Thứ Bảy, 4 tháng 10, 2014

THE WORLD WATER DAY 2012 AND THE FOOD SECURITY IN THE MEKONG BASIN

To the Friends of the Mekong
& VN 2020 Mekong Group

“So it is not just about environmental conservation and displaced villages. The issue is much bigger than that. The trade-off between hydropower development and regional food security in the Mekong is probably unique in the world.” Eric Baran, World Fish Center.

“Water represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our time. It’s not every day you find an issue where effective diplomacy and development will allow you to save millions of lives, feed the hungry, empower women, advance our national security interests, protect the environment, and demonstrate to billions of people that the United States cares, cares about you and your welfare. Water is that issue.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, World Water Day 2010.

THE WORLD WATER DAY AND THE LEADING ISSUES

Nineteen years ago, at the instigation of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in the Brazilian capital city of Rio de Janeiro the United Nations selected March 22 as the World Water Day in the following year.

It may be said without a doubt that water is the foundation of life. Consequently, anytime water is found on a planet, scientists can optimistically conclude that life and living organism can exist there. Our planet will become a dead place without water. Sadly enough, water scarcity is becoming an increasingly serious issue in the world we are living in.

World Water Day should be a clarion call to remind us of the vital importance of freshwater sources and revitalize our common efforts to work out measures for a sustainable management of those water sources.

Every year, the United Nations chooses a “theme” for the World Water Day in order to use it as a focus for its activities like workshops, news releases and educational events.


Below is the list, in chronological order, of past “Themes” for the World Water Day:

2012: Water and Food Security
2011: Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge
2010: Clean Water for a Healthy World
2009: Trans-boundary Waters
2008: International Year of Sanitation
2007: Coping With Water Scarcity
2006: Water and Culture
2005: Water for Life 2005–2015
2004: Water and Disasters
2003: Water for The Future
2002: Water for Development
2001: Water for Health – Taking Charge
2000: Water for The 21st Century
1999: Everyone Lives Downstream
1998: Groundwater – The Invisible Resource
1997: The World's Water: Is There Enough?
1996: Water for Thirsty Cities
1995: Women and Water
1994: Caring for our Water Resources is Everyone's Business

THE WORLD WATER DAY IN 2012

This year’s activities of the World Water Day with the theme “Water and Food Security” are coordinated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations with the constant reminder that there are now seven billion mouths to feed on this planet and two more to be added by the year 2050. We each consume between 2 to 4 liters of water per day – most of which is contained in the food we eat. To produce 1 kilogram of beef would require 15,000 liters of water, 1 kilogram of cereals 1,500 liters of water and 1 kilogram of fruit or vegetable only 1,000 liters or 15 times less. Currently one billion people suffer from “chronic hunger” while water sources keep on shrinking everywhere. To deal with the problems of population explosion and ensure food security for all, the following concrete steps need to be taken: (1) Consume products that require less water to grow; (2) Reduce food waste: 30% of the food never get to be consumed meaning that a huge volume of water had been wasted in the production process; (3) Increase the production of food at a faster rate, especially those with higher quality and lower requirement for water; (4) follow a healthier diet with an emphasis on cereals, fruits and vegetables instead of meat.

All the above-mentioned steps, from production to consumption, are designed to conserve water and ensure food security for all. Actually all the activities that will take place on World Water Day of 2012 are geared toward the same objective: “Water and Food Security”.


Picture 1_ The World Water Day 2012 logo depicts a fish and a rice stalk which make up the food source of the Mekong. There exists a “Civilization of Rice and Fish” in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) and this civilization’s very existence is now being threatened.

In a January 3, 2012 press conference, on the day he assumed his position as the new director for a three and a half year term (2012-2015) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, José Graziano da Silva proposed an ambitious program: total eradication of hunger and malnutrition in the world. He stated: "Ending hunger requires the commitment of everyone: neither FAO nor any other agency or government will win this war alone", he added that it would require a cooperation "in the most transparent and democratic way" of the member countries, United Nations agencies, the private sector, civil society and other stakeholders. [1]

It is quite evident to all concerned that a “transparent and democratic” way of doing business is sorely lacking in the countries of the Mekong region.

Two years ago, in her speech on World Water Day 2010 with the theme “Clean Water for a Healthy World”, the American Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton observed: “water represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our time.” She continued: “It’s not every day you find an issue where effective diplomacy and development will allow you to save millions of lives, feed the hungry, empower women, advance our national security interests, protect the environment, and demonstrate to billions of people that the United States cares, cares about you and your welfare. Water is that issue.” [2]

THE ECO-SYSTEM OF THE MEKONG

The Mekong’s network of rivers and canals is rated as one of the most complex in the world. With a length of 4,900 kilometers, it ranks the 11th longest river on earth and at the same time the longest in Southeast Asia. This river meanders through six countries and is about twice as long as the Colorado in America. Its resources sustain the livelihood of 70 million souls and its fishery brings in more than US$ 2 billion per year.

The Mekong’s flow while comparable to that of the Mississippi is rich in alluvia whose content varies greatly according to the seasons. In the Rainy Season, only 16% of the water flows down from Yunnan Province in China. On the other hand, this figure rises to 40% during the Dry Season. On account of the complexity of this river network, droughts and floods vary depending on the regions or river sections. [2]

The Tonle Sap Lake and the Tonle Sap River represent an exceptional natural phenomenon that is unique on this planet: the Tonle Sap River flows in both directions and the area of the Tonle Sap Lake changes with the seasons. This shallow lake has an area of 2,500 km2 during the Dry Season. Come the Rainy one, starting in June or July, the water level in the Mekong rises creating tremendous pressure forcing the Tonle Sap River to reverse its course and flow into the Tonle Sap Lake. As a result, the water in the Lake rises by 8 to 10 meters and overflows its banks causing the area to expand fivefold to about 12,000 km2. Joseph Yun, Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, U.S. Department of State offered a very descriptive comparison when he pointed out that the water of the Tonle Sap Lake is enough to cover the 20,000 km2 area of the state of New Jersey to a depth of more than 3 meters. [2]


Picture 2_ A Khmer young girl and fish: 80% of the protein intake of the Cambodians is derived from the consumption of fish
Photo by Ngô Thế Vinh, Tonle Sap 2001


Thanks to its huge water reserve that fluctuates with the seasons, the Tonle Sap Lake can regulate the flow of the Mekong, reduce flooding in the Rainy Season, maintain a minimum rate of flow during the Dry Season, and also prevent salt from intruding further into the delta.

The Tonle Sap Lake plays a critical role in the continued existence of the eco-system of the Lower Mekong: besides being a major fish source for Cambodia, its water plays a crucial role in the agricultural production and fish farms (the Basa fish raised for export) in the Mekong Delta. The Delta known as the rice bowl of Vietnam also ranks next to Thailand as the second biggest rice exporter in the world. According to the United Nations Development Program, Vietnam’s rice production in 2010 was seriously hamstrung by climate change and the hydroelectric dams built upstream.

It can be said that the Mekong is the lifeline of the millions of inhabitants in the Basin. Farming and fishing activities employ 85% of the local labor force: the farmers depend on the river’s water and its alluvia to cultivate while fishermen rely on the river’s fish catch for their main animal protein intake and considerable income. Therefore, those two groups will be directly affected by any destructive changes in their habitat.

Considering the fact that the majority of the Mekong Delta’s population lives in the floodplains and low-lying sea coasts, the Mekong’s basin is one of the most severely impacted regions by climate change. The diversity of the eco-system of the entire region will not be spared from the direct or indirect cumulative effects of climate change or the devastating impacts of the hydroelectric dams that are being built with such a hurried pace in complete disregard to their technological flaws.


Picture 3_ Hybrid Rice developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). An increase in production of 1-1.5 tons per hectare represents an important contribution to agricultural development of Asia including Vietnam 

While lessons about the “dead rivers of the world” abound, the leaders of the countries bordering the Mekong had not learned from them either by failure to notice or – to use Milton Osborne words – willful ignorance. A case in point is the international river Indus. This river originates from the Tibetan High Plateau and runs through India and Pakistan for a distance of 3,200 km. Once a mighty river that serves as a cradle for rich civilizations, it now can no longer flow into the Arabian Sea because it is being too heavily dammed. [4]

Now let’s return to the Mekong. Just to satisfy the energy needs of their economic developments, the countries of the Mekong are in a race to exploit the hydroelectricity potentials of this river. They scarcely pay any attention to the immediate or long-term negative impacts the mainstream dams may wreak on the “food security” of the millions of residents in the basin.

The economic price to be paid for the impacts caused by the dams, whether big or small, is quite enormous. Notwithstanding the damaging impacts emanating from those dams on the flow or eco-system of the river, the projected benefits to be reaped from the generated hydroelectricity promise to be enormous and immediate. A single dam built at a wrong location like the Don Sahong Dam in southern Laos can obstruct the migration of fish and directly affect the fish source which is also the main protein intake of the inhabitants in the basin. Moreover, a dam with many built-in technological defects like the Sambor Dam in northern Cambodia can result in a reduction in the flow of freshwater, loss of alluvia, and rise in salinization affecting the agricultural production in Cambodia and that of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

The dams in Yunnan in the series of the Lancang-Mekong Cascades in the Upper Mekong Basin are causing significant changes in the natural flow of the Mekong’s current. According to Fred Pearce, at the start of the next decade, the series of dams in Yunnan will have the capacity to retain 50% of the water in the Mekong’s current flow before it leaves the Chinese borders. In Beijing’s eyes, the Mekong is destined to become China’s new “water tower and electrical powerhouse”. [6]

The impacts caused by the mainstream dams in the Lower Mekong Basin will prove most damaging to the countries located downstream – especially in the case of the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Much attention has been focused on the mainstream dams in Laos. However, one should be reminded of the two dam projects named Stung Streng (980 MW) and Sambor (2,600 MW) in Cambodia whose direct and disastrous impacts on the fish population in the Tonle Sap Lake and the loss of alluvia in the Mekong Delta would be disastrous. To approve the construction of those two dams in the land of Angkor, the Phnom Penh government is shooting itself in the foot – a kind of self-inflicted injury. And Vietnam could not help becoming a collateral damage.

It is undeniable that hydropower represents a valuable source of energy provided that it is done in a prudent and responsible manner and the high price it exerts on the ecology is judiciously evaluated. To think of building new hydroelectric dams, bridges, roads one must also take into consideration their nefarious effects on the ecology and livelihood of the people. For the sake of illustration, let’s take the case of Laos. Thanks to its ample production of hydropower that are being exported to earn foreign exchange this country can expediently fund its economic development. Nevertheless, in the absence of cautious environmental assessments, this development cannot be sustainable and is only for the short-term due to the immediate as well as long-term damages that are being inflicted on the ecology and the social fabrics of the Lao people.

THE MEKONG IS BEING OVERTAXED 

The Mekong’s ecology is showing signs of being overtaxed not only by the devastating impacts coming from hydroelectric dams but also from the pollution emanating from industrial discharge, waste water, and chemical fertilizers used in agriculture. So that the 70 million inhabitants of the basin can enjoy safe “health and food security”, it is imperative that we preserve the quality of the Mekong’s water. In addition, a rising number of incidences of salinization are being reported in the Mekong Delta – particularly in the Dry Season when a weaker current flow allows saltwater to intrude into the delta and destroy the harvest. On top of that, the sulphate-rich soil brings about higher acidity in the water resulting in eutrophycation and the lethal reduction in the oxygen content that kills off the fish and other living organism in the current.

The pollution in the river - both upstream and downstream - brings about an eco-system that is being continuously degraded. The discharge of waste and defecation into the river current is a daily occurrence in the Mekong Delta. In recent time, the countries of the Mekong including Vietnam start to mention the issue of water pollution in a perfunctory manner without any reference to sanctions or monitoring measures.

THE NEED FOR A JUDICIOUS CHOICE

At the ministerial level meeting held in December of 2011, the four countries in the Lower Mekong reached a decision “to temporarily suspend the Xayaburi hydroelectric dam project”, the first dam on the Mekong’s main current outside of China. The purported purpose is to have more time to assess the impacts of the dam and officially request Japan to assist in its strategic environmental assessment. On the other hand, there are no concrete signs indicating that the Lao government and Thai financiers are willing to put a halt to the construction of this dam. Obviously, the spirit of article 7 in the 1995 Mekong Agreement (MRC) is being sorely put to the test. [6]

The diversity of the eco-system of the Mekong ranks only second to that of the Amazon in South America but it is only along the banks of the Mekong that one can find sizeable populated areas. Eric Baran, an expert with the World Fish Center, who had assisted the Mekong River Commission in assessing the impacts of the hydroelectric dams on the Mekong’s eco-system observed: “Food security is the most critical issue”. Besides the 781 known fish species there many are others that still remain unconfirmed. Over the last decade, on the average, 28 new species have been discovered per year. The fishermen in the Mekong haul in 2.1 million tons of fish annually [3 million according to the Mekong River Commission September of 2008] or 1/6 of the world catch of fresh water fish. [3]
Doctor Baran added: “The combination of a high proportion of migratory fish and high dependency of people on river fish is unique, making the Mekong a place where dam development is most critical to regional food security. So it is not just about environmental conservation and displaced villages. The issue is much bigger than that. The trade-off between hydropower development and regional food security in the Mekong is probably unique in the world.”

If the projection of the MRC is to be believed, by the year 2030, 88 dams will be built on the Mekong main stream and its tributaries and 81% of the migratory fish will be prevented from swimming upstream. An optimum formula must be found to allow for the simultaneous building of dams and safeguard of food security for the inhabitants of the basin. Consequently, some people are advocating the relocation of the existing dam projects with the recognition that the devastating impacts of the hydroelectric dams will be minimized if they are located on the tributaries or failing that as far upstream on the mainstream as possible.

In that sense, it is not necessary to put a stop to all hydroelectric dam projects. The Baran study group offers these concrete recommendations: (1) Dams should not be higher than 30 meters in order to allow fish passages to work effectively. The Xayaburi dam only measures 32 meter in height yet it is tall enough to prevent 70 migratory fish species to pass. (2) Dams should be built on man-made canals like in France and Europe instead of natural waterways so that unwanted effects from the latter could be avoided. (3) Dams should be designed as multi-purpose structures not for the sole purpose of generating electricity in order to reduce the damages on the ecology and society. [3]

GREEN GROWTH IN THE MEKONG BASIN

It is not by pure coincidence that a meeting was held on the 20th and 21st of February, 2012 in Bangkok between the funding institution Asian Development Bank [ADB] and the 6 countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion [GMS] that comprises of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. This meeting in Bangkok serves as a prelude for the World Water Day 2012 that is scheduled to meet this coming March with the realization that the management of the sources for food, water, and energy in the Greater Mekong Subregion will prove to be one of the most critical challenges in the coming decade. By the year 2030, the need for food in the Greater Mekong Subregion will increase from 20 to 50%. In the mean time, as the demand for water from the agriculture, power generation, civilian, and industrial activities keep on growing at an exponential rate, the supply for surface and ground water continues to be depleted or degraded by the day.
The theme of the meeting is defined as “Balancing Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability” reflecting the common desire to find an optimum course of action to achieve economic development and sustainable ecology simultaneously. Such a strategy would require wise investments in the development of clean energy sources, cultivation methods that are less water dependent, biological technologies to reduce the utilization of chemical fertilizers, and improved methods for rain harvesting and recycling the water supply from urban centers. [7]

Stephen P. Groff, Vice-President of the Asian Development Bank stated: “We need to chart a pro-poor, pro-environment roadmap to 2020. The challenge is to increase efficiencies in resource use, restore and recapitalize the natural resource base, and safeguard environmental quality while creating jobs and sustaining economic growth.”

From Vietnam, the expert consultant Dương Đức Ưng shared with Radio Free Asia (RFA) some additional information pertaining to the meeting: “The concern is not only limited to food security but also food safety. The two are intricately linked. Presently, Vietnam has already achieved food safety for itself and exported 7 million tons of food to the outside world, only second to Thailand”. [8] In this author’s view, this boastful assertion is nothing new. The real question is how long can it last and what are the innovative and strategic contributions Vietnam can offer toward a “sustainable green development” of the entire Greater Mekong Subregion including the Mekong Delta.

Over the years, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved 50 projects pertaining to a sustainable ecology of the Greater Mekong Subregion for a total amount of US$ 4.8 billion. [7] The leaders of the GMS have come to a meeting of the mind in the adoption of a “green growth agenda” for the entire region. The real problem is how to effectively implement and monitor the results of those commitments.

AN EXHORBITANT PRICE FOR DEVELOPMENT

The World Water Day 2012 with the theme “Water and Food Security” is a message the United Nations wants to convey to the whole world but in particular to the Southeast Asian region. In this corner of the world, countries are locked in a raging dispute over the exploitation of the Mekong’s resources that does not bode well for the security of the whole region.

As we cross the threshold of the 21st century, it can be said that the nations bordering the Mekong including Vietnam are joining the rank of developing countries albeit proceeding on a non-sustainable road. Our generation and future ones must cope with many a hurdle: depletion of once abundant natural resources, lack of “food security”, and the looming prospect of scarcity. More importantly, when we add ecological pollution particularly that of “water and air” to the list, a fuller picture of the total cost begins to emerge: whole populations suffering from poor health caused by poor “food safety” and overtaxed public health systems.

NGÔ THẾ VINH, M.D.
California, 03/ 03/ 2012

References:
  1. New FAO Chief moves on Global eradication of hunger, Support to poorest countries to be scaled up. FAO Media Centre; Rome 3 Jan, 2012 http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/119343/icode/
  2. Testimony of Joseph Yun, Deputy Asst. Secretary Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs US Department of State, Before the Senate Committee, Sept 23, 2010 http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Yun.pdf
  3. Food security key issue in Mekong dam debate: Bangkok Post, Nov 12, 2011
    http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/270238/food-security-key-issue-in-mekong-dam-debate
  4. Empires of The Indus: The Story of A River; Alice Albina, W.W Norton & Company, Inc. First American Edition 2010
  5. The Damming of The Mekong: Major Blow to An Epic River, Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360 Jun 17, 2009 http://e360.yale.edu/content/print.msp?id=2162
  6. Hội Nghị Siem Reap Một Thỏa Hiệp Mong Manh Cho Dòng Chính Mekong Không Nghẽn Mạch; Ngô Thế Vinh, 12/25/2011 http://www.vietecology.org/Article.aspx/Article/77#
  7. Green Development Key to Growth in Mekong Region; Bangkok, Thailand, 20 February 2012, http://beta.adb.org/news/green-development-key-growth-mekong-region
  8. Kế Hoạch Kinh Tế và Môi Trường Trong Tiểu Vùng Sông Mekong; RFA 02-22-2012; http://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/in_depth/key-to-grow-in-mekong-region-02222012061040.html

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