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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Environmentalists Call for Transparency in Chinese Dam Projects

A general view shows the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river in Yichang in central China's Hubei province (file photo)

Environmentalists say China needs to be more transparent as it rapidly expands its domestic and international hydropower program. The call for openness, made Tuesday by two influential NGOs, comes amid criticism of China's controversial dam-building projects on rivers flowing from the Himalayan region.

Southeast Asian countries are not the only nations that fear an ever thirsty China could trigger natural disasters, hurt the environment, ignore human rights and divert water supplies.

China's accelerating program of damming every major river flowing from the Tibetan plateau has sparked fears in towns and Asian capitals from Pakistan to Vietnam.

But Chinese banks and hydropower construction companies are also causing concern in other parts of the world, such as Africa, where they are involved in projects for profit.

Peter Bosshard, policy director of the environment NGO, International Rivers, says while big Chinese investment banks such as ICBC claim to be environmentally and socially responsible, smaller Chinese enterprises are more reckless.

"We have seen movement from the biggest actors, but smaller companies, which can be very big state-owned enterprises in their own right or private companies, tend to hide between the market leaders."

Though China is not alone in disrupting Himalayan water flows, suspicions are heightened by Beijing's lack of transparency and refusal to share most hydrological and other data.

Moreover, China has in the last decade come to dominate the global hydro power sector. Another dam causing widespread alarm is the Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia, which is being funded by China's ICBC bank.

Environmentalists say if completed, the dam will devastate ecosystems and livelihoods of indigenous people in the lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia and Lake Turkana in neighboring Kenya.

Bosshard said other international banks refused to fund the dam.

"These projects still go ahead and the Chinese companies do not respond to civil society concerns. There is still a culture with very little transparency and consultation," explained Bosshard. "We saw a new guideline on anti-corruption from the State Council last December when they say sunshine is the best antiseptic, and transparency offers the best supervision of power. But in our experience in such projects, there is still often a complete lack of transparency and consultation, particularly with civil society groups in the hosts countries, which need this access most."

Bosshard says of the 260-plus Chinese projects worldwide, only one, in North Korea, appears to have benefited the local people.

Johan Frijns works for the NGO Bank Track, which scrutinizes international investments by the world's big banks.

He also called on Chinese investment banks to open up their hydropower interests to the public.

"We call on Chinese banks to enter into a dialogue with our counterparts here in China, with international networks, with NGOs working on the environment, working on human rights and working on a great many issues, as all the other banks in the world have done so far," Frijns said.

It is in Southeast Asia where China's thirst for water and environmental footprint is most keenly felt.

Local communities and environmentalists are worried the dams will trigger natural disasters, degrade fragile ecologies such as fish supplies, and divert vital water supplies in the world's most heavily populated and thirstiest region.

On the eight great Tibetan rivers alone, almost 20 dams have been built or are under construction while some 40 more are planned or proposed.

China strenuously denies it is irresponsible in its dam building.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei says Beijing always considers downstream countries when choosing dam projects and would never harm their interests.

He says China pays great attention to the impact these projects might have on resources, the environment and ecosystems, and takes the concerns of downstream countries into consideration.

He says China is a responsible upstream country and will never harm the interests of downstream countries.

A few analysts and environmental advocates speak of water as a future trigger for war or diplomatic strong-arming. Bosshard said such a threat is hypothetical and a last-resort "nuclear" option for Beijing. But he said once complete, China can use its dams in any way it chooses.
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Local to make difference in Cambodia

Sarah Junkin

Cochrane Times

A young Cochrane woman is preparing to travel to rural Cambodia, not only to help out, but to teach villagers how to achieve sustainability after she's gone home.

Corrie Butler, 21, along with her boyfriend Jamie Lesueur, 24, will be volunteering with an organization called Sustainable Cambodia from May until the end of August.

The grassroots, Rotary-supported group is a not-for-profit organization that works with residents of Cambodian villages to help them achieve sustainability and self-sufficiency through a variety of means.

"We'll be working directly with locals on empowerment projects," said Butler of the program that includes help with wells, irrigation systems, schools, and other employment training. "For example, (Sustainable Cambodia) might fund a pair of animals which the villagers will use for breeding and then pass on to another family."

Butler was referring to a successful rural development model originally developed by Heifer International.

When a family receives a pair of breeding animals they agree to attend classes in animal care, and then they have to find two more families who wish to receive a pass-on animal. Those families in turn contract to also take the animal care classes, and thus the gift of the first set of animals grows geometrically over time.

Butler, currently finishing her third year at Mount Royal University, admitted it requires a fair bit of advance financial planning to spend the summer volunteering as opposed to working.

"We've been planning this since last October," she explained. "We've both been working and fundraising and trying to get scholarships. But this is something I really think is important, so it's worth it."

The pair intends to rent an apartment in a rural village and live as the residents live.


But despite her tender age, this is not Butler's first foray into international aid.

In 2008, when she was only 18, she travelled extensively throughout Asia where she volunteered with several humanitarian organizations including an orphanage and some groups dedicated to helping victims of the 2004 deadly tsunami that hit south-east Asia.

This time, she said she and Lesueur spent a fair amount of time deciding where they could best help out.

"We were looking around and when we found this organization, we just knew it would be a good fit," she said.

Butler is also an avid photographer, and currently volunteers for the Red Cross in their public affairs department.

"I'm planning on interviewing the people I meet, and recording their special interest stories," she said. "I'll also be blogging about my experiences."

sarah@cochranetimes.com

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Cluster Bombs Cloud Prospects for Peace

PHNOM PENH, Allegations that Thailand used controversial cluster munitions during recent border clashes with Cambodia have become the latest wedge driving tensions between the two neighbours.

The disarmament advocacy group Cluster Munition Coalition earlier this month announced that it had confirmed the Thais used the weapons as part of February skirmishes between Thai and Cambodian troops around a disputed area near the Preah Vihear temple.

The group said this marked the first time such weapons have been deployed since a landmark treaty banning their use came into effect last year – though Thailand continues to dispute whether or not the weapons should be classified as cluster bombs.

The CMC said Thailand’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, acknowledged in an April meeting that Thai troops used 155mm Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions, or DPICM, during the February clashes.

Laura Cheeseman, director of the CMC, said it was "appalling" that Thailand had resorted to using cluster munitions. "Thailand has been a leader in the global ban on antipersonnel mines and it is unconscionable that it used banned weapons that indiscriminately kill and injure civilians in a similar manner," Cheeseman said in a statement.

However, Thailand is refusing to classify the weapons as cluster bombs. Thai officials said soldiers used the weapons in response to Cambodian forces firing rockets into Thai territory. "(Thai) soldiers defended themselves when attacked by multiple rockets," government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told IPS. "When the civilian targets in Thailand were attacked, they defended themselves by using a particular kind of weaponry, including (DPICM)."

Cluster munitions are designed to explode in mid-air over their targets, unleashing smaller bomblets over the blast radius. But critics have sought to outlaw the weapons, arguing high fail rates mean the bomblets often fail to explode on impact, leaving a deadly legacy for civilians long after fighting has stopped. The CMC said its members have examined two contaminated areas around the UNESCO-listed Preah Vihear temple and found multiple kinds of cluster bomblets, including M85-type DPICM submunitions.

A 2007 report by the group Norwegian People’s Aid found that failure rates for the Israeli-produced M85 submunitions were unacceptably high. Though equipped with self-destruct mechanisms meant to ensure no more than 1 percent of the bomblets fail to explode, the report estimated previous use of the weapons in Iraq and Lebanon resulted in ‘dud rates’ as high as 12 percent in some cases.

A typical 155mm projectile can carry 49 M85 bomblets, meaning that a single fired rocket could leave at least five unexploded submunitions over a three-hectare blast radius. Denise Coghlan, director of the group Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, was part of a group that visited the Preah Vihear area shortly after the February fighting. She said two men were killed and another two people lost appendages after the cluster bombs exploded.

"I was really outraged that people were killed and that people were injured by cluster munitions," Coghlan told IPS. "This is such a flagrant breach of the new international law." Though Thailand continues to insist the DPICM are not cluster bombs, other observers have issued sharply worded criticisms nonetheless.

"Norway condemns all use of cluster munitions," Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre said in a statement this month. "These weapons kill and maim civilians and have unacceptable humanitarian consequences long after they are used. (END)
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Cambodia eyes 6pc growth in 2011

Cambodia's economy is expected to grow by more than six percent this year, the government told international donors on Wednesday.

"Cambodia is very well positioned" for robust growth, Economy and Finance Minister Keat Chhon told delegates at a meeting in Phnom Penh to discuss aid programmes.

He said the economy was recovering well from the global financial crisis and would expand by "more than six percent in 2011", without giving further details.

The government's projection is in line with recent predictions from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which each expect Cambodia's gross domestic product (GDP) to grow by 6.5 percent this year driven by garment exports, agriculture and tourism.

Written off as a failed state after the devastating 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime and several decades of civil war, Cambodia used garment exports and tourism to help improve its economy.

The country enjoyed several years of double-digit economic growth before being hit hard by the global financial crisis which began in 2007.

But like much of Asia, Cambodia has bounced back and achieved 5.9 percent growth in 2010, Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech last month.

Cambodia still remains one of the world's poorest countries, with around 30 percent of its 14 million people living on less than a dollar a day.

Last year parliament approved a five-year national development plan aimed at achieving annual growth of six percent, helped by more than six billion dollars in international aid over the period.

Foreign donors pledged more than 1.1 billion dollars to the country in 2010.
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