Proleung Khmer

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


The Washington Post
Thursday, December 30, 2004 Page E01

Manipulating the Mekong China's Push to Harness Storied River's Power Puts It at Odds With Nations Downstream

By Peter S. Goodman, Washington Post Foreign Service

CHONG KHNEAS, Cambodia -- A decade ago, Chan Kimoeun could pilot his skiffacross the turbid water of the Tonle Sap, stay out for two days and bringhome as much as 400 pounds of fish. On this day, he returned from fivenights of floating torpor with a mere 50 pounds -- hardly enough to coverthe costs of fuel or the rice he cooked during the trip.
"All that time for nothing," said Chan, whose four children depend on hiscatch to pay for school and any prospect of escaping this floating town onthe trash-strewn shores of Cambodia's largest lake. "There are fewer andfewer fish."

While Chan futilely drifted, construction crews 650 miles to the north inthe Chinese province of Yunnan labored to secure energy for China'sbreakneck industrialization. Dumping truckloads of boulders and concrete,they fashioned a 300-foot-high hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River.

China's rapid development is changing the global economy as the countryabsorbs vast quantities of energy and raw materials and presses wages andmanufacturing costs lower. But the changes along the Mekong highlightanother aspect of China's ascendance: Its threat to the environment.

Japan blames China's smokestacks for increased volumes of acid rain.Chinese timber companies have pressed into neighboring Burma to harvesthardwoods. And throughout Southeast Asia, farmers and fishermen complainthat China's thirst for hydroelectric power is choking the Mekong, awaterway that sustains some 70 million people.

Known to Americans largely for the struggle over its fertile southern deltaduring the Vietnam War, the Mekong winds 3,000 miles from the highlands ofTibet to the South China Sea, irrigating crops, nurturing fish andsupporting shipping across a vast area.

China already has completed two dams across the river, with two more underconstruction and four others planned. Despite the geographic distance,scientists are beginning to document links with growing environmentaltroubles downstream. A team of researchers last year at the FinnishEnvironment Institute concluded that China's Manwan Dam cut by one-half theamount of sediment in the water at Chiang Saen, Thailand. The researchersalso concluded that China's network of dams would likely lead to lowerwater levels in the river, less flooding of the Tonle Sap, less transfer ofnutrient-rich sediment -- and a degraded fishery.

The stakes are considerable. The Mekong is a crucial artery of nutrientsfor the Tonle Sap, for example, whose fish provide most of the protein inthe Cambodian diet. The fish catch following the end of the wet season in2003 declined by roughly half compared with the previous year, according toa report by Milton Osborne, an Australian researcher. While overfishing andhabitat destruction are also factors, researchers place some of the blameon China's dams.

"China, they will work for their own country," said Khy Tanglim, a Cambodian cabinet minister who heads a team devoted to Mekong policy. "We are downstream, so we suffer all the negative consequences. If there is no more water for us, no more fish, no more vegetation, this is a big disaster."

The catch in northern Thai waters declined by half from 2000 to 2004,according to the Southeast Asia Rivers Network, an environmental group.Concern is also mounting about Vietnam's Mekong River Delta, whose soilsproduce roughly half of the country's agricultural output. Less fresh watercoming down river could allow more saltwater to spill in from the South China Sea, ruining farmland. More than 40 percent of the Mekong passes through Chinese territory, and about 16 percent of the runoff that feeds itoriginates in China -- a figure that jumps to perhaps 40 percent in the dryseason, Osborne said.

So far, China has not joined the four-nation Mekong River Commission, whichcoordinates development.

"The Chinese government is not concerned about the impact on the lives ofpeople downstream," said Chainarong Settachua, director of the SoutheastAsia Rivers Network.
Beijing asserts rights to do what it wants on its portion of the Mekong,while arguing that its dams could lessen flooding downriver. China alsocites the absence of data definitively linking its dams to troubledownstream. A spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Chinaconsiders the environmental impacts of its hydroelectric dams.

The United Nations' 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Usesof International Watercourses requires nations sharing a waterway tocoordinate development and lessen the effect on downstream communities. ButChina's neighbors so far have muted their criticism, preferring to promotetrade. Laos has its own dam-building plans. Thailand hopes to buyelectricity produced by China. Cambodia's government sees China as a keysource of aid.
"What can we do?" said Khy, the Cambodian minister. "They are upstream.They are a richer country operating in their own sovereign territory. Howcan we stop them?"

On a journey down portions of the Mekong in early November, China'sindustrial ambitions contrasted with the struggles of its neighbors. Northof the Chinese town of Jinghong in Yunnan province, some 5,000 people arescouting new places to live, having been told by the government that theirland would soon be under water.

Ai Bin and his family, members of the Bulang ethnic minority, prepared todismantle their house and move it to higher ground. Rice and rubberfarmers, they built their house four years ago for what constituted theirlife savings -- about $3,000. Brick by brick, board by board, they must nowtake it apart, carry it up the mountain and put it back together.
"It's so much trouble," Ai said.

Just downstream, around a series of jungle-covered hills, the cause of hisdislocation gleamed under a tropical sun. In eight years, the dam atJinghong is expected to produce 1,500 megawatts of power, boosting by morethan 50 percent the energy delivered by two other dams already in placeupriver -- the Manwan dam, completed in 1996, and the Dachaoshan, launcheda year ago. Further upriver at Xiaowan, work has begun on a dam that willtower 900 feet over the Mekong. Slated for completion by 2012, it wouldstand second only to China's controversial Three Gorges Dam on the YangtzeRiver.

With China now rationing energy in key industrial areas, the Yunnan'srivers have become central to boosting the supply of electricity. Afrontier mission is also at play. Dam building in China is championed aspart of the construction of a modern nation, much as the taming of theColorado and Columbia rivers in the United States gave form to Americanambitions.
"This dam is making people rich," said Jiang Yen, 35, as he rode a boatpast the Jinghong construction site. "It's giving people jobs. We'll allget cheap electricity."

>From Jinghong, the Mekong winds past thick stands of bamboo and soaringhardwoods necklaced by vines. At the port town of Mengla, close to whereChina, Laos and Burma converge, Chinese cargo vessels load fresh apples,dried fruit and green tea bound for Southeast Asia. Trade has been widenedby the blasting of rapids upriver, a project coordinated by multiplegovernments but paid for almost exclusively by China. Local shippers decryan influx of Chinese competitors, but more significantly complain ofvolatile fluctuations in the river's depth as China shuts and opens gateson its dams.

At the end of the rainy season in late October, the river at Chiang Saen istypically 7 1/2 feet deep, enough to allow the local boats to load as muchas 250 tons of cargo. This year, it fell below six feet. At one localshipping firm, ChairatanaMunkong Co., marketing manager Kitchai Taetemwongcomplained that because of the shallower depth his boat could carry only150 tons on a recent run to Jinghong from Chiang Saen. That sliced a usual$2,500 profit to a mere $500.
Shifts in the water level and changes in water temperature have wreakedhavoc on fish farms near Chiang Khong, Thailand. Production fell nearlyone-third over the past two years, said Kasem Jongpaisansin, president ofan association of fish farmers.

Farmers say so little water is available during the dry season thatplanting crops is futile in some places.

"The soil is too dry," complained Pun Yauthani, 55, who plants peanuts on asandy island between Thailand and Laos. "This year, I'm thinking I won'tplant. It's a waste of time."
South of Chiang Khong, erosion ravages terraced plots carved into thesloping banks. With the rocks blasted upriver, water runs swiftly, tearingaway chunks of soil. Leafy trees sit shorn of support, their roots snakinginto thin air. A gas station has become a pile of broken concrete, itsfoundation stripped away.

Every morning, Kaen Boonnak, who grows broccoli on a roughly one-acre plot,looks to see how much land the river stole overnight.

"I've already lost the bottom third," he said, estimating that his $1,500annual income has dropped by one-fifth. "I'm afraid that we're going tolose more."

The worst fears lie downriver in Cambodia, where the Tonle Sap's prodigiousfishery depends on a yearly flow of nutrient-rich floodwaters down theMekong. The worry is that the dams are disrupting the annual cycle,narrowing the area in which fish can breed.

Many of the people who live along the lake are landless and unable to growrice, making them particularly vulnerable. They catch fish with handheldnets, eating some and selling some to buy rice and other goods. The shoreis a riot of boats and sputtering engines and palm-frond squatters' huts,the air laced with the smell of rotting innards and diesel fuel.

Men just in from the lake unload sardine-sized fish from a 50-foot vessel,using straw baskets balanced from poles slung over their shoulders. Theydrop their loads into the back of a dump truck that will carry the oozingpile to a drying factory. A barefoot girl scans the muddy ground for fishthat have landed there, placing her finds into a plastic bag.

These are days of scarcity and alarm. Most people have not heard of thedams in China, and shrug when asked why fish are elusive. But theyunderstand the implications of shortage. Chan Kimoeun and his family liveon a floating house that shifts with the changing contours of the shore. Heused to earn about $6.50 per day fishing. Now he often fails to break even,tapping loan sharks for the next load of fuel.

He estimates his debt at about $1,000 -- more than his annual income --with 10 percent monthly interest mounting. Neither Chan nor his wife can read, but their 12-year-old daughter can, a subject that brings a glow totheir faces. With school costing them about $50 per year, her future is injeopardy. "We're worried," Chan said. "We struggle on the Tonle Sap to catch fish. There is no other way."


If all the Chines decide to urinate at the same time in the Mekong, Cambodia would be completely destroyed, worse than the tsunamis.


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