Careful planning can avert Mekong disaster

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 December, 2003, 12:00am

The Mekong river's giant catfish is the stuff of legend, worshipped and feared for thousands of years by many of the people living along its 5,000km stretch. Now the species, which can reach 300kg, stands a chance of becoming the first along the river to become extinct because of rapid development that is only just picking up steam.

Upriver, there are dams, water diversion and rapids-blasting projects in the relatively more developed countries of the region, China, Thailand and Vietnam. Downriver, the poorer states of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar are dealing with the fallout. This includes flash floods, dwindling fish catches and rivers that no longer heed the centuries-long logic of filling during the wet season and falling when the water runs dry.

There is no chance of holding back the development that is sweeping the Mekong river - nor is this even desirable. All of the Mekong countries could benefit through increased trade, and as the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission points out, development and transport along the river can be environmentally friendly.

The relatively recent end of decades of conflict has brought rapid, and largely unco-ordinated, development to the Mekong. This has exacerbated the worst effects, with protecting biodiversity or downriver populations given very low priority. But it is not too late to correct these mistakes - and governments in the region seem to be aware of this.

The just-closed annual meeting of the Mekong River Commission - which includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, with China and Myanmar as observers - produced new agreements on mutual co-operation and notification about using this shared resource. Meanwhile, another regional development initiative, which includes China, has been stepping up co-operation on hydropower projects and cutting trade-related red tape, as well as providing the MRC with data for use in predicting downstream flooding.

There are still mumblings about upriver countries that use or divert the waters in selfish or non-consultative ways, but existing bodies seem to be the appropriate forums for resolving the conflicts.

As for the environmental costs of bringing trade and development to the Mekong, studying and dealing with the problems need to become higher priorities now that development is going into high gear. The river is second in biodiversity only to the Congo river, but no comprehensive assessment of the impact of all this activity has been made. There are non-governmental bodies that are alert to the environmental hazards, including the Bangkok-based Foundation for Ecological Recovery. Bringing them into the planning now could help avert disaster later - for the catfish and other species.