Thứ Sáu, 18 tháng 12, 2015


To the Mekong River Committee of Vietnam
And the Friends of the Mekong



October, 2015_ Only recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a directive cancelling the Bon Oum Tuk Water Festival that was due to be held from November 24 to 26 with this explanation: " due to the low level of the river and the drought our Kingdom of Cambodia is facing, which requires us to gather our forces and all possible means to solve the problem of water shortages for rice fields in the dry season.”

This is the fourth time in five years that the government has called off the annual festival which traditionally attracts hundreds of thousands of people to the capital city of Phnom Penh to attend the boat races on the Tonle Sap River. [Water festival cancelled over drought fears_ Chhay Channyda; Phnom Penh Post, Oct 31, 2015] 

November, 2010_ Five years ago, in the wake of the ACMECS Summit Meeting in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen once again had brushed aside all concerns pertaining to the impacts the hydroelectric dams upstream visited on the Mekong’s current. He asserted that the recent cycles of droughts and flooding were directly caused by climate change and carbon emissions and had nothing to do with China’s hydroelectric dams. [Hun Sen denies China Dam impacts – Thomas Miller & Cheang Sokha; The Phnom Penh Post, Nov 17, 2010]

July, 2005_ Ten years ago, on the way to attend the Summit Meeting in Kunming, Prime Minister Hun Sen, expressed his satisfaction on the way the Mekong was being exploited and concluded that there was nothing to be worried about. He officially voiced his support for Peking in its development plan for the River and argued that the criticism its detractors raised was simply to show that they cared for the ecosystem and at times it was used as a barrier to prevent the 6 nations from putting forth the much desired cooperation. [Hunsen backed China's often-criticized development plans for the Mekong River, Phnom Penh, Jun 29, 2005, AFP]


     It is an established fact that as far as Cambodia is concerned, the Tonle Sap Lake, this country’s heart, can only keep on beating as long as the Mekong has enough water during the Rainy Season to discharge into the Tonle Sap River allowing the latter to reverse its course and flow into the Lake thus perpetuating that wonderful phenomenon of nature. During the Rainy Season lasting from May to September, as the Lake continues to receive an influx of water from the Tonle Sap River, its water level rises by 8 to 10 meters and gradually overflows its banks. As a result, the area of the Lake grows five folds from 2,500 km2 in the Dry Season to more than 12,000 km2. The flooded forests of the Tonle Sap Lake turn into a fertile habitat to sustain the growth of a vast source of aquatic food - mainly fish - which represents more than 60% of the fish supply in Cambodia. It was the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap Lake that gave birth to the Angkor Khmer civilization and served as the cradle of today’s Angkor Wat civilization. [1]

     Alas! There could be no assurance for a safe future of the Tonle Sap Lake when ominous tidings began to blow in from the North on the first day construction was started for the series of hydroelectric dams in the Mekong Cascades of Yunnan.

     However, in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s view, there exists no ground for concern.  In June of 2005, during a ceremony to release breeding fish into a lake in the eastern region of Cambodia, he expressed his satisfaction on the way the Mekong River was being exploited. Before boarding a plane to attend a Summit Meeting in Kunming, he officially endorsed Peking’s plan to exploit the Mekong in stark contrast to the cautions if not alarms expressed by expert environmentalists. Going a step further, Mr. Hun Sen argued that the criticism they raised was only meant to show that they cared about the ecology. At times, they used it as a barrier to the much desired collaboration among the six nations in the region. [AFP, 6/29/05].

 Picture I: a dying Tonle Sap Lake can no longer expand or contract with    the Dry and Rainy Seasons; it is shrinking and drying up
[source: Tom Fawthrop]

     Five years later, on November 17, 2010, in the capital city of Phnom Penh, on the bank of the Tonle Sap River, at the closing of the Ayeyawady-Chao Praya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy Conference attended by the five countries of Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, for the second time Prime Minister Hun Sen denied that the hydroelectric dams built upstream had any effects on the Mekong’s current. He asserted that the recent cycle of floods and droughts was the direct results of climate change and had nothing to do with China’s series of hydroelectric dams.

While talking with the members of the press, Prime Minister Hun Sen “mocked” them for their contentions that the hydroelectric dams built upstream the Mekong caused the water level in that river to drop to historic lows in recent times. He challenged them with this question: “Is there any evidence showing that the rise and fall in the Mekong’s current could be attributed to the hydroelectric dams?” In full confidence, Mr. Hun Sen offered his own answer by citing these figures: “In 1998, the water level of the Mekong River fell to a record low of 7.5 meters but when 2000 came along, that level reached a height of 12 meters.”

A caveat should be mentioned here concerning the two dates referred to by Mr. Hun Sen:

_ In 1998, the first large hydroelectric dam had already been built in China on the main current of the Mekong River: the Manwan Dam (1,500 MW). That dam was completed in 1993 and beginning in 1995, water from the Mekong was diverted to allow the dam to go into full operation. Moreover, in the same period, construction of the second dam Dachaoshan (1,350 MW) was undertaken. With a penury of rainwater coupled with huge quantities of water being withheld in the dam reservoirs it is easy to understand why the water level downstream the Mekong dipped to the low of 7.5 meters.

_ In 2000, around August to September, a combination of torrential and unusually long-lasting “monsoon rains” together with the advent of “high tides” prevented the river water from discharging into the East Sea and caused the current’s level to rise to as high as 12 meters.  As a result, Cambodia and the Mekong Delta were devastated by the most severe floods in decades exacting a high toll in physical damages as well as human lives.

_ In 2010, during the first months of the year, the Mekong’s water level in the northern part of Thailand and Laos dropped to a record low of the last 50 years raising deep concerns about food or drinking water safety and water transportation.  This is also the time that water was being diverted into the reservoir of the fourth dam Xiaowan (4,200 MW) - the third being the Jinghong Dam - to kick-start its operation. This dam is also called the “mother dam” with a reservoir claiming a capacity of 15 billion cubic meters equivalent to the combined capacity of all the other water reservoirs in Yunnan Province.
However, Mr. Hun Sen again simply pointed out that: “… climate change and carbon emission; it is actually carbon emission that brought about abnormal rain patterns. Then he went on to offer this advice: “So, you environmentalists don’t be too extreme, and don’t go around blaming the hydroelectric dams for the penury of water downstream. It is not so”. To emphasize his point, Mr. Hun Sen asked this rhetorical question: “Last year, there was a drought in China. How do you fault that country when it was also suffering from a lack of water itself?

     Nobody has ever refuted that “climate change” is an important factor that affects negatively the environment. However, it is not the lone culprit. Recent abnormal natural phenomena do point an accusing finger to the big dams straddling the Mekong’s main current as a major cause of the problem.

     We have to look at the complex picture in its totality including all the cumulative and chain-reaction impacts caused by the hydroelectric dams on the supply of water, fish, alluvia, rice as well as pollution downstream. Mr. Hun Sen’s attempt to explain away the issue by simply citing “a few figures” and using the “in” word “climate change” is not at all acceptable.

     While Peking is trying hard to deal with the pressure from public opinion as well as to assuage the opposition coming from the inhabitants of Northern Thailand and Laos, the very victims of the dams in Yunnan, Mr. Hun Sen volunteered to serve as China’s “mindless advocate.”

     Mr. Hun Sen, the leader of the Cambodian nation, while facing the prospect that the entire ecosystem of the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake is being threatened with “apparent and imminent” degradation, merely chose to disregard the countless well-founded and long-standing concerns raised over the decades by expert conservationists and environmental NGOs like TERRA/ Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, IRN / International Rivers Network, VEF/ Viet Ecology Foundation …

     Mister Hun Sen’s attitude clearly shows a willful “denial of responsibility” by putting the blame on “nature or climate change” instead of the incompetence of the government he leads for so long. First, he did not pay any attention to the numerous efforts to preserve the Tonle Sap Lake, the source of fish and rice of the 15 million Cambodians. On a larger scale, he failed to support the attempts to conserve the fragile resources of the Mekong River which bear a direct impact on the livelihood of the 70 million or so inhabitants in the 7 countries along that river’s banks.

     In Fred Pearce’s view, at the start of the coming decade, there is a good likelihood that the series of dams in the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan could retain more than half of the current flow of the Mekong before this river leaves China’s borders. For Peking, the Mekong has been transformed into China’s own “water tower and electrical powerhouse.”
     Odd Bootha, 38 years old, a ferryman at the Chiang Khong Wharf, North Thailand, complained “If China continues to build more dams then the Mekong will be reduced to a rivulet.” Anti-Chinese sentiments are quite strong in Thailand’s northern region. The local villagers openly oppose the plan by China to clear the Mekong’s current by destroying its rapids and waterfalls. [2]

     It is to be expected that in order to have enough water to run the turbines of the hydroelectric dams in Yunnan, China has frequently closed the dams’ gates causing the current to dip to their lowest levels. On the Mekong’s left bank in Laos, in March of 2004, for example, tour organizers had to cancel 10 trips because several sections of the river were too shallow for the boats to navigate.

     Chainarong Sretthachau, director of Southeast Asia Rivers Network commented “China has the power to control the Mekong River.

     Shortsightedness and short-term benefits received from Peking have prompted Mr. Hun Sen to sacrifice a river and the Tonle Sap Lake - which are the lifeline and the heart respectively of Cambodia and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.


     The Phnom Penh Post [31/10/2015]-Prime Minister Hun Sen once again had to sign a circular cancelling the Water Festival celebration scheduled to take place from the 24 to 26 of November "due to the low level of the river and the drought our Kingdom of Cambodia is facing, which requires us to gather our forces and all possible means to solve the problem of water shortages for rice fields in the dry season. The cancellation marks the fourth time in five years the government has pulled the plug on the annual festival, which traditionally draws hundreds of thousands to the capital for its boat races on the Tonle Sap.” [3] 
Way back in time, the Water Festival Bon Om Tuk was held for the first time during the reign of king Jayavaman VII in the 12th century. This monarch gave the order to build the temples of Angkor Wat, one of the wonders of the world.  Each year, at the close of the Rainy Season, the water level in the Mekong River stabilizes and the Tonle Sap River resumes its normal flow carrying countless number of fish and shrimps from the Tonle Sap Lake to the various tributaries of the Mekong all the way to the Mekong Delta. This is also the time for the Water Festival to take place around the 11th month of the lunar calendar in front of the Royal Palace located at the area named Quatre Bras /Chatomuk by the French. The French name means the location where the four branches of the Mekong meet. On this occasion, the king and his queen come to participate in the celebration with their subjects and to “inaugurate” the fishing and planting seasons of the year.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the original meaning of the Water Festival Bon Om Tuk had when the current in the Tonle Sap River was still strong enough to reverse course and the heart of the Tonle Sap Lake could still keep its normal beat has changed. Today, the Tonle Sap Lake is being drained dry and its heart barely beating – a fact well recognized by the farmers in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta as well as verified by a dwindling catch of fish and a diminishing harvest of rice. [source: internet]

Picture II: The annual Water Festival Bon Oum Tuk on the Tonle Sap River
in front of the Royal Palace; this is the fourth time that in 2015 the Festival has to be cancelled due to a drained dry Tonle Sap Lake and Tonle Sap River [source: internet]
     In the estimation of the environmentalists, a day will come when the “greatest ecological catastrophe” will befall the land of Cambodia. On that day the heart of the Tonle Sap Lake will cease to beat. It would be a slow but sure death for the Tonle Sap Lake and whether he likes it or not, Mr. Hun Sen cannot deny the fact he had a hand in it.
     It would be advisable to list here the events considered to be ominous concerning the Tonle Sap Lake, Tonle Sap River, and the Mekong River that took place during the very first decade of the 21st century:

The website World Wide Fund for Nature, noted: the current level in the Mekong River has reached alarming lows since 2004 and this phenomenon has been reported on the front page of the newspapers: "Chinese dams blamed for Mekong's bizarre flow - New Scientist"; "China's dams to blame for low Mekong levels - Reuters AlertNet"; "Multiple dams are ominous threat to life on the Mekong River - The Guardian"; "China's dams killing the Mekong - Bangkok Post". The majority of articles point an accusing finger at the hydroelectric dams on the main current upstream in China.   

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 desperate 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.”

… In May of 2009, The United Nations Program for the Environment sounded the alarm that the “Dams in the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan” constitute “the single greatest threat” to the future and prosperity of the Mekong River. It will bring to an end the natural beat of that river that is considered a wonder of the world.

Aviva Imhof, former campaigns director at the International Rivers Network, offered this remark: “China is acting at the height of irresponsibility. 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 70 million people.” 

  Picture III: Crossing the Tonle Sap Lake to visit the Tonlé Sap
Biosphere Reserve 12/2001
[source: from private collection of Ngô Thế Vinh]
Nobody believes that Mr. Hun Sen was not told about “that death knell”. He intentionally turns a deaf ear to it because of political expediency during the time he still remains in office. Ultimately, the high price to be paid is the future of the Cambodian people and the civilization of Angkor. In the Mekong Delta, the debilitating early symptoms of a Tonle Sap Lake running dry have already begun to be felt.

          Up to 2015, only 6 dams have been built upstream in Yunnan. No dam on the main current downstream has been completed. Yet, this year marks the fourth time that the traditional Water Festival Bon Oum Tuk in the Cambodian Kingdom has to be cancelled due to a drying up Tonle Sap Lake and a Tonle Sap River being critically drained dry. Also in this year of 2015, the High Water Season did not come to the Mekong Delta. [4]

California, Nov 03, 2015

1/ Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng. Ngô Thế Vinh; Chương XIV, Nxb Văn Nghệ 2000, Nxb Viet Ecology Press & Giấy Vụn 2014
2/ Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch. Ngô Thế Vinh; Chương III, Nxb Văn Nghệ 2006, Nxb Văn Nghệ Mới 2007, Nxb Giấy Vụn 2013
3/ Water Festival cancelled over drought fears_ Chhay Channyda; Phnom Penh Post; October 31, 2015
4/ This Year 2015 The High Water Season Did Not come; Ngô Thế Vinh; October 25/2015;

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