24,000 local residents. The dam’s reservoir measures 226 km long and boasts a capacity of 22 billion m3 (Xiaowan: 15 billion m3) which is 30 times larger than that of Tokuyama, Japan’s largest hydroelectric dam. Its projected date of completion is 2014. With 9 sets of generators, the dam is expected to have an output of 5,850 MW or the equivalent of five large nuclear reactors. [Chinese dam projects raise alarm in Asia, Asahi Shimbun, 08/16/2010] 

Though not as tall as the Xiaowan Dam (293 m in height), the Nuozhadu (261 m in height) can claim to be the “largest dam” on the Mekong’s main current. According to Fred Pearce, with the completion of the Xiaowan and Nuozhadu Dams, “The Mekong is destined to become China’s new water tower and electrical powerhouse” (Damming the Mekong: Major blow to an Epic River , Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360, June 22, 2009.]

Phillip Hirsch, Director of the Mekong Research Centre at the University of Sydney, observed: “The two dams, Xiaowan and Nuozhadu will impact the flow regime of the entire system – all the way down to the delta in Vietnam.” 

THE OTHER DAMAGES COMING FROM THE NORTH

The issue is not limited to the damming of rivers and diversion of the water. But a not less serious concern is that the Basin of the Upper Mekong is known to be an earthquake prone zone. In 1990, an earthquake registered at M6 shook the area in the vicinity of the future Xiaowan Dam’s site.
Hiroshi Hori, a renowned Japanese expert on the Mekong, had worked with the United Nations’ Mekong River Committee. He authored a book entitled The Mekong: Environment and Development [United Nations University Press, Tokyo 2000].

Mr. Hori made the following remark: “The Upper Mekong Basin is located in an earthquake zone. The area near the borders with Myanmar is known for frequent earth crust movements. It is feared that earthquakes will become more prone to occur if dams are built in the Upper Mekong Basin.” (6)
The Chinese scholars and environmental experts also concur with his observation and raised the alarm about the danger of dam collapses. (10)

Furthermore, there exists an apparent need to facilitate the use of cargo ships with 500 to 700 ton displacements to transport Chinese made surplus goods from the river port of Simao, Yunnan to the Thai cities of Chiang Khong and Chiang Sean then further south to Luang Prabang and the capital city of Vientiane in Laos. On their return trip, those ships will bring back minerals and raw materials to satisfy China’s industrial development requirements. In April of 2001, to fill that need, a project named “Navigation Channel Improvement Project on the Upper Mekong River” was signed by the four countries of China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. The two countries of Cambodia and Vietnam were left out in the process.

According to plan, 21 sections of the Mekong River from Yunnan to Laos where rapids and islets are found will be made wider and deeper with the use of dynamites. Hundreds of tons of rock will be pulverized then used to fill deep cavities in the riverbed by a fleet of backhoe boats. The many species of fish that live in these cavities will be deprived of their natural habitat. As a result, fishermen will also lose their fishing grounds during the Dry Season.

Right from the start, it is recognized that the reconfiguration of the Mekong’s rapids with dynamites will bring about grave imbalances to the region’s hydrology. The current will course faster and more turbulently causing the riverbanks to cave in and destroy the crops planted along the riverbanks. The nefarious impacts wrought upon the ecology and the lives of the people` of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand will be instantaneous. Not to mention the chain reaction effects that will alter the way of life of the people in Cambodia and Vietnam who live further down the river.

LOWER BASIN – THAILAND CHANGES COURSE

Very early in the 1990’s, Thailand considered two bold plans to divert the water of the Mae Nam Khong, the Lao-Thai name of the Mekong.

Project Number One: KONG-CHI-MUN
 
Since 1992, the Thai government had revealed the existence of an extensive plan requiring a total investment cost of US$ 4 billion to construct a 200 kilometer long network of giant aqueducts and redirect the Mekong’s water near Nong Khai to a series of dams sitting astride the Chi and Mun Rivers. This water will then be used to irrigate the parched rice fields in those rivers’ basins. (6)

Named the Kong-Chi-Mun-Irrigation Project (KCM), it evidently posed imminent and serious threats to the Mekong River flow and met with strong objections from Vietnam. Laos could not refrain from voicing her fear that the planned water diversion would entail a drop in the water level of the Mekong creating grave navigation problems. Cambodia’s Minister of Ecology, Dr. Mak Moreth, also joined in to sound the alarm that Thailand’s water diversion project may bring about a slower flow rate for the Mekong and all its accompanying effects. (6)

Project Number Two: KOK-ING-NAN

Two years had barely passed before the Thai government announced in 1994 a second big project named Kok-Ing-Nan to divert water from the Mekong’s two major tributaries named Kok and Ing Rivers in the vicinity of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. This audacious project bore a price tag of US$ 1.5 billion used to build 100 kilometers of gigantic tunnels to channel that water into the Nan River, an affluent of the Chao Phraya River. This huge mass of water was then fed into the reservoir of a huge dam named after queen Sirikit that was in constant need of water to generate electricity and for two other purposes. (7) First, to irrigate the immense fields in the Chao Phraya Delta that was suffering from prolonged drought. Second, to satisfy the demand for water of the expanding industrial zones and the 10 million residents of the capital city of Bangkok.

The three neighboring countries can object as much as they wish. Slowly but surely, Thailand will go ahead with the implementation of her plans.

LOWER BASIN – A DOZEN MORE DAMS ON THE MEKONG

The projects to build hydroelectric dams on the Lower Mekong have come into existence since the time of the Mekong River Committee. The construction sites for those dams were once again endorsed by the Canadian and French consultants and published by the Mekong Secretariat in 1994. However, those projects were temporarily shelved on account of their costs as well as of their negative impacts on the ecology.

Beginning in 2006; companies from Malaysia, Thailand, and China were given the green light to carry out feasibility studies for six—later raised to eleven then twelve—“run-of-river” dams on the Lower Mekong. Below is the listing of the eleven dams in geographical order from north to south [Figure 2]:
  1. Pak Beng Dam, Laos 1,320 MW; project sponsors: Chinese company Datang International Power Generation Co. and Laotian government.

  2. Luang Prabang Dam, Laos 1,410 MW; project sponsors: Vietnamese company Petrovietnam Power Co. and Laotian government.

  3. Xayabouri Dam, Laos, 1,260 MW, Xayabouri Province, Laos; Project Sponsors: Thai company Karnchang and Laotian government.

  4. Pak Lay Dam, Laos, 1,320 MW Xayabouri Province, Laos; project sponsor: Chinese company Sinohydro Co. June, 2007 to do feasibility studies.

  5. Xanakham Dam, Laos, 1,000MW; project sponsor: Chinese company Datang International Power Generation Co.

  6. Pak Cho Dam, Lao-Thai borders, 1,079 MW

  7. Ban Koum Dam, Lao-Thai borders, 2,230 MW, Ubon Ratchathani Province; project sponsors: Italian-Thai Development Co., Ltd and Asia Corp Holdings Ltd. and Laotian government.

  8. Lat Sua Dam, Laos, 800 MW; project sponsors: Thai companies Charoen Energy and Water Asia Co. Ltd., and Laotian government.

  9. Don Sahong Dam, 360 MW, Champasak Provimce, Laos: project sponsor: Malaysian company Mega First Berhad Co.

  10. Stung Treng Dam, Cambodia, 980 MW; project sponsor: Russian government.

  11. Sambor Dam, Cambodia; project sponsors: Chinese company China Southern Power Grid Co. (CSPG).
Beijing is implementing its plan to build 14 dams on the Upper Mekong in Yunnan Province. Presently, it also takes part in the building of four additional ones in the Lower Mekong. Motivated by short-term interest, Vietnam is sponsoring the Luang Prabang Dam Project (1,410 MW). The “double standard” Vietnam used in deciding to support this project will put Hanoi in an untenable position when the time comes for it to complain about the nefarious impacts of the Mekong’s dams on Vietnam before the United Nations.

THE IRRESPONSIBLE MEKONG RIVER COMMISSION

A number of assessments done on the social and ecological impacts of individual dams were never made public by the Mekong River Commission. Consequently, several ecological organizations felt compelled to forcefully voice their concern about the severe and long-lasting impacts caused by the dams on the fish and water sources of the Mekong that would eventually affect the livelihood of millions of people.

Judging from its track record, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that the Mekong River Commission has been lackadaisical in its handling of the reemergence of the projects for hydroelectric dams on the Lower Mekong. What’s more, it failed to inform the inhabitants along the riverbanks about the dangers posed by the proposed dams. It even goes as far as withholding unfavorable news concerning those projects. A question then arises: in the coming days, can this institution still serve any useful purpose in the common effort to preserve the well-being of the Mekong?

The environmentalists allude to the sense of responsibility of this intergovernmental agency when they stated: “The commission needs to prove it is a useful organization for the public, not just investors”. Surichai Wankaew, Director of the Institute of Social Research at the Chulalongkorn University, Thailand told a new conference in Bangkok, he wanted the commission’s role changed. Instead of “facilitating dam construction” it should be a platform for affected peope and society to voice their concerns. (11)

Prior to that, over 200 environmental organizations from 30 nations had demanded that the Commission and donor institutions put a stop to the construction of dams.

In a meeting held on 11/15/2007 at Siem Reap, a protest letter was addressed to the Mekong River Commission and financial institutions. It observed that the MRC has “remained notably silent”, in the face of these new hydropower projects. The letter added “If the MRC does not act now to uphold the 1995 Agreement and defend the ecological integrity of the Mekong, the institution is a river authority in name only and does not deserve the tens of millions of dollars worth of grant and technical assistance that it receives from international donor agencies.” (12)

Normally, the Commission should issue a recommendation calling for a stop to dam building projects along the banks of the river. Surprisingly, it prefers to keep silent instead. The studies done by the Chinese, Thai, and Malaysian companies never fail to mention the benefits emanating from the dams. On the other hand, they turn a blind eye to the dam’s long-term impacts on the eco-system. Right before their eyes, tens of thousands of inhabitants of the riverbanks had to resettle to new locations and face an uncertain future.

The Mekong is an international river whose resources can be shared by all the bordering countries. It is not the private property of any group of financiers or particular country.

At the meeting in Siem Reap in November of 2007, the participants included: the Mekong River Commission, World Bank (WB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), and other countries like Australia, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States. The funding sources had expressed their strong reservations about: (a) the need to improve MRC’s operational structure, and (b) a deep concern about MRC’s lack of receptivity and leadership ability with regard to development plans including the exploitation of hydroelectricity.

The author wishes to draw the readers’ attention to the fact that the MRC has failed to either solicit the opinion of the public and private investors or pay due considerations to the accumulative effects caused by the dams on the fishery and food safety of the region. We recommend that the MRC provides information pertaining to the notification process that precedes the consultation and agreement phases. (10)

It is quite evident that the powerful “funding institutions for dam construction” like the Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank (WB) are paying close attention to the criticism and protestation directed at them by the organizations working for the preservation of the ecology – mainly from Cambodia and Thailand but regrettably not from Vietnam … They have shown signs of being more cautious and attentive in their dealings.

AN IRREVERSIBLE EVOLUTION 
 
To build or not to build dams? It is only a matter of time for the answer to that question to become obvious. In due course, the developing countries will inevitably turn into consumer societies. The need to provide sufficient electricity for development allows us to predict with a high degree of certainty that sooner or later, fast or slow, those 12 dams in the Lower Mekong will be built within the first half of the 21st century. As for the Upper Mekong, within a shorter time, China will finish building all of its 14 dams in Yunnan.

The total projected number of dams to be built on the Mekong’s main current is reported at 24. This is a process that could not be easily reversed. The crux of the problem is how to come up with a sustainable and optimum hydropower development policy considering that the conditions and needs of the individual countries in the Basin are so disparate.

For instance, in the Lower Basin alone, Laos finds it indispensable to maximize the exploitation of its hydropower potentials in order to export electricity and earn the needed foreign exchange that would help deliver it from poverty. This country may soon start the construction of Xayaburi, its first dam on the main current of the Mekong, in spite of the advice from Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) to wait ten more years to allow for a more exhaustive assessment to be completed. Thailand is constantly in need for more electricity.

However, in the face of vigorous opposition from environmental organizations as well as civilian groups, the Thai dam building projects are expected to proceed at a slower pace. As for Cambodia, with the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen demonstrating a complete disregard for the environment, the construction of the Sambor and Stung Treng Dams on the Mekong’s main current appears all but certain.

The Tiền and Hậu Rivers flow through the Mekong Delta which is for the most part a huge flat land with no significant potentials for hydropower. Nevertheless, Vietnam has exploited to the fullest the hydropower potentials of the Mekong’s large tributaries. A case in point is the Yali Dam (in Gia Lai and Kontum, Central Highlands) on the Se San River. Recently, the Vietnamese government has built the Se San 2 and Stung Treng Dams in Cambodia. [VNEconomyNews.com]

AN OUTLOOK FOR THE NEXT HALF CENTURY
 
We have lived through the first decade of the 21st century. With advanced technology coupled with unbridled greed, it would be child’s play for humans to kill a river and devastate an entirely rich yet fragile eco-system on this planet.

Who would be responsible to “maintain the minimum current flow” of the Mekong during the Dry Season to prevent salt water from infringing deeper into the Mekong Delta from the East Sea? And to ensure, as well, a strong enough flow in the Rainy Season to allow the Tonle Sap River to reverse course and discharge into the Tonle Sap Lake so that “the heart” of Cambodia can keep on beating. To this day, not a single person had ventured a plausible solution. A big question about the usefulness of the Mekong River Commission: Is it an institution in name only? The plain fact is: it has never served as a think tank or acted as an organization with enough standing to hold its ground against the large international dam-building consortiums and especially a powerful country like China.

When the Mekong River Committee was reorganized into a Commission, it still kept the same four countries in the Lower Basin of the Mekong as its members. Nowadays, the macro development plans for the Mekong extend over the entire length of this river encompassing both Basins. With its existing rules and bylaws as well as stature, the Commission is no longer equipped to deal with the challenges of the present situation. Clearly, we cannot expect an uneven fight pitting a wolf against a sheep to bring about a fair outcome. The wolf here is China while the sheep the Mekong River Commission.

For that reason, an initiative emerges from The Viet Ecology Foundation to promote the establishment of an expanded Lancang-Mekong River Commission (LMRC) composed of the original four nations plus Myanmar and China. Its news charter would conform to the “Spirit of the Mekong” and be acceptable to all parties concerned. An organization focused on the Mekong, no matter what its name is, must have China as an official member because half the length of this river flows within that country’s boundary. Failing that, the organization would be ineffective.

Unless we could turn the corner or make a timely attempt to save it, the Mekong will be reduced to a dead waterway before our eyes in a very near future. It will only be good to generate hydropower, be used as a transportation channel and, worse yet, a drain pipe to carry industrial waste from Yunnan, China to the nations downstream.

WHAT TO DO WITH TWO DEPRESSIONS AND AN “EAST SEA HIGHWAY”?

Long gone is the time when farmers in the once bountiful Mekong Delta of the past century could boast that to earn a living for them was “more play than work”. Who could imagine that in the second half of the 21st century, there will no longer be a granary to feed the whole country and the Tiền and Hậu will turn into dead rivers because the sweet water that customarily flows down from the north is being retained in the dam reservoirs upstream and replaced by the sea water of the rising East Sea. The Civilization of Orchard will sadly become only a cherished memory.

Confronted with such tragedy, a question that comes naturally to mind is: “What can we do?” The answer to that question surely requires a lot of hard thinking on the part of the people. They will have to come up with novel ideas, innovative approaches, and long deliberations.

What can be learned from the Netherlands/ Pays Bas, the low-lying country, which maintains a network of man-made dikes and hydrology designed to retain the earth and keep out the sea water from the North Sea? In addition, this network of dams offers the added benefits of flood protection and land reclamation. The American Society of Civil Engineers has applauded this Dutch system of dams as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

What can be learned from South Korea’s Saemageum Seawall Project? This newly built longest seawall in the world starts from the country’s east coast bordering the Yellow Sea and sits astride the mouths of the Dongjin and Manggyeong Rivers. The project was started in 1991 and completed in 2010. It is acclaimed as a construction feat of tideland reclamation on a larger scale than Holland’s Zuiderzee Works.

The first thing to be learned from these two peoples – one in the West and the other in the East – is the formulation of a “great idea” along with the desire and determination to realize it while confronting insurmountable obstacles and vastly different geographical surroundings.

In the next two articles, in a nutshell, the author will discuss (a) the chance for survival of the Mekong Delta with the Đồng Tháp Mười and Đồng Cà Mau large depressions serving as two sweet water natural lakes and (b) the building of a strategic dam also serving as an “East Sea Highway” to check the infringement of sea water. To safeguard this land of destiny, this sacred ground, of the Vietnamese people, there is no bargaining on the price tag and the time required to do it may be longer than a human lifespan.

NGO THE VINH, M.D.
California, 01-11-2011
[ Source: Viet Ecology Foundation ]


References:
  1. Progress in water management at the Mekong River Ba¬sin, MRC presentation at Third WWF, INBO Official Session, Mar 20, 2004

  2. Mekong River at risk, Barry Wain, FEER, Aug 26, 2004

  3. Chinese Dam Project may spell disaster for mighty Mekong River, Denis Gray, Nov 2, 2002, (AP)

  4. Hun Sen backed China’s often-criticized development plans for the Mekong River, Phnom Penh, Jun 29, 2005, (AFP)

  5. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao opened the Second Greater Mekong Subregion Summit, Beijing, Jul 4, 2005, (AFP)

  6. The Mekong, Environment and Development, Hiroshi Hori, United Nations, University Press, Tokyo 2000

  7. Kok-Ing-Nan Water diversion Project, Mekong Watch: Japanese ODA to Thailand, FY 2001

  8. Dalai Lama says prioritise climate change over politics in Tibet; Guardian.co.uk_ The US Embassy cables 10 August 2009

  9. On the Mekong, a better way. Qin Hui, Economic Observer. Where China and the World Discuss the Environment. December 25, 2010

  10. Chinese environmentalists and scholars appeal for dam safety assessments in geologically unstable south-west China https://probeinternational.org/referenced/chinese-environmentalists-and-scholars-appeal-dam-safety-assessments-geologically-unstabl

  11. Mekong Commission blasted over river dams http://www.internationalrivers.org/node/3027

  12. Mekong River Commission Remiss - Activists, by Marwaan Macan-Markar, Nov 14, 2007, IPS.

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