- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia Ominous blue-gray clouds signal more than the annual monsoon rains. There's a confrontation looming along the Mekong River between China and the downstream countries of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

It's all about water, the free-flowing Mekong "Mother of Rivers" in Lao which is being affected by Beijing's upstream damming and dredging projects.

In 1995, four nations of the lower Mekong basin Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam reconstituted the Mekong River Commission, charged with furthering the sustainable development and exploitation of Asia's 2,600-mile-long transport artery and reservoir of life. China declines to join.

Thousands of poor families living in bamboo and thatched-roof houses jutting from the Mekong's red-clay banks nearly 450 miles upstream from Phnom Penh and within earshot of the Laotian border now lament the changes in their river's flow.

"I know the water is much dirtier as it travels down from Laos, and I do not know what has happened, but the fishing's no good," said Sok Lim, a spry old fisherman in Stung Treng province.

China is rushing to construct dams and blast a navigable channel in the middle reaches of the Mekong River in Yunnan Province. The source of the Mekong River Lancang Jiang in Chinese is a spring over three miles above sea level considerably farther north and westward in Qinghai province, north of Tibet.

Since completion of the Manwan dam over a decade ago, China's energy needs far exceed the generating capacity of its present power stations.

China's $42 billion dam industry views the Lancang cascade as power that can be generated without negative impact on the flow of the river system. It plans six large dams along the river and another nine along the middle Mekong's tributaries to provide electricity for an impoverished rural population, and the scheduled navigational channel offers a valuable trade and tourism route.

But China's engineering plans seem menacing to its downstream neighbors.

Although Chinese researchers argue that the proposed dams will reduce flooding and drought in the countries downstream, other scientists worry that the project will prove disastrous for Cambodia and also harm Vietnam's lower delta.

"We are very concerned with the dam construction. Of course the Chinese claim there is no impact from their dam projects, [but] the reality is otherwise," said Touch Seang Tana, an environmental scientist.

"The dam's release or flow of water during the monsoon season creates more flooding in Cambodia," he said.

Many fisheries specialists say that overfishing, deforestation, erosion and an increasing population place even greater demands on a river that flows without regard to national borders.

"Deforestation has also proven to be a contributing factor to the Mekong's annual flooding," argues Glen Barry of Forests.org.

Countries sharing the lower basin of the Mekong have understood for over a half-century how their natural, unharnessed water became a turbulent and, at times, a political channel for numerous government agencies and well-intentioned donor countries.

During the 1960s, the United States was unable to keep its promise to Cambodia and other countries along the river. President Johnson's vision of an Asian Tennessee Valley Authority along the Mekong River became a hollow promise to transform the Mekong from a river of blood into a channel of peace.

"We are now dealing with one of the most important river basins in the world, and we need to make some accountability on the injustices and damages done to this precious river system over the past 45 years," says Joern Christensen, chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in Phnom Penh.

At the MRC secretariat's modern office on Monivong Boulevard, the controversial questions raised behind closed doors and that are creating interdepartmental dissension and confusion among donor countries revolve around these issues.

Will the alterations to the Mekong's flow resulting from new dams upriver in China harm fisheries in downstream regions? Will the river's reduced wet-season flow and its offsetting increased flow during the dry season have a negative impact on the ecosystem of the Tonle Sap, Cambodia's great lake?

Most important, what will happen if the proponents of hydropower development prove wrong and the Mekong's ecosystem is irreparably damaged in the name of progress?

The answers to such questions and the outcome of cooperation with China matter to the more than 70 percent of Cambodians dependent on the Mekong River or the Tonle Sap for their food supply.

The Greater Mekong Subregion encompasses an area that contains more than 250 million people, and the lives of about a quarter of them depend directly on the river.

At least 8 million poor people such as Sok Lim subsist on less than a dollar a day. For these families, their daily catch from the Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong is essential for their survival.

Meanwhile, China has made investments to forestall criticism about its dam construction and widening of the Sambor rapids channel.

A drive down Phnom Penh's Mao Tse-tung Boulevard confirms Beijing's neighborly interest, from its investment in Cambodia's new sewer system, highway construction, bridges and the Phnom Penh Market to the recently completed $30 million hydropower station.

It's no wonder that very few in Prime Minister's Hun Sen's government or for that matter, senior directors at the Mekong River Commission fault China's failure to join the Phnom Penh-based water-management body.

Adding ballast to China's widening influence are its interest-free loans or grants to rebuild Cambodia's Senate and National Assembly building. The warming ties with China began after then co-Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian Peoples' Party seized power in July 1997 from his partner and rival, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The new government announced a one-China policy and told Taiwan to close its representative office.

[In 1998 elections, the prince was elected president of the new National Assembly and agreed to form another coalition government with Hun Sen, which remains in power.]

"China does exercise a great deal of influence in Cambodia, and on more than several occasions, their embassy complained to us about reporting too much on Taiwan investments and business developments in our independent Chinese newspaper," said Loh Swee Ping, general manager of Cambodia Sin Chew Daily, Phnom Penh's largest-circulation Chinese-language paper.

The lower Mekong Basin's population is expected to increase by more than 60 percent to about 100 million by 2025. With this anticipated growth will come a big increase in the demand for food and clean water. This concern animates financial support from a consortium of MRC donors that includes Australia, Denmark, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

"Production of clean and renewable energy like hydropower is an attractive option to meet the urgent needs for Cambodia's economic development, and for [export industries] and rural electrification," said Khy Tainglim, Cambodia's minister of public works and transport and a ranking director of the MRC.

Michael Lerner, a Phnom Penh-based lawyer and water-resources specialist at Oxfam America, contends that the Mekong River Commission has failed to deal with many downstream-impact issues. "I have learned that the MRC has only sent two scientific expeditions up to the Tonle Sap to investigate environmental changes over a 30-year period," he said.

In the past 40 years, almost a billion dollars has been poured into environmental reports, scores of proposed infrastructure plans and countless fisheries studies of the Mekong. None of the fishermen along the Mekong paddling their pirogues have ever seen any of that money flowing into the river, nor read any of these expensively produced reports.

While the river has become an international stage for economic development, the neighboring countries of its lower basin are now bound together in a struggle not just for promised prosperity but for life.

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