Claustrophobes beware -- every October or November, millions of Cambodians jam into their capital city, Phnom Penh, for a riotous three-day water festival, clogging the riverside boulevard that runs in front of the royal palace. Although Bon Om Touk is much beloved for providing opportunities to watch boat races, slurp fertilized duck eggs, and indulge in flirtation, the festival celebrates historic Khmer maritime prowess and an even older phenomenon -- the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap Lake. This switch brings streams of fish that provide 60 percent of the country's overall inland catch. The fish are swiftly transformed into everything from porridge to prahoc, an undyingly pungent fermented fish paste that keeps extremely well and serves as the major source of animal protein for the country's rural poor.
Although prahoc is forever, its source may not be, say environmentalists and activists increasingly concerned with the explosion of hydropower development on the region's waterways. To date, at least 82 hydropower projects exist in the wider Mekong region, and 179 more are identified as potential sites. Environmentalists argue that the development is haphazardly regulated at best -- largely fueled by quiet deals between private enterprise and government officials -- and worsened by a lack of political will to create and enforce national and transboundary environmental standards and open up the development process to public scrutiny.
Development at this pace could have a massive impact on the region. The longest river in Southeast Asia, the Mekong originates in the Tibetan highlands, crashes through the gorges of Yunnan in southern China, and runs through Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before emptying into the South China Sea through its delta, otherwise known as the "rice basket" of Vietnam. In addition to providing valuable transportation and trade routes, the river and its "flood pulse" of seasonally triggered changes help maintain the delta's balance of fresh- and seawater and fuel the largest inland fishery in the world, providing 2.6 million tons of fish, currently valued at $2 billion a year.
The Mekong and other rivers in mainland Southeast Asia also offer a huge source of hydropower potential, largely being tapped by private-sector investors cutting direct deals with powerful individuals within national governments. According to a technical report put out by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the Mekong River Commission (MRC), many of these projects appear to be funded by Chinese consortiums that haven't signed on to the Equator Principles, a set of environmentally and socially responsible guidelines that have been adopted by many of the world's largest private financial institutions. This dearth of environmental standards and a lack of transparency endangers both the area's river system and the rural poor who rely on it for their livelihood.
"Governments need to make informed decisions about whether to proceed with projects," says John Dore, program director of the Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience (M-Power), a network dedicated to improving water governance in the region. "Most strikingly there is a complete absence of informed discussion about the pros and cons of the mainstream dams and diversions in lower Mekong countries that have re-emerged on the agendas of national governments and ... developers."
In November 2007, a coalition of more than 200 environmental groups sent an open letter questioning the efficacy and basis for international funding of the Mekong River Commission. The MRC was formed in 1995 when the governments of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand signed an agreement governing joint management of their shared water and development of the economic potential of the river. The environmentalists' letter criticized the MRC's silence on revived plans for six dams on the lower Mekong's mainstream in Cambodia, Laos, and the Lao-Thai border. Originally drafted in 1994, these plans were later scrapped after civil-society organizations protested that the dams would be too costly and environmentally destructive. Emboldened by China's partially completed, huge cascade of dams on the mainstream to the north, and flush with new capital, however, governments in the lower Mekong are eager to explore mainstream damming options. Environmentalists argue that two of the projects would severely affect key migratory channels for fish moving from Cambodia to Laos. Attempts to mitigate blockages of these channels have included the last-minute construction of fish ladders, which have proven almost entirely ineffective. Unlike wild salmon, Mekong river fish don't jump.
The region's ecosystems have already seen disturbing impacts from damming. In 2004, water-level lows on the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake, erratic river flows, and sharp decreases in the fish catch had scientists, fishing communities, and activists questioning whether China's massive new hydroelectric dams on the mainstream to the north, in tandem with a drought, may have played a role in the waterways' bizarre fluctuations that year. While opinions vary about the impact of the Chinese dams, most analysis suggests that they adversely affect dry-season flows and prevent sediments vital to farmers from flowing downstream.
"The Mekong countries build dams and sell power," says Richard Cronin, a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Stimson Center. "But how much money is enough to compensate for potentially destroying the basic security and basic food security of 60 million people?" This question is frequently put to the MRC, the only body specifically created to help balance economic development of the Mekong with social and environmental protections. Some environmentalists have found the MRC's responses less than satisfactory.
"The MRC is a paper tiger," says Premrudee Daoroung, director of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, the NGO that initiated the 2007 letter. The upper Mekong countries of China and Myanmar are MRC observers, not signatories, and are not required to release information about their hydropower projects -- or to consult the other countries downstream through the MRC. In addition, the MRC is an intergovernmental body with no enforcement "teeth" to thoroughly vet proposed projects, Daoroung says.
Observers elsewhere argue that the MRC and other hydropower stakeholders can evolve toward a more sustainable development policy. Javed Mir, an ADB natural resources specialist, says, "Most of these countries were at each others' throats. To have an agreement in 1995 ... that we are interdependent and communicate with each other is a significant achievement." The ADB, WWF, and World Bank are now working with national governments and private-sector actors to draft environmental "considerations" that can be applied early on in the project consideration process. M-Power has launched large public forums including stakeholders from each sphere to encourage open dialogue on river development.
Despite these commendable efforts, environmentalists recognize the huge challenge that lies ahead of them -- addressing not only the hydropower issue but the political and economic systems that have made the development decision-making process such a closed one. "We are fighting against the tide, I know," says the WWF's Marc Goichot. "Projects are happening very fast, and this is a long process."
Lest future revelers at Bon Om Touk find themselves with less to celebrate, one can only hope that the Mekong Basin's multiple planners will somehow agree to respect the broad principles of ecosystem management -- and keep the miracle alive.