Thứ Sáu, 3 tháng 10, 2014


After the Ayeyawady-Chao Praya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) Summit on 11/17/2010 in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen again dismissed all concerns about the impacts of the hydroelectric dams located upstream the Mekong. He asserted that the cycle of floods and droughts was the result of climate change and carbon emissions that had nothing to do with the series of hydroelectric dams in China. (1)

That statement from one of the four powerful national leaders in the Lower Mekong, could not fail but astound the activists and ecological organizations that, for all those years, have shown their commitment to save the fragile and gradually degrading ecology of the Mekong. This article offers an overall view of the situation along with his analysis of Prime Minister Hun Sen‘s recent statement.

In the aftermath of the cold war, China swung open her door to the outside world. With the American predominance receding from Southeast Asia, China becomes the de facto active new player with farreaching influence over the whole of the Greater Mekong Subregion.

Though the region’s major actor, China consistently refuses to join the Mekong River Commission. This country is facing a set of difficult challenges: 1) a dwindling global oil supply, 2) an insatiable thirst for energy source, 3) an immediate need to increase the annual output of electricity from 5 to 6% in order to meet its demand of economic development. Consequently, China is set on its course to develop the abundant potential for hydro-electricity derived from her rivers including the Mekong.
In addition to the construction of the series of 14 dams of the Yunnan Cascades on the Mekong, China is actively building dams in Asia like:

On the Irrawaddy River: Since the end of 2007, Beijing has started the construction of the largest hydroelectric dam, Myitsone, in Myanmar. As reported by the state owned newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, since May of 2007, the Burmese Government has approved a project to build seven hydroelectric dams on the Irrawaddy River with a combined total estimated output of 13,360 MW. This is a joint venture between the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) and Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power No. 1.

On the Tibetan High Plateau: All the major rivers in Asia originate from the Tibetan High Plateau. In the East, besides the Yellow and the Yangtze Rivers that flow within the national boundaries of China, one must mention three others: the Mekong, Irrawaddy, and Salween. To the West and Southwest, there are the: Indus, Sutlej and Yarlung Zangpo.

Beijing has confirmed that it will build the first dam on the Yarlung Zangpo or Brahmaputra, also known as the “the highest river in the world”, in the Himalayas. This river brings life sustaining water to millions of Indians. The Chinese experts also disclosed a plan to build 4 more dams in the valley lying between the Sangro and Jiacha districts.

India has expressed its reservations that the planned construction of the Chinese dams will directly impact the flow of the Brahmaputra. This River provides India’s Northeast provinces with the water needed for their agriculture and industries. A senior diplomat of India, Mr. Ananth Krishnan, believes that even though this unchecked building of dams is confined to within the Chinese borders, it would unavoidably cast a dark cloud over China’s relationship with the countries downstream. He went on to make this comparison: “India is just as alarmed about dams on the Yarlung Zangbo as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are about China’s dams on the Mekong River in Yunnan”.

On his part, the Dalai Lama expressed on many occasions his deep concern about “China’s energy policy”. He maintains that the political solution for Tibet can be relegated to the backburner for 5 to 10 years. Not the ecology issues. He appeals to the international community, including the United States, to focus its attention on the pressing ecological issues that threaten the Tibet High Plateau stemming from China’s programs of deforestation, dam construction, mine exploitation… Some of those issues include: pollution and degradation of the environment. (2)

Commenting on the Chinese plans to exploit the Mekong, Tyson Roberts of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (USA) remarked: “The construction of hydroelectric dams, use of the river as 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 as it is the case with the Yangtze and other big rivers of China”

The Chinese claimed that the water coming from the Lancang Jiang only amounts to 13.5% of the average annual discharge of the Mekong into the East Sea. Therefore, the dams in Yunnan only bear minimal impacts on the rivers downstream. However, according to Milton Osborne who is a respected expert on Southeast Asia and author of many books on the Mekong River: “The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future” and “River Road to China”, the current flow of the Lancang Jiang during the Dry Season at certain sections contributes up to 40% of the Mekong’s water capacity – about three times the figures of 13.5% cited by China”.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has more than once simply echoes and reinforces the Chinese pro-dam position to mislead the public, that the detrimental impacts of the series of dams in the Yunnan Cascades are non-existent.


The ice cap in the Himalayas ranks third in size after the North and South Poles. For that reason, people sometimes refer to it as the Third Pole. Lonnie Thompson, glaciologist at Ohio State University, calls this ice cap: “Asia’s freshwater bank account” because “it is a lockbox of snow and glacial ice that supplies fresh water to nearly a third of world’s people”. (3)

The World Wide Fund warns that, due to global warming, the ice cap on the Himalayas may shrink at the rapid rate of 10 to 15 meters per year. Consequently, hundreds of millions of people that depend on the water coming from rivers that receive their water from this ice cap may experience water shortage.

In the immediate short term, the river flow will sharply increase on account of the fast melting down of the ice cap. But as explained by Jennifer Morgan, Director of Nature’s Global Climate Change Programme, the situation will reverse itself in the following few decades. The ice cap that feeds water to the seven major rivers in Asia, including the Mekong, will eventually be exhausted resulting in dangerously low water levels in all those rivers.

The Mekong receives its water from upstream. When a water shortage occurs, it is reasonable to expect that any water coming from the Tibetan High Plateau will be retained in the series of dams of the Yunnan Cascades. In such an event, a water penury afflicting the river sections downstream would appear all but unavoidable.

It is common knowledge that the “Heart” of the Tonle Sap Lake can only beat when the Mekong River reverses its course during the Rainy Season. This phenomenon is a natural wonder peculiar to Cambodia. During the Dry Season the lake dries up and measures only 2,500 km2. However, with the start of the Rainy Season, lasting from May to September, the water level of the Mekong rises forcing the Tonle Sap River to reverse its course and flow into the Tonle Sap Lake causing its water level to swell from 8 to 10 meters and overflow its banks. Consequently, the lake’s area expands to almost five times its size or to 12,000 km2.

The flooded forests of the Tonle Sap Lake se rve as the breeding grounds that supply Cambodia with an enormous quantity of food. It consists mainly of fish that accounts for 60% of the fish consumed in the country. The Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake are the birthplace of the ancient as well as modern Khmer civilization. Regrettably, the survival of the Tonle Sap Lake itself is in doubt when nefarious impacts began to be felt with the construction of the dams in Yunnan.

Nevertheless, in PM Hun Sen’s opinion, there is no reason for people to be alarmed. In June, 2005, during an address at a ceremony to release breeding fish into a lake in the eastern part of the country, Mr. Hun Sen expressed his satisfaction with the existing way the Mekong was being exploited. He declared: “There is no cause for concern”. Before boarding the plane to attend the Summit Meeting in Kunming, Mr. 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. Outdoing himself, Mr. Hun Sen added: “Critics raised these issues merely to show they pay attention to the environment. At times, they use their objections to impede the cooperation the six countries should offer each other”. (Phnom Penh, AFP, 6/29/05)

Prince Sihanouk shows that he holds a more informed view. In November, 1993, he issued a royal decree classifying the Tonle Sap Lake as “Multiple Use Protected Areas”. Thanks to his relentless efforts, the Lake was recognized by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve of the World in October of 1997.

Just recently, at the close of the Summit Meeting of the ACMECS held on 11/17/2010 in Phnom Penh with the attendance of the five countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, PM Hun Sen again disregarded the concerns about the impacts of the hydroelectric dams on the Mekong. He asserted that the recent spate of floods or droughts stemmed from climate change that had nothing to do with the hydroelectric dams in China.

When talking with reporters, PM Hun Sen mocked them for claiming that the dams upstream the Mekong had caused its water levels to drop to its historically low marks. “The rising of water and the lowering of the water along the Mekong – is the result of hydroelectricity?” He said: “I would like to show you some figures.” The premier said that in 1998 the Mekong hit a record low of 7.5 meters, but in 2000 rose to nearly 12 meters… Hun Sen blamed the variance of Mekong’s water levels on climate change and carbon emissions. “It’s related to the emissions that changed the pattern of the rains,” Hun Sen said. “So don’t be too extreme of an environmentalist, and don’t say that because of the hydroelectricity there is no water in the lower part of the Mekong. That would be a mistake,” he warned. “ Last year, Hun Sen said, China faced a shortage of water. So how could you blame China when there is no water?” (1)

This writer would like to draw the readers’ attention to the two years referred to by Mr. Hun Sen:

The year 1998: completed in 1993, Manwan is the first hydroelectric dam to straddle the main current of the Mekong. It operated at full capacity generating 1,500MW in 1995. Water is still being diverted to its reservoir to run its turbines. The second dam, Dachaosan with a reported output of 1,350 MW is under construction. A lack of rain combined with water impound had resulted in the water level downstream the Mekong to dip to a mere 7.5 meters.

The year 2000: in the two months of August and September of that year, a combination of heavy and abnormally long monsoon rains coupled with high tides preventing the water from flowing into the East Sea caused the water level downstream the Mekong to rise to 12 meters. A most devastating flood in several decades ensued claiming heavy physical damages and considerable human tolls in Cambodia and Vietnam.

The first months of the current year (2010) saw the water levels in northern Laos and Thailand drop to their record marks in 50 years creating much uneasiness about the safety of food, drinking water, and travel on the waterways. This is also the period when water was being drawn into the reservoir of the fourth dam Xiaowan (4,200 MW) to start its operation. Xiaowan also known as the “mother dam” has a reservoir capacity reported at 15 billion cubic meters equaling the combined capacity of all the reservoirs in Yunnan Province.

It is irrefutable that “climate change” is a major factor but it is not the only one. The abnormal weather patterns in no way absolve the long term roles of the big dams on the Mekong.

China is embarking on a vigorous program to, among other things, [a] build gigantic hydroelectric dams on the main current of the Mekong; [b] carry out reef blasting and channeling on the Mekong to open a waterway to the south that can accommodate 700 ton vessels regardless of the impacts on the river’s current; [c] turn the Mekong into an oil shipping route from the riverport of Chiang Rai to Yunnan. In doing so, China disregards the warnings offered by the Chinese environmental scholars and experts that the south-west of China is a geologically unstable region.

To fully evaluate the cumulative and chain-reaction effects the hydroelectric dams upstream the Mekong brought to bear on the pollution and sources of fish, alluvia, rice, food ... downstream, we need to take an overall look at the complex picture. To blame everything, like Mr. Hun Sen, on a set of two numbers and the popular phrase “climate change” is not acceptable.

While Beijing is struggling to ward off the protests of public opinion and soothe the opposition of the inhabitants in northern Laos and Thailand, the very victims of the dams in Yunnan; PM Hun Sen volunteers to be China’s public defender. One who is eager but uninformed.

Mr. Hun Sen is the leader of Cambodia, a country that runs the risk of having the entire ecosystem of the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake being degraded in an “evident and noticeable” manner. He should have asked China to adopt a “transparent” policy and make public hydrological data concerning the dams upstream the Mekong. However, Mr. Hun Sen decided to dismiss the legitimate and informed concerns raised over the past decades by environmental experts and NGO’s like Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), International River Network (IRN)….

By blaming everything on “nature, climate change”, Mr. Hun Sen wishes to walk away from the situation. He shows complete disregard for the efforts to save the Tonle Sap Lake that is the food source in fish and rice to almost 15 million Cambodians. To a larger extent, it is also to save the fragile resources of the Mekong affecting the livelihood of almost 70 million people living in the seven nations along the riverbanks.

More than ever, the Greater Mekong Subregion is in dire need of a competent and credible “think tank” to advocate adeptly for its wellbeing and put to rest irresponsible voices and actions that may harm it.

According to Fred Pearce’s prediction, by the start of the next decade, the series of dams in the Yunnan Cascades will have the capacity to retain more than half the flow of the Mekong before this river leaves the Chinese borders. As far as Beijing is concerned “The Mekong is destined to become China’s new water tower and electric tower house.” (4)

In order to have enough water to run the turbines of the dams in the series of the Yunnan Cascades, China regularly closes the dams’ floodgates forcing the water level downstream to dip to its lowest marks. In Laos, in the single month of March, 2004, ten tourist tours had to be cancelled due to low water levels.

Chainarong Sretthachau, director of the Southeast Asian Rivers Network, remarked: “China really has the power to control the current of the Mekong”.

It is unfortunate that the developing countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion do not have “statesmen with visions” in leadership positions. Their natural resources are allowed to be exploited to the utmost while future generations are left to hold the bags.

The dams on the Mekong have and continue to generate disquieting news not only in the Delta regions but also worldwide. The fact that PM Hun Sen, a national leader who commands power and popular appeals, does not see any merits in them offers ground for alarm because he does so with complete disregard for reason or public opinion.

What would be the best positioned authority to counter such a negative attitude? Certainly, it cannot be private individuals but an institution that attracts “gray matter” committed to uphold the “Spirit of the Mekong”. That way, rationality will prevail over or at least neutralize the commands of emotion.


From ages past, at the close of the Rainy Season, the water level in the Mekong River stabilizes and the Tonle Sap River reverts to its normal flow carrying tons of fish and shrimps from the Tonle Sap Lake to the Mekong’s tributaries and as fas as the Mekong Delta. This is also the time for the celebration of the Water Festival Bon Om Tuk. It is customarily held in November in front of the Royal Palace at “Quatre Bras”, the French name for Chatomuk, where the four tributaries of the Mekong congregate. On this occasion, the king and queen traditionally join their subjects in the celebration to usher in a new fishing and farming season.

This year 2010, Bon Om Tuk takes place in a day with full moon. Next year, Bon Om Tuk will be held again. How much longer will this Water Festival still be celebrated in its traditional sense is the question that comes to mind. As long as the Tonle Sap River has enough water to reverse its course then the heart of the Tonle Sap Lake will keep on beating. It is irrefutable that we have now a Tonle Sap Lake that is not so healthy. The fishermen and farmers of Cambodia know it well from the reduced income they get from their catches or harvests.

From the stand point of an environmentalist, a day of reckoning for the ecology of Cambodia will come if the heart of the Tonle Sap Lake ceases to beat. If that slow but certain death ever comes, then Mr. Hun Sen cannot claim complete innocence in its happening.

In the book titled “When the Rivers Run Dry, Water – The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century” and published in 2006, its author Fred Pearce wrote in the chapter about the Mekong:

... “But at the end of 2003 and early 2004 was a deperate time on the Tonle Sap. The summer flood had been poor. The reversal of the river into the Great Lake started late and finished early. A five-month reversal had become a three-month reversal. Less forest was flooded, and the fish had less time to mature. The bag nets caught a mere 6,600 tons – less than half the usual haul and the worst on record… Out on the river, most of the fishermen said their catches had never been so poor. Most blame low flows. One, heading back to his floating village across the lake with empty nest, told me simply, “When the water is shallow in front of the royal palace, there are no fish in the river.” (5)

… A recent report “Damming the Mekong: Major Blow to an Epic River” by Yale Environment 360 rang this alarm bell:

…“In late May 2009, a report from the United Nations Environment Programme warned that these dams are ‘the single greatest threat’ to the future of the river and its fecundity. The new regime will largely eliminate the river’s annual flood pulse, one of the natural wonders of the world, and wreck the ecosystems that depend on it.”

Aviva Imhof, campaigns director at the International Rivers Network, said the dams will cause incalculable damage downstream. “China is acting at the height of irresponsibility,” said Imhof. “Its dams will wreak havoc with the Mekong ecosystem as far downstream as the Tonle Sap. They could sound the death knell for fisheries which provide food for over 60 million people.” (4)

To be fair, in 2007 Mr. Hun Sen did pay attention to a serious envinronmental disaster resulting from local factors: cutting down of the flooded forests which is the feeding grounds of wild animals, over-exploitation of natural resources, and increased pollution. However, Mr. Hun Sen has persistently omitted to mention another factor: the hydroelectric dams upstream. On the other hand, Cambodian experts like Dr. Neou Bonheur, director of the Tonle Sap Environment Management Project (TSEMP), always stress the impacts the dams bring to bear on the seasonal influx of water, the Tonle Sap Lake, and the fish catches that supply 2/3 of the protein intake of the Cambodian people. (6)

In his recent article “On the Mekong – A Better Way” published in the English edition of the weekly Chinese newspaper The Economic Observer, Dr. Qin Hui, a respected scholar in mainland China and a professor at the Tsinghua University in Beijing, has openly criticized Beijing’s response to the concerns raised by the people living downstream the Mekong. He wrote: “It is impossible for a large reservoir to have ‘no impact’ downstream. The right question is: what kind of impact?” (7)

It is impossible to believe that PM Hun Sen is not informed about the serious impacts emanating from the series of dams in the Yunnan Cascades. They are like death knells marking the demise of the Mekong and its ecosystem. For short term political considerations Mr Hun Sen chose to ignore them. But in the end, it is the future of the Cambodian people and the civilization of Angkor which are on the balance.

California, 01/01/2011

  1. Hun Sen denies China Dam impacts – Thomas Miller & Cheang Sokha; The Phnom Penh Post, Nov 17, 2010

  2. Dalai Lama says prioritise climate change over politics in Tibet; The US Embassy cables 10 August 2009

  3. The Big Melt: The Third pole; National Geographic, April 2010, Vol.217, No.4

  4. The Damming of The Mekong: Major Blow to An Epic River, Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360, Jun 17, 2009

  5. When The Rivers Run Dry, Water – The Defining Crisis of The Twenty First Century. Fred Pearce, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts 2006

  6. Saving Cambodia’s Great Lake, Philippa Fogarty_ BBC News , 29 May 2008

  7. Qin Hui, On the Mekong, a better way; chinadialogue

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