Mekong Utility Watch

China’s dams a threat to Cambodia

(September 10, 2010) Residents in Cambodia are blaming Chinese dams upstream on the Mekong River for the recent drought, reports Linda Mottram for Radio Australia.

In Cambodia, where the damming of the Mekong River is being blamed for drought conditions in parts of the country, where irrigation water has dried up.

There’s also pressure on fish stocks, with shortages leading to steadily rising prices. Warnings about the downstream impact of dams, particularly those built by China, have been growing and now there are calls for ASEAN a body frequently criticised for IN-action to take a stand. The issue was aired as part of two days of talks in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, organised by the Melbourne University-based Asialink which was also an opportunity to assess Cambodia’s overall progress.

Presenter: Linda Mottram
Speakers: Professor Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister; Ambassador Pou Sothirak, Cambodian diplomat

MOTTRAM: Though still deeply impoverished, Cambodia has without doubt been transformed from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, through a difficult and volatile peace process and into a more hopeful future based on broadly democratic principles. Former Australian Foreign minister, Gareth Evans, was a key playing in the peace process.

EVANS: You do get a sense that things are coming together I mean the physical fabric of the place is impressive. I am back here now for the first time in eight or nine years and you can sense the difference, the number of high rise buildings, just the sense of prosperity that’s out there and the growth rates reflect that in terms of the formal statistics.

MOTTRAM: Gareth Evans and Australia more broadly are held in genuine affection in Cambodia for their efforts in pulling the country from its dark past. And Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen reflected that at the formal, public opening of the Asialink Conversations.

HUN SEN: I would like to extend a particular heartfelt welcome back to Cambodia to the honorable Professor Gareth Evans.

MOTTRAM: But while Gareth Evans is optimistic for Cambodia, assessing that the proverbial glass is probably more than half full, he also acknowledges there’s a way to go on governance, on human rights .. and centrally, on the judiciary.

EVANS: Just about everyone acknowledges that that is the totally unfinished business, that it is basically not reliably independent. Take your life in your hands if you go to the judiciary, to the courts and this is not something that encourages either confidence by ordinary Cambodians in the quality of their own governance or of course it doesn’t do much to encourage investor confidence in the country.

MOTTRAM: But economic pressures are seen by Professor Evans and other observers as playing a key role in pressing Hun Sen’s government to continue reforms. There’s also the associated professionalisation of the population. And for all the criticisisms of his big man style of government, there is broad acknowledgement that Hun Sen understands that change has to come. He appears to harness anyone with an exceptional level of expertise to an advisory role. And he has moved on some problem areas, closing down gambling operations and enacting anti-corruption measures, even if enforcement is incomplete.

Still some of the particular problems are immense. Take the headline issue of land grabs. Ambassador Pou Sothirak is former humanitarian co-ordinator on the Thai-Cambodia border and a former MP and minister in the Cambodian government, who’s now on leave from an advisory position to Prime Minister Hun Sen, for a stint at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

SOTHIRAK: First of all it’s the exploitation by powerful people and rich business men who go out and buy off land from the poorer one. I just hope that the poor can have their own land title because land is very important. It is known to be a wealth creation asset for the poor and if one want to see Cambodia move away from poverty, land issues need to be settled for the sake of the poor.

MOTTRAM: But even if Cambodia’s largely rural poor get land title and are rescued from land grabs, their fate could lie elsewhere .. to be precise in China, whose dam building activities on the upper Mekong River to quench is great thirst for energy have an almost permanent alarm ringing in downstream countries like Cambodia.

Ambassador Sothirak again.

SOTHIRAK: Many of the Cambodian farmers they also live on fishing and the price of fish lately have gone up two, three times because of fish species under threat now because of this dam building and some places are now dried up so no water for irrigation so the crop cannot survive. So this effect we have now seen it happening in Cambodia. So my view about how to go about if one country want to do an exploitation on common natural resources, one country have to ensure that this type of development will not have drastic effects on the environment on the one hand and on the livelihood on the other hand.

MOTTRAM: Others at the Asialink Conversations called for ASEAN to take a stand, though it’s reputation for more talk than action precedes it.

Ambassador Sothirak puts it this way.

SOTHIRAK: Can China live without Mekong River? In my opinion China can live without Mekong River. But if you ask this same question for the Cambodian I don’t think we can live without the Mekong River.

Linda Mottram, Radio Australia, September 10, 2010

Read the original story here. [PDFver here]

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