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Monday, April 05, 2010

ASIA: People’s voice absent in Mekong river talks - activists

BANGKOK, 5 April 2010 (IRIN) - Millions of people living in and around Southeast Asia’s largest river, the Mekong, need a greater voice in determining its future, say activists.

“There needs to be more recognition of the voice of the people who depend on the river and what their vision of the river is,” Carl Middleton, the Mekong programme coordinator for the US-based NGO International Rivers, told IRIN.

“Decision-makers should listen better to the people that are affected by [infrastructure] projects.”

His comments coincide with the conclusion of the first ever Mekong River Summit on 5 April in the Thai coastal town of Hua Hin, which brought together leaders from China, Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Thailand and Myanmar to discuss its management.

The summit, organized by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to mark its 15th anniversary, comes at a critical time: the river’s water-level is at its lowest point in 50 years in Laos and northern Thailand.

Boat traffic has been halted along many parts of the 4,350km river, and fisheries and irrigation systems have been adversely affected.

Dams in China

While unusually low rainfall is widely believed to be responsible for the current low level of water in the Mekong, many environmentalists and NGOs claim China has exacerbated the situation by damming the river upstream.

China has four dams on the river and four more planned, but Beijing denies the dams are contributing to the current low level of the Mekong, and used the MRC meetings to reiterate its stance that natural causes are to blame.

"The current extreme dry weather in the lower Mekong river basin is the root cause for the reduced run-off water and declining water level in the main stem Mekong," Chen Mingzhong, deputy director-general of China’s Department of International Cooperation, Science and Technology, told a conference on 2 April that preceded the international summit.

On 4 April, China’s delegation promised increased cooperation among Mekong river countries on water management issues, particularly concerning its dams. This comes after China agreed for the first time ever late last month to share water-level data at two dams.

“This is a positive step,” Middleton told IRIN. A lack of rainfall is obviously a very important factor in the low level of the Mekong, he said, but questions remain as to whether China’s dams have also exacerbated the situation, or whether the dams could be used to alleviate the problem.
The summit focused on regional cooperation in solving drought and flooding problems in the Mekong region. The final joint declaration covered how the river can be used to reduce poverty, boost sustainable energy development, help people adapt to climate change, improve infrastructure and increase the involvement of civil society stakeholders in planning and decision-making.

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China rejects Mekong River dam criticism

China has rejected claims that its dams on the Mekong River are to blame for record low water levels in downstream nations.

Speaking at a summit in Thailand, China's vice foreign minister said drought and not hydropower was to blame for the reduced river flow.

More than 60m people from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam depend on the Mekong River for their livelihoods.

Parts of the river are at their lowest levels in 50 years.

Further downstream drought, salt deposits and reduced soil nutrients are threatening food production in the rice bowls of Cambodia and Vietnam.

'Serious problems'

The leaders of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam all attended the Mekong River summit in the Thai resort of Hua Hin.

Addressing the summit, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warned that the river would not survive without good management.

"The Mekong River is being threatened by serious problems arising from both the unsustainable use of water and the effects of climate change," he said.

Activists have blamed Chinese dams for contributing to the drop in river flow and producing irreversible change to the river's ecology.

China has eight planned or existing dams on the mainstream river and says it wants more.

But Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao said the dams were not the problem.

"Statistics show that the recent drought that hit the whole river basin is attributable to the extreme dry weather, and the water level decline of the Mekong River has nothing to do with the hydropower development," he said.

He said that by regulating water flow, the dams could help with flood prevention and drought relief.

And he said that China had increased its information sharing in recent months - highlighting the provision since March of data from two hydrological stations to downstream nations.

Mr Abhisit said that the dialogue with China had been positive, and that he hoped information sharing would become "more systematic and more consistent" in the future.
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Man fatally wounded in S. Phila. shooting

Philadelphia Daily News

Ranny Thon was a peacemaker who was trying to calm an angry man when he was shot and killed early Saturday in South Philadelphia, relatives said yesterday.

The man killed Thon, 24, and wounded three relatives: a 22-year-old man who was shot in the shoulder; a 24-year-old man who was shot in the thigh and back; and a 17-year-old female cousin, who was grazed in the stomach, police said.

Yesterday, the 17-year-old cousin was sitting on the front steps of a house on 8th Street, near Moyamensing Avenue, with relatives and friends. The young woman, who asked that her name not be used, translated for Thon's mother, who came to this country from Cambodia and spoke Khmer, when she appeared briefly at the front door.

"She said to let everyone know, 'I miss him and I love him very much and I feel like I am going crazy because my son died,' " the young woman said.

Thon and his relatives were shot as they stood outside Thon's aunt's house. The girl said she believed the shooter was also Cambodian. She said Thon and his siblings were born in the United States.

No arrests had been made as of last night.

The relatives kept candles burning at a sidewalk memorial that included incense, a bowl of noodles, a cup of beer and a white plastic chair filled with stuffed animals and a picture of Thon.

The 17-year-old cousin said Thon had tried to intervene when a man came by about 2:30 a.m. and began arguing with a couple who were out on the sidewalk with her male relatives.

The man left the block for about 10 minutes and when he returned, "he got mad because the guy he was arguing with had gone," the 17-year-old said.

As Thon tried to calm the man down, the gunman started shooting. Her three male relatives were shot outside and the teenager as she stood just inside the front door. "I just screamed and started crying," the girl said. "I didn't know I was hit until I got inside."
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Cambodia OKs foreign property ownership

PHNOM PENH—Cambodia's parliament on Monday approved a law allowing foreign ownership of property such as apartments and office buildings, in a measure intended to increase economic growth.

The draft law, which will permit foreigners to buy leaseholds on buildings and apartments, but not own the land beneath them, was passed when 85 of 96 members of parliament who attended the Monday meeting voted in favor.

Land management minister Im Chhun Lim told the national assembly the law would boost the kingdom's real estate market and bring in more foreign investment.

The law will take effect after approval from Cambodia's Senate and promulgation from King Norodom Sihamoni, which are both considered formalities.

Under old rules, foreign property investment could only be made through the name of a Cambodian national and many were unwilling to risk losing their assets to potentially unscrupulous local partners.

The cash-strapped country's investment law was amended in 2005 to allow foreign ownership of buildings but the legislation was never implemented and the initiative foundered.

Despite the restrictions, billion-dollar skyscraper projects and sprawling satellite cities promising to radically alter Phnom Penh have bloomed over the past few years.

But many projects have been halted or slowed down as Cambodia was buffeted by the world financial crisis after several years of double-digit growth, fuelled mainly by tourism and garment exports.
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