03/25/2011, 00.00
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Damming the Mekong: water and food at risk for millions of people

by Thanh Thuy
Vietnam and other countries discuss dam construction on the Mekong River. Experts say construction should be halted to study its impact. The lives of millions of people are at risk. But China and others are hungry for cheap electricity.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – The Council of Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) held its first meeting on “drinking water security” in Hanoi last Tuesday with experts and delegates from Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, Korea, India, America, Russia, Laos and Australia in attendance.

For years, the impact of hydroelectric dams built on or planned for the Mekong River has been debated. The river is important for its fish and water as well as as a waterway for millions of people (see “Calls for a moratorium on Mekong dam building that destroy environment and people,” in AsiaNews, 20 October 2010)

Twelve dams are planned for the lower Mekong, where it meanders through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

The Cambodian government plans to build a dam in Sambor district, Kratie province, and another in Strong Treng province, near the Laotian border. Cambodia wants power for domestic use and foreign sales.

However, a study by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) published in February warns that dams can reduce the fish catch by 300,000 tonnes a year, with serious consequences for about a million people, especially in Cambodia, whose livelihood depends on fishing. The MRC urged that plans be delayed by ten years to study the impact of dams.

Eric Baran, a scientist who has studied for years on fish at the Fish World Centre in Phnom Penh, said that Cambodia’s food security could be jeopardised.

Ame Tandem, from the International Rivers group, has called for a halt to construction because dams are changing the course of the river and preventing the migration of important fish species. She noted that profits generated by hydropower would not go to local residents whose way of life will be destroyed.

Dams are also likely to reduce water flow to Vietnam, especially those built by and planned in China, where the river starts and runs for a long stretch.

CSCAP member Seung Ho Lee said that the absence of China and Myanmar from the MRC makes it more difficult for the organisation to intervene.

China has often been accused of not being transparent in the information it shares concerning its dams, despite the fact that under international law countries downstream of a river are entitled to be fully informed of what is happening upstream if they could be affected.

Suchit, head of the Thai delegation, proposed that the issue be placed before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to put pressure on China and Myanmar.

In order to counter Chinese predominance, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been brought in. The US leader has in fact agreed that further construction be stopped to study its impact.

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