Tag Archives: Mekong

Hydropower in Laos: An Alternative Approach

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It’s time to take another look at the future of energy in Southeast Asia.

A report published in September by the Stimson Center, a D.C.-based think tank, challenges prevailing notions about the future of hydropower in the Mekong subregion, an area including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and southwestern China.

The report focuses on Laos, which in years past has proclaimed itself the future “Battery of Southeast Asia,” by aggressively developing hydropower dams on the Mekong. Laos has already built 29 large dams along the river’s mainstream and tributaries, with plans for over 100 in total. The land-locked country remains the poorest in Southeast Asia, and has planned to raise cash by exporting electricity to consumers in neighboring countries.

But project developers of these dams – who are typically Thai and Chinese companies – have faced criticism from civil society groups and international observers for the myriad social and environmental consequences brought on by dam construction. The Mekong is home to an estimated 1,000 species of fish, many of which migrate along the river and replenish the region’s fisheries. By changing the hydrology of the river, these dams threaten the biodiversity of the Mekong and the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers throughout the region. In times of drought – as has been experienced this year – the dams can cause regional insecurity by contributing to water scarcity problems downriver.

While dam construction has continued apace despite these dangers, the Stimson report argues that new markets and technologies are creating an opportunity to change course.

Challenges for Lao Hydro

The report highlights new developments that could steer Laos away from further damming on the Mekong. First, following a period of economic and political liberalization, Myanmar is emerging as a competitor for energy infrastructure finance. Myanmar boasts nearly 100 gigawatts of potential hydropower capacity, far exceeding what is possible in Laos. Such a glut of potential projects in the region is likely to siphon away financing that might otherwise go towards hydropower development in Laos.

At the same time, China’s economic slowdown could signal the end for cheap and easy hydropower finance in the region. In previous years, Chinese state planners encouraged outbound investment in strategic sectors such as hydropower projects in Southeast Asia. However, the report notes that government concerns about non-performing loans on the books of Chinese banks seem to have reduced the funding available for some projects in Laos. Rising local awareness about the social and environmental costs of these dams also adds a layer of risk that financiers may find discouraging.

Perhaps most critically, it appears as if planned generation in Southeast Asia is outpacing the region’s appetite for energy. China, once envisioned as a potential market for Laos power, is already experiencing serious overcapacity in its domestic power market. Thailand, while still a major investor in Laos hydro projects, has consistently overestimated its own consumption levels – and has lots of room to cut demand through energy efficiency measures. Both Cambodia and Vietnam have planned to reduce their reliance on imported energy, with the latter investing heavily in coal-fired power plants.

A New Vision for Laos

Taken together, these signals make a compelling case for a new energy strategy in Laos and in the region as a whole.

First, the report suggests that Lao planners should invest in a backbone transmission network to connect its patchwork regional grids. This is a good idea for a variety of reasons. A nationwide transmission system would help open up markets for Lao electricity both domestically and internationally by creating a more flexible grid. It would help planners integrate renewable energy resources like solar and wind. It would also be a great step towards electrifying the remaining 20% of the country still without power.

Secondly, planners should consider ways to diversify the country’s energy mix with wind and solar. With too much reliance on hydro, the region risks facing shortages during drought conditions, which will become increasingly likely due to the effects of climate change.

It also makes good economic sense. Utility-scale solar is now nearly cost-competitive with hydro in Laos. Solar avoids the social and environmental challenges associated with hydro that have led to disruptive public protests and cost overruns, making it a safer bet.

In fact, solar already plays an important role in electrifying Laos’ rural communities. Companies like Sunlabob have pioneered low-cost solar home systems to provide basic electricity services like lighting and device charging to remote communities. A new energy outlook from Lao energy planners would also be a great opportunity to optimize plans to fully electrify the country, whether by grid connection, solar home systems, or village-level microgrids.

Lastly, greater international cooperation in energy planning is needed. The construction of a national power grid will require technical assistance from international experts. The Asian Development Bank is leading this effort, and plans to invest $400 million in a national transmission network by 2020. The US has already begun providing power planning and optimization assistance through the Department of Energy and its national laboratories.

The US is also supporting renewables in Laos. In advance of President Obama’s visit to Laos in September 2016, the US Trade and Development Agency committed to funding a feasibility study for a 20 megawatt solar farm in the country.

China, as a regional power with an abiding interest in Laos’ energy sector, can also benefit from this shift. The world’s largest solar module manufacturers are Chinese, and government support for emerging solar markets is one way to bolster domestic manufacturers while also rebranding China as a responsible stakeholder in the region.

Laos’ energy future is still uncertain. Energy planners remain convinced that prioritizing dam construction is Laos’ ticket to prosperity, despite the risks. But as the challenges for Lao hydro become ever more apparent, a new way forward could be in the making.

Read the Stimson Center’s full report here.

This article was first published here on the Pacific Observer website.

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An alternate past/future for Mekong River dams under the UN Watercourses Convention: Part 2

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Fishermen on the Mekong. Photo: Remy Kinna

Part 1 of this article discussed the key threats to the Mekong River and its people, specifically hydropower dam construction, before summarising the legal gaps in the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River (Mekong Agreement) and its supplementary Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) which together regulate dam development.

Part 2 now investigates the application of the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA to Laos’ Xayaburi Dam project ‘prior consultation’ process, examining the specific contested procedural and legal elements and the role of the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Additionally, Part 2 will explore how these issues would be addressed under the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC): the most authoritative global treaty concerning management of international rivers.

The Xayaburi Dam dispute

The Xayaburi Dam project has received significant regional and global attention. It was the first Lower Mekong mainstream hydropower project submitted to the MRC for prior consultation under the PNPCA. Such a milestone was due in part to China not having signed the Mekong Agreement, thus its dams on the Lancang fall outside the MRC’s purview, while the scope of the prior consultation process does not incorporate projects on Mekong tributaries. The Xayaburi PNPCA process itself has been widely analysed and critiqued, mainly in terms of its inability ‘to reconcile the competing interests of the States concerned’ based on the Xayaburi project proposal1,2.

As highlighted in Part 1, many stakeholders are still deeply concerned about the dam’s impending significant environmental and social impacts3,4. The controversy over the project extends to the MRC’s perceived inability to resolve disputes or to clarify timeframes and requirements regarding the different PNPCA processes. Key aspects of the Xayaburi dispute are separated into their key legal and PNPCA elements below.

Submission for prior consultation and reply

Under the PNPCA’s procedural framework, Laos submitted the Xayaburi Dam project proposal for prior consultation to the MRC on 20 September 2010, and the MRC officially began the consultation process on 22 October 2010, whereby the other MRC states had six months to formally reply with any concerns about the proposal.5 On 14 Feb 2011, Laos released the initial Xayaburi Dam environmental impact assessment (EIA), which had actually been completed six months earlier before the proposal was submitted to the MRC. Due to this timing, there has been criticism that the EIA was not part of the original proposal submission; additionally, the EIA has been criticised for its overall poor quality, particularly its failure to take account of cross-border environmental impacts6. Between 13 and 15 April 2011, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam each submitted formal replies raising concerns and calling for further investigation.

Obligation to cooperate in good faith and exchange information

Under the PNPCA, all states should cooperate in good faith with all potentially affected states and supply to them any available information relevant to a proposed dam project in a timely fashion. The MRC Secretariat’s independent technical review of the Xayaburi Dam released on 24 March 2011 and entitled ‘Prior Consultation Project Review Report’ identified significant gaps and concerns in Laos’ documentation and recommended further collection of baseline data and transboundary impact studies7.

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The author presenting on UNWC in 2016.

Downstream states, international non-government organisations (INGOs), civil society groups, and independent experts additionally claim that Laos’ subsequent releases of Xayaburi project information, especially several EIA-related studies, have been variously incomplete, minimal, sporadic, and inconsistent – such as the Pöyry report discussed below8,9,10. That key project information has been released through media statements and not via direct communication to the other states or through the MRC is an example critics cite to demonstrate Laos has not engaged in the PNPCA process in good faith at all times11,12.

Finally, the PNPCA is silent on whether project implementation is prohibited after submission (while waiting for replies) and during consultation. Nonetheless, eyewitness accounts, press reports, and records from the dam’s construction company indicate that initial implementation began in late 2010 and continued throughout the MRC consultations held in 2011 and years subsequent which critics argue at the very least shows disinterest in following due process as agreed under the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA8,13,14,15. Moreover, all of the actions detailed above when considered individually, even more so collectively, could be construed as directly at odds with the legal principle of states cooperating in good faith at all times, incorporating consultations and negotiations. This principle will be examined in more detail in Part 3.

Consultation & negotiation

A special session of the MRC Joint Committee was convened on 19 April 2011 to address states’ concerns. Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam reiterated their apprehensions about the dam project and called for a six-month extension to the standard six-month prior consultation period (which had just ended) in order to conduct broader studies and consultations, but Laos said any concerns would be accommodated without an extension5.

Notwithstanding this assertion, Laos halted implementation and commissioned a Finnish engineering firm, Pöyry to conduct a study in May 2011 regarding whether the Xayaburi complied with the MRC’s dam safety standards and a 2009 report, ‘Preliminary Design Guidance for Proposed Mainstream Dams in the Lower Mekong Basin’ 6,16. However, construction soon resumed with Laos citing Pöyry’s advice that the prior consultation process had been completed; the dam complied with MRC safety standards and guidelines in the 2009 report; and any other necessary design changes could be incorporated at a later stage6,9. These assertions were strongly rebuked by independent experts and INGOs, plus an MRC Secretariat review of the Pöyry report (released in August 2011) contested key technical design elements6,16,17.

A subsequent study by a French consulting company which was commissioned by Laos to build on Pöyry’s report in order to allay dam design and transboundary impact fears was also widely discredited by INGOs18,19. All the while, Cambodia and Vietnam both continued to consistently deny that there had been fulfilment of the prior consultation period and of Laos’ validity in unilaterally proceeding with dam implementation20,21.

Dispute resolution

In April 2011, the MRC Secretariat resolved to determine whether the PNPCA prior consultation period was concluded for the Xayaburi Dam project. The disputed issues could not be resolved via Secretariat-level negotiations, so the states agreed to table a decision, leaving it for the ministers from each member country to come together to debate and hopefully reach a consensus5. Despite preliminary studies and ongoing calls for the MRC to clarify both the status of the Xayaburi consultation period and PNPCA processes generally, these issues still remain largely unresolved22,23,24,25. As of early 2016, the dam is over halfway complete, but updated project designs have yet to be made public26.

UN Watercourses Convention

The UNWC’s clearer processes and regulations stand out in contrast to the results of the Xayaburi project highlighted above. Unlike the Mekong Agreement and its PNPCA, the UNWC clearly defines the rights and responsibilities of all basin states for dams and other projects with possible cross-border impacts and is unequivocally binding on all parties. Moreover, Part III of the UNWC views ‘notification’ and ‘prior consultation’ as sequential stages within a larger process regarding any planned measures. The UNWC does not differentiate between tributary or mainstream projects whereas the PNPCA prior consultation process only applies to mainstream projects. Compulsory procedures under the UNWC include:When Vietnam ratified the UNWC in 2014, as the 35th party, it triggered the UNWC’s entry into force. Though all MRC member states voted for the UNWC adoption in 1997, Vietnam is the only Mekong basin state to accede to the UNWC so far27. Covering all of the generally-accepted principles and procedures of international law for water, the UNWC represents the global ‘rules of the game’ for managing rivers shared by two or more countries. Its central feature is detailed but flexible processes requiring basin states to: cooperate in good faith; prevent pollution and protect ecosystems; notify, negotiate, and consult with each other on projects that can have major impacts to the basin; and try to avoid or peacefully resolve disputes through a variety of forums28.

  • Notification to all states with all available data before planning or building a dam, including EIA results;
  • Six months for reply (plus six months more if requested) during which the dam project is suspended;
  • Six months consultation and, if necessary, negotiation (may ask for additional six months) with no dam construction if requested.

The UNWC is also much clearer on dispute resolution mechanisms. While the Mekong Agreement makes a circular loop permitting states to ultimately ‘agree to disagree’, the UNWC lays out a logical sequence of forums – including direct negotiation and third party mediation or conciliation – that states can essentially choose from to reach a resolution with a clear outcome. If six months after requesting negotiations the states cannot agree through these forums, an independent fact-finding body collects and verifies all available information applicable to the proposed project before providing impartial recommendations to the disputing parties. At any time, a state can apply to a third party to hear the case, including an arbitration tribunal and/or the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

A framework treaty, the UNWC is intended to support, not replace, existing and future basin agreements by filling in legal gaps and clarifying processes. All of which begs the question: what if the Mekong dam processes were clarified and strengthened? What if riparian states had more specific, and binding, expectations for the Xayaburi Dam process?

Part 3 of this article imagines an alternative reality where the UNWC along with the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA are collectively applied to the Xayaburi Dam process. This scenario reveals a potentially different outcome to certain disputed procedural aspects and legal elements. Consequently, a revitalised framework for the future sustainable development of the Mekong River is proposed.

This article was first published here on April 18, 2016 on the Global Water Forum website. It is the 2nd in a 3 part series and is reposted here with permission from the author and the Global Water Forum.

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The Myth of Sustainable Hydropower

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Explorers, travelers and traders have long been enchanted by the magical vistas and extraordinary biodiversity of the Mekong flowing through six countries, from the mountains of Tibet to the delta in Vietnam.

However the voracious demands of an energy-hungry region have led to a headlong rush into hydropower and a simmering conflict over the vitally important water resources of this great international river.

The current plans for a cascade of 11 dams on the main stream of the Lower Mekong is a recipe for killing the turbulent spirit of the mighty Mekong, taming its waters and the wonders of nature in the obsessive pursuit of energy at all costs.

The supporters of large dams argue hydropower is an allegedly ‘clean efficient source for of energy.’ They further claim that dams stimulate economic growth and promote development.

However the opposition to all dam projects on the mainstream Mekong, starts with the rural communities along the Mekong and its river basin supporting a 60 million population. The dam developers and government technocrats have failed to examine and study the hidden costs of hydropower, and the irreversible destruction of a unique ecosystem.

A wide-spectrum of critics points to well-documented list of negative impacts: the reduction of water flow and sediment, the huge loss of fisheries, the reduction of food security, and the increasing salinization-intrusion of sea water in the delta, to name but a few serious impacts which run counter to any narrative that dams automatically bring economic progress and “development.”

2016 will be a decisive year for hydropower projects on the mainstream Mekong. The first dam on the Lower Mekong –the Xayaburi Dam is now 60% built. The Don Sahong dam in southern Lao has just been launched, in January this year and a third dam the Pak Beng is being prepared.

Can hydropower on a mainstream river be sustainable?

The unilateral launch of the Xayaburi dam in 2012 and now the Don Sahong dam – second dam on the mainstream of the Mekong, is turning the river away from the historical vision of an international river of cooperation and friendship between Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, and into another conflict zone over the sharing of water resources.

However the government of Laos is not under any pressure from any of the bodies that ought to be grievously concerned: UN agencies like UNEP and FAO .The World Bank, WLE (Water, Land and Ecosystems, a CGIAR consultancy group); the USAID-sponsored Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE); nor other bodies that adhere to the mantra of ‘sustainable hydropower’ and environmental protection.

This term identifies a discourse that argues a well-mitigated ‘nice dam’ does not inflict too much damage on the ecosystem. It is a position that offers great comfort and solace to dam developers, investors and banks under fire from environmentalists and scientists.

Within this cluster of concern about water governance and claims to protect the environment of the 4,880 kilometres long Mekong, there is a grand silence by the donor nations and international bodies that greets the decline of the region’s longest river and the launch of yet another dam.

A regional coordinator for the WLE program has argued the case for ‘sustainable hydropower’ and trade-offs.

“We all enjoy the benefits that come with electric lighting, household appliances”, says Kim Geheb, WLE. “But how do we do this without affecting food production and the health of the environment? How do we ensure that rapid, large-scale dam development is fair and equitable? Answers to these questions are at the heart of what constitutes a ‘good’ dam.”

Xayaburi dam construction site. Photo: Stimson Center

Xayaburi dam construction site. Photo: Stimson Center

The two dams launched so far on the Lower Mekong in Laos surely do not appear to fulfill any obvious criteria for the sustainability principle of what constitutes a ‘good dam. ‘The Xayaburi and the Don Sahong dams along the Mekong are neither fair nor equitable, for the overwhelming majority of poor farming communities living downstream from these dams. These two dams both lack credible environmental impact assessments (EIAs), have failed to provide any trans-boundary studies, and have been launched in defiance of wide-ranging protest and riparian objections.

Scientific consultants to WWF (The World –Wide Fund for Nature) have issued a number of reports exposing massive flaws in these two projects and the lack of credibility of their assurances of effective fish mitigation.

Latest data published by Catch and Culture MRC’s fisheries publication shows that threat posed to the Mekong is based on hidden economic costs that will occur the Mekong is dammed.

The Mekong is a very special river hosting the world’s largest inland fisheries valued at $11 billion ($11 billion for wild capture but that total figure is $17 billion if fish farms along the Mekong are included.) It ranks with the Amazon for the extraordinary diversity of fish species at around 1000 and scientists are still counting.

Fisherman checks his nets on Cambodia's Tonle Sap

Fisherman checks his nets on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap

Estimated fisheries contributed $2.8 billion to Cambodia’s economy in 2015. That’s a big chunk of Cambodia’s $16.71 billion GDP. These catches for wild-capture fisheries are directly under threat from hydro-electric dams.

Studies have shown that the projected loss of fisheries, crops and biodiversity caused by dams will result in a staggeringly high deficit, compared to the modest benefits from increased energy and electricity. The 2015 study calculates the Mekong net loss at minus $2.4 billion (for 6 dams) and up to minus $21.8 billion if all eleven dams are built on the mainstream according to a study published by Chiang Rai University

The science shows that it does not even make good economic sense to build more large dams, in a river blessed by such amazing ecological wealth.

The mitigation game fools no one

Sustainable hydropower and its concern to minimize harm to the environment relies heavily on mitigation technology, including such devices as fish passage, fish ladders and even so-called ‘fish-friendly’ turbines.

Christy Owen, party leader of the MPE (The US-Aid backed Mekong Partnership for Environment) explained at a recent forum: “This work can help ensure that new development projects meet the needs of business, while minimizing harm to local communities and the environment.”

Her statement assumes that no matter the high stakes, and the calamitous effects of ‘bad dams’, dams are somehow “destined to go ahead” after a measure of mitigation and refinement

Fish mitigation technology has mostly been applied and tested in northern climes – the rivers of North America, and parts of northern Europe. Importing this technology to the Mekong and other tropical rivers teeming with a vastly greater variety of fish species than in the rivers of colder countries, is seen by most fisheries experts as highly risky at best.

What may work in the rivers of North America and Norway cannot be mechanically transferred to the vastly more diverse fish species and ecology of the Amazon and the Mekong.

Hydropower consultant working with WWF Dr. Jian-Hua Meng views the mitigation carried out by Swiss consultants on the Xayaburi dam as a huge gamble with the river’s natural resources. “They are playing roulette with the livelihoods of over 60 million people. It would not be acceptable in Europe, so why is it different in Asia?” [1]

The mitigation team employed by Mega-First, the Malaysian developer of the Don Sahong dam, has been engineering fish diversion channels so that fish will change their centuries- old route along the Sahong channel which will be totally blocked by the building of the Don Sahong Dam.

NGO mobilization in Thailand against the Don Sahong Dam.

NGO mobilization in Thailand against the Don Sahong Dam.

However the MRC panel of experts found no evidence that this engineering project would guarantee the protection of large quantities of migratory fish of many different species by offering an untested alternative migration route to bypass the traditional channel according to MRC fisheries expert Dr So Nam (Pakse MRC technical review of experts December 2014).

Mekong specialist Dr. Philip Hirsch, based at University of Sydney shared with this correspondent “After 30 years of studying dam impacts, I have yet to come across one [dam], whose impacts have been well-mitigated. Let’s start with dams that are already there, before using ‘anticipated mitigation’ as a pretext for going ahead with new projects.”

The evidence is clear: there is nothing sustainable about large dams

A widely cited Oxford University study, published in the journal Energy Policy in March 2014, reviewed data from 245 large dams in 65 different countries, and concluded that large dams in general are not sustainable.

As the authors wrote in a statement attached to the study: “The evidence is conclusive: Large dams in a vast majority of cases are not economically viable. Instead of obtaining hoped-for riches, emerging economies risk drowning their fragile economies in debt, owing to ill-advised construction of large dams.”

The global governance debate has clearly shifted business towards paying more attention to environmental protection issues, but all too often this is more a concern to improve their corporate image and improving their public relations, rather than a genuine will rethink their on-going strategy for damming the Mekong.

From his decades of research in the Mekong region Dr Philip Hirsch concludes: “The impacts of some dams are just too great to mitigate.”

WWF warns that hydropower does not mitigate of climate change. But with the Mekong under threat from an annual decline in water flow from the melting glaciers in Tibet, it can on the contrary exacerbate and drive climate change.

The evidence is steadily mounting that if we allow the Mekong to be comprehensively dammed, climate change will grow worse with increasing droughts and salinization from the ocean. The region will then be saddled with a ruined Mekong and the riparian peoples will be damned into around 20 years time to the tragic and irreversible legacy of unsustainable hydropower.

The only way to save the Mekong is by pushing for the political will of regional countries to understand the ecological wealth and the real economic value of great rivers like the Amazon and the Mekong.

 

References:

Strategic Environmental Assessment of Mainstream Dams …

www.mrcmekong.org › … › Initiative on Sustainable Hydropower The SEA presents trans-boundary impacts of the proposed mainstream … As with any commissioned study, the SEA report is not an official MRC approved document.

2) Mekong communities seek injunction on Xayaburi Dam deal …

www.nationmultimedia.com › national

Oct 16, 2014 – … River yesterday lodged a petition with the Administrative Court in Bangkok, … Court on June 24 to accept the network’s right to bring a lawsuit

Catch & Culture Vol. 21, No. 3 » Mekong River Commission

www.mrcmekong.org › News & Events › Newsletters

Jan 5, 2016 – Lower Mekong fisheries estimated to be worth around $17 billion a year … Catch and Culture is published three times a year by the office of the Mekong River … are available through the MRC website, www.mrcmekong.org

The 2015 study calculates the Mekong net loss at minus $2.4 billion ( for 6 dams) and up to -21.8 $billion ( for 11 dams)

Energy Policy

Volume 69, June 2014, Pages 43–56  Oxford Univesity study on the impacts of large dams .The study is based on data from 245 large dams in 65 different countries.

Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development

http://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/news/should-we-build-more-large-dams

Latest research pubished in 2015 by Chiang Rai University Mekong research group http://www.mfu.ac.th/nremc/content_detail.php?id=298

Contact the author :

Tom Fawthrop

director of THE GREAT GAMBLE ON THE MEKONG  EUREKA FILMS 2015

eurekacuba@gmail.com

[1] (Interview with the author and film-maker Tom Fawthrop who directed the film The Great Gamble on the Mekong’ Eureka Films 2015).

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Mekong lessons: Reflecting on October trip to Southeast Asia

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I’ve just returned from my first business trip to Southeast Asia with the Stimson Center’s “Team Mekong.”  Below are a few lessons learned and brief observations from our visits in Bangkok, Kunming, Phnom Penh, Can Tho, Hanoi, and Saigon.

Good ideas gain currency

Before I joined the Stimson team in June, I must confess that my outlook on the future of the Mekong region was not filled with optimism. I cannot begin to describe how refreshing it is to join a team that is developing pragmatic and innovative solutions to some of the region’s toughest issues. Moreover, it’s extremely satisfying to watch the deployment of an idea gain momentum among decision makers and begin to take on a life of its own. Simply put, ideas work. At public forums in Bangkok, Kunming and Hanoi and in meetings with regional government officials Stimson’s “Team Mekong” launched a more refined version of the concept of the need for a “New Narrative” on Mekong hydropower development first mooted by my colleagues, SEA Program Director Rich Cronin and Research Associate Courtney Weatherby this March. The New Narrative challenges the current narrative that the construction of 11 dams on the Mekong’s main stem is a prevailing ‘domino theory’ of inevitability based on an emerging body of evidence. Stimson’s most recent report and its main argument can be found here, but it was encouraging to hear the idea confirmed when well informed hydropower experts placed their bets on no more than five dams, all of them above Vientiane excepting Don Sahong.

So if the Lao PDR government is banking on income generated from the construction of eleven main stem dams but only gets five in the end, shouldn’t it consider alternatives? Considering the known and unknown costs of downstream effects on fisheries and livelihoods, it seems prudent for Laos to give the entire basin development plan another look.  As a sustainable, one-country alternative to relieving the pressure of hydropower development on the Mekong’s main stem along with the unbearable downstream costs related to impacted fisheries and livelihoods, the Stimson team is continuing to develop the concept of a Laos national power grid designed for both the export of hydropower and national electrification as an alternative to Laos’ current economic development plan.

The grid would be designed to optimized trade-offs related to the food- water-energy nexus on a basin wide scale. On this trip, we received much encouragement for the national power grid concept from regional government officials, but challenges still remain in convincing Laos as to why national electrification will provide more benefits than the current plan.  As a suggestion, Vietnam, as a most concerned state in regard to downstream impacts can, share the story of the benefits of rural electrification with its neighbor through the history of its own development.  Further, Vietnam’s electricity demand is increasing at 12% year-on-year prior to the TPP and could act as a major purchaser of power generated from a Laos’s national grid.

No clear trends on the China Factor.

I see no clear evidence that China’s state-owned enterprises are trending toward improving practices in Southeast Asia or that there is a concerted move from policy-motivated concessional projects to those based on financial viability. A few firms might be making improvements here or there, but even these firms are not willing to release the details and data supporting these so-called improvements. In the case of Hydrolancang’s Lower Sesan 2 project in Cambodia, the developer claims its fish passages will be successful in protecting vulnerable fish species, but will not release the research or plans for those fish passages for public observation or scrutiny. The message for Hydrolancang and other similar Chinese dam developers hasn’t changed: “We’ve conducted 100% of research relevant to these projects, and we’re confident that all problems will be solved. You only need to trust us.” But trust is built on results and transparent public relations. China simply runs a poor track record on these factors in the Mekong region.

A surprising development is that China’s firms are playing the victim when discussing their Southeast Asian projects. Officers of these firms claim Beijing put them to task on these projects while the firms have to bear the risks and interact with prickly civil society groups, unwarranted Western criticism, and unstable host governments – the Myitsone dam serves as a case in point. Yet they fail to acknowledge the unbalanced stream of benefits granted by concessional contracts or the processes through which these benefits are gained.

Further, these firms often claim to strictly follow the laws and regulations of host countries related to environmental and social impacts. Yet weak states like Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia have promulgated little to nothing in terms of environmental or social safeguards, so these claims of being responsible legal investors are interpreted as trite and non-persuasive.

Lastly, some anecdotal evidence points to Chinese money earmarked for overseas infrastructure development drying up in this latest round of China’s economic downturn. This discovery supports emerging conversations that Chinese firms are investing in more commercially viable or “bankable” projects. However, at the same time China’s One Belt One Road initiative appears to be creating a pool for free money given out on soft terms to any firm interested in constructing a project vaguely related to the objectives of the One Belt One Road whatever they may be. When weighing whether or not China’s upcoming investment on Mekong main-stem dams in the pipeline will be based on strategic motivations or sound financial decision making, this last point is particularly concerning.

New institutional frameworks are forming to coordinate regional policy making.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Mekong River Commission is NOT the institution to solve the big issues rising the Mekong region, though it still constitutes the only treaty-based intergovernmental organization in the region, and its technical review of the Xayaburi dam and its anticipated critique of the Don Sahong project have caused both developers to delay the projects and spend hundreds of millions on significant engineering changes and additional fisheries research. But in terms of actual governmental engagement, other institutions and bilateral arrangements are beginning to fill this gap. The US-led Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), for instance, in its still nascent form aims to promote higher standards on water resource management and assessment of infrastructure development within the region. The LMI brings together the line ministries of the four MRC countries and Myanmar several times a year in working groups both on functional “pillars” and cross-cutting issues like the water-energy-food nexus, and the prime ministers of the LMI countries meet in the wings of the annual ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where transboundary issues and impacts from hydropower dams and other major infrastructure projects can be raised to the extent that the leaders are willing to engage on them.

In response to both the US-led LMI and the waning power of the MRC, China is assembling a multi-lateral organization for joint river basin management called the Lancang-Mekong Dialogue Mechanism (LMDM). Mekong watchers should pay attention to the outcomes of the first vice-ministerial meeting of the LMDM on November 12. Further, Cambodia is negotiating a transboundary environmental impact assessment treaty with Laos and Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are authoring new sets of environmental and social safeguards related to infrastructure development.

These frameworks are all coming together quite quickly. Yet even the US led LMI is said to be underfunded, uncoordinated, and unsure of its product. China’s forming of its own river basin organization is a welcomed foray into multi-lateral diplomacy, a realm often eschewed by the Chinese, but the intent and purpose of this organization is unclear. Serious cooperation on the use of the water and hydropower development will be highly limited so long as China refuses on national security grounds to provide downstream countries with the results of its hydrological and water quality studies, or the operation of its dams and other water releases from its monster reservoirs.  And whether or not new safeguards in the Mekong’s weakest countries will have teeth or just pay green-washing lip-service is unknown.  These developments all deserve our close attention.

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China initiates enormous Yangtze water diversion scheme

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Although not on the scale of the Grand Canal or the Three Gorges Dam, the waterways of Yunnan province are undergoing radical changes. This is especially true in the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas. In the name of “development” and “drought prevention”, a new project launched in the province will divert a stunning quantity of water away from the headwaters of the world’s fourth longest river.

Dignitaries and officials attended groundbreaking ceremonies for the Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project (滇中引水工程) on September 30 in Lijiang. Attendees oversaw the initial launch of a program that will divert an estimated 3.403 billion cubic meters of water annually away from the upper reaches of the Yangtze — known as the Jinsha River (金沙江). The ceremony was overseen by Provincial Party Secretary Li Jiheng (李纪恒), while a similar event was held simultaneously in Dali.

The water in question will be funneled southeast through naturally occurring rivers and lakes, first passing near the cities of Dali and Chuxiong before reaching Kunming, Yuxi and Honghe. The intended goals of the project include providing more water for municipal, agricultural and industrial use during times of drought. Of added benefit, according to local media reports, will be the influx of clean water into several lakes suffering from major environmental degradation.

Even though Yunnan as a whole is rich in water resources, the middle of the province is periodically crippled by drought. It is hoped by officials the Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project may avert future water shortages such as the five-year dry-spell between 2009 and 2014 that threatened millions of people and led to billions in lost revenue.

Lakes affected include Kunming’s Dianchi (滇池),Qilu (杞麓湖) near the city of Yuxi, and Yilong (异龙湖) in Honghe Prefecture. Dianchi in particular is an environmental nightmare, and for more than a decade has been covered in a thick, green film of algae rendering it’s waters useless even for industrial use.

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The provincial government has repeatedly thrown large sums of money at various Dianchi clean-up and “rehabilitation” efforts. Over the years such measures have included the introduction of invasive plant species, efforts to oxygenate the lake, and theconstruction of water treatment plants along tributary rivers and streams. Nothing has yet showed substantial success.

Two years ago, then-Provincial Party Secretary Qin Guangrong (秦光荣) outlined a new plan for Dianchi, one that would effectively “flush the lake clean” of pollutants and algae with water from the province’s northwest. The Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project appears to be based largely on Qin’s vision, although with a heavily modified and enlarged scope.

The project begins in Shigu (石鼓) — known in China as ‘the first bend in the Yangtze’. From there, an amount of water equivalent to 1,360,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools will be diverted away from the Jinsha River through man-made canals and underground pipelines connected to existing waterways, including the lakes mentioned previously.

Work on the 661-kilometer endeavor — which will not include the construction of any new dams — is expected to take eight years, with “long-term goals” realized by 2040. No cost estimates have yet been made public. Speaking at the ground-breaking ceremony held last month, Yunnan’s acting governor Chen Hao (陈豪), said “This is an exciting time, a time of dreams.”

This article written by Patrick Scally was first posted here on the GoKunming.com website.

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Filed under Agriculture, China, Environment and sustainability, Sustainability and Resource Management, water, Yunnan Province

John Kerry’s 2015 ASEAN Summit Speech 8.6.15

Transcript of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech and Q&A at 2015 ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  August 6.2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody. So let me begin, if I may, by thanking our Malaysian hosts for their very warm welcome and for having really put together an exemplary ASEAN and regional forum as well as the entertainment and gathering us. We really appreciate the generous hospitality and quality of their chairmanship for the past year.

I think all of you know that ASEAN has really long been the centerpiece of the Asia Pacific’s multilateral architecture and it’s really also a key of the United States’ ongoing focus on the initiative to rebalance our resources, our time, our energy, our effort with respect to the region.

In my remarks at Singapore Management University earlier this week, I spoke about how we seek a region in which countries come to each other’s aid when natural disasters strike or human emergencies occur. In that spirit, I want to express my personal and my country’s condolences to all those affected by the flooding and the very heavy rains in Myanmar. The United States – I said there would be additional assistance. The United States will provide $600,000 of immediate relief through USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. And we have a team on the ground now working with local officials in order to meet the most urgent needs. We will continue to follow the situation and we’re going to work with our partners in order to help those in the most affected areas.

I also want to express my condolences to the folks who have experienced an extraordinary tragic loss of life on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. While we were here during the course of this journey with the discovery of the flap on Reunion Island, all the wounds have been opened again, all of the sorrow is felt even more intensely, and there are no words to express adequately our sense of loss and our sense of heartbreak to the families of the victims. Obviously, we hope very much that the debris that was discovered on the Reunion Island, if it is found to be conclusively from the aircraft, that this will help to bring some sense of closure about what happened and perhaps even more reliable information that can be tracked from the currents that may even narrow the area of search, which we would hope for.

I want to commend the French authorities and other international experts for their diligence both in the analysis of this wing but also in their overall investigation as well as in the ongoing search.

Over the last two days here, we reviewed a number of challenges that are related to the security and quality of life of this region that require the kind of cooperative thought and action that ASEAN was specifically designed to achieve. We are, for example, all of us – all of us at this meeting – united in our desire to counter and mitigate the harmful impacts of climate change, one of the most acute and potentially devastating threats to our shared future. And those countries that have not yet announced their independent – nationally designed contributions – defined contributions, all stepped up and said they intend to do so, some of them very shortly. Australia, for instance, has a big meeting in the next couple of days.

So people are pushing towards the target date of the Paris negotiations, and we welcome that. I was able to report to our colleagues that the United States has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions to the lowest levels in two decades and that we have set a goal for even more ambitious reductions by the year 2025. At the ASEAN-U.S. ministerial meeting, we discussed the importance of every single country going into this effort, each of them putting forward their own targets for the post-2020 period. And I would remind everybody that was actually agreed to at the ASEAN-U.S. summit last fall.

Following the Lower Mekong Initiative meeting – the ministerial meeting – we issued a statement on building a sustainable future for the Mekong. I think it’s an important document because it lays out a plan of action for the next five years and the statement reiterates our goal of supporting a smart and responsible development along the Mekong River. And the Mekong River, as everybody in this part of the world knows, is one of the great rivers of the world and millions of people rely on that river as their source of livelihood, their source – protein, of food. It is critical.

At the ASEAN regional forum, ministers endorsed a statement committing everyone to tackle illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. And I was proud to announce a new multiyear Oceans and Fisheries Partnership with the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center in order to develop a system for documenting and tracing illegal fishing with an initial commitment by the United States of 4.3 million for the first year as it gets going.

On the security side, I expressed our serious concerns over the developments in the South China Sea, including a massive land reclamation and the potential militarization of land features. I reiterated America’s strong support of freedom of navigation, overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea. These rights, I would remind everybody, are universal rights and they must be respected by every nation, large and small. To that end, I made clear our belief that the claimants to some of these reefs, islands, to some of these areas, should – all of them, every one of them – take concrete steps in order to try to lower the tensions by refraining from further land reclamation, militarization, and construction projects. A number of the claimants today made clear their willingness to refrain from those very actions.

So this is an important step forward, but obviously there’s work left to be done since no claimant is going to be expected to stop if others are disregarding this call and continuing to proceed with their work. So a policy of restraint will create the diplomatic space that is required for a meaningful code of conduct to emerge. And we will work very hard with all of our partners in order to try to help that code of conduct come into being. It is vital that claimants refrain from provocative unilateral actions, that they pursue their claims according to international law, and that they settle their differences peacefully through rule of law.

I also reaffirm that the United States has very strong interests itself in the South China Sea and we have a strong interest in the way that disputes are addressed. The United States will continue to take steps to support peace and stability in this region, to uphold international law, and protect our interests throughout this arena as we have, in fact, for decades.

In the East Asia Summit ministerial, we tackled a wide array of pressing political and security challenges from maritime security to cyber security to countering violent extremism. And I’m very pleased to report that the – excuse me – that the East Asia Summit foreign ministers endorsed the Vienna P5+1 plan for the reduction of Iran’s – the reduction – the elimination of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and I think that the endorsement that came from all of the countries there today this morning really underscores the interest that people on a global basis have in the success of this agreement.

I also had an opportunity to meet with the prime minister and the foreign minister in bilateral meetings. In addition to global and regional issues, we discussed our shared interest in wrapping up successfully the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and especially, cooperating to combat violent extremism. I also raised concerns about freedom of expression and I spoke with the prime minister about Anwar Ibrahim’s situation.

We also talked about accelerating progress in the fight against human trafficking. This was a very significant part of my message at a number of the meetings that we had publicly with all of my colleagues as well as privately with each of my bilaterals. Human trafficking is too prevalent in places where people who are migrants or who are simply poor and without and recourse or refugees are preyed on. And it is intolerable that in the year 2015 anyone should be content to live with what amounts to modern day slavery – people who are pressed into any number of types of work from sexual exploitation to the labor market exploitation and put into positions they can’t escape from, and some of them, even literally, very much imprisoned in those positions.

The Government of Malaysia, I’m pleased to say, has made significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards of the elimination of trafficking. And in my conversation with the prime minister, we talked about the ways in which we can cooperate to do more, and the prime minister welcomed that opportunity, particularly in the field of law enforcement. I made it clear in my meetings with both the prime minister and the foreign minister that this is a priority for the United States and that they need to continue to show leadership, as they did in the passing with their laws, now with the full implementation of those laws.

And let me just say – I’m sure all of you feel this inherently, viscerally – that there is perhaps no greater threat to human dignity and no greater assault on basic freedom and no greater detraction from the values that we are espousing and trying to lift people up with, no greater evil alive today in many ways than human trafficking. We all need to be true to the principle that although money may be used for many things, we must never, ever allow a price tag to be attached to the heart and soul and the mind and freedom of a fellow human being. That is the standard that we need to set for all nations, and this will remain a main priority of both the State Department and the Obama Administration for the remainder his time in office.

So as always, when representatives of the United States of America and ASEAN nations get together, we really had a very full plate of challenges to discuss. And I can assure you, as I made it clear to my colleagues, the United States will remain deeply committed to the security of this region, deeply committed to the prosperity of Southeast Asia, and of the Asia Pacific more generally.

I was thrilled to meet with young students and recent graduates, all members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders effort that President Obama has started – YSEALI, as it’s called. The energy and excitement that they feel about the possibilities of the future is really what defines not just Malaysia but this entire region. And we’re fully engaged and confident because we believe in those young people and in the possibilities that they believe in. And we will do everything in our power to work with the governments of this region to help deliver to their people.

So on that note, I’d be delighted to try to take a few questions.

 

MR KIRBY: First question will come from Matt Lee, Associated Press.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, Matt.

QUESTION: Ready?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, sir.

 

QUESTION: Okay. I want to take you a little bit further afield and ask you about your meeting last night with Foreign Minister Lavrov (inaudible), because the word is that you two signed off on or made some significant progress on the new UN Security Council resolution that would, in fact, create a mechanism to investigate the use or alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, and that that resolution could be presented for a vote as early as tomorrow, I guess. So I’m wondering if you could tell us what the details are of this mechanism and if you’re at all concerned that Russia’s apparent willingness to do this while still holding to its friendship to Assad will string out or delay actual bringing to justice of any perpetrators that are found or whether you’re convinced that this is actually going to do the trick. Thank you.

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Thanks, Matt. Let me comment on the meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. We discussed a number of issues. We talked about Ukraine and the need to fully implement Minsk and what seems to be the difference of opinion with respect to what Minsk means relative to the elections and the modalities for the elections and the constitutional reform. There is a meeting tomorrow that will take place by video and we will both instruct our teams to try to dig in and make some suggestions for each of them as to how we might be able to try to move forward, because we both agree that these working groups are the best mechanism for the full implementation of the Minsk agreement and the defusing of the crisis in Ukraine.

We’re not far away now from having an agreement for the flow of (inaudible), for some rail – resumption of rail track, for the OSCE to be able to have greater oversight and understanding of what weapons will be pulled back from the line of contact. All of these issues are very much on the table and part of the discussion at this point. And I think that Foreign Minister Lavrov is anxious, as I am, to try to see as much progress be made as rapidly as possible as we come to the end of summer and beginning of fall and obviously other kinds of challenges that may come forward.

But yes, we also talked about the UN resolution, and indeed, I believe, reached an agreement that should try to see that resolution voted on shortly, which will create a process of accountability which has been missing. What happens is the inspection process produces evidence of use of some kind of weapon. By the way, so we’re clear, all declared chemical weapons – mustard and sarin and other declared that are illegal – were removed. The allegations that exist today are almost exclusively – not – not exclusively, there’s one – maybe one instance of some or two instances of something else – about chlorine. And chlorine by itself is not one of the required declaration items that has to be removed. But when mixed in a certain way, chlorine can be become a toxic agent and a illegal chemical.

So what we are trying to do is get beyond the mere finding of the fact that it may have been used and actually find out who used it and designate accountability for its use. And what we will achieve, we believe, with this resolution is the creation of a mechanism which will actually enable us to do that. That’s our hope. So I think it was a worthwhile meeting and hopefully the UN will be able to proceed forward with an agreement unless there is some last-minute glitch, which I hope there will not be.

MR KIRBY: Next question. (Inaudible).

 

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, the U.S. Government’s decision to upgrade Malaysia to Tier 2 in the human trafficking watch list has been criticized by those who feel that Malaysia has not done enough to merit such a rating. Do you think Malaysia has done enough? And what do you have to say about accusations that the rating has just been given to pave the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement with Malaysia?

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Not – let me just be crystal clear, because I am the person who approved this. I personally signed off on it. And I had zero conversation with anybody in the Administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership relative to this decision – zero. The reason I made this decision was based on the recommendation of my team, because Malaysia has passed additional legislation in 2014, they’ve consulted with civil society, they drafted amendments to Malaysia’s anti-trafficking law in order to allow the country’s flawed victim protection regime to change.

Now, let me make this clear: Tier 2 Watch List ranking actually indicates there’s still a lot of room for improvement. It’s not a gold seal of approval by any means. It is a sign of movement in the right direction, but it also means there’s a lot of way to go. And that’s the discussion that I had yesterday with the foreign minister and with the prime minister. In the last year, Malaysian authorities increased the number of trafficking investigations, they increased the number of prosecutions relative to 2013, and they adopted a pilot project in order to allow a limited number of trafficking victims to leave government facilities in order to go work.

Now, we still are concerned about the comparison of the number of investigations and prosecutions to the number of the convictions. It’s not good enough yet. But we felt that because the law just passed, because it’s being implemented, that this gives us an opportunity to work with the government, which is exactly what I got commitments to do yesterday and now we will do in order to up the number of convictions. And one of the reasons for that disparity is the difficultly of getting evidence. It’s very complicated. It’s very hard to do. We believe that we can be very helpful through Federal Bureau of Investigation and through other entities that work at this to help Malaysian authorities be able to develop greater capacity to gather the evidence that will produce the convictions that we want to see so we can end impunity for this crime.

So our – my judgment was I want a country that we can work with and improve that has already indicated its willingness to start down that road in a significant way. Malaysia has done that, and this year will be a very important year of truth. If they don’t advance, if there isn’t sufficient cooperation, if there isn’t a genuine effort to improve the gathering of evidence and to have better prosecutions, and if the pilot project isn’t built on and so forth, then next year, obviously, I have the distinct ability to be able to make a different decision. But I’m confident it was the right decision and I can guarantee you it was made without regard to any other issue.

MR KIRBY: Last question from Pam Dockins, Voice of America.

 

QUESTION: Thank you. As you mentioned, the South China Sea has been a focal point here. First of all, what is the U.S. view on China’s statement that it has stopped reclamation work in the South China Sea?

And then secondly, a follow-up on the last question regarding human trafficking, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today has a hearing on the State Department’s human trafficking report. How do you feel about the hearing to look into how the final report was compiled? Do you feel that the hearing is justified?

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think any hearing on a report of the – of any agency of the government is justified. I mean, obviously, the Congress has a right to – I mean, the Congress are the ones who mandate these reports and they have every right in the world to take a look to see whether or not it’s being implemented in the way that Congress intended. So I don’t have any problem with that at all, and I’m absolutely confident about the work that our TIP team does which literally takes an entire year to do; it is extremely thorough. There’s an enormous amount of input from our embassies, from our consulates, from people in the field, and I think that that will come out in the course of the hearing.

So frankly, I look forward to the members of Congress learning more about exactly how in depth our efforts are, how professional they are, and how exhausting the effort is that they have joined with us in engaging.

Now, with respect to the South China Sea, first of all, let me remind everybody that the United States doesn’t take a position on the competing claims. We’re not choosing between claimants, and that’s for the legal process or the diplomatic process to do. What we do urge is all the claimants to refrain from unilateral actions that create tension or the potential of conflict, or frankly, the potential of a mistake that could then become an international incident. And it’s our sense that the Chinese have indicated that they have stopped. I hope it’s true. I don’t know yet. What’s really needed, though, is an agreement to stop not just the reclamation but the large-scale construction and militarization. So it’s not just an issue of reclamation. And our hope is we put forward a proposal that people stop all three and that they step back and work the process of the code of conduct and whatever other legal process to try to resolve these issues.

I did find, and I will say this openly, that in my meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he indicated a – I think a different readiness of China to try to resolve some of this, though I think it still was not as fulsome as many of us would like to see, but it’s a beginning. And it may open up some opportunity for conversation on this in the months ahead; we’ll have to wait and see. But the easiest thing of all would be for everybody to adopt a position of we’re not going to do anything except routine maintenance – no new buildings, no new facilities, no militarization, no more reclamation – while the legal process is resolved in order to give certainty to everybody, which is what is required here.

MR KIRBY: Thank you, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much.

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Appreciate it.

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Gold Diggers

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A major Geographical investigation looks at the devastating environmental and debilitating health effects a Thai gold mine is having on a village in Loei, and at how a group of determined villagers are fighting back

 

It’s a truly idyllic valley, thumbs of karst rising from rice fields, a glowing sunset tempered by cumulo nimbus. Women bend at the waist planting rice seedlings, their movements reflected in the water. The set for a painter or poet.

Instead it’s the stage for the violent suppression of popular protests in the northern Thai province of Loei. For eight years, the embattled villagers have been fighting the owners of an adjacent gold mine. This lovely valley and the determined villagers are at the intersection of human, physical and political geography writ small and very mean.

To the villagers, the environment itself has become the enemy. The water in which the women stand plunging seedlings into mud is contaminated with arsenic, manganese and chromium. Below the overburden dumps, the rice fields hold arsenic, cyanide, mercury and cadmium.

Under trees, an unusual number of people sit in wheelchairs. Changma, 65, suffering debilitating peripheral neuropathy in her legs and hands (‘stocking/glove syndrome’) sits in her basic kitchen, cleaning pots. She is barely able to walk. Her doctor diagnosed the cumulative effects of arsenic. Cham, 84, who lives 300 metres away, has worse symptoms. A bowl of water nearby soothes the pain and persistent tingling associated with damaged nerves. Her 86-year-old husband with degenerative spinal condition is unable to care for her. We see cases of skin rashes. All signs of chronic arsenic poisoning.

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Filed under Agriculture, Current Events, Economic development, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Thailand

Silence of the Dammed

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In the ongoing controversy over the costs and benefits of hydropower in the Mekong River basin, there is much debate among governments, private business and civil society especially in Thailand and internationally. But one voice seems to be always silent in this debate: that of the local communities of Laos in whose country at least two mainstream Mekong dams are being built or planned and who will face the brunt of the projects’ impacts.

We never get to hear or see an informed opinion from local communities in Laos about the dams under planning and construction although many of these communities would face being displaced or resettled and lose their fisheries and other river-based livelihoods.

Laos is often perceived as a peaceful, Buddhist country with verdant mountains, rivers and a rural (and laid-back) way of life. While this may be true on the surface, it is a daily fact of life for Laotians that the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains control over the country’s press and civil society.

This also gives the impression that Laos has for the most part a passive citizenry that is least interested in politics. During three years of my field research in Laos, however, I found many Laotians I met always enjoyed talking about politics with me. They have access to Thailand’s radio and television channels, and understanding Thai language is not a problem. Its just that the politics that they could freely talk about was about Thailand not Laos.

It is not surprising then that the debate about hydropower in Laos is met with silence among Lao people, especially communities, and the people who do voice their opinions are usually those in government or the hydropower business.

Missing voices in Don Sahong

I interviewed people about 10 km from the site of the Don Sahong Hydropower Project (DSHP) located on the Mekong River’s mainstream in the Siphandone area of southern Laos, less than two kilometers upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border.1

The Don Sahong Dam threatens the rich subsistence and commercial fisheries in Laos and could pose impacts also in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It also threatens the last remaining population of the Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos whose habitat is the Siphandone area. Moreover, the planned water diversion from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls could undermine the area’s tourism.

The dam builders and government officials have organized many public information activities about the dam and social or environmental assessment studies to evaluate the potential impacts of the DSHP.

I asked my interviewees – the local people in the area – whether they were involved in these studies. Most said they have never engaged in these studies, and did not know about the DSHP’s expected impacts.

“Laos has only one communist party”. Local people always repeat this sentence several times, before somebody clarifies watchfully: “Nobody is allowed to express their opinions against the party. Whether we like the Don Sahong dam or not, it will be constructed..

When I asked them if they know about the potential impacts of the dam, a fisher replied: “I cannot foresee what will happen if the Don Sahong dam is completed. The officials said nothing is going to harm our life. However, I am worried about the reduction in fishing.”

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Dam developers have announced no-fishing zones around the Don Sahong dam site although local fishers have used these areas for their livelihoods for more than a hundred years. (Photo by JeeRung.)

To my surprise, many did not even understand the concept of a dam. One sixty-five year old woman said: “I do not know what is a dam. Will a dam be built here? I asked my children to explain the meaning of a dam.” Another fisher asked: “What is the Don Sahong dam? I never heard any news if it will be located here?”

“Public information activities”

The public information activities being held by the DSHP developer are not like a “public hearing” process where citizens can freely debate the merits and demerits of the project, ask for information, provide alternatives, raise concerns, etc. In fact, the DSHP’s public activities does not include the free, prior and informed consent from potentially affected people before going ahead with the project. Moreover, the available documents such as EIA, mitigation and other plans are not made available in the local language.

I conducted in-depth interviews with local people who had an opportunity to participate in the DSHP’s public information activities. Most interviewees said the information they received were about the dam’s positive impacts provided by the dam developers, but there was no information about the negative impacts. The summary of these efforts at misinformation by the dam proponents are provided in the table below.

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Restrictions on media and other freedoms, weak civil society

There are few local civil society or nongovernmental organizations (CSOs/NGOs) dealing with issues of hydropower projects and monitoring them in Laos. Moreover, any emergent grassroots-level NGO working on public policy monitoring are viewed with government suspicion as politically subversive troublemakers. Although a few international CSOs especially based outside Laos have voiced critical views about the Mekong hydropower projects in Laos, their views are ignored by official state policy.

The citizenry of Laos (apart from state officials and some influential groups) has only minimal access to information about pending legislation, changes in regulations, or government policy. There are no established mechanisms for government consultation with civil society groups.

Lao people are also subject to severe restrictions on freedom of expression. The government controls all print and electronic media through the state news agency, Khaosan Pathet Lao. All media content is vetted by the Ministry of Information and Culture. A press law announced in 2001 that would allow limited private media ownership has not yet been adopted. If enacted, it would still impose strict controls, including the power to close publications deemed to be “anti-government”.

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Once Don Sahong is completed, the Don Sadam secondary school will be taken for the site of the hydropower transmission station. (Photo by JeeRung.)

Freedom of speech is restricted by provisions in the penal code that forbid “slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.”

Article 59 of the penal code sets a prison sentence of 1 to 5 years for anti-government propaganda. Journalists who do not file “constructive reports” or who attempt to “obstruct” the work of the LPRP may be subject to jail terms of 5 to 15 years. Previous violators are believed to have incurred prison sentences of between 1 and 5 years2. The authorities usually harass the English-language press when it does not toe the official line.

The act of expressing views opposite to the official view of the state administration or public policies in public spaces is considered taboo. Lao authorities have consistently suppressed political antagonists, cracked down on those expressing critical opinions with arbitrary imprisonments and sometimes enforced disappearance3. The most high-profile case has been the “disappearance” of Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone. He was last seen in Vientiane in December 2012. Through these measures, Laotian authoritaries have instilled a fear among the populace of free expression of views.

Given this situation described above, it is not surprising that we do not hear about or see the genuine participation or expression of critical views by local communities in Laos regarding the Mekong hydropower projects.

Show 3 footnotes

This article written by JeeRung was originally posted here on the Mekong Commons site.  It is reposted with permission of the author and Mekong Commons.

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Energy and Environmentalism on the Mekong: Time to Reach Across the Aisle

In recent years, two powerful narratives have emerged from mainland Southeast Asia. Generally speaking, discussions of the region focus around one of two topics: economic development and environmental degradation. For example, by typing “Mekong” into Google News the first page of results will show articles like this and this. As one can imagine, these two views of Southeast Asia are often in opposition and proponents of each rarely see eye to eye, sometimes going so far as to ignore the other side altogether. Recently, the battleground of these two narratives has been the construction sites of hydroelectric dams (both real and planned) that dot the Mekong River. Proponents of economic development see these dams as a necessary component to continued economic growth in the region. On the other hand, environmentalists point to the unknown ecological costs of the Mekong dams and argue that there are hidden costs to supposedly cheap hydropower. What is lost in the increasingly polarized game of right and wrong is a larger, more nuanced picture of the region and its needs. Some say that the Mekong needs dams while others argue that the region needs better protection measures for its natural resources. But what Southeast Asia really needs is for development fans and environmentalists to stop ignoring each other, and to restart the dialogue. Continue reading

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China needs to change its energy strategy in the Mekong region

This op-ed was first published at ChinaDialogue and thethirdpole.net on 7/16.

 Mekong bridge

At the end of this year cars and container trucks loaded with goods from China and Thailand will finally be able to drive across a multi-lane bridge spanning the Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China). The bridge will connect Chiang Rai province in Thailand to Bokeo province in Laos, effectively linking China’s highways stretching south from Beijing and Shanghai to those coming north from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

Funded by equal investment from the Chinese and Thai government, the completion of the bridge, which took ten years of planning and two years to build, is not without controversy. For many years Thailand held back investment due to an uneven distribution of benefits between China, Laos and Thailand. Also on the Thai side, the NGO Rak Chiang Khong claim the bridge negatively impacts the local Golden Triangle economy and will ruin Mekong fisheries.

The Golden Triangle Bridge serves to highlight the challenges facing China, as the country’s new leadership attempts to balance its slowing and volatile economy and deliver domestic stability by maintaining peaceful economic relations with its neighbours.

China’s regional strategy

“In 2012 China’s growth in trade and outward investment with the five other Mekong countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam surpassed its trade and investment growth in ASEANcountries,” said Xu Ningning, chairman of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Business Council. “Greater growth rates will continue with increases in regional cooperation and win-win investment opportunities.”

For the past three years China’s GMS provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi have posted growth rates of 12-15%, the highest of China’s localities, and arguably China’s economic rise has also helped deliver high growth rates among Mekong countries.

The end of the Cold War in the 1990s created a favourable environment for China to develop its economic cooperation strategies toward the Mekong region. The blurring and opening of once inviolable borders encouraged traders on both sides of the China-Southeast Asia frontier to appeal to local and national governments for better conditions for trade and migration. The Chinese government responded with twenty years of state-led trade liberalisation and investment policies to promote regional cooperation in state and private sectors.

China’s economic cooperation strategies towards its four Mekong neighbours has dovetailed nicely into a strategy that fits China’s current development needs. Liu Jinxin, a policy analyst and logistics expert says, “Unlike the US which leads the world in finance and IT, both high-value service-oriented industries, China is the world’s factory, producing goods to drive the growth of its growing middle class and serving export markets around the world. To survive, the Chinese ‘factory’ needs inputs like energy and raw materials.” Continue reading

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