Mekong Utility Watch

Probe Alert: Asian Development Bank bulldozes ahead with Mekong dams

(June 1, 1997) If the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (AsDB) has its way over the next decade, the Mekong and its largest tributaries will be choked by a series of giant hydropower dams, and up to 60 million ethnic minority people could be forced out of the region’s highlands.

Despite mounting environmental concerns, the AsDB is promoting more than 50 large hydrodams along the Mekong and its tributaries, beginning with sites in the upper watersheds of Yunnan, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In the next three years, it plans to spend more than $300 million on dam construction and long-distance transmission grids and another $300 million over the next decade on its highland resettlement scheme. The AsDB has already financed the construction of several “trial-run” dams in Laos that have impoverished local communities. It is also spending millions more on feasibility studies and rubber-stamp environmental assessments that seriously downplay the environmental and economic damages these projects have on local communities and the region’s farming and fishing economies.

More than just a financier, the AsDB has also become a broker for Western donors and companies vying for dam building contracts in the region. It has set up an exclusive forum where political leaders from the six Mekong countries meet regularly with aid donors and hydropower consultants to decide, without national or local scrutiny, which projects and studies the AsDB should fund.

A top priority for the AsDB is hydro development along the Mekong’s largest tributary, the Sekong, that flows from the Lao-Vietnamese highlands down through northern Cambodia. The AsDB is financing plans for up to 26 hydro-exporting dams that would flood hundreds of square kilometres of riverine valley forests and open up the watershed — over twenty thousand square kilometres of forest — to military-run logging. The Sekong’s valleys, plateaus, and mountains are home to many ethnic communities, including Yae, Bahnar, Krung, Jarai, Brou, Tampuan, Nya Heun, each with their own distinct culture, language and systems of managing their resources.

Not only are Sekong residents threatened by dam construction but the AsDB blames them for forest destruction and advocates their resettlement out of the highlands in the name of conservation and “poverty alleviation.” In the words of Noritada Morita, the Japanese director of the AsDB’s program department, “We may need to reduce the population of people in mountain areas and bring them to normal life . . . but don’t call it resettlement. It is just migration.”

Despite the political risks, Mekong citizens are questioning the AsDB-led agenda. Top Cambodian fisheries official, Tough Seang Tana, has asked teh AsDB: “with all the problems that have happened around the world, why are you pushing [dams] here? If someone can prove to me that the costs of losing our fish, of ecological destruction, of the debt all this will bring, is all less than the benefits, then I will be the first to applaud. . . . But if not, then I won’t believe.”

Send a postcard, save the forests!
The Vu Quang Ox, or saola as local people call it, lives in the forested Annamite mountains bordering Lao PDR and Vietnam. The saola’s habitat is threatened by aid-financed hydro development. If you would like a set of postcards featuring the saola to send to your elected representatives, friends and family, simply e-mail (noting in the body of the message that you would like to receive the saola postcards) and we will send them to you free of charge.Use them to send a message to Leonard Good, Canada’s representative to the World Bank!

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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