Prime Minister Hun Sen said Thursday that he is not worried about the potential ill effects on Cambodia of Chinese dam building along the upper Mekong River, and blasted unnamed foreign media who, he says, have criticized his stance.
“There is no problem. No problem,” the prime minister said at a fish releasing ceremony in Prey Veng province.
“I believe China…would not ignore the interests of the downstream countries,” he said.
Hun Sen is scheduled to leave for Kunming, China, on Sunday for a meeting of the Greater Mekong Sub-region, where the six countries of the group—Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Laos and China—are expected to sign several agreements on electricity and transportation. The meeting follows the first group meeting in Phnom Penh in 2002.
Fisheries experts and NGO officials have expressed concern in recent years over Chinese projects to build dams on their section of the Mekong and to blast sections of the Mekong in Burma and Laos to make the river navigable between the upstream countries.
“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 2002 study.
The projects are potentially disastrous for Cambodia, where an estimated 80 percent of the population depends on the Mekong or on the ecologically linked Tonle Sap lake for their protein. Four million people depend on the Tonle Sap lake for a living.
Experts have noted that the Cambodian government depends heavily on investment and aid from mainland China—an implied criticism that an apparently annoyed Hun Sen mentioned in his speech on Thursday.
“Before the first meeting in Phnom Penh, there was criticism in the foreign media outside the country,” he said. “They said that Mr Hun Sen considered China as his foreign policy priority. So that is why he wouldn’t raise this issue.”
The prime minister then said that a compromise has been made between all the Mekong countries, both upstream and downstream.
“All the compromise and all the documents have been finished already for us to sign and approve on Monday and Tuesday,” he said. “So there is no problem. The problem that [the foreign media] raised, they just show their interest in environmental concerns. And they use the issue to block cooperation between Mekong countries.
“Some people do not like China. They criticized [Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra] for being close to China and also criticized Hun Sen for his foreign policy with China. So, ‘Hun Sen will not protest.’ They are using the Mekong issue to attack Thaksin and Hun Sen,” he said.
China has shown a reluctance in recent years to release information and details on the dam projects, but Hun Sen noted Thursday that officials had been invited to China to tour areas where dams will be built.
He said he also asked then-Chinese prime minister Zhu Rongji at a meeting in Singapore for information on the projects.
“I demanded an environmental assessment to see whether this project affects Cambodia and Vietnam downstream,” Hun Sen said. “And we got an explanation from China about the pros and cons, and since then, the experts from five countries were sent up to visit the dam construction in China.”
Hun Sen added that if there is a dam, the water will still continue to flow downstream. But he also said he would oppose any plan to divert water. Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay noted that Cambodians along the Tonle Se San in Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri provinces have experienced flash floods, poisonous water and reduced fish population since Vietnam built a dam upstream on its territory. He said he is worried about similar effects in Cambodia from Chinese dams.
“I heard that Thailand will be bringing up the [dam project] issue and then complain. Cambodia should join in this for the sake of the downstream countries,” he said. “We have to show our sovereignty in this meeting. Prime Minister Hun Sen should not mix political benefits and technical ideas.”
Mak Sothirith, the executive director of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team, also said the issue worries him. “This could change the natural flow regime of the Mekong. During the dry season, if the dams release the water, this could affect the fish migration. Fish cannot adapt.”
Reacting to Hun Sen’s comment that it is too soon to judge the ecological impact of China’s dam building, Mak Sothirith said that “if we do not address the issue, the Mekong River will become a dead river.”
But Nao Thuok, director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fishery Department, said upstream flow of the Mekong makes up only about 20 percent of the river’s flow in Cambodia. The other 80 percent comes from rain and tributaries inside the country, he said.
He also noted that China has promised to spend between $2 million and $3 million to build a fish nursery in Cambodia.
“This is not compensation for China building the dams. It is just out of cooperation between the two countries,” he said.