April 3, 2010

Mekong River Summit To Take Place Monday

Southeast Asian leaders are set to lean on China during talks as controversy builds over the cause of the shrinking lower Mekong River.

Beijing's Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao is set to join the premiers of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin to discuss management of the vast river, which over 60 million people depend on.

Myanmar will also participate in the summit as a dialogue partner at the top-level talks, which will kick off late Sunday and run through Monday.

The drought along the Mekong River and the role of hydropower dams are expected to be the main topics at the summit of the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission (MRC).
The body said Friday that the health of the Mekong Basin and the river's eco-systems could be threatened by proposed dams and expanding populations.

"There is a strong link between water quality and the impact of human activity on eco-systems," MRC advisor Hanne Bach said in a statement.

"Over the past five years, significant changes have taken place in water related resources and this is likely to continue, which may put livelihoods under threat," she added.

China is expected to commit to defending its dams, which activists say are the cause for the water shortage.

Anond Snidvongs, director of the Southeast Asia START Regional Center, said that nations in the lower Mekong basin are likely to press China for information on the river as well as financial help.

He told AFP "behind closed doors there will be a strong debate."

China says the reason for water shortages is unusually low rainfall rather than man-made infrastructure.

It says that its dams have been effective in releasing water during dry seasons and preventing flooding in rainy months.

"China will never do things that harm the interests of (lower Mekong) countries," said Yao Wen, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok.

The crisis has left some cargo and tour boats grounded, and it has alarmed communities along the world's largest inland fishery.

The situation "could be a taste of things to come in the basin if climate change predictions become a reality," said MRC spokesman Damian Kean.

Jeremy Bird, the chief of the MRC's secretariat, hailed Beijing's agreement to share water level data from two dams during this dry season.  He said it "shows that China is willing to engage with lower basin countries."

However, questions still remain over the impact of the eight planned or existing dams on the mainstream river in China.

Liu Ning, the Vice Minister of Water Resources, said that more were needed in order to guarantee water and food security.

Campaigners fear that the settling of political scores could block cooperation over the Mekong, especially with the current animosity between Cambodian premier Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart Abhisit Vejjajiva.

This will be Hun Sen's first visit to Thailand since the two countries became embroiled in a row late last year over Cambodia's appointment of ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra as an economics adviser.

"That's what worries me quite a lot, that the debate will be more political, and not even related to water," said Anond.

Thailand has called on a tough security law that will deploy over 8,000 troops in Hua Hin to ensure protesters do not disrupt the summit, in light of mass anti-government "Red Shirt" rallies in Bangkok since mid-March.

Regional leaders were forced to abandon a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations due to protests last year.


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