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
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. 
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.” 
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. 
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.
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
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. 
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”. 
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.