Whose Mekong Is It?

Sunday, November 3, 2002
Communities tell GMS leaders: Enough broken promises!
Listen to the people, not the ADB!

Statement from the NGO pre-summit forum on GMS and ADB

Phnom Penh, Nov 3, 2002 NGOs and affected people from around the Mekong region are demanding that GMS (Greater Mekong Subregion) Summit leaders listen to the people rather than the Asian Development Bank. Ten years into the ADB's GMS program, the more than 65 million people whose way of life is being radically changed are still shut out of the process. Despite all the claims, the GMS program has brought little benefit to local people, but massive advantages to consultants, corporations, and local elites.

�The GMS program is driven by the ADB's limited vision of economic development, rather than by the local realities of what poor people in our communities need. Instead of helping the poor, the ADB's grand design of building large and costly highways and hydropower dams will bring more harm and exploitation. Fisheries in our Mekong will be further destroyed, more of our communities will be displaced , and we will get into more and more debt,� says Mak Sithirith, coordinator of the Cambodian Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT).

Billions of dollars in current and future plans that we�re told are designed to address poverty seem likely to do the opposite. Of particular concern to the region�s NGOs:

  • GMS economic corridors - �free trade� triumphs over national and local interest; trans-region highways fail to compensate for land and livelihood loss
  • The Mekong navigation plan - environmental and social disaster already underway
  • Regional power plans - destruction of livelihoods for dubious economic gain
  • Burma�s inclusion in GMS - a backdoor way to finance a totalitarian regime?

The GMS economic corridors are ill-conceived and far from transparent: �They aim to promote �subregional economic integration� and free trade in the Mekong, but nothing is �free� in this trade. It comes at a terrible cost - the �subregional� interests prevail over national interests, central over local governments, and ultimately, interests of local communities are ignored,� says Violeta Corral of the Manila-based NGO Forum on ADB.

Alarm bells are ringing over the National Highway 1 road project that connects Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, a showcase of the GMS Southern Economic Corridor. Leakhana Kol of NGO Forum on Cambodia says: �Displaced families have been promised compensation for their lands and houses. But after more than a year, many families are still waiting for adequate compensation.�

The GMS initiative has led to the signing of a commercial navigation agreement between China, Laos, Burma and Thailand in 2000, without a genuine assessment of the project�s social and environmental impacts. Blasting of rapids and reefs along the Upper Mekong to allow larger ships to navigate has already begun. Says Niwat Roykaek from the Chiang Khong Conservation Group: �Many people in my area depend on the Mekong River for fish and for growing vegetables along the riverbank. The river is our life. A proper study must be carried out before any more work is done.�

A key component of today�s GMS Summit will be the signing of an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) on Regional Power Trade. This GMS flagship project will create an integrated electricity grid throughout the region that will connect hydropower dam projects in China, Burma and Laos to markets in Vietnam and Thailand. Through this tranmission grid, the ADB is supporting the building of more dams in the region, including those on the Mekong mainstream. Says Aviva Imhof of International Rivers: �The ADB seems to have learnt nothing from its appalling history of support for large dams in this region. Its two flagship hydropower projects in Laos - the Theun-Hinboun Hydropower Project and Nam Leuk - have resulted in the destruction of thousands of people�s livelihoods. Planned dams in Burma, China and Laos will replicate this destruction on a grand scale.�

Chainarong Srettachau of Southeast Asia Rivers Network, Thailand adds: �The project is economically flawed. Thailand doesn�t need the power: it will be forced to import at the expense of developing environmentally and socially acceptable alternatives. We are calling on the Thai government to reject any additional power purchases from our neighbours.�

Burmese pro-democracy activists and ethnic minority leaders question Burma�s inclusion in the GMS program. �We are concerned that through the GMS framework, the military dictatorship might receive aid from the ADB. The junta routinely uses forced labor and forcibly relocates local people for infrastructure projects,� says Tee Jupoh Kritipong of the Lahu National Development Organization.

Local communities need to be informed and consulted about future �development� planned in their midst. Opening borders for trade and investments has its darker sides. Local Mekong communities should be able to chart the nature, direction and pace of their own development. The health and vitality of our Mekong River and the lives of those who depend on it deserve nothing less.

�Local people have had enough - we want development in the Mekong that respects our river-based livelihoods, our culture and our way of life,� concluded Mak Sithirith.

These statements emerged from a pre-summit forum hosted by Oxfam Mekong Initiative, NGO Forum on Cambodia, NGO Forum on ADB in Phnom Pen 30 Oct-3 Nov, involving 40 NGOs from the Mekong sub-region. For a full list of participants, and further information, contact: Aviva Imhof or Kelly Brooks on +855 (0) 12 949 359 (mobile) or 855 (0)23 210 357 (Oxfam America Cambodia office)