Archive for ‘Save the Mekong River’

July 8, 2013

Notes from the Field: Rapid Pursuit of GDP Growth in Lower Mekong Region Threatens Environment

The Asia Foundation

Rapid Pursuit of GDP Growth in Lower Mekong Region Threatens Environment

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source: http://asiafoundation.org/in-asia/2013/06/26/rapid-pursuit-of-gdp-growth-in-lower-mekong-region-threatens-environment/

June 26, 2013

By

Next week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will join leaders from the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) partner countries – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam – for the sixth LMI Ministerial Meeting in Brunei, Darussalam. The meeting will be held on the margins of the ASEAN Regional Forum Ministerial Meeting, with the theme Our People, Our Future Together,” stressing the importance for the people of ASEAN to work together for the development of the region.

The Mekong River is the seventh largest in the world, covering an area of 1.9 million square kilometers. The region is rich in natural resources including fisheries, forests, biodiversity, and minerals. Photo/Bart Verweij

The LMI was created in 2009 by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and foreign ministers from the partner countries to enhance cooperation among the Lower Mekong countries in the areas of environment, health, education, and infrastructure development. Much is at stake: communities in the region are experiencing great changes from fast-paced economic growth averaging five to seven percent annually. While recent growth has reduced poverty and supported progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the rapid pursuit of GDP growth, urbanization, infrastructure development, raw materials, and energy sources also jeopardizes the region’s natural resource base, food security, and livelihoods. Coordinated efforts will be necessary to ensure that equitable and sustainable development benefits all 60 million people in the region.

The Lower Mekong region is bound by the Mekong River, whose source originates in China and empties into the South China Sea in Vietnam. The river is the seventh largest in the world, covering an area of 1.9 million square kilometers. The region is rich in natural resources including fisheries, forests, biodiversity, and minerals. Throughout my career in international development, I’ve had the opportunity to observe the river at different locations and times, always impressed by its vital role as a source of livelihood that communities and ecosystems depend on deeply. But recent fast-paced developments, un-balanced by the voices and perspectives of the very people whose lives depend on it, are threatening this system.

Encounters with the Mekong

My first glimpse of the Mekong River was when I was traveling in 2007 in Yunnan Province, China, where the river there is known as the Lancang River. I was distinctly aware of its direct source: cold melt water from the Himalayan Glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, a few thousand miles to the north, having recently traveled there. Climate change, however, is projected to decrease China’s glacial coverage by 27 percent by 2050, which would significantly diminish water availability for communities throughout the Mekong region.

My next encounter with the Mekong River was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2010, where the river flows through the capital city, and during the rainy season, reverses course to flow into Tonle Sap Lake, via a tributary of the same name, a unique phenomenon that is critical for supporting the rich ecosystem, including rare plant, bird, and fish species. Roughly 75 percent of people in the region rely on agriculture and fisheries for their livelihoods, and freshwater fish from the Mekong River and its tributaries, including Tonle Sap, which is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, provide 47 to 80 percent of their animal protein.

Development in the Region

While recent growth has reduced poverty in the Lower Mekong Region, the rapid pursuit of GDP growth also jeopardizes the region’s natural resource base, food security, and livelihoods. Photo/Marco Ryan

However, regional development projects threaten the food security for these dependent communities who make up the majority of the region’s population. Over the past several years, a shift in the financing of development projects in the region has been occurring, from traditional development assistance from multilateral development banks such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), to more regionally-based sources, including the private sector, banks, and national governments. These regional investments, which include projects like dams, pipelines, and railroads, in many cases do not have concrete safeguards against negative social and environmental impacts. They also have significant implications for neighboring countries, which requires broader ecosystem, participatory, and basin-wide approaches to development.

My third glimpse of the Mekong River was in the Lao capital of Vientiane in 2011, also the home of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the regional body consisting of four Lower Mekong country members (Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam) to coordinate information on development projects that have regional implications, including dam construction. Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian companies are currently financing 11 dams planned for construction along the mainstream Mekong – nine in Laos and two in Cambodia. The Social and Environmental Assessment (SEA) conducted on these dams for the MRC concluded that their cumulative impact would significantly alter downstream flows and water levels, block fish migration, decimate economically crucial and endangered species, trap silt needed to sustain rice production, and impact the livelihoods of millions of people in the region. The Xayaburi Dam in particular, which is planned for construction in Laos on the mainstream Mekong, has been controversial for its potential impacts to ecosystem dynamics and local livelihoods. However, the dam is set for development, despite opposition and concerns by the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments, civil society, and environmental groups.

Public Participation is Needed

Meaningful public engagement and participation on these regional development projects is limited, and access to information by the communities varies, as do the direct impacts that the projects have across the region. In Cambodia, civil society can access some environmental information, but often lack the technical capacity to provide meaningful input. While organizations monitor and advocate upwards, there is little time spent on disseminating information widely and educating the general public. In Laos, non-profit associations were granted defined legal status quite recently, in 2009, and their capacity is still limited. Similarly in Myanmar, recent reform measures created opportunities for increased civil society engagement, but basic capacity-building is needed. While Thailand’s 2007 Constitution requires public participation on natural resource protection, the public is often unaware of important environmental information, and elevating issues to the national level is a challenge. In Vietnam, there are existing laws and regulations aimed at protecting the environment, but their implementation and enforcement is problematic. Interaction between civil society and the government is growing but still very limited, and much remains to be done to broaden the space for public participation that can lead to more sustainable and equitable outcomes.

Civil society in the region is beginning to coordinate through networks and coalition groups on issues of mutual interest in response to the regional impacts of large-scale projects. To date, however, civil society initiatives have not been able to significantly influence regional development project decisions. Their efforts currently have little chance of success when they challenge governments and powerful economic and financial stakeholders with vested interests in seeing projects implemented as quickly as possible.

At the same time, regional bodies, such as the ADB, MRC, ASEAN, and the LMI, coordinate efforts on shared regional interests including economic integration, development in the Mekong River Basin, trade, environment, health, education, and infrastructure, and have made concerted attempts to engage the public on development projects. But in practice these bodies have not yet been effective in engaging local communities, and regional multi-stakeholder engagement has yet to ensure non-state actors can influence regional development decisions. Let’s hope leaders at Monday’s ministerial meeting bring citizens’ voices and concerns to the table.

Lisa Hook is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at lhook@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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August 28, 2012

Mekong dams could rob millions of their primary protein source

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?206033/Mekong-dams-could-rob-millions-of-their-primary-protein-source

Posted on 27 August 2012

Stockholm — Hydropower dams planned for the lower mainstem of the Mekong River could decimate fish populations and with them the primary source of protein for 60 million people. The impact of the dams would extend far beyond the river, as people turn to agriculture to replace lost calories, protein and micronutrients, according to a new study by WWF and the Australian National University.

There are 11 planned dam projects on the Mekong mainstem, and another 77 dams planned in the basin by 2030. The study, “Dams on the Mekong River: Lost fish protein and the implications for land and water resources”, looked at two scenarios: replacement of lost fish protein directly attributable to the proposed 11 mainstem dams, and replacement of the net loss in fish protein due to the impact of all 88 proposed dam developments.

If all 11 planned mainstem dams were built, the fish supply would be cut by 16 per cent, with an estimated financial loss of US$476 million a year, according to the study. If all 88 projects were completed, the fish supply could fall 37.8 per cent.

Study co-author Stuart Orr, freshwater manager at WWF International, says policymakers often fail to recognize the crucial role of inland fisheries in meeting food security. “The Mekong countries are striving for economic growth, and they see hydropower as a driver of that growth. But they must first fully understand and take into account the true economic and social value of a free-flowing Mekong,” says Orr.

The lower Mekong, flowing through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Viet Nam, is renowned for its biological diversity, with more than 850 freshwater fish species. These fish are fundamental to diets and economies in the region, with 80 per cent of the 60 million inhabitants relying directly on the river for their food and livelihoods.

The report also looks at the effects on land and water as people are forced to shift to cows, pigs, poultry and other sources to meet their protein requirements. On top of 1,350km2 of land lost to dam reservoirs, the countries would need a minimum of 4,863km2 of new pasture land to replace fish protein with livestock. The high end of the estimate if all dams were built is 24,188km2 – a 63 per cent increase in land dedicated to livestock.

Water requirements would jump on average between 6 and 17 per cent. But these averages mask the considerably higher figures for Cambodia and Laos. Under scenario one, with 11 dams on the mainstem, Cambodia would need to dedicate an additional 29-64 per cent more water to agriculture and livestock; Laos’ water footprint would increase by 12-24 per cent. Under the second scenario, with all 88 dams, these numbers shift dramatically, with an increase of 42-150 per cent for Cambodia and 18-56 per cent for Laos.

“Policymakers in the region need to ask themselves where they are going to find this additional land and water,” says Orr. “The Mekong demonstrates the links between water, food and energy. If governments put the emphasis on energy, there are very real consequences for food and water – and therefore people.”

The report, published in the journal Global Environmental Change and presented during World Water Week in Stockholm, comes at a critical time in the debate over hydropower development in the region. Construction work appears to be moving ahead on the controversial Xayaburi dam in Laos, despite a decision by the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission to halt the project pending further studies. It would be the first of the planned dams to span the lower Mekong mainstem.

“We hope this study can help fill some of the knowledge gaps about the effects of the proposed dams,” says co-author Dr Jamie Pittock from the Crawford School of Public Policy in the Australia National University.

WWF urges the lower Mekong countries to defer a decision on the mainstem Mekong dams for 10 years to ensure critical data can be gathered and a decision can be reached using sound science and analysis. WWF further advises lower Mekong countries considering hydropower projects to prioritize dams on some Mekong tributaries that are easier to assess and are considered to have a much lower impact and risk.

An abstract of the study, with the option to download the full text, is available here:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.06.002

July 12, 2012

Hillary Clinton pays historic visit to communist Laos

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source http://www.mercurynews.com/nation-world/ci_21051906

By Bradley Klapper

Associated Press

Posted:   07/11/2012 09:22:36 AM PDT
Updated:   07/11/2012 09:22:37 AM PDT

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton watches a map which displays locations of bombing sites during Vietnam War, on her tour at the Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise Center (COPE), in Vientiane, Laos, Wednesday, July 11, 2012. COPE provides free prosthetics to those who need them including the victims of blasts of unexploded Vietnam War era ordnance, (AP Photo/Brendon Smialowski, Pool) ( Brendan Smialowski )

VIENTIANE, Laos — Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Laos in more than five decades, gauging whether a place the United States pummeled with bombs during the Vietnam War could evolve into a new foothold of American influence in Asia.

Clinton met with the communist government’s prime minister and foreign minister in the capital of Vientiane on Wednesday, part of a weeklong diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia. The goal is to bolster America’s standing in some of the fastest growing markets of the world, and counter China’s expanding economic, diplomatic and military dominance of the region.

Thirty-seven years since the end of America’s long war in Indochina, Laos is the latest test case of the Obama administration’s efforts to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy away from the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It follows a long period of estrangement between Washington and a once hostile Cold War-era foe, and comes as U.S. relations warm with countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam.

In her meetings, Clinton discussed environmental concerns over a proposed dam on the Mekong River, investment opportunities and joint efforts to clean up the tens of millions of unexploded bombs the U.S. dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. Greater American support programs in these fields will be included in a multimillion-dollar initiative for Southeast Asia to be announced later this week.

After the meetings, she said they “traced the arc of our relationship from addressing the tragic legacies of the past to finding a way to being partners of the future.”

Clinton also visited a Buddhist temple and a U.S.-funded prosthetic center for victims of American munitions.

At the prosthetic center, she met a man named Phongsavath Souliyalat, who told her how he had lost both his hands and his eyesight from a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton place flowers at a statue after during a tour of the Ho Phra Keo Temple, in Vientiane, Laos, Wednesday, July 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Brendon Smialowski, Pool) ( Brendan Smialowski )

“We have to do more,” Clinton told him. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together.”

The last U.S. secretary of state to visit Laos was John Foster Dulles in 1955. His plane landed after being forced to circle overhead while a water buffalo was cleared from the tarmac.

At that time, the mountainous, sparsely populated nation was at the center of U.S. foreign policy. On leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned his successor, John F. Kennedy, that if Laos fell to the communists, all Southeast Asia could be lost as well.

While Vietnam ended up the focal point of America’s “domino theory” foreign policy, Laos was drawn deeply into the conflict as the U.S. funded its anti-communist forces and bombed North Vietnamese supply lines and bases.

The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on the impoverished country during its “secret war” between 1964 and 1973 — about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeded the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed nation per person in history.

Four decades later, American weapons are still claiming lives. When the war ended, about a third of some 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos had failed to detonate, leaving the country awash in unexploded munitions. More than 20,000 people have been killed by ordnance in postwar Laos, according to its government, and contamination throughout the country is a major barrier to agricultural development.

Cleanup has been excruciatingly slow. The Washington-based Legacies of War says only 1 percent of contaminated lands have been cleared and has called on Washington to provide far greater assistance. The State Department has provided $47 million since 1997, though a larger effort could make Laos “bomb-free in our lifetimes,” California Rep. Mike Honda argued.

“Let us mend the wounds of the past together so that Laos can begin a new legacy of peace,” said Honda, who is Japanese-American.

The U.S. is spending $9 million this year on cleanup operations for unexploded ordnance in Laos, but is likely to offer more in the coming days.

It is part of a larger Obama administration effort to reorient the direction of U.S. diplomacy and commercial policy as the world’s most populous continent becomes the center of the global economy over the next century. It is also a reaction to China’s expanding influence.

Despite America’s difficult history in the region, nations in Beijing’s backyard are welcoming the greater engagement — and the promise of billions of dollars more in American investment. The change has been sudden, with some longtime U.S. foes now seeking a relationship that could serve at least as a counterweight to China’s regional hegemony.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has made significant strides toward reform and democracy after decades as an international pariah, when it was universally scorned for its atrocious labor rights record and its long repression of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy movement. The Obama administration is expected to ease investment restrictions in the country this week.

Vietnam, threatened by Beijing’s claims to the resource-rich South China Sea, has dramatically deepened diplomatic and commercial ties with the United States, with their two-country trade now exceeding $22 billion a year — from nothing two decades ago. Clinton on Tuesday made her third trip to the fast-growing country, meeting with senior communist officials to prod them into greater respect for free expression and labor rights.

Landlocked and impoverished Laos offers fewer resources than its far larger neighbors and has lagged in Asia’s economic boom. It remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, even as it hopes to kick-start its development with accession soon to the World Trade Organization.

In recent years, China has stepped up as Laos’ principal source of assistance, with loans and grants of up to $350 million over the last two decades. But like many others in its region, Laos’ government is wary of Beijing’s intentions. And it has kept an envious eye on neighboring Vietnam’s 40 percent surge in commercial trade with the United States over the last two years, as well as the sudden rapprochement between the U.S. and nearby Myanmar.

Persistent human rights issues stand in the way of closer relations with Washington. The U.S. remains concerned about the plight of the ethnic Hmong minority, most of whom fled the country after fighting for a U.S.-backed guerilla army during the Vietnam War. Nearly 250,000 resettled in the United States. The U.S. has pressed Laos to respect the rights of returnees from neighboring countries.

Washington also has been seeking greater cooperation from Laos on the search for U.S. soldiers missing in action since the Vietnam War. More than 300 Americans remain unaccounted for in Laos.

And it is pressing the government to hold off on a proposed $3.5 billion dam project across the Mekong River. The dam would be the first across the river’s mainstream and has sparked a barrage of opposition from neighboring countries and environmental groups, which warn that tens of millions of livelihoods could be at stake.

The project is currently on hold and Washington hopes to stall it further with the promise of funds for new environmental studies.

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