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Friday, April 30, 2010

Avoiding Crisis in the Mekong River Basin

Earlier this month, the leaders of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and host country Thailand gathered for the first-ever Mekong River Commission (MRC) summit to discuss the future of the Mekong, one of the world's longest and most resource-rich rivers.

There was much to discuss. The Mekong -- which flows through China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and provides food, water, and transport for about 65 million people -- is now at its lowest level in two decades due to a prolonged drought. Its future is also in peril due to a host of natural and man-made threats. Unless riparian states make a concerted, joint effort to manage the river's resources prudently and sustainably, their actions risk threatening food security, destroying livelihoods, and heightening regional tensions.

The main threat is from hydropower. China, which already has five operational dams, plans to construct about 15 more large- to mega-sized hydropower dams upstream, while Southeast Asian states themselves mull building 11 of their own further downstream. While these dams do not deplete the river's water supply outright, they affect the hydrology of the Mekong by altering the natural timing and volume of the river's seasonal flows. According to a recent report (.pdf) by the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank, resulting reductions in silt deposits downstream could threaten one of the most productive regions of wet rice cultivation, while erratic water currents may block the spawning migration of fish in what is now the world's largest freshwater fishery.

Other trends are equally, if not more worrying. Demographic and development pressures will further increase demand on the river's already threatened resources. According to projections (.pdf) by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the population in the Lower Mekong is expected to swell to 90 million by 2025, with over a third living in urban areas. Total irrigation water requirements for the region, which stood at about 43,700 million cubic meters in 2002, will rise to about 56,700 million cubic meters by the end of this year.

Disruptive climate change threats also hover in the longer-term future. Global conservation group WWF predicts intense floods and droughts, coastal erosion, higher seas and heat waves for the Mekong Delta. Vietnam's own Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment says that if sea levels rise 30 inches by 2100, 20 percent of the Delta and 10 percent of Ho Chi Minh City could be swamped.

The six riparian states now seem to grasp the growing threats to the Mekong as well as the coming crisis they might spawn. At the first summit convened in the MRC's 15-year history this month, Thai Prime Minister and host Abhisit Vejjajiva declared that the Mekong "will not survive" if nations do not "take joint responsibility for its long-term sustainability." Leaders of the four Mekong Basin nations -- Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam -- also agreed on areas for "priority action," including researching threats related to climate change and intensifying efforts toward flood and drought management. China, for its part, also began releasing previously withheld data on water flows in its section of the river last month, in response to claims that its dams upstream were causing the current protracted drought.

Yet far bolder efforts will be needed to save the Mekong. China and Myanmar must become full members of the MRC, instead of just dialogue partners, in order to truly participate in cooperative river management. China may be right that its dams are not causing the current drought, but suspicions linger over Beijing's actions precisely because it has refused to share data with downstream nations or sign on to the 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin. If China does not show signs of addressing other riparian states' concerns, the perception -- accurate or not -- will remain that Beijing is reaping the upstream benefits of hydropower while leaving downstream nations to bear the costs.

Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos must themselves strike a better balance between their individual economic needs and environmental responsibilities. At times, government planning and decision-making reportedly takes place without adequate local input or comprehensive cost-benefit evaluations. In Cambodia and Laos, experts complain that government officials lack the governance capacity and skills necessary to conduct or comprehend research about the scale of potential environmental damage. Commercial or geostrategic imperatives may also lead these governments to disregard knowledge even when it is available, since some dam proposals are linked to powerful domestic interests in Laos or to the Chinese government, Cambodia's largest aid donor. Greater participatory planning and more-detailed assessments must be conducted before decisions are made about mammoth infrastructure projects, in order to accurately assess their implications and make plans to address any fallout.

Trans-boundary river management also ought to extend beyond research and contingency planning. Countries must consult each other about any major development projects they are undertaking as outlined in the 1995 agreement, since the Mekong is a shared resource. Riparian states should also try to agree on a basin-wide standard for environmental and socio-economic impact studies, as the Stimson Center report advocates. As for the MRC, it should broaden its cooperation with countries such as the United States, which could potentially assist Lower Mekong Basin states with human-capacity-building or research technology. The introduction of the Lower Mekong Initiative by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the 2009 ASEAN ministerial meeting in Thailand, as well as the addition of a position on Mekong affairs to the staff of the State Department's East Asia/Pacific Bureau, means that sufficient political will, interest and resources exist in Washington for engagement on this issue.

The threats to the Mekong should be clear to all by now. It is up to riparian nations, international organizations and other interested countries to cooperatively ensure that these grim scenarios and gloomy predictions do not crystallize into reality. Otherwise, one of the world's greatest rivers will be endangered, with profound implications for the region.

Prashanth Parameswaran is research assistant at the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington-based think tank that covers Asian security issues. He is also a research fellow for Asia Chronicle, a daily online journal, and blogs about international affairs at GlobalEye.
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Cambodia to boost global rice sales

PHNOM PENH (Commodity Online) : In an attempt to boost its international rice sales, Cambodia has decided to axe rice export licenses to exporters.

Country’s Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a new order in this regard to replace an old order of 2008.

The document ordered would-be exporters to apply to a Ministry of Commerce-run company called Green Trade for a permit.

All traders who wanted to sell more than 200 tones of the grain had to apply for a permit, in an attempt to secure Cambodia's rice and paddy supply.

The government wants to sell more rice into international markets to develop the economy.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Cambodia plans to increase paddy yield by as much as 3 tones per hectare by 2012.

This farm year, April statistics show, the Kingdom could have 3.5 million tones of paddy left over for export, a 10.75 percent increase from the 3.16 million tones last year.

Cambodian Small and Medium Industries Association (CSMIA), said four rice buyers from Sweden, Lithuania and Belgium will arrive in Cambodia on May 9 to meet with 100 rice mill representatives to discuss export capability.

CSMIA said Russian company Prod Gamma is set to order 20,000 tones of rice from Cambodia this year. The company wants to order 10 percent broken rice from Cambodia at $430 per tone.

The CSMIA has exported 2,500 tones of rice to European markets since the beginning of the year.

The association plans to export another 1,200 tones in May. The group has also signed export agreements with companies from Germany, Lithuania and Latvia.
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Cambodia court rejects bail for K.Rouge leaders

PHNOM PENH: Cambodia's UN-backed genocide court on Friday denied bail for three former Khmer Rouge leaders, saying they may commit serious crimes and their detention was necessary to prevent trial tampering.

Judges rejected appeals from former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife, minister of social affairs Ieng Thirith, who all asked for release ahead of their trial expected next year.

The three leaders, who have been charged with genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, torture and religious persecution, appealed against their detention late last year and earlier this year.

"The Pre-Trial Chamber of the (tribunal) dismissed appeals lodged by the charged persons," a statement from the court said.

The tribunal said detention of the ageing suspects "remains a necessary measure" to prevent the suspects from fleeing the trial and to ensure their security.

Khieu Samphan, 78, Ieng Sary, 84, and Ieng Thirith, 78, were arrested in November 2007 over their roles in the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge government, and have appealed annually for release from detention at the court.

The three leaders are being held along with the Khmer Rouge former "Brother Number Two" ideologue Nuon Chea and the regime's main prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.

Up to two million people were executed or died of starvation, disease and overwork as the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge movement emptied cities and enslaved the population on collective farms in its bid to create a communist utopia.

Final arguments in the court's first trial, of Duch, ended in November and a verdict is expected later this year.

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Scientist: China avoiding honey tariff

COLLEGE STATION, Texas, April 30 (UPI) -- Honey from China is being shipped into the United States illegally to avoid expensive tariffs, a Texas scientist who tracks the origins of pollen alleges.

China, the world's largest honey producer, is sending honey to other countries for labeling and then into the United States to avoid paying U.S. tariffs of up to 500 percent, Vaughn Bryant, a Texas A&M professor, said.

Bryant, a palynologist or a pollen specialist, analyzes honey samples from around the world to determine their origin.

Honey samples labeled as coming from Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Laos usually turn out to be "a little honey from those countries" with the majority of the blend coming from Chinese sources, Bryant said in a release Thursday.

The high U.S. tariffs on Chinese honey were instituted about two years ago when China nearly ruined the U.S. market by selling its honey for about half of what it costs U.S. honey producers to sell their product.

"Now there are lots of shenanigans going on to avoid having to pay those tariffs," Bryant said.
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Ways to Celebrate National Arbor Day 2010

Today, Friday, April 30, is officially Arbor Day 2010, which means it’s time to break out the shovels, seeds, and water and plant a tree. Arbor Day first began in the United States in 1872, and has since spawned similar tree planting days around the globe from China to Brazil and Cambodia.There are dozens of ways to celebrate Arbor Day this year, and here are just a few.

Buy a tree. The national Arbor Day 2010 website offers a simple and straight forward tree buying shop. Click on their ‘Tree Store’ link, and you’ll be guided to an online shop filled with a variety of flowering trees, fruit trees, nut trees, shade trees and other popular trees to choose from. Prices start from as low as $6.

Or buy a gift tree. If not for yourself, give the gift of a tree to a friend, family, guests or even employees. The Arbor Day website includes a variety of trees for all climates and hardiness zones. Custom labels and packaging is also available.

* UN Program Aims To Plant One Billion Trees

Go local. See what Arbor Day events are going on in your town and check them out. Often, libraries will have special Arbor Day readings for kids; and cities will hold special tree planting ceremonies.

Whatever you choose to do, celebrate Arbor Day 2010. Be creative. Be a leader. It’s a way to give back to the Earth and help the community out too.

Written by Lani Shadduck

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