Activists: Mekong Development Should Protect Livelihoods

Programs to build roads, create electricity and enhance navigation in the six countries bordering the Mekong could instead damage the environment and destroy the livelihood of thousands, activists on the sidelines of the Greater Mekong Subregion summit warned Sunday.

“We want development that serves the people, not development that comes from the other side of the world and does not ad­dress poverty,” said Mak Sithirith of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team, a Cambodian association representing fishermen.

Sunday’s news conference, held hours before the GMS summit, followed a conference organized by the Oxfam Mekong In­itia­tive assessing the effects of pro­jects by the GMS and the Asi­an Development Bank, which coordinates the GMS and funds some of its programs.

Mak Sithirith deplored “large, costly infrastructure projects” such as hydropower dams and highways that were undertaken without consulting people who might be displaced or whose live­lihoods would be affected.

Some Cambodians displaced by the Route 1 project between Viet­nam and Phnom Penh, funded by the ADB and the Cambo­dian government, have waited years and still have not been compensated, said Leakhana Kol of the NGO Forum, which surveyed villagers. Niwat Roykaew leads villagers in Thailand’s Chiang Khong region, who say the blasting of Mekong rapids is destroying fishing habitats and eroding the banks of the river, forcing riverside villages to relocate.

The blasting is intended to make the upper reaches of the Me­kong River navigable, enhancing trade. The channel is being fund­ed by China, and the up­stream countries have approved an environmental study that found the channel would have no negative effects. But researchers at Australia’s Monash University and elsewhere have declared that study flawed and incomplete. “We are very concerned, be­cause the Mekong provides all things to us,” Niwat Roykaew said.

Other projects also came under fire. On Sunday GMS leaders signed an agreement paving the way for a $4.5 billion investment in building transmission lines throughout the region. The agree­ment also seeks to create a regional power trade market.

The agreement commits the re­gion to building more large hydropower dams even as a newly sensitized ADB pulls out of dam projects that displace thousands and disrupt river ecosystems, said Grainne Ryder, a power sector analyst with Cana­da-based Probe Interna­tional, an environmental consulting firm. Smaller-scale and renewable energy sources can be more efficient and do not require transmission lines, Ryder said.

Activists also criticized the GMS for including Burma, which is led by a repressive military regime. While the ADB does not fund Burma, the GMS’ East-West Corridor, a major road-building initiative, would go through the country. Burma is widely known to use forced labor in public projects. The ADB does not fund the navigation channel, road-building in Burma or controversial dams in China, though they are listed as GMS projects.

But Rajat Nag, director general of the Mekong Department of the ADB, said the ADB raised the concerns of project dissenters “dis­creetly” in discussions with funders. He said the ADB still sup­ported hydropower, but only “se­lectively” because of potential negative effects.

“Development is about tradeoffs,” Nag said.


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