Mekong Utility Watch

Probe Alert: UN body financing the destruction of two major river systems

September 2, 1995

Contrary to its ideals of promoting “pro-poor, pro-nature, pro-jobs and pro-women” sustainable human development, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has a dismal history of supporting some of the largest and most destructive development projects in the world.

Grandiose Development Schemes Threaten Millions of People, Fragile Ecosystems
Contrary to its ideals of promoting “pro-poor, pro-nature, pro-jobs and pro-women” sustainable human development, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has a dismal history of supporting some of the largest and most destructive development projects in the world, including the disastrous Sardar Sarovar dam under construction in India, which will displace as many as 320,000 people, and the Mahaweli scheme in Sri Lanka, which exacerbated ethnic conflict and forcibly displaced at least 60,000 people.

The Mekong River in Southeast Asia, and the Tumen River in Northeast Asia are the next targets of the UNDP’s ill-conceived attempts to play God with peoples’ environments and economies. In these two regions, the UNDP is slamming the door in the faces of local citizens and pushing through these economically infeasible and environmentally devastating projects that will impoverish millions, disempower countless communities and destroy the environment.

Mekong River Be Dammed Says UNDP Study
Despite differences in ethnicity, beliefs and cultures, millions of farmers and fisherfolk in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have one strong thread that binds them the Mekong River. Now, plans for more than 100 major dams along the Mekong River threaten their very means of survival.

With US$2.8 million in funding from the UNDP, the Mekong Secretariat (a secretive Mekong Basin research body) prepared a report that recommends a nine-dam project along the Mekong as the centrepiece of this damming scheme.

The Mekong project will transform the world’s tenth larg-est river into a staircase of reservoirs, destroying the world’s second most biologically diverse riverine fishery and wreaking untold damage on the livelihoods of millions of people.

The Mekong Secretariat’s report ignored critical findings of its own fisheries consultants who found that the Mekong fishery would suffer extreme damage, including lowered productivity, decreased biodiversity, blockage of fish migration and condemnation of more species to rare and endangered status, all of which could spell disaster for the residents of the area who depend on fish protein to survive. The report also makes no attempt to assess the cumulative ecological or hydrological impacts of the numerous dams, and it bases the project’s economic feasibility on highly inflated electricity revenues. According to Dr. Philip Williams, a consulting hydrologist and civil engineer and president of the International Rivers Network, the report promotes “unwise large-scale development of the Mekong River.”

If the UNDP and the Mekong Secretariat continue to ignore experts and violate the rights of millions of people in the Mekong Basin, the devastating consequences of the project will be exposed only after peoples’ livelihoods and the river’s fragile ecosystem are destroyed.

Plundering Asia’s Tumen River Area
In a ludicrous attempt to construct an immense industrial utopia, the UNDP has spent over US$3.5 million coordinating the Tumen River Area Development Project (TRADP), potentially the world’s largest development project ever. TRADP, still at the planning stage, would create an international free trade zone in the Tumen Delta region where the borders of China, North Korea and Russia converge. Other partners in the six-country plan include South Korea, Mongolia and Japan as an observer.

Roads, a vast port complex, a telecommunications net-work, an airport, a transcontinental railway system stretching 10,000 kilometres to European markets, and a new international city on lands given up by North Korea, China and Russia would be constructed, costing billions of dollars over the next 20 years. The goals, according to UNDP programme manager John Whalen, are to “show the world that political barriers can be lowered for economic development and that economic development can be the new world order..”

Orchestrating international cooperation between nations historically hostile towards one another involves costs far be-yond the amount of the tab picked up by the UNDP. The project’s industrial, urban and port development threaten 400 square kilometres of delta wetlands, and would accelerate the exploitation of Northeast Asia’s water, mineral, timber, oil, gas, and coal resources, creating much pollution in the process.

Not only are the Tumen Delta’s pop-ulation of 100,000 migratory ducks, swans and geese in great danger, but the endangered black stork, mandarin duck, and red-crowned and white-naped cranes are also severely threatened.

The water quality of the region’s coasts and bays is at risk, as is the Russian Far East Maritime Reserve, habitat of the last remaining Far East Leopard population, 20 marine mammal species, and 278 species of fish. In addition, timber exports would destroy some of the world’s largest remaining intact forests, including ecologically fragile taiga forests.

The UNDP has failed to translate or publicly disclose information about this ill-conceived project. Nevertheless, citizens, scientists, academics, officials, and environmental groups from the Tumen River area have managed to alert the world to the TRADP’s negative effects.

Critics charge that the TRADP is ridiculously ambitious the capital input is too great, the area’s resources are too few, and its vast size and complexity make it infeasible. A Western diplomat and TRADP observer voiced skepticism by drawing an analogy with the St. Lawrence Seaway project (a facility jointly operated by Canada and the U.S.): “Look at the original claims of how it would improve lives, but it has been a huge failure and cost $8 billion. The [TRADP] is even more difficult.”

Contrary to what some call “A Field of Dreams in Northeast Asia,” the TRADP promises to be a nightmare of destructive development that forces an idea of “progress” on unwilling participants through an unsustainable, uneconomic and unnecessary megaproject.

UNDP Ignores People, Embraces Top-Down Development
The UNDP, the world’s largest multilateral grant agency, uses its $1 billion annual budget to exert formidable muscle over innocent people and self-sustaining environments. Established in 1950, the UNDP today has more than 130 offices worldwide and an army of nearly 7,000 employees who carry out about 5,000 projects annually in 175 countries and territories.

Canada, the tenth largest contributor to the UNDP in 1993, is a high profile member of the organization. Since 1964, Canadian taxpayers have given more than $1.26 billion to the UNDP, including a $43 million contribution for 1995/96.

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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