Category Archives: water

Daniel Russel: Remarks at the 5th Annual South China Sea Conference

russel
On July 21, 2015 at the 5th Annual South China Sea Conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Daniel R. Russel, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the US State Department delivered a keynote speech clearly outlining the US position on China’s recent land reclamation action in the South China Sea and its implications for US-China relations.  Given the timeliness and relevance of this speech, we’ve posted it in its entirety below.  
Good afternoon. Thank you, Murray, for the kind introduction. It’s always a pleasure to be back at CSIS.

Let me start by laying out the essential context.

The United States has always had interests in Asia. These interests have only grown stronger as our economies have become more interconnected, and as our people have grown closer through travel and the Internet.

For the last seven decades, we’ve worked with allies and partners in the region to build shared prosperity and shared security. In the last six-and-a-half years, in particular, we’ve invested in building cooperative relations with every country in the region. This is the rebalance.

There are many types of investment the world, and Asia, needs in order to grow—investment in people, first and foremost; investment in business; in physical infrastructure, and just as important; investment in “cooperative capital” – the international law and order infrastructure that facilitates the interactions between countries, that advances regional economic integration, and helps states peacefully manage and settle disputes.

The U.S. makes balanced investments in all of these areas.

The last one, the international rules-based system, has been the ‘essential but underappreciated underpinning’ of global growth over the last 70 years. That’s especially true in Asia, where many countries have grown – and continue to grow – their economies through international trade, especially trade with the U.S.

Asia’s nations have achieved so much in recent decades—reducing poverty, raising living standards, and creating opportunities for their people. They’ve done it through hard work, cooperation with each other, partnership with the U.S., and by jointly developing and operating within a rules-based system.

And we are helping them to do even more:

We’re taking broad-based, sustainable economic growth to a new level with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP embraces a future that reaches beyond trade and investment to include high standards for environmental protection, for labor rights.

TPP’s provisions will support a thriving, growing, entrepreneurial middle class that is able to connect with the world and do business through a free, open Internet.

We’re taking the security architecture that underpins this brighter future to a new level by investing in regional institutions like the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in addition to our longstanding work with global ones like the U.N.

These institutions uphold norms and tackle tough challenges; they can help bring parties together to hash out disagreements, or when bilateral diplomacy doesn’t succeed, help to have those disputes resolved peacefully in a fair, impartial manner.

Standing behind and supporting these institutions is our system of alliances and partnerships.

This network has helped keep the peace in the region since World War II. And through a series of important agreements with key security partners over the last few years, we’ve refreshed them so they’ll last for decades to come.

We’re taking environmental protection to a new level, through our work on ocean preservation, on combatting climate change and its effects, and through programs like the Lower Mekong Initiative that help make economic growth environmentally sustainable.

As we pursue this broad, forward-looking vision for the region, we’ve worked constructively with China—a lot.

We’ve built greater understanding through President Obama’s 20 some-odd meetings with the Chinese President or Premier; and through the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and an alphabet soup of other consultations.

We’ve put a floor under the relationship so it can withstand tensions or even a crisis.

And in the last couple years, all of this work has paid off—we’ve made measurable progress in a range of cooperative efforts: in low-carbon policies; countering piracy at sea; in stemming the Ebola crisis; supporting a better future for Afghanistan; and much more.

But unfortunately, the situation in the South China Sea does not fit this cooperative pattern.

Now, the U.S. is not a claimant. As I’ve said here at CSIS, these maritime and territorial disputes are not intrinsically a US-China issue. The issue is between China and its neighbors and – ultimately – it’s an issue of what kind of power China will become. But for a variety of reasons, the competing claims and problematic behavior in the South China Sea have emerged as a serious area of friction in the U.S.-China relationship.

Let’s take a step back and recall, as I’m sure you discussed this morning, that there is a history of competing assertions of sovereignty and jurisdiction in the South China Sea, and even violent conflicts in 1974 and 1988.

There are no angels here. The occupation of land features in this contested space over the years looked a lot like “squatters’ rights.” But that is something that in 2002 the claimants agreed to stop doing.

In that year, all the claimants (and the ASEAN states) signed a Declaration of Conduct. In it, and on other occasions, they have committed “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from … inhabiting the presently uninhabited… features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner”.

In the Declaration of Conduct, they also committed to negotiate a Code of Conduct that would lay out and lock in responsible behavior. But in the ensuing 13 years, work on the Code has stalled, and the Declaration has not been sufficient to prevent confrontations or to help claimants resolve these disputes peacefully.

Recently, the level of concern in the region has escalated as the scale and speed of China’s reclamation work has become public. The Chairman’s statement at the ASEAN leaders’ summit in April was unusually blunt, speaking of “serious concerns” about “land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability….”

While China’s statement on June 16 that it would stop reclamation work “soon” was presumably intended to reassure, its effect was in fact alarming since the statement went on to warn that China would construct military facilities on these reclaimed outposts.

So we are pushing the parties to revive the spirit of cooperation embodied in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct.

We see a broad consensus within ASEAN on a path forward to reduce tensions and promote peaceful handling of these disputes. And we support ASEAN’s efforts to expeditiously conclude an effective, rigorous Code of Conduct that builds on the Declaration by translating its cooperative spirit into specific “do’s and don’ts.”

But to make this happen, the parties need to create room for diplomacy.

In the famous words of Rich Armitage’s Dictum Number 1, “when you find yourself in a hole – stop digging.” That is the advice we are giving to all the claimants: lower the temperature and create breathing room by: stopping land reclamation on South China Sea features; stopping construction of new facilities; and stopping militarization of existing facilities.

These are steps the parties could commit to immediately; steps that would cost them nothing; steps that would significantly reduce risks; steps that would open the door to eventual resolution of the disputes.

Secretary Kerry has made this point to Chinese leaders and to the other claimants, and will be meeting with his counterparts early next month in Malaysia at the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF, to push for progress on this important priority.

Now, steps to exercise restraint through a moratorium and a Code of Conduct will create diplomatic space and help keep the peace, but they won’t address the question of maritime boundaries or sovereignty over land features.

So what’s the way forward?

When it comes to competing claims, two of the main peaceful paths available to claimants are negotiations and arbitration.

Countries across the region in fact have resolved maritime and territorial disputes peacefully and cooperatively, whether through direct negotiations or through third-party dispute settlement mechanisms.

Just a few examples: Indonesia and the Philippines recently agreed on their maritime boundary;

Malaysia and Singapore used international court and tribunal proceedings to resolve disputes concerning the Singapore Strait; and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea delimited the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Burma.

A common thread runs through the maritime boundary disputes that have been resolved peacefully: the parties asserted maritime claims based on land features, and were prepared to resolve those disputes in accordance with international law.

This is why we’ve consistently called on all claimants to clarify the scope of their claims in the South China Sea, in accordance with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. Doing so would narrow the differences and offer the basis for negotiations and cooperative solutions.

Regrettably, I don’t know anyone in the region who believes that a negotiated settlement between China and other claimants is attainable in the current atmosphere.

And the multiple competing claims in some parts of the South China Sea make negotiations that much more difficult.

And then there is the absolutist political position taken by some claimants who insist that their own claims are “indisputable” and represent territory – however distant from their shores – that was “entrusted to them by ancestors” and who vow never to relinquish “one inch.”

What about arbitration? As this audience knows, there currently is an arbitration case pending under the Law of the Sea Convention between the Philippines and China.

At the heart of the case is the question of the so-called “Nine Dash Line” and whether that has a legal basis under the international law of the sea. It also asks what maritime entitlements, if any, are generated by features that China occupies? In other words, regardless of whose jurisdiction it may fall under, would Mischief Reef, for example, be entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea? A 200nm exclusive economic zone? A continental shelf?

Now, it’s important to note that the Tribunal is not being asked – and is not authorized to rule – on the question of sovereignty over disputed land features. Everyone recognizes that the sovereignty issue is beyond the Tribunal’s jurisdiction. Claimants would need to agree to bring that sort of sovereignty dispute before a court or tribunal, typically the ICJ.

But under the Law of the Sea Convention, the Tribunal is authorized to first determine whether it has jurisdiction under the Convention over any of the Philippines’ claims in the case and, if it does, whether the Philippines’ arguments have merit.

The United States, of course, is not a party to this arbitration and does not take a position on the merits of the case. But when they became parties to the Convention, both the Philippines and China agreed to its compulsory dispute settlement regime.

Under this regime, the decision of the arbitral tribunal is legally binding on the parties to the dispute. It’s a treaty. In keeping with the rule of law, both the Philippines and China are obligated to abide by whatever decision may be rendered in the case, whether they like it or not.

Now China has argued that the tribunal lacks jurisdiction, and the tribunal has specifically considered this issue in recent hearings in The Hague, looking very carefully at a position paper published by China. But if the Tribunal concludes that it in fact has jurisdiction in this case, it will proceed to the merits, including potentially the question of the legality of China’s “Nine-Dash Line.”

Should it then rule that the “Nine-Dash Line” is not consistent with the Law of the Sea Convention, and particularly if the Tribunal ruled that the features cited in the case do not generate EEZ or continental shelf entitlements, the scope of the overlapping maritime claims – and hopefully the points of friction – would be significantly reduced.

But it’s also important to recognize that even in this outcome, important sovereignty and boundary issues would remain unresolved.

This is as good a time as any to acknowledge (as China has often pointed out) that the United States has not acceded to the Law of the Sea Convention, although accession has been supported by every Republican and Democratic administration since the Convention was signed and sent to the Senate in 1994. It is supported by the U.S. military, by industry, environmental groups, and other stakeholders.

For the United States to secure the benefits of accession, the Senate has to provide its advice and consent, as I hope it ultimately will.

But even as we encourage the parties to work for long term solutions, we are obligated to protect U.S. interests. Let me take a moment to examine what some of those interests are:

  • Protecting unimpeded freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea by all, not just the U.S. Navy;
  • Honoring our alliance and security commitments, and retaining the full confidence of our partners and the region in the United States;
  • Aiding the development of effective regional institutions, including a unified ASEAN;
  • Promoting responsible marine environmental practices;
  • Fostering China’s peaceful rise in a manner that promotes economic growth and regional stability, including through consistency with international law and standards.
  • And more generally, an international order based on compliance with international law and the peaceful of disputes without the threat or use of force.

As a practical matter, in addition to our support for principles such as the rule of law, we are taking steps to help all countries in the region cooperate on maritime issues. For example, we’re investing in the maritime domain awareness capabilities of coastal states in the region.

This allows countries to protect safety at sea and respond to threats such as piracy, marine pollution and illegal trafficking. Maritime awareness also advances transparency, in line with our call to all claimants to be more open and transparent about their capabilities, actions, and intentions at sea.

The U.S. military’s freedom of navigation operations are another element of a global policy to promote compliance with the international law of the sea.

Our goal is to ensure that not only can the U.S. Navy or Air Force exercise their navigational rights and freedoms, but ships and planes from even the smallest countries are also able to enjoy those rights without risk. The principles underlying unimpeded lawful commerce apply to vessels from countries around the globe.

And under international law, all countries—not just the United States—enjoy the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that our diplomacy and the U.S. military’s freedom of navigation operations help protect.

For us, it’s not about the rocks and shoals in the South China Sea or the resources in and under it, it’s about rules and it’s about the kind of neighborhood we all want to live in. So we will continue to defend the rules, and encourage others to do so as well. We will also encourage all countries to apply principles of good neighborliness to avoid dangerous confrontations.

Let me close by mentioning that we have a host of cooperative initiatives we’re working on for the upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the East Asia Summit—all of which will advance much more quickly and effectively when tensions in the South China Sea are lower.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have shown that they are not afraid to tackle the biggest challenges facing US foreign policy and the world. And we’re energized, here in the fourth quarter of this administration to do much more in partnership with our Allies, with ASEAN and with China.

For us, for the region, and for China – finding a peaceful, lawful and responsible way forward on the South China Sea is a prerequisite to achieving our longer term goals.

Thank you.

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Thinking Outside the Dome

The meteoric popularity of Chai Jing’s “Under the Dome,” attests to the Chinese public’s readiness for stronger environmental policies to tackle air pollution. Despite its banning last Friday, the documentary’s apparent support from certain branches of the bureaucracy, and increasing pro-environment rhetoric coming into this year’s hosting of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (also referred to as the Lianghui) seem to suggest that change may be in the air when it comes to tackling China’s smog. What is less clear is what the hidden consequences of these efforts to combat urban air pollution will be.

A fresh shipment of coal from western China.

In September 2013, the State Council promulgated the Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control (APPC), which contained directives addressing China’s air crisis. These included a reduction in coal’s share in China’s energy profile to 65% by 2017, reduced capacity in high polluting industries like steel and cement production, and improved fuel quality standards.[i] The next year, Premier Li Keqiang famously declared “war on pollution,” spotlighting the issue as a top-tier policy concern.

Regionally, the government has banned new construction of highly-polluting industrial projects such as coal power plants and steel factories in key cities on the east coast. However, the push to curb air pollution in Beijing is driving the coal industry westward, where massive coal bases are being established to feed China’s need for energy. Environmental activists are concerned that because of the massive quantities of water needed for coal processing — up to 20% of China’s water resources are used to produce energy from coal[ii]— the additional strain of a larger western coal industry may wreak havoc on water tables and food resources in a region already plagued by desertification.

Distribution of coal reserves in China.

Air pollution activists also have good reasons to be concerned about this trend. Northern China not only suffers from air quality problems arising from pollutants, but also from periodic dust storms that roll in from China’s northwest.  Relocating coal plants, especially coal-to-chemical projects, and other water intensive polluters to these regions is an invitation for ecological disaster. Worse, Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections show a potential for increased desertification in China due to global warming. Increased coal capacity will continue to threaten the ecosystems of northwestern China and thus the health of China’s citizens elsewhere. The specter of intensified dust storms descending on Beijing each spring should give those concerned about air pollution reason to demand strict controls on heavy industry and coal processing in northwestern China, not just in Beijing and its direct environs.

The upshot of the energy development story in China’s northwest is that many of the same areas endowed with rich coal reserves are also blessed with massive wind resources. In the last decade, the central government has actively pushed for the development of wind power, resulting in a 73-fold increase in wind capacity since 2006.[iii] Moreover, the same electricity corridors built to accommodate China’s new coal bases will also serve large wind farms. Much, however, is still up in the air. Will wind power be given priority in power transmission eastward? Will wind power have the funding and support it needs? And what will be the consequences of China’s massive coal development in the west? These are questions that a concerned Chinese citizenry will need to address in order to breathe free.

Charles Vest is a freelance translator and environmental activist based in Beijing. He researches climate change and environmental policy in China

[i] Cornot-Gandolphe, Sylvie, “China’s Coal Market: Can Beijing Tame ‘King Coal’?” Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, http://www.oxfordenergy.org/2014/12/chinas-coal-market-can-beijing-tame-king-coal-2/

[ii] China’s Water-Energy-Food Roadmap, accessible from http://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/global-choke-point-report-chinas-water-energy-food-roadmap

[iii] Li Xin, “Decarbonizing China’s Power System with Wind Power — The Past and the Future,” Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, http://www.oxfordenergy.org/2015/01/decarbonizing-chinas-power-system-wind-power-past-future/

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Review: Great Gamble on the Mekong documentary

Khone Phapeng falls in southern Laos; photo by Tom Fawthrop

Khone Phapeng falls in southern Laos; photo by Tom Fawthrop

Fishers and farmers have for some time tried to block a proposed dam on the Mekong River in southern Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Most recently, they made their views known at a public consultation on the Don Sahong dam. In all likelihood, however, they will lose and the dam will be built. Great Gamble on the Mekong, a new documentary from filmmaker and journalist Tom Fawthrop, insightfully details the probable dire consequences of this dam, and the failure this represents for a once-promising extra-legal cooperative structure, the Mekong River Commission.

The Mekong runs from the Himalayas in Tibet through China, Burma, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Vietnam—the latter five forming the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB)—where it empties into the South China Sea. According to Fawthrop, it provides protein and food security for 65 million people in the form of fish for food and trade, and water and nutrients for home gardens and commercial farms. At the same time, the Mekong has long represented a potential source of renewable energy. China has already built six dams on the Upper Mekong, and plans to build at least 14 more.

Dams have been discussed and rejected on the Lower Mekong mainstream since the 1950s, though they have gone up on its tributaries in that time.  In 1995 Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam signed the Mekong Agreement and formed the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The goal of the MRC is to facilitate cooperation in managing the resources of the Lower Mekong, but it has no final decision-making power.

The proposed Don Sahong dam at the center of this film would sit squarely across the main channel that migratory fish use to bypass the massive Khone Falls near the Lao border with Cambodia. It would be the second dam begun on the mainstream of the Lower Mekong—construction began on Xayaburi, another controversial dam, in 2012—with as many as 10 more to follow.

 

Cost-Benefit Analysis

The Lao government and the Finnish company Poyry it hired to oversee construction of Xayaburi claim that dam will provide clean energy to three million people in Thailand and one million in Lao PDR. The MRC claims dams on the Lower Mekong mainstream have the potential to reduce the severity of floods and droughts, and thatbuilding all 12 would generate $15 billion in economic activity, create 400,000 jobs, and reduce greenhouse gas emmissions by 50 Mtons CO2/yr by 2030. A study commissioned by the MRC, and completed by the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM) in 2010, concluded that the 12 dams could meet 8 percent of the region’s energy needs by 2025.

The ICEM study is clear however that benefits will not be disbursed equally: “Mainstream hydropower generation projects would contribute to a growing inequality in the LMB countries. Benefits of hydropower would accrue to electricity consumers using national grids, developers, financiers and host governments, whereas most costs would be borne by poor and vulnerable riparian communities and some economic sectors…In the short to medium term poverty would be made worse….”  Lao PDR does plan to use the revenues from selling the energy produced by its dams for rural roads, health care, and education, though during the “concession period” (estimated by ICEM at 25 years) after dam completion, the bulk of revenues would go to the dams’ financiers and developers.

According to the academics and nonprofit workers that Fawthrop interviews in Great Gamble on the Mekong, the exact impacts of the dams are impossible to predict, but they will likely be severe. “The Don Sahong dam will only push Cambodia and Vietnam closer to a food crisis,” says Chhith Sam Ath, an employee of the World Wildlife Fund in Cambodia. In addition to flooding gardens along the river, and diminishing the fish stock, they predict that the entrapment of nutrients by the dams will hurt rice production in Vietnam, leading to higher global food prices.

The 2010 ICEM study concluded that building the 11 mainstream dams on the Lower Mekong would reduced “capture” (non-farmed) fisheries by 16 percent. Combined with the built and proposed dams on the Upper Mekong, and on tributaries in the Lower Mekong Basin, this number rises to 26-42 percent. New aquaculture associated with dams would only replace at most 10 percent of this loss. Lao PDR and its developers claim they can mitigate the losses of fish–Poyry claims fish gates will allow 80 percent of migratory fish to pass up and down streams, while MegaFirst, the Malaysian company planning to dam Hou Sahong, claims making adjacent channels wider and deeper will provide fish with a detour route.

Yet the fish gates Poyry plans to use have never been tested on the varieties of fish found in the Mekong, and fish passes need to be designed to take into account individual species’ behavior and sensitivity to factors such as oxygen and nutrient levels. AsPoyry’s senior project manager conceded, “whether the fish get across [the dam], you’ll only see when it is built.” Faulting Lao PDR for not testing the fish gates in the Mekong before building a dam, when you need a dam to test the gates seems unfair. But they could test the technology on a smaller, less impactful dam on a tributary.

 

The Political Process

In the face of this uncertainty, the ICEM report recommended putting off any mainstream dam construction until 2020, using the intervening years to more fully study the impacts of the dams on the Upper Mekong and on the tributaries of the Lower Mekong. In a five-year strategic plan issued in March 2011, the MRC Council also recommended more study, as well as a thorough Procedure of Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), the internal procedure of the MRC for member countries to consider and offer feedback on the proposals of other countries. Yet eight months later, Poyry announced that Lao PDR had met its obligations under the 1995 agreement and could proceed with construction of Xayaburi. A year after that, in November 2012, Poyry received an eight-year contract to supervise Xayaburi’’s construction and engineering, and construction began. Poyry claimed at the time that it had updated designs to take into account the concerns of downstream nations. Yet in January 2013, Cambodia and Vietnam vigorously protested that their concerns had not been addressed, and demanded a halt to construction. They were unsuccessful.

A similar drama unfolded around the Don Sahong Dam. Last September, Lao PDR announced the start of the Don Sahong Dam, this time avoiding the PNPCA by claiming the project was not on the mainstream. After diplomatic outrage, the Lao government consented to a PNCPA, which began last July and is only required to run six months. Despite opposition from the governments and civil society in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Lao government has signaled its intention to proceed with the dam.

These dams are the first major test of the MRC’s ability to handle conflict among its members. The MRC tasks members with “aiming at arriving at agreement” on projects that significantly impact water quality or flow but has no voting mechanism or penalties for not reaching agreement. The CEO of the MRC Secretariat, Hans Guttman, states in Great Gamble that if the parties don’t arrive at an agreement, the country proposing such a project can still go ahead with it.

 

Resistance

Citizens of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam have lobbied their respective governments to halt the dam. Hundreds of NGOs, both local and international (including World Wildlife Fund and International Rivers) have been trying to mobilize the opposition. Thai villagers filed a lawsuit against EGAT, the National Energy Policy Council, and three other government agencies in 2012, challenging the power-purchasing agreement they entered into with the Lao PDR government for electricity from Xayaburi. In June 2014, the Thai Supreme Administrative Court agreed to hear the case.

The international response, outside of the press, has been muted. MRC’s international donors issued a joint statement in January 2013 urging further study before beginning dam construction, but have said little else. The UN and heads of state have been notably silent.

Fawthrop’s film does not address how concerned Westerners can respond. The answer certainly feels fraught, given Laos’ historical experience of French colonialism and U.S.military aggression, including the unexploded ordinance that still affects the country. Then there’s the region’s very real need for clean energy as well as the standard argument about the hypocrisy of industrialized nations telling any country to sacrifice growth for environmental protection.

This is the progressive’s dilemma when it comes to foreign policy. Certainly any intervention should come in the form of carrots and not sticks: money and/or technology to develop less destructive sources of renewable energy; promotion of tourism to the region; UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition for Kohne falls, and so on, conditioned on implementing the ICEM report’s recommendations.What Great Gamble on the Mekong makes clear, and what studies of other massive dam projects have proved is that this is a humanitarian issue, and that the poorest will likely suffer the most.

Great Gamble on the Mekong has some distracting elements. The claim that the Thai banks funding Xayaburi are “getting nervous” as a result of letters sent to them by anti-dam activists seems like wishful thinking. For the sake of their own credibility, the filmmakers shouldn’t have included a cartoon set to Pink Panther music. Finally, the filmmakers should have addressed how some species got to be endangered before any dams were built. For example a WWF report says that overfishing was partly responsible for the decline of the great catfish. These critiques aside, this is an important and stirring film.

Nathaniel Eisen is a freelance author interested in the intersections of trade, human rights, security policy, and the environment. Information about the documentary Great Gamble on the Mekong can be found at www.tomfawthropmedia.com. Copies of the DVD can be ordered from eurekacuba@gmail.com.  This post was first published on the Foreign Policy in Focus blog on 12/26/2014.  It is reposted here with the permission of the author.

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Meet the Salween

salween

I heard the name “Salween” before. I didn’t know exactly where it is. I knew it was somewhere close.

Somehow its name portrays a feeling of fearless turbulence. Perhaps, it’s the sound of “S” and the rhyme between “ween” and a Thai word “wian” from the word “wonwian” meaning lingering and wandering which makes me think of the word “namwon” meaning whirlpool.

There is a legend about the two great sister rivers of Southeast Asia: the Salween and the Mekong.

And this is how the story goes:

One day, the two rivers decided to go to sea. They agreed to travel through the mountains together and stopped whenever they wanted to. The Mekong slowly spanned its waterline through the landscape while the Salween hurried its way to claim the frontline.

After rushing ahead, the Salween decided to stop for a quick nap to wait for the Mekong. Days passed and the Mekong was still absent. The Salween thought the Mekong took a chance when it was sleeping to get ahead—to be the first to see the ocean. Angry and feeling betrayed, the Salween rushed through the channels and aimed to destroy any rock that stood in its way. Its wild speed was felt by those living nearby. The Mekong, on the other end, finally arrived at where the Salween was napping. Not seeing its younger sibling did not push it to move any faster. The Mekong continued to crawl and collect waters along the way; it even went off-route to carry fish and water into Tonle Sap before it finally reached the sea.

It is said that many communities believe in this story, though I have only heard it from two people. The anecdote may vary. Though it does resemble the turtle and the hare tale, but stories and legends are much better tools to narrate and describe the difference between the two.

Perhaps, it is the Salween’s anger that makes it the last free flowing river in China and Southeast Asia until 2015.

The Salween is originated from the marshland in the Himalayan Plateau—the same glacial area where the Mekong and the Brahmaputra start their mightiness. It travels over 2,200 kilometres through southwest China, Thailand, and Myanmar. Most of the areas it nourishes are occupied by ethnic indigenous communities. In Yunnan alone, the Nu River  (as the Chinese called the upper Salween) feeds at least 22 ethnic groups. The same reality applies to downstream communities at the border between Thailand and Myanmar and major ethnic states in Myanmar (where Burmese names it “Thanlwin”). I remember someone told me that the Salween’s turbulence is reflected by perpetual ethnic tension in the most recent open country of ASEAN.

The plan to dam the free flowing Salween is not new. 13 cascade dams for the Nu River were proposed in 2003 as part of China’s 10th Five Year Plan. Chinese environmentalists immediately called the government to halt the project. Their voices were listened, but the hiatus is now over and the proposed 13 hydropower projects are back on the table.

Thailand’s eyes on damming Myanmar’s Thanlwin/Salween is also not new. Nearly ten years ago, Thai environmentalists became aware of 7,110 MW Ta Sang Hydropower Project, a Thai national dam at the cost of Burmese environment. The news of Ta Sang Dam has been silent but a recent loosely done EIA report and signed MOA for the 1,360 MW Hat Gyi Dam prove that the intention isn’t going away.

7 is the number of proposed dams on the Thanlwin/Salween. Over 20,700 MW will be generated to Thailand and China. The newly built transmission lines that would come with the new dams would gracefully pass over the electricity and wealth to Myanmar’s neighboring countries. Its people would have to look up to the electricity they are not entitled to use while watching their houses and livelihoods inundated by the reservoir.

But the real battle has only started. In June, 2014 Myanmar government switched on the green light for Chinese Hanergy Holding Group Company to tackle its hydropower project in Shan State. Kunlong Dam will stand tall to hold back the Salween while producing 1,400 MW of electricity to be sent back to China.

Large-scale hydropower projects—along with many other environmentally and socially detrimental projects—never prove beneficial to local communities. “The few should sacrifice for the many” is the excuse project proponents always use to dignify their grand prize. However, in this case, “the few” we’re talking here isn’t small in number but their political voice and power to decide how and who would control the river they rely on.

“We call the Thanlwin, ‘the River of Peace’” said Ko Ye, an activist from Dawei who has been fighting against Thailand-proposed mega development project in his hometown. “Because if this river is dammed or falls under one group’s control, the ethnic war in Myanmar will never stop.

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Letter to the Mekong River Commission on the Don Sahong Dam

The following is a letter written by Mekong river expert and conservationist Alan Potkin submitted today to the Mekong River Commission’s online stakeholder consultation concerning the Don Sahong dam.  The construction of the Don Sahong dam on the Mekong’s Hou Sahong channel in Siphandon, Laos is a project sparking extreme controversy in the Mekong region.  Despite Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s condemnation of the dam along with a massively successful petition campaign gaining more than 250,000 signatures and increasing local and international coverage of the controversial project, construction for the dam is likely to begin by the end of the year.

Indeed “now is the time to separate fact from fiction”…

Notwithstanding his Googleable scientific publications being exclusively in quantitative algology, rather than in any aspect of ichthyology (not  least fish taxonomy, physiology, and reproductive or migratory behaviors), I had consistently argued that we should accept that Dr Peter Hawkins, Don Sahong’s Environmental Manager, was speaking and acting in good faith until proven otherwise…

Until this latest announcement by him that the altered dry season hydrology above and below Siphandone, following the new release regime
from the Lançang Jiang cascade of hydropower dams in Yunnan PRC, will now make it “easier for fish to migrate” through alternate channels other than Hou Sahong during the dry season.

Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

According to years of fieldwork conducted there by Dr Tyson Roberts and Profs. Ian Baird and Water Rainboth, amongst others,
no less than 150 species of fish transit through, or are resident, in Siphandone. Other than their basic taxonomy, almost nothing is known in
sufficient empirical detail about any ofthem to understand exactly what ecological and behavioral cues initiate bi-directional migration and successful reproduction: Water temperature? Current velocity and/or stream stage? Phases of the moon? Subtle chemical alterations? Angle of the sun in the sky/polarization of insolation?

How much change in elevation per unit of lineal distance could be encompassed within a particular species’ genetically-determined
metabolic parameters and swimming musculature to still be a manageable pathway?

All essentially unknown!

The planet’s best understood migratory fishes are the salmonidae of the northern hemisphere, which in any given inland waterway probably never exceed four or five different species having themselves much in common. Yet even now ichthyologists are far from certain over exactly how salmonids are capable of navigating to, and infallibly identifying, precisely that reach of river/tributary wherein they were originally spawned, perhaps even a decade earlier, with most of those intervening years as adults spent offshore in the oceans.

And if any or all of that that were known in exact and correct detail about one or two or three of the most economically and nutritionally
important Mekong species, there would yet be another 140 species, at least, which might be responding to completely different sets of stimulae and environmental cues.

I would be delighted to have these assertions proven false by aquatic ecologists holding credible expertise far greater than my own.

Once again, I would note that available to whomever might successfully navigate far upstream into several of our interactive eBooks, notably
“Mekong-Orwell” —mostly about the Pak Mun debate Xayaboury and Don Sahong— there are linked online videos showing the
rather underdeveloped state-of-the-art of “fish friendly” turbines, and showing the general impassibility of even a 70cm artificial obstruction erected across the migratory pathways of one of the most robust and powerful N. American fish species, but one which lacks any evolutionary history of jumping.

Thanks as always, for all due consideration.

Access the interactive media links below to learn more about Alan Potkin’s work on Mekong issues.
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_actual_outcomes1.final_cfp.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/nam_phit/digital_mekong_planning.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_orwell_eBook/pak_mun_homepages.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_fish_atlas_4.1/welcome.pdf
http://sethathirath.com/EFDNW_UNESCO_1.4.1/nongchanh%20interactive/EFDNW_poster/nongchanh_poster_homepage.pdf
http://vimeo.com/86935784

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How’s it Going, Thailand?

In the late afternoon of May 22, 2014–about the time when many people were leaving their offices–many TV screens turned frozen. The tunes behind put many in reminiscence: patriotic songs that once were ubiquitous in Thailand 50 years ago came alive. The screen was dominated by the color of blue with “National Council for Peace and Order” appeared under five logos of the military.

A few hours passed, the screen remained the same but a different song was playing. Every channel was painted with the same six words. Occasionally, for another day or two, a young man in uniform–possibly in his forties–sat behind a table and started to read word by word from the sheet of white A4 paper in front of him. As he read along, the screen scrolled down simultaneously to show what was typed on the letter.

They were orders. More than a dozen orders were issued to Thailand with immediate effect. The head of the military, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, assumed the head of Thailand’s government. A curfew between 10pm to 5am was set nation-wide. Media was seized and controlled. All to maintain “peace and order.”

The next day, the young man was accompanied by a young woman, each had a few sheets of white paper in front of them. They switched to read over a hundred plus names of high position leaders who were summoned by the new Thai leader. These people were demanded to report within 24 hours.

At this time, no domestic news was reporting what was happening to Thailand. Much of the updates were acquired via social media and foreign news agencies. Videos of uniformed soldiers’ invasion into many media offices were recorded and posted online. People were furious at what was happening. But they were only those who were following the coup’s movement at every step. Others whose main–and possibly the only–channel of news was the television, remained sheltered with messages by the NCPO.

The violence has not broken up yet. Some wanted their voices to be heard so they gathered by Bangkok’s core to claim their stance. Bangkok Arts and Culture Center became the first occupy, followed by the Victory of Monument, and a famous conspicuous shopping street the following days. The “No-Coup” crowd had their signs written and their mouths taped black. A few hours later, the military came to disperse the crowd and instead claimed the territory theirs with their arms. For the next couple days, Bangkok continued to be surprised by more crowds in various spots around the city yelling “No Coup!” Other provinces started to see crowds gathering in the city centers. “No Coup” movement became contagious.

Human rights groups issued their statements condemning the coup and demanding summoned individuals to be released or returned. But their voices never made it to the television. Other Thais–whose source of news wasn’t only the television–reprimanded these protestors as “destroyer of peace.”

The nation is still divided and fragmented.

A week–and months–after the coup’s entrance, every local channel still had NCPO’s logo audaciously pressed at the top right corner. Media was mostly reporting financial news and showing nightly soap operas. Updates on the coup were briefed on May 28, 2014 to foreign media with a strong confirmation that Thailand was too unstable for an election. The last coup last two and a half years before an election of recycled familiar faces.

Hidden in the midst of the coup’s dominating scene over Thailand, rural folks and environmentalists are facing another layer of turmoil overpowering their livelihoods. The new authority is pushing Thailand’s newest Power Development Plan and forest/land kleptocratic programs to the decision-maker’s plate while Nature-dependent communities are squeezed off the cliff. Deals are being made behind closed doors and those who dare to say different risk being detained by the armed force.

We will keep our promises. Give us some more time. And our beautiful country will return…” This new song, composed by the coup leaders, has become Thailand’s most played song on TVs, radios, public media. Mornings, recess, mid-days, afternoons, late afternoons, nights, midnights, twilights, dusks, dawns.

Six months is how long the coup has taken over. The clock is still ticking.

Thailand no longer has a constitution. If you want to hold an event commenting or expressing your different views on the nation’s policy, either ask for a permission in advance or risk being arrested. Or might as well, just self-censor your existence.

But some university students can no longer remain patient. 5 students, each wearing a black t-shirt with a word on it jumped between a crowd of khaki uniforms and the stage where Prayuth Chan-Ocha was orchestrating about “drought and water management plan for E-san.” Five persons to challenge the military’s order which prohibits an assembly of 4+ persons group. An index, a middle finger, a ring finger to symbolize your support for the “No Coup” wave. A combination of these components will conceal your freedom in the police and the military’s territory.

This is Thailand’s time to test its people. No one knows when fear will stop pressing our faces to the ground. No one knows when curiosity will trigger someone to start questioning reality. Indeed, no one knows if most people will just forget and move on, leaving the minority screaming–in mute.

The author of this essay is a concerned Thai citizen choosing to publish anonymously.  

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Water release at Yunnan dam sparks SE Asian alarm

Manwan Dam, Yunnan

A huge hydroelectric facility in southern Yunnan is causing tension between China and several of its downstream Southeast Asian neighbors. The Jinghong dam (景洪大坝), which stretches across the Mekong River, is currently discharging water in an effort to lower reservoir levels, raising the specter of flash flooding further south along the riverway.

On September 1, the Chinese government informed flood control authorities in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand that the dam would begin to release large amounts of excess water. The facility partially opened its floodgates September 5, releasing 535 cubic meters of water per second. Such activity is expected to continue through the end of the month.

Although this amount of water has yet to cause flooding in Laos or Thailand, both countries have issued public warnings as a precaution. Officials in both countries fear any further increase in outflow from the dam — which has the capacity to release up to 9,000 cubic meters of water per second — could have disastrous consequences. An unnamed official in Laos told website RFA river levels in the city of Houayxay — 200 kilometers south of the Jinghong dam — had risen noticeably but had so far not approached flood levels.

Thailand, which makes up more than 800 kilometers of the country’s northern border, is currently in the grips of its annual flood season. At least 28 provinces in the country’s north are already experiencing widespread inundations. Because of this, Thai flood control authorities are particularly wary of any increased flow along the river. Channel News Asia is reporting “the situation at the Chao Phraya dam, the main water gateway between the mountainous north and the central plains [of Thailand], are at a critical level”.

Further downstream in Cambodia and Vietnam, officials appear less concerned. No flood warnings related to the Jinghong dam water release have yet been issued in either country. However, a spokesman for Cambodian water conservancy group 3S Rivers Protection Network told reporters, “We know when an upstream dam opening its gates to release reservoir water combines with the heavy rains of wet season, it’s a high threat.”

The 1,750-megawatt hydropower plant, located roughly five kilometers north of the city ofJinghong, first went into operation 2008 following more than five years of construction. Power generated at the facility is used in Yunnan but is also often sent to energy-hungry Guangzhou or exported to Thailand.

Exemplified by the current situation in Jinghong, cross-border management of the Mekong — called the Lancang River (澜沧江) while flowing through China — is often a contentious issue. Mekong countries have, in the past, expressed frustration over how the river is handled inside China. Such concerns largely revolve around the wellbeing of the 48 million people who rely directly on the waterway for their food and livelihoods in Southeast Asia.

This article was written by Patrick Scally and originally posted on GoKunming.

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A Flood of Challenges: Climate Change and the Mekong Delta

As loyal readers of ExSE have probably noticed by now, this site, at its core, is dedicated to Mekong River and the people who are connected to it. Thus it seems odd that so little attention has been given to the Mekong Delta on ExSE. As is the case with most international coverage of the Mekong, the upper and lower reaches of the river are largely ignored in favor of stories about hydropower projects and the livelihoods they will affect. However, the challenges that the Mekong Delta (MKD) is currently facing and will face in the future are also serious. These challenges are directly related to global warming and are shared with other deltas, though the unique geography and ecology of the Mekong makes the consequences of climate change here even graver. Continue reading

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Laos Agrees to Discuss Dam Project with Neighbors

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Laos has agreed to open a discussion with neighboring countries on the Don Sahong dam, but stopped short of saying it would delay construction on the controversial project.

In agreeing to the prior consultation, Laos is allowing input from the farmers and fishermen who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihood. It would also provide time for neighboring countries and opponents of the project to conduct a more comprehensive environmental impact study.

The announcement was made on Thursday during a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Bangkok. Representatives from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia — all members of the commission — participated in the meeting. The agreement provided no provision for delaying the project before an adequate environmental study could be completed.

“Prior consultation does not stipulate any condition on continuing or not continuing” construction of the dam, Hans Guttman, the commission’s chief executive officer, told reporters. Guttman said the prior consultation should begin in July, with the process expected to take about six months. He said Laos did not offer to delay construction on the dam, nor did neighboring countries ask for a delay during the consultation period.

The Laos delegation did not release a statement or meet with reporters following the daylong meeting. Laos has begun preliminary construction on infrastructure at the dam site, despite strong opposition from Vietnam and Cambodia, who requested a 10-year moratorium on dam construction on the Mekong mainstream until further studies could be completed.

Earlier, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand stated that the dam must undergo prior consultation, as required under the 1995 Mekong agreement, to which Laos is a signatory. The Don Sahong dam is being constructed in the mainstream part of the Mekong River in the southern province of Champasak, nearly two kilometers upstream from the Laos-Cambodia border.

Opponents of the project fear the dam will block the migration of fish and cause a steep drop in the flow of water to those living downstream. Nonn Panitvong, an adviser to the Green World Foundation, said plans to build several dams along the Mekong, would transform the river, the world’s second-most biodiverse river after the Amazon, “into a giant freshwater pond”.

“That would be the end of the Mekong River,” he said.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, called on neighboring countries to pressure Laos to delay construction until prior consultation is completed. “Neighboring countries must articulate to Laos their own intentions in what this process means, otherwise, the prior consultation process is likely to have missed the point entirely,” Trandem told ucanews.com.

Trandem said she hopes Laos proceeds with good faith rather than issue an “empty political statement”. “All construction should stop on the Don Sahong dam until a transboundary impact assessment is carried out and meaningful consultation takes place,” she said.

This article by Stephen Steele was originally posted here on June 27, 2014 on the UCA News website.

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Carrots, Sticks & the TIP Report: Understanding the US Government’s Anti-Trafficking Efforts in Southeast Asia

Last week the US State Department issued its annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report, which ranks every country in the world according to their adherence to the US government’s anti-trafficking mandate. For the first time, Thailand was designated “Tier 3,” the lowest “rung” on the TIP Report’s ladder.

The report, which is published by the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, describes “Tier 1” countries as those demonstrating sufficient anti-trafficking efforts; “Tier 2” as those that have begun to demonstrate such efforts but still have improvements to make; and “Tier 3” as countries demonstrating little to no effort to combat trafficking. Countries that receive the Tier 3 ranking are subject to sanctions by the US government. Continue reading

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