PM HUN SEN AND MEKONG DAMS
After the Ayeyawady-Chao Praya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS)
Summit on 11/17/2010 in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen again dismissed all
concerns about the impacts of the hydroelectric dams located upstream the Mekong.
He asserted that the cycle of floods and droughts was the result of climate
change and carbon emissions that had nothing to do with the series of hydroelectric
dams in China. (1)
That statement from one of the four powerful national leaders in the Lower
Mekong, could not fail but astound the activists and ecological organizations
that, for all those years, have shown their commitment to save the fragile and
gradually degrading ecology of the Mekong. This article offers an overall view
of the situation along with his analysis of Prime Minister Hun Sen‘s recent
MAINLAND CHINA AS DOMINANT FACTOR
In the aftermath of the cold war, China swung open her door to the outside
world. With the American predominance receding from Southeast Asia, China becomes
the de facto active new player with farreaching influence over the whole of
the Greater Mekong Subregion.
Though the region’s major actor, China consistently refuses to join the Mekong
River Commission. This country is facing a set of difficult challenges: 1) a
dwindling global oil supply, 2) an insatiable thirst for energy source, 3) an
immediate need to increase the annual output of electricity from 5 to 6% in
order to meet its demand of economic development. Consequently, China is set
on its course to develop the abundant potential for hydro-electricity derived
from her rivers including the Mekong.
In addition to the construction of the series of 14 dams of the Yunnan Cascades
on the Mekong, China is actively building dams in Asia like:
On the Irrawaddy River: Since the end of 2007, Beijing has started the construction
of the largest hydroelectric dam, Myitsone, in Myanmar. As reported by the state
owned newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, since May of 2007, the Burmese Government
has approved a project to build seven hydroelectric dams on the Irrawaddy River
with a combined total estimated output of 13,360 MW. This is a joint venture
between the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) and Burma’s Ministry of
Electric Power No. 1.
On the Tibetan High Plateau: All the major rivers in Asia originate from the
Tibetan High Plateau. In the East, besides the Yellow and the Yangtze Rivers
that flow within the national boundaries of China, one must mention three others:
the Mekong, Irrawaddy, and Salween. To the West and Southwest, there are the:
Indus, Sutlej and Yarlung Zangpo.
Beijing has confirmed that it will build the first dam on the Yarlung Zangpo
or Brahmaputra, also known as the “the highest river in the world”, in the Himalayas.
This river brings life sustaining water to millions of Indians. The Chinese
experts also disclosed a plan to build 4 more dams in the valley lying between
the Sangro and Jiacha districts.
India has expressed its reservations that the planned construction of the
Chinese dams will directly impact the flow of the Brahmaputra. This River provides
India’s Northeast provinces with the water needed for their agriculture and
industries. A senior diplomat of India, Mr. Ananth Krishnan, believes that even
though this unchecked building of dams is confined to within the Chinese borders,
it would unavoidably cast a dark cloud over China’s relationship with the countries
downstream. He went on to make this comparison: “India is just as alarmed about
dams on the Yarlung Zangbo as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are about
China’s dams on the Mekong River in Yunnan”.
On his part, the Dalai Lama expressed on many occasions his deep concern about
“China’s energy policy”. He maintains that the political solution for Tibet
can be relegated to the backburner for 5 to 10 years. Not the ecology issues.
He appeals to the international community, including the United States, to focus
its attention on the pressing ecological issues that threaten the Tibet High
Plateau stemming from China’s programs of deforestation, dam construction, mine
exploitation… Some of those issues include: pollution and degradation of the
Commenting on the Chinese plans to exploit the Mekong, Tyson Roberts of the
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (USA) remarked: “The construction of
hydroelectric dams, use of the river as as a navigation channel, and heavy commercial
shipping will eventually asphyxiate the Mekong River. The exploitation steps
China undertook will result in the degradation of the ecology and catastrophic
pollution causing the Mekong to die a gradual death as it is the case with the
Yangtze and other big rivers of China”
The Chinese claimed that the water coming from the Lancang Jiang only amounts
to 13.5% of the average annual discharge of the Mekong into the East Sea. Therefore,
the dams in Yunnan only bear minimal impacts on the rivers downstream. However,
according to Milton Osborne who is a respected expert on Southeast Asia and
author of many books on the Mekong River: “The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain
Future” and “River Road to China”, the current flow of the Lancang Jiang during
the Dry Season at certain sections contributes up to 40% of the Mekong’s water
capacity – about three times the figures of 13.5% cited by China”.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has more than once simply echoes and reinforces the
Chinese pro-dam position to mislead the public, that the detrimental impacts
of the series of dams in the Yunnan Cascades are non-existent.
THE THIRD POLE AND GLOBAL WARMING
The ice cap in the Himalayas ranks third in size after the North and South
Poles. For that reason, people sometimes refer to it as the Third Pole. Lonnie
Thompson, glaciologist at Ohio State University, calls this ice cap: “Asia’s
freshwater bank account” because “it is a lockbox of snow and glacial ice that
supplies fresh water to nearly a third of world’s people”. (3)
The World Wide Fund warns that, due to global warming, the ice cap on the Himalayas
may shrink at the rapid rate of 10 to 15 meters per year. Consequently, hundreds
of millions of people that depend on the water coming from rivers that receive
their water from this ice cap may experience water shortage.
In the immediate short term, the river flow will sharply increase on account
of the fast melting down of the ice cap. But as explained by Jennifer Morgan,
Director of Nature’s Global Climate Change Programme, the situation will reverse
itself in the following few decades. The ice cap that feeds water to the seven
major rivers in Asia, including the Mekong, will eventually be exhausted resulting
in dangerously low water levels in all those rivers.
The Mekong receives its water from upstream. When a water shortage occurs,
it is reasonable to expect that any water coming from the Tibetan High Plateau
will be retained in the series of dams of the Yunnan Cascades. In such an event,
a water penury afflicting the river sections downstream would appear all but
GREAT LAKE AS A BEATING HEART OF CAMBODIA
It is common knowledge that the “Heart” of the Tonle Sap Lake can only beat
when the Mekong River reverses its course during the Rainy Season. This phenomenon
is a natural wonder peculiar to Cambodia. During the Dry Season the lake dries
up and measures only 2,500 km2. However, with the start of the Rainy Season,
lasting from May to September, the water level of the Mekong rises forcing the
Tonle Sap River to reverse its course and flow into the Tonle Sap Lake causing
its water level to swell from 8 to 10 meters and overflow its banks. Consequently,
the lake’s area expands to almost five times its size or to 12,000 km2.
The flooded forests of the Tonle Sap Lake se rve as the breeding grounds that
supply Cambodia with an enormous quantity of food. It consists mainly of fish
that accounts for 60% of the fish consumed in the country. The Mekong River
and Tonle Sap Lake are the birthplace of the ancient as well as modern Khmer
civilization. Regrettably, the survival of the Tonle Sap Lake itself is in doubt
when nefarious impacts began to be felt with the construction of the dams in