What may prove to be some of the most important decisions on the fate of Cambodia’s environment are being made not in Phnom Penh, but in Beijing.
Chinese officials are moving at full speed on plans to build massive dams and blast out a navigation channel in the upper reaches of the Mekong river, which starts on the Tibetan plateau and runs through Cambodia on its way to the delta in Vietnam.
For China, the dams mean electricity for an impoverished rural population, and the navigation channel will open up a trade and tourism route. Chinese researchers contend that the dams will reduce both flooding and drought for countries downstream.
But some researchers warn that the projects could be disastrous for Cambodia. The dams and the channel could disrupt fisheries in the Tonle Sap lake, threaten endangered species and hurt agriculture on floodplains, as well as increasing water pollution, they say.
“China’s Lancang hydropower dams and Mekong navigation scheme will turn the Mekong into a biologically degraded, badly polluted, dying river like the Yangtze and other big rivers in China,” warned ecologist Tyson Roberts, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, in a recent study.
Chinese officials have shown little willingness to share details on the projects or to cooperate in assessing their downstream effects. And a Cambodian government that depends heavily on China for aid and investment has given only a restrained response.
It is estimated that 60 percent of Cambodians depend on the Mekong, or on the ecologically-linked Tonle Sap lake, for their animal protein. Four million people depend on the Tonle Sap lake for a living.
The ecosystem is already gravely threatened by deforestation, overfishing and pesticide use in and around the lake, environmentalists say. But the average Cambodian farmer or fisherman may have little idea how the massive projects under way much farther upriver could affect him.
Billed as the world’s tallest dam, the Xiaowan dam—about as tall as a 100-story skyscraper—is expected to start construction this year. The 30-story Dachaoshan began construction last year. Altogether, eight dams (two are already built) known as the Lancang river cascade are designed to exploit the rapid fall of the level of the Mekong’s main tributary as it flows through China’s Yunnan province.
The benefits to China could be substantial. Yunnan authorities plan to hook all villages to the power grid within the next two years, potentially improving living conditions and powering industrialization. Laos and Thailand have signed agreements with China for shares of the electricity to be generated. Chinese energy policy broadly considers hydropower to be “cleaner” than alternatives such as coal plants and traditional wood burning, which increases deforestation and pollution.
Meanwhile, China is funding a $5.3 million project to blast rapids, build dikes and remove shoals along the Mekong from the China-Burma border to Ban Houayxai in Laos. The project aims to link China to Southeast Asian export markets and raw materials, and results from a joint agreement of China, Laos, Burma and Thailand.
“All countries will prosper equally from the increased trade,” Mei Ruichang, a spokesman for Yunnan’s Navigation Affairs Bureau, told the Associated Press.
Vietnam and Cambodia were not part of the agreement, however. In the short run, increased trade could hurt small-time producers in those countries who are unprepared to compete with imports from China, warns Joern Kristensen, executive director of the Mekong River Commission, which facilitates sustainable development throughout the river basin.
The project could also affect fisheries by destroying shoals that act as spawning grounds of fish that live in Cambodia and Vietnam but migrate upriver to lay their eggs, Kirstensen said.
The effects of the dams may take longer to emerge, but are even more controversial. Chinese researchers say that the dams, by holding back water in the flood season and releasing it to generate electricity in the dry season, will mitigate both flooding and drought. It could aid irrigation during the dry season, and have a “small but significant impact” on flooding, Yunnan University researcher He Daming said in a study with New Zealand researcher David Plinston.
But other researchers worry that any significant change in the flow rate of the Mekong could disrupt the unique process that feeds the crucial Tonle Sap lake. During the flood season the flow of the Tonle Sap river reverses, sending Mekong water upstream to flood the lake. The floodwater creates a vast spawning and feeding ground, driving the annual fish harvest and nourishing the soil of surrounding farms.
Furthermore, the dams threaten to halt migration patterns of a wide variety of fish species, including the giant Mekong catfish. The dams will also stop the downstream flow of silt that contains valuable nutrients used as fertilizer by rice farmers. With less silt to carry, the river may run faster, increasing bank erosion and threatening farming and development along the banks.
“Changes in flows resulting from dam impoundment upstream on the Mekong and its tributaries could have serious effects on the ecology of the Tonle Sap,” according to a report by the Stockholm Environment Institute published last year by the Asian Development Bank.
Until recently, countries planning large dam projects could depend on help from multilateral funding agencies such as the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank. That has changed in recent years, after large dams have wreaked havoc in Southeast Asia and credible studies have highlighted their drawbacks.
The Pak Moon Dam, a World Bank project on the Moon River in Thailand, was shut down last year after findings that it had cut fish catches some 80 percent and sped the pace of extinctions. And at least 32 people in Ratanakkiri province are believed to have drowned because of water surges from a dam on the Se San river, a Mekong tributary in Vietnam. The dam, built with the help of the Asian Development Bank, has also hurt agriculture and fisheries downstream, environmentalists and villagers say.
A major turning point in the dam debate was a 2000 report of the World Commission on Dams, a mammoth World Bank study that found that major hydropower dams often produced less power than expected and caused “significant and irreversible loss of species and ecosystems.”
Up to 80 million people have been displaced by dams to make way for huge reservoirs, mostly without adequate compensation, the report stated. And “millions of people living downstream from dams—particularly those reliant on natural floodplain function and fisheries—have also suffered serious harm to their livelihoods and the future productivity of their resources has been put at risk.”
Chastened by these lessons, the ADB last year pulled out of plans to build another dam on the Se San. And the World Bank has held off on approving another major dam in Laos, the $1.2 billion Nam Theun 2, which would sit on another Mekong tributary.
Private investors have not been willing to invest in the huge projects, leading to an overall slowdown in new dam construction in Southeast Asia, according to a hydropower study released last year by the Mekong River Commission.
But China may be ready to fill in the gaps, providing funding whether for profit or for political capital. “China is rumored to be moving in to fund all of these dams,” said Kelly Brooks, policy officer for Oxfam International’s Mekong River Initiative, which is based in Phnom Penh.
Despite a history of problems with dams, downstream countries like Cambodia and Vietnam are still hungry for electricity. They may find it hard to resist generous offers of aid from China, Brooks said.
“China has funding available for downstream projects, and downstream countries are starting to depend on China for funding. So they’re reluctant to criticize China [about the possible impacts of upstream projects],” Brooks said.
That appears to be the case in Cambodia, where the Chinese have helped the government build a $30 million hydropower station in Kirirom National Park. Since 1997, China has donated almost $40 million in aid to Cambodia and provided $200 million in commercial credit, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. And Chinese companies have invested about $200 million in Cambodia in the past seven years, the article reports.
The strongest public reaction by the government to the projects came in the November 2000 Asean summit, which China also attended. Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that “Cambodia was concerned by the impact of this agreement [on the navigation channel],” said Sin Niny, vice-chairman of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, which coordinates government action on the river.
The prime minister also urged that “any development on the mainstream [of the Mekong] should consider the implications to downstream countries.” He did not specifically mention dams, Sin Niny said.
Meanwhile, China has refused to join the agency best positioned to assess the potential effects of the dams and the channel. Since 1995, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand have agreed to share information on development through the Mekong River Commission, which is based in Phnom Penh. China and Burma, however, have refused to sign on.
MRC director Kristensen said it was too early to tell the overall impacts of the projects, positive or negative. The commission is urging China to provide more technical information, such as river flow velocity, he said.
“Many great rivers [in the world] have been destroyed, and part of the reason has been that development has been carried out on the basis of incomplete information,” he said.
The Cambodian government has urged China and the other upstream countries to take another look at the environmental impact of the navigation channel, Sin Niny said. The MRC sponsored an independent study by the Monash Institute in Australia that found that the current environmental impact report on the channel was “not up to international standards,” Sin Niny said.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also been convening meetings on the channel issue, Sin Niny said. But blasting of the channel has just begun, according to reports in the Chinese state media.
The Chinese opened up somewhat recently when they invited representatives from all countries on the Mekong on a field trip to examine the sites where the channel was to be blasted. But representatives from the MRC itself—a major source of technical expertise in the region—were not invited on the trip, an MRC source said.
As for the dams, Sin Niny said he had asked Chinese officials last year at a special MRC meeting for Cambodia to “get involved” in an environmental impact assessment for the dams. They received a vague reply, he said. “They said that they had left this issue to their technicians,” he said.
But with the dam-building campaign already well underway, some say that information-sharing isn’t enough. Roberts said the MRC should begin an environmental impact assessment on the dams with the information that is already available.
Brooks suggests lobbying the Chinese government with existing evidence that the dams may not be economically viable. She points to a prediction by Roberts that the dam reservoirs may quickly fill up with river sediment, becoming useless within 30 years.
“There is already enough research to say the dams will have negative impacts throughout the region,” Brooks said. “But it’s not getting through…It may not be convincing to talk about downstream impact. You may have to try it through a different angle [like economics].”
Planning of the dams and the navigation channel were conceived by the Chinese when ecologists were still learning about the impact of upstream developments on downstream areas, observers say. MRC experts are pressing for an approach to development and power generation that covers the entire Mekong region.
A truly transnational approach may reveal surprising new alternatives to large dam construction, development experts say. For example, massive oil and natural gas reserves exist in Vietnam, Thailand and Burma, the Stockholm Environment Institute study reports. The institute also suggests connecting power grids across borders and increasing the international gas trade.
“We have the opportunity to have a more holistic approach,” Kristensen said. “That’s what the four downstream countries agreed to do [by joining the MRC]. We would like the two upstream countries to join us.”