Thứ Bảy, 4 tháng 10, 2014

The Siem Reap Meeting A Fragile Agreement [12-08-2011] for the Free Flowing of the Mekong’s Mainstream

To the Friends of the Mekong Group
& VN2020 Mekong Group

“Being an international river, the Mekong serves as a lifeline and a common thread linking the more than 70 ethnic minority groups living in the basin. A sustainable development policy and the preservation of the Mekong’s eco-system represent the two surest ways to safeguard the civilization of the river, the food supply of rice and fish, and the stability as well as peace of the entire Southeast Asian region. A hasty construction of the Xayaburi Dam with all its accompanying shortcomings would be tantamount to a policy of destructive exploitation that can potentially result in poverty down the road. But most importantly, it could lead to hot confrontations for the control of water and long lasting irreparable damages in the pursuit of development which will prove in the end a short-live one”

THE POTENTIALS FOR HYDROPOWER OF THE MEKONG

The Mekong meanders for 4,900 km and more than half of which or 2,700 km lies outside the Chinese borders. It is in Laos that we find the longest section (1,880 km) of the Mekong running within a national territory.

The estimated potential for hydroelectricity of the Mekong is reported at 53,000 MW. For the Lower Mekong alone, the estimated hydropower output of the tributaries can add another 35,000 MW to that total. A number of dams already built on those tributaries are being actively exploited and can generate quite a big load of electricity. A case in point is the Nam Theun2 that boasts a capacity of 1,070 MW - almost equal to that of the Xayaburi projected for construction on the Mekong’s main stream. The Nam Theun 2 went into operation in March of 2010. According to plan, 30 dams on the tributaries will start operating in 2015 and another 30 will be built by the end of 2030. [4] [Science, April 23, 2010, p.414]

The lion’s share of the above-mentioned dams will be located in Laos.


Laos is often compared to an innocent and healthy sleeping beauty who is peacefully resting in a lush jungle. Regrettably, she is awakened from her slumber by boorish “consortiums” that converge from the four corners of the world to seduce her with tales of “fast riches” or “quick money”. The only condition is for her to offer her attractive body to be exploited. If she falls to their temptations, soon she’ll be left with a depraved and emaciated body. How long can the happiness derived from that dream of “fast riches” last when all that she has to show for in the end is an increasingly bruised and injured body and a lifestyle deprived of any quality. A sad picture of what experts and economists call Casualty of Development!


[Picture I] The Dams on the mainstream and tributaries of the Mekong.
Source: Watershed, TERRA 11/ 2008

THE DREAM OF “FAST RICHES”

Wendy Chamberlin, a former International Volunteer Services (IVS) in the 1970’s and a former American ambassador to Laos from 1996 to 1999 offered this observation: “After years of isolating themselves behind the bamboo curtain, watching their neighbors develop and prosper, they also wish to join the club.” She is referring here to the Communist Lao leaders who only wish to see their country removed from the list of the 25 poorest countries in the world. The policy they hope will help them achieve that goal is given the name “Chin Thanakaan Mai ” meaning “Renovation” or “New Thinking”.

The Industry and Commerce Minister of the Lao government, Mr. Nam Viyaketh, declared: “If all sources of energy [Mekong] can be developed, Laos can become the battery of Southeast Asia, we can sell our energy to our neighbors. Laos can be rich.[Laos Turns to Hydropower to be Asia’s Battery; Jared Ferrie, The Christian Science Monitor, July 2, 2010]

The powerful Vice Minister of Energy and Mines of Laos, Mr. Viraphonp Viravong, frequently goes on field trips to the Mekong in search for locations to build new dams with the hope of bringing instant prosperity to his land. The people who live in the vicinity of the dams’ construction sites are incessantly bombarded with rosy promises such as: use of electricity all year-round, new roads, hospitals, schools, and income from the hydroelectric dams.

On the other hand, they are never informed about the nefarious impacts that ensue in the wake of the dams like losing their lands or orchards, relocation, loss of revenue from fishing and alluvium. According to the environmentalists the enthusiastic efforts of the Lao government to push ahead with its dam building projects may result in indescribable damages both in the short and long run to not only the Lao people but to the inhabitants of the other basins as well.

A question then comes to mind: “If the Lao people are allowed a say in the process do they really want to construct a dam to occlude the Mother River / Mae Nam Khong that has been their life giving source for thousands of year?” For a long time already, they have been facing the direct impacts of the first hydroelectric dam Nam Ngum [1971] and the subsequent ones built on the Mekong’s tributaries all over Laos. Nowadays, in the case of the Xayaburi Dam projected to be built on the Mekong’s main stream they are confronted with an unattractive picture: uncertain benefits on one hand and long term destructive impacts clearly defined by experts and environmentalists on the other. Those negative impacts can be readily seen in many areas: waterway transportation, fish migration, alluvium deposits, water quality, water ecology or even dam safety at acceptable levels.

TRUST CRISIS

In April of 2011, the Joint Committee of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) issued a statement revealing that the member countries were unable to reach a decision to go ahead with the Xayaburi Project. Two months later, the Lao government unilaterally gave the green light to the Thai company Ch.Karnchang to proceed with the project. A reporter of the Bangkok Post reported that on a trip to the Xayaburi construction site on 9/19/2011 he saw with his own eyes that all the heavy equipments including backhoes were still being used in the building of the almost completed (over 90%) road leading to the dam site. Mr. Viraphonh Viravong tries his best to explain away this blatant violation of the official decision: “It goes without saying that the road will only be used after the Xayaburi project is given the go ahead again. Failing that, all facilities will revert to the use of the local authorities providing its officials with easy access to the remote villages.” [3] [Bangkok Post Updated on Xayaburi Construction; Bangkok Post Sunday, 09-18-2011]

The 18th Meeting of the Mekong River Commission Council Mekong River Commission in Siem Reap held on 12/08/2011 came to the decision to suspend temporarily the implementation of the Xayaburi Project. It did not come about with the unanimous support of the member countries.
The Lao representative Mr. Viraphonh Viravong expressed his discontent:

If it is necessary to obtain a special authorization for us to do something then nothing will be done. Whether this is good or bad – I don’t know. But we will not have development”. [4] In an email sent to the The Times, Vivaphonh wrote: “It would be very sad and not very fair to Laos not to develop the Xayaburi project since this is a very rare opportunity for Laos to attract foreign investment. We would not be very proud of ourselves to continue begging for development assistance.” [9] In total disregard of the negative impacts mentioned in the Strategic Environmental Assessment of Mainstream Dams MRC, Mr. Viraphonh Viravong consistently insisted that the impacts caused by the Xayaburi Dam are insignificant and there would be no trans-boundary damaging impacts to the nations downstream.

Laos never made a clear commitment to suspend the construction of the Xayaburi Dam. The spokesperson of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Mr. Surasak Glahan commented: “At the Siem Reap Meeting, the government of Laos didn’t mention the topic [Xayaburi Dam] at the meeting.” Soon after the close of the Meeting, the Mekong River Commission and the other member countries have requested the government of Laos to provide them with additional information concerning the dam. So far, no reply has been forthcoming from the Lao government.

But thirteen other nations including the United States and financial institutions like the World Bank claimed that additional research are needed in order to resolve the still pending issues. As reported by AFP, the spokesperson of Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the American Secretary of State, remarked that the decision to postpone the construction of the Xayaburi Dam is “a positive sign” [9]

For the time being, the fishermen and farmers in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta of Vietnam are feeling apprehensive about the kind of life they will have because a lot of it depends on the development policy the government of Laos will adopt. The accompanying risks that will befall the Mother River/ Mae Nam Khong, that lifeline of the Laotian people, still remain unknown time-bombs.


SIEM REAP - A FRAGILE AGREEMENT

The Meeting of the Mekong River Commission Council was held from the 7th to the 9th of December, 2011in Siem Reap, Cambodia. When referring to the agreement to suspend the construction of the Xayaburi Dam, the Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology of Cambodia Mr. Lean Kean Nor made this optimistic statement: “The outcome today demonstrates the Member Countries’ continued commitment to work together in the regional spirit of the Mekong Agreement to bring about economic development without compromising sustainability of livelihoods of their peoples and the ecology.” The Minister also happens to be the new chairman of the Mekong River Commission Council for the current term 2011-2012.[10]

Marc Goichot of the World Wildlife Fund in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) also expressed an upbeat evaluation of the results arrived at the Siem Reap Meeting in the pronouncement he made with the Reuters press agency: “The decision is certainly a game changer in the Lower Mekong. We hope this decision will have influence in the rest of Asia.

Aviva Imhof is a committed activist against the big hydroelectric dams and the editor-in-chief of the monograph “Power Struggle: The Impacts of Hydro-Development in Laos_ IRN 1999”. She has testified before the U.S. Senate on the topic of “Challenges to Water and Security in Southeast Asia” [09-23-2010] and presently serves as the campaign director of the International Rivers Network (IRN). Ms Imhof opts for a more cautionary stand: “The decision also raises the risk profile of these projects for investors, which will undoubtedly scare some investors away or make them more hesitant to fund mainstream dams in the future,” she adds: “Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the decision will affect dams being built in other parts of Asia or even on tributaries of the Mekong.” [8]

MAE NAM KHONG, THE GOOSE THAT LAID THE GOLDEN EGGS

The World Bank, the leading financing institution for the building of hydroelectric dams, declared: “the social and environmental costs of such projects have to be addressed and resolved at the planning stage – a failure to do so can sharply increase the impact.” [8] This is a process the Xayaburi Project completely failed to do. The Lao and Thai give the Mekong the appropriate name of Mother River or Mae Nam Khong because for thousands of years she has been compared to the “Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs” providing water, fish, and alluvium to support the livelihood of the millions of inhabitants in the river basin. Now, due to sheer greed and shortsightedness people are embarking on a mindless rush to exploit the river at the risk of destroying it. This is exactly the way it is depicted in the fable “La Poule aux Oeufs d’Or” or “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs” written by the French poet La Fontaine. The Vietnamese scholar Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh has admirably translated this fable into Vietnamese. This is the story of a man who owns a goose that laid golden eggs.
Believing that the goose has a treasure of gold ingots hidden in its stomach the man opens the animal up to discover to his great disappointment that “it is an empty stomach”. The morale of the story is: “human greed knows no end” and will bring about “just two empty hands”. One day the Lao people will fall victim to their greedy and unwise leaders who are only interested in “making a fast buck” to obtain “instant gratification” to the point of asphyxiating the Mother River and also the lifeline so dear to them and the many generations to come.

THE XAYABURI FILE – THAILAND IS THE CULPRIT
 
Though the Prior Consultation phase of the PNPCA has not been completed, Thailand still went ahead and signed an official agreement with the government of Laos in July of 2010 to buy the electricity to be generated by the Xayaburi Dam through the intermediary of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). [1,2]

On December 1 , 2011, one week prior to the Meeting of the Mekong River Commission Council at Siem Reap, the Thai Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Mr. Preecha Rengsomboonsuk asserted: “Laos has the right to construct the dam as it is located inside Lao territory. We will not oppose the project. But if there are any environmental impacts, the Lao government must take responsibility.”

However, the real driving forces behind the implementation of the Xayaburi Project are none other than the Thai utility companies and financiers. A task that the Lao government is incapable of doing. Thailand is the behind-the-scene instigator of the Xayaburi Project from its inception to the end: planning, financing of the US$ 3.5 billion construction cost of the dam to the use of the power output. The Thai financial powerhouses include the four big banks and a big corporation: Kasikorn Bank, Bangkok Bank, Krung Thai Bank, Siam Commercial Bank and the giant dam construction conglomerate Thai Construction Company Ch. Karnchang. Flying in the face of those clear evidences Thailand still refuses to accept her joint responsibility.

It is worth mentioning that the Thai people themselves are also suffering from the impacts of the hydroelectric dams built in their country. The only difference is: unlike the Lao and Vietnamese they do have the right to voice their concerns on this topic. How much of it will be taken seriously is another issue.

Tom Fawthrop the director of the documentary “Where have all the fish gone” viewed the conflict unfolding on the Lancang-Mekong as a confrontation between the investors/exploiters and the local inhabitants. [12]


[Picture II] The residents of the eight northeastern Thai provinces along the Mekong demonstrate against the Xayaburi Dam in front of the Lao Embassy in Bangkok. When will the inhabitants of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam be able to voice their concerns and be heard?
Source: Bangkok Post 19/04/2011

Kirk Herbertson of the International Rivers Network used a very fitting analogy to describe the close connection between Thailand and the Xayaburi Project. It is like a bank holdup in which Thailand writes the entire script, recruits the gangsters, buys the weapons, carries out the robbery, drives the getaway car and keeps most of the loots. Certainly the judge must sentence not only the armed gangsters but the mastermind and accomplices as well. Therefore, even though the dams are located in Laos, Thailand must be held responsible if the Xayaburi Project is to be completed. [3]

It should be noted that in the judgment of the International Rivers Network (IRN) Thailand does not have an urgent need for the costly electricity to be generated from the Xayaburi Dam. [5]

THAILAND PLAYS SECOND FIDDLE ONLY TO CHINA

With its Lancang-Mekong Cascades, China is not the only guilty party for the deteriorating state of the Mekong. Thailand also left her fingerprints all over the crime scene. It is advisable to recall that since the early 1990’s this country has considered two daring projects to divert the water from the Mekong.

The Kong-Chi-Mun Project: Since 1992, the Thai government has revealed the existence of a large scale irrigation plan bearing a total investment cost of US$ 4 billion. This project called for the use of a 200 kilometer long network of giant aqueducts to redirect the Mekong’s waters near Nong Khai to the Chi and Mun tributaries to irrigate the rice fields of those rivers’ basins. The KCM Project undeniably threatens the current flow of the Mekong and received strong opposition from Vietnam. The two nations of Laos and Cambodia also sided with Vietnam because this project may cause the river to dry up [8]

The Kok-Ing-Nan Project: Two years had barely passed before the Thai government announced in 1994 a second big project: the diversion of water from the Mekong’s two major tributaries named Kok and Ing in the vicinity of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. (7) This is an audacious project with a price tag of US$ 1.5 billion to pay for the building of mammoth tunnels stretching for a distance of 100 kilometers to channel the waters from those two tributaries into the Nan River, an affluent of the Chao Phraya River.

Furthermore, water diverted from the Kok and Ing will be fed into the reservoir of a huge dam named after queen Sirikit that was in constant need of water all year round. This water will then be used not only to run the turbines but also to irrigate the immense fields in the Chao Phraya Delta which were suffering from prolonged drought. Secondly, it will satisfy the demand for water of the expanding industrial zones and the 10 million residents in the capital city of Bangkok. [8]

Despite the strong opposition coming from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam there is nothing to prevent Thailand from implementing step by step its dam projects.

Pak Mun and the Fish Ladder: Also in 1994, Thailand completed the building of the Pak Mun Dam with an output of 136 MW on the Mun River, a tributary of the Mekong in Thai territory. It is recognized that this is the first dam in Thailand and the entire Southeast Asian region equipped with a fish ladder consisting of ascending steps allowing the fish to swim over the wall of the dam.
Nevertheless, the fish in the Mekong are not all like the salmons that know how to “climb” the steps to return to their source. For that same reason, Pak Mun is considered an ecological disaster to the fish and human population in the Mun Basin. Thai fishermen and farmers have joined in protests demanding that the Dam be demolished.


[Picture III] The useless Fish Ladder of the Pak Mun Dam is now copied in the design of the Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong’s mainstream
Source: International River Network

Presently, the useless model of the fish ladder is being copied in the design of the Xayaburi Dam on the mainstream of the Mekong more like a decoration than a solution to the migratory fish which are traveling in much larger schools. Đặng Thùy Trang working with the program for a sustainable development of hydropower in Laos of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) commented: “We should not use the Mekong as a laboratory to prove this technology.” [4]

Moreover, according to a report of the Mekong River Commission, the ability to generate electricity of the Xayaburi Dam will quickly decrease as the deposits of alluvium will fill up the reservoir and cause a water shortage.

A SPIRIT OF THE MEKONG

The Siem Reap Meeting has unfolded in an atmosphere of misgiving and suspicion. Large dark clouds descended on the participants creating a mood of uncertainty and crisis of trust that hinders the member countries’ efforts to preserve the ecosystem of the Mekong. Those “Odd Bedfellows” though sleeping in the same bed are not sharing the same dreams.

Because the Mekong is an international river, all exploitations of its resources for developmental purposes must be sustainable instead of destructive and the development programs in each individual country must be harmonious with those of the entire region. No country should develop at the expense of its neighbors.

The United Nations has passed in 1997 “The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Water Courses” relying on the two fundamental principles of “ not to cause significant harm to other riparians “ and “reasonable and equitable utilization” to foment a spirit of entente among the people. [12]

The Xayaburi Dam, the first dam to be built on the mainstream in the Lower Mekong, poses a big predicament to the future of the Lao people. No plausible solution for it has yet been found and it also threatens to “cause considerable damages to the other countries” or inhabitants of the entire basin. The biggest challenge is to come up with a mutually agreed upon plan of action that reflects the “Spirit of the Mekong” acceptable to all the nations in the Lower Mekong.

In the coming days, our pressing task is to restore a greatly damaged trust and instill a “Spirit of the Mekong” that can serve as a common denominator to unite all the countries in the region. To do so would require a group of leaders endowed with farsighted visions willing to pay any price to achieve overall prosperity for the region rather than selfish and short term national interests. The proposal of the special team that performed the Strategic Environmental Assessment of Mainstream Dams MRC to keep the Mekong’s mainstream flowing freely over the next decade (2010-2020) should be regarded as a Win-win Strategy, a major victory for all. That period should be used to conduct studies to enrich our knowledge of the complex yet fragile ecosystem of the Mekong basin and the potential destructive impacts of the dam projects. “This period of time [should also] be used to examine alternative non-dam options for generating electricity from the Mekong mainstream.” [6]

Looking forward into the coming days of this millennium, the preservation of a rich ecosystem for this entire planet is also synonymous to the preservation of the varied and ancient civilization of the Mekong. No short-term benefits can be seductive enough to distract us from that goal.

NGÔ THẾ VINH, M.D.
California 12/ 31/ 2011

References:
  1. Further study on impact of Mekong mainstream development to be conducted, say Lower Mekong Countries; MRC Siem Reap, Cambodia, 8th Dec 2011, http://www.mrcmekong.org/news-and-events/news/further-study-on-impact-of-mekong-mainstream-development-to-be-conducted-say-lower-mekong-countries/
  2. Mekong Governments Delay the Xayaburi Dam Pending Further Study – Civil Society Demands Clear Commitment from Laos to Stop All Construction Activities; Press Release Dec 8, 2011 http://www.internationalrivers.org/en/2011-12-8/mekong-governments-delay-xayaburi-dam-pending-further-study
  3. Guilty as the Getaway Driver? Thailand and the Xayaburi Dam; Kirk Herberson, Dec 05, 2011 http://www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/kirk-herbertson/2011-12-5/guilty-getaway-driver-thailand’s-role-xayaburi-dam
  4. Can Damming the Mekong Power a Better Life to Laos? – Mayhem on The Mekong; Brendan Brady/ Xayaburi Province Aug 12, 2011 http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2088013,00.html
  5. Power from Xayaburi Not Needed in Thailand – Alternative Plan shows Thailand can meet future energy needs with cheaper, cleaner options; International Rivers, December 3, 2011 http://www.internationalrivers.org/en/node/7012
  6. Strategic Environment Assessment of Mainstream Dams; Mekong River Commission, Vientiane, Lao PDR, Aug 17, 2010 – Dec 31, 2010 http://www.mrcmekong.org/news-and-events/consultations/strategic-environmental-assessment-of-mainstream-dams/
  7. Mekong The Occluding River, Drawing Blood from the Earth; Ngô Thế Vinh, iUniverse, Inc, New York 2010 pp. 240-247, www.amazon.com
  8. Analysis: No Stopping Big Hydro Projects, Despite Lao Veto/ Reuters; Niluksi Koswanage, Kuala Lumpur Wed Dec 14, 2011 http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/14/us-dams-idUSTRE7BD0GN20111214
  9. Inevitable, or in Limbo? A Dam for the Mekong; Rachel Nuwer, Dec 14, 2011 http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/14/inevitable-or-in-limbo-a-dam-for-the-mekong/
  10. The 18th Meeting of the Mekong River Commission Council; Siem Reap, Cambodia , 7th Dec 2011 - 9th Dec 2011 http://www.mrcmekong.org/news-and-events/events/the-18th-meeting-of-the-mekong-river-commission-council/
  11. Testimony of Aviva Imhof, Campaign Director, International Rivers Before the Senate Committee on “Challenge to Water and Security in Southeast Asia”, Sept 23, 2010 http://foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Imhof.pdf
  12. Lancang-Mekong Initiative; A foundation for the long term cooperation and prosperity for China and ASEAN, Phạm Phan Long http://www.vietecology.org/Article.aspx/Article/64#

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