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Cambodian Opposition Rallies for U.N. Help on Vote Inquiry



Published: September 7, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 9.20.32 PM Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 9.20.42 PM

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Thousands of supporters ofCambodia’s opposition rallied against the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday, calling for the United Nations to help lead an investigation into accusations of cheating in the July 28 national elections that the governing party says it won.

Protests by farmers and strikes by garment workers are relatively common in Cambodia, but Saturday’s demonstration by a newly unified political opposition was one of the most potent symbols of defiance against Mr. Hun Sen in recent years.

The leaders of the opposition, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, told demonstrators that they would stage additional protests until their demands were met.

“We want a leader who is full of dignity, not a leader who steals votes,” Mr. Kem Sokha, the vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, told the crowd on Saturday. “We will not stop until there is a solution.”

Analysts question how long opposition supporters will remain passionate about the issue. The three-hour protest, which was peaceful and largely confined to a public square, seemed relatively unthreatening to the 28-year-long rule of Mr. Hun Sen, who in addition to the apparent loyalty of the army and the police has a praetorian guard of thousands of soldiers. His party machinery is firmly entrenched throughout the country, its domination stretching from national institutions to village patronage networks.

But the usually demonstrative and garrulous prime minister has been relatively quiet in recent weeks, leaving analysts guessing about his next moves. The opposition says it will not attend National Assembly sessions until the election irregularities are addressed, but some members of Mr. Hun Sen’s party say they plan to form a new government with or without the opposition’s attendance.

Despite demands by the opposition to withhold official election results until the political standoff is resolved, Mr. Hun Sen’s party, the Cambodian People’s Party, is expected to be declared the victor by the National Election Committee on Sunday. Analysts say the official results are not likely to differ significantly from preliminary tallies by the committee, which showed the Cambodian People’s Party winning 3.2 million votes compared with 2.9 million for the opposition, an uncomfortably slim margin for Mr. Hun Sen, who has dominated the country’s politics for decades.

Cambodian and international election monitors have pointed to numerous, significant irregularities in the elections that have the potential to alter the outcome.

“We can’t say with confidence that these elections reflected the will of the people,” said Laura Thornton, the resident director of the Cambodia office of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, an American organization that promotes elections.

Among the biggest issues was the large number of temporary identification cards the government issued before the election. Although temporary cards are normally reserved for those who lose their ID cards, the National Election Committee has said that as many as 800,000 temporary cards were issued, or about 1 per 12 eligible voters.

Ms. Thornton said the government, despite repeated requests, had not explained why so many people needed temporary identification cards to vote. Initial data collected by her organization shows that the use of temporary cards was concentrated in areas where the governing party was in a close contest with the opposition, raising the possibility that the ID cards could have been used illegally as a tool to allow ineligible voters like minors or foreigners to vote.

On Friday, the Constitutional Council, a body that according to Cambodian law has the final say in election complaints, rejected the opposition’s claims of irregularities.

A version of this article appears in print on September 8, 2013, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Cambodian Opposition Rallies for U.N. Help on Vote Inquiry.

In an Unsettled Cambodia, Preparing to Confront the Government


Justin Mott for The International Herald Tribune

Taking to the Streets in Cambodia: Opposition leaders geared up for a protest Saturday against the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.


Published: September 5, 2013

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — He screamed, “This is so unjust!” But Yann Rith, a 25-year-old resident of Phnom Penh, did not struggle against the group of men who carried him away.

A supporter of Cambodia’s political opposition, Mr. Yann Rith was taking part this week in a practice protest, a role-playing exercise intended to show other supporters how to submit peacefully if arrested by the riot police.

“We will be nonviolent!” Mr. Yann Rith declared, as he patted down his rumpled, button-down shirt.

Cambodia’s opposition is planning to confront the country’s authoritarian government with a demonstration on Saturday to protest what it says was widespread cheating in the July 28 national election that the ruling party says it won. But in a country scarred by years of civil war and genocide, the leaders of the opposition are proceeding cautiously, doing everything they can to convince the public that the protest will be peaceful even as government security forces have begun deploying.

The planned demonstration here in the capital is scheduled to last only three hours and will remain in the public square that Cambodian law designates as a protest area. The opposition carried out two rehearsals this week with thousands of supporters listening to instructions on how to resist any provocations.

“We don’t want a revolution, we don’t want a brawl,” Kem Sokha, the vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, told supporters gathered for a rehearsal on Wednesday. “We just want justice.”

Nearly six weeks after the election, which a number of monitoring groups say was marred by widespread voting irregularities, Cambodian politics remain in a deadlock. The leader of the opposition, Sam Rainsy, early on called for a special committee to investigate the reported irregularities and decide whether new balloting or recounting was necessary. But hopes of a negotiated solution have faded as Mr. Sam Rainsy says his attempts to engage the governing party “led nowhere.” And there seems little doubt who has the upper hand.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power 28 years, has a firm grip over the army, the police, the judicial system and nearly every other institution in the country, analysts say. As a symbol of his power, the Khmer-language news media, which toe the government’s line, preface the prime minister’s name with a Cambodian honorific that roughly translates as “His Highness.”

Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent advocacy organization in Phnom Penh, said he supported the right of the opposition to protest but was skeptical it would threaten the governing party’s grip on power.

“How are you going to topple the government with a three-hour demonstration?” he said.

Mr. Sam Rainsy says he is counting on the protests to maintain the momentum and energy of the election campaign. “They will look bad when they come with their guns and water cannons to crack down on us,” he said in an interview, referring to security forces. “We will offer them flowers.”

The election in July was a political milestone for the country because the governing party, the Cambodian People’s Party, lost its near-total monopoly on power, taking 55 percent of the seats in Parliament, down from 73 percent in the previous election, according to unofficial results. Mr. Hun Sen — who with the help of the Vietnamese in 1979 drove out the murderous Khmer Rouge — appeared chastened by the result, and in the days after the election, he spoke in conciliatory terms about his relations with the opposition.

But in recent weeks, he has returned to his characteristic combative style, honed over years in which he has accumulated unrivaled power. Once official election results are announced, which is expected on Sunday, members of his party say, with or without the cooperation of the opposition, they will proceed with the opening of a new session of the National Assembly and form another government, possibly as early as next week.

The government, which is portraying the protest as an attempt to instigate riots, has deployed military units to the outskirts of the capital, and the riot police are conducting their own rehearsals.

“It’s a rebellion,” said Phay Siphan, the secretary of state in the Council of Ministers, which functions as a cabinet. “They plan to use Cambodian bloodshed as their red carpet to power.”

Mr. Phay Siphan, a member of the governing party, said there would be some “policy adjustments” in the new government and shuffling of posts inside the party.

“We are going to get rid of some of our old policy makers,” he said. “The anticorruption unit will be stronger and more active than before.”

Kem Lay, a researcher who has conducted surveys and studied social trends for government ministries as well as for the United States Agency for International Development, said Cambodian intellectuals and human rights advocates were ambivalent about their political choices.

Mr. Hun Sen’s party is resented for allowing land to be seized from farmers, for the opaque way that contracts and concessions are given to groups of businesspeople close to the party and for stifling the independence of the judiciary.

But Mr. Kem Lay said he also saw autocratic tendencies in Mr. Sam Rainsy’s leadership of the opposition — and a generalized lack of competence and experience among the candidates that the party put forward in the July election. “It would have been a big disaster if the opposition had won the election,” Mr. Kem Lay said. “They are not ready.”

Although the result of the election remains disputed, Mr. Kem Lay points to one positive outcome: he noticed that villagers and low-level government officials were speaking their minds, being more analytical and critical of government policies, a development that he describes as the maturing of the Cambodian electorate.

At the rehearsal on Wednesday, a 34-year-old woman named Mai Simorn surged into the crowd with a wad of Cambodian money in her hands. She had collected donations from workers at the garment factory where she works as a seamstress and handed them to the organizers of the protest.

Divorced from her husband, Ms. Mai Simorn earns a base salary of about $80 a month at the factory, barely enough to support her two children. Saturday is a workday, but she plans to ask for half of the day off to attend the protest.

“Our life is not easy,” she said. “We need to dare to protest.”

Grand Plans for $80-Billion Capital City Fit for a Techo



A model displays part of the Hun Sen Commercial District for the proposed Samdech Techo Hun Sen Dragon City. (Phoeung Sophoan)


A model shows the 600-meter-tall tower that is intended to house Prime Minister Hun Sen’s headquarters if the proposed Samdech Techo Hun Sen Dragon City is constructed. (Phoeung Sophoan)

If Phoeung Sophoan has his way, Phnom Penh’s days as Cambodia’s capital city are numbered.

A secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, Mr. Sophoan has big plans for a new 35,000-hectare capital city north of Phnom Penh called “Samdech Techo Hun Sen Dragon City.”

Mr. Sophoan claims the project has the nod from Prime Minister Hun Sen, and all he needs now is $80 billion to build it.

“If we study the history of any country, after you have great progress and then stability, you must have a new city,” Mr. Sophoan explained at his office on Tuesday.

He said that Dragon City would provide Mr. Hun Sen the chance to place his mark on the country like only the nation’s Angkorian kings have done.

“In the 12th century, we had Suryavaraman II who built Ang­kor Wat,” Mr. Sophoan said.

“When we go to Angkor Thom, we know this is the city of Jayavarman VII, and when we go to the Bakheng Temple, we know this is the city of Yasovarman I.”

“Now we are in the Samdech Hun Sen period—when we see this city, we will know this is the project of Samdech Hun Sen, the Dragon City,” the secretary of state said.

The mammoth city—containing hundreds of buildings and high rises designed in a sort of eclectic neo-Angkorian meets sci-fi movie style—would be strictly zoned into residential, commercial, cultural, educational and tourist segments, which would be laid out to resemble the face of a dragon.

“When you fly into Cambodia, you will see the lights like the head of a Naga, and you will know you are in Cambodia,” Mr. Sophoan explained.

With the borders of the new capital beginning just beyond Phnom Penh’s northern fringes—where the paths of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers divert—Mr. Sophoan’s city would end northwest of Udong, the last capital before King Norodom moved his court to Phnom Penh almost 150 years ago.

At the center of Dragon City, as its defining feature, will stand a 600-meter tall building, which would be the world’s second tallest if it is ever built.

At the apex of that heavens-piercing tower, Mr. Sophoan explained, will be Mr. Hun Sen’s headquarters, which the secretary of state has tentatively titled “Samdech Akeak Moha Senabakte Techor Hun Sen’s Imperial Residential.”

“[The building] will be 600 meters tall, and this one will have the headquarters for Hun Sen to control all of our country and see all of our country,” Mr. Sophoan said, illustrating the range of the prime minister’s lofty view with a map with nine blue arrows pointing outward from Dragon City to the farther reaches of the country’s borders with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Mr. Sophoan, who was educated in architecture in France and returned to Cambodia in 1989, said that he began planning Dragon City in 2010 and pushed ahead after receiving a letter that year from Mr. Hun Sen expressing his approval of the mega-project tribute city.

“At first I did not work too hard because I worried that Samdech Hun Sen did not like it,” Mr. Sophoan said. “Now Hun Sen says that he is very interested in it and told me to find investors to fund the project.”

Mr. Sophoan claimed that plans for the city are progressing, and that a prominent construction firm based in Shanghai was in negotiations to help him secure the tens of billions of dollars he needs from Chi­na’s central bank to create his vision.

Information about the Shanghai-based company could not be found online Thursday, and Lim Leang Se, deputy chief of the prime minister’s Cabinet, said Wednesday that he had never heard of Mr. Sophoan’s Hun Sen Dragon City.

Mr. Sophoan’s project is not secret though.

He appeared on an English-language news segment called “This is Cambodia” on CTN—owned by Royal Group chairman Kith Meng —in March last year, in which the presenter described Dragon City as “part of the government’s response to an ever-increasing population and the country’s fast-paced economic growth.”

In the segment, Mr. Sophoan said that if China were to support the project, it would be “an architectural and urban planning revolution” and improve Cambodia’s image internationally.

Some are skeptical.

Mr. Sophoan’s plans for the new satellite city would be incredibly hard to realize for political as well as logistical reasons, said Simon Springer, an associate professor of geography at Canada’s University of Victoria who has studied Cambodia’s development over the past decade.

“It’s likening Hun Sen to one of the Angkorian God-kings…. It’s intensively problematic,” Mr. Springer said.

“The whole plan is beyond ambitious. Even where the funding could come from remains to be seen. Presumably, it would come from China—and China has numerous developments of entire cities like this that are al­most entirely vacant,” he said.

Dragon City also would not be the first overly ambitious satellite city to fail.

About a half-dozen similar de­velopments—all much smaller in scope—have been proposed over the past decade, with none having yet been completed and many scaling back after discovering a lack of demand.

One of the most high-profile sat­ellites, the $1 billion CamKo City, broke ground in 2005 but ran into problems in 2011 amid accusations that its main South Korean investor was illicitly using deposited funds for business deals overseas.

Another satellite city—CPP Sena­tor Ly Yong Phat’s 800-hectare Garden City—broke ground in April and is set to include a convention center, a national sports stadium, two ports, a golf course and an industrial park.

Surprisingly, the land Mr. Sophoan has demarcated for Hun Sen Dragon City actually encompasses Mr. Yong Phat’s land.

Stephen Higgins, who said in 2009 when he was CEO of ANZ Royal Bank that ANZ would not loan money to people looking to purchase property in satellite cities around Phnom Penh, said Thursday that Mr. Sophoan’s project was yet another pie-in-the-sky idea for a new city.

“Hun Sen is a very intelligent guy and I can’t imagine he’d be associated with something like this,” Mr. Higgins said. “It is not feasible. It is beyond a fantasy, and I don’t think it will get past the stage of just being this fantasy in someone’s mind.”

“There’s no property development in the world that is worth $80 billion,” he added.

“To get $80 billion when the country’s GDP [gross domestic product] is $12-13 billion…the idea is laughable.”

In spite of the nay saying and doubters, Mr. Sophoan is confident Hun Sen Dragon City will be a reality one day.

“It will take just 18 years to build if I have the $80 billion.”

Learning to Bounce Back


By ANDREW ZOLLI Published: November 2, 2012

FOR decades, people who concern themselves with the world’s “wicked problems” — interconnected issues like environmental degradation, poverty, food security and climate change — have marched together under the banner of “sustainability”: the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another.

It’s an alluring and moral vision, and in a year that has brought us the single hottest month in recorded American history (July), a Midwestern drought that plunged more than half the country into a state of emergency, a heat wave across the eastern part of the country powerful enough to melt the tarmac below jetliners in Washington and the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, it would seem a pressing one, too.

Yet today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

It’s a broad-spectrum agenda that, at one end, seeks to imbue our communities, institutions and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events and, at the other, centers on bolstering people’s psychological and physiological capacity to deal with high-stress circumstances.

For example, “resilience thinking” is starting to shape how urban planners in big cities think about updating antiquated infrastructure, much of which is robust in the face of normal threats like equipment failures but — as was just demonstrated in the New York region — fragile in the face of unanticipated shocks like flooding, pandemics, terrorism or energy shortages.

Combating those kinds of disruptions isn’t just about building higher walls — it’s about accommodating the waves. For extreme weather events, that means developing the kinds of infrastructure more commonly associated with the Army: temporary bridges that can be “inflated” or positioned across rivers when tunnels flood, for example, or wireless “mesh” networks and electrical microgrids that can compensate for exploding transformers.

We’ll also need to use nature itself as a form of “soft” infrastructure. Along the Gulf Coast, civic leaders have begun to take seriously the restoration of the wetlands that serve as a vital buffer against hurricanes. A future New York may be ringed with them too, as it was centuries ago.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York hardest right where it was most recently redeveloped: Lower Manhattan, which should have been the least vulnerable part of the island. But it was rebuilt to be “sustainable,” not resilient, said Jonathan Rose, an urban planner and developer.

“After 9/11, Lower Manhattan contained the largest collection of LEED-certified, green buildings in the world,” he said, referring to a rating program for eco-friendly design. “But that was answering only part of problem. The buildings were designed to generate lower environmental impacts, but not to respond to the impacts of the environment” — for example, by having redundant power systems.

The resilience frame speaks not just to how buildings weather storms but to how people weather them, too. Here, psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists are uncovering a wide array of factors that make you more or less resilient than the person next to you: the reach of your social networks, the quality of your close relationships, your access to resources, your genes and health, your beliefs and habits of mind.

Based on these insights, these researchers have developed training regimens, rooted in contemplative practice, that are already helping first responders, emergency-room physicians and soldiers better manage periods of extreme stress and diminish the rates and severity of post-traumatic stress that can follow. Researchers at Emory University have shown that similar practices can bolster the psychological and physiological resilience of children in foster care. These tools will have to find their way into wider circulation, as we better prepare populations for the mental, and not just physical, dimensions of disruption.

There’s a third domain where resilience will be found, and that’s in big data and mobile services. Already, the United States Geological Survey is testing a system that ties its seismographs to Twitter; when the system detects an earthquake, it automatically begins scanning the social media service for posts from the affected area about fires and damages.

Similar systems have been used to scan blog postings and international news reports for the first signs of pandemics like SARS. And “hacktivists” are exploring ways to extend the power of the 311 system to help people not only better connect to government services, but also self-organize in a crisis.

In a reversal of our stereotypes about the flow of innovation, many of the most important resilience tools will come to us from developing countries, which have long had to contend with large disruptions and limited budgets. In Kenya, Kilimo Salama, an insurance program for small-hold farmers, uses wireless weather sensors to help farmers protect themselves financially against climate volatility. In India, Husk Power Systems converts agricultural waste into locally generated electricity for off-grid villages. And around the world, a service called Ushahidi empowers communities around the world to crowdsource information during a crisis using their mobile phones.

None of these is a permanent solution, and none roots out the underlying problems they address. But each helps a vulnerable community contend with the shocks that, especially at the margins of a society, can be devastating. In lieu of master plans, these approaches offer diverse tools and platforms that enable greater self-reliance, cooperation and creativity before, during and after a crisis.

As wise as this all may sound, a shift from sustainability to resilience leaves many old-school environmentalists and social activists feeling uneasy, as it smacks of adaptation, a word that is still taboo in many quarters. If we adapt to unwanted change, the reasoning goes, we give a pass to those responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place, and we lose the moral authority to pressure them to stop. Better, they argue, to mitigate the risk at the source.

In a perfect world, that’s surely true, just as it’s also true that the cheapest response to a catastrophe is to prevent it in the first place. But in this world, vulnerable people are already being affected by disruption. They need practical, if imperfect, adaptations now, if they are ever to get the just and moral future they deserve tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the sustainability movement’s politics, not to mention its marketing, have led to a popular misunderstanding: that a perfect, stasis-under-glass equilibrium is achievable. But the world doesn’t work that way: it exists in a constant disequilibrium — trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles. Indeed, it’s the failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. That’s why some of the most resilient places are, paradoxically, also the places that regularly experience modest disruptions: they carry the shared memory that things can go wrong.

“Resilience” takes this as a given and is commensurately humble. It doesn’t propose a single, fixed future. It assumes we don’t know exactly how things will unfold, that we’ll be surprised, that we’ll make mistakes along the way. It’s also open to learning from the extraordinary and widespread resilience of the natural world, including its human inhabitants, something that, counterintuitively, many proponents of sustainability have ignored.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t genuine bad guys and bad ideas at work, or that there aren’t things we should do to mitigate our risks. But we also have to acknowledge that the holy war against boogeymen hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to anytime soon. In its place, we need approaches that are both more pragmatic and more politically inclusive — rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop the ocean.

Andrew Zolli, the executive director of PopTech, is the author, with Ann Marie Healy, of “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.”

City of Water on VOA Khmer

Thank you to Sophat Soeung (សឹង សុផាត) of VOA Khmer.

Segment. Interview is in Khmer.

Full episode. Minute 4:30-10:00.

River be damned


June 14, 2013 Dave Tacon

The mighty Mekong, the lifeblood of many Asian nations, and holiday destination for an increasing number of Australians, is being heavily dammed. Can the river, and the people who depend on it, survive?

A boy stands on the banks of the Mekong River near the relocation site for a Lao village, which was moved to make way for the Xayaburi Dam. Photo: Dave Tacon

As the narrow longtail boat glides downstream from the dusty hamlet of Nong Kiew towards the golden temples of Luang Prabang, mirror images of jungle, vertical limestone cliffs and impossibly steep mountains shimmer in the waters of the Nam Ou River, a tributary of the mighty Mekong.

Endangered Asian elephants and Indochinese tigers still roam the upper reaches of the river within Phou Den Din National Protected Area, one of 20 national parks in Laos. This is the beauty that tourists, many Australians among them, come so far to see.

Yet this undeveloped region in northern Laos is about to be jolted into the industrial age. Three hours downriver from Nong Kiew, a scar of ochre-coloured dirt and rock stretches for kilometres: construction of the Nam Ou 2 Dam is steamrolling ahead.

A local worker is dwarfed by the nascent Nam Ou 2 Dam.A local worker is dwarfed by the nascent Nam Ou 2 Dam. Photo: Dave Tacon

”We started early this year and we’ll be finished in three years,” boasts a Chinese engineer dwarfed by a colossal concrete dam wall. Conversation is brought to an abrupt halt when his superior arrives. ”You have to leave,” he says. ”We don’t want pictures of this posted on Weibo [the Chinese version of Twitter].”

The 450 kilometre-long Nam Ou, one of the few Lao rivers traversable by boat for its entire length, will soon be severed seven times over by a 350-kilometre stretch of hydropower dams built and maintained by Chinese giant Sinohydro.

The Nam Ou 2 belongs to the first phase of the $1.95 billion project, which is expected to be operational by 2018. Details surrounding the project are scant. Even the final destination for the proposed 1146 megawatts of hydropower is unclear, although the Lao government claims the first three dams, Nam Ou 2, 5 and 6, will provide electricity for domestic consumption.

Details of the other dams have not been made public. Ultimately, the Phou Den Din National Protected Area will be partially inundated by the two northernmost dams, the Nam Ou 6 and 7, in violation of Sinohydro’s own environmental policy against development inside national parks. A pristine waterway and one of the last intact ecosystems in the region will change forever.

Despite concerns of environmentalists and objections by neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the tiny, landlocked nation of Laos is following China’s lead in its exploitation of the Mekong River and its tributaries.

China already has five hydropower dams operating and three more are planned for the upper reaches of the Mekong, the river that begins in the Tibetan Plateau and continues through China and five south-east Asian nations on its way to the South China Sea. Questions remain as to whether the river and those who depend on it for their livelihoods can survive.

”The government tells us that this will develop Laos,” says 65-year-old fisherman Thongsai Chanthalangsy, speaking at his village half an hour downstream from the Nam Ou 2 construction site. ”It’s not for the people,” he continues, ”the power will mostly be sold overseas. We can’t talk to the government. We have to follow what they say.”

Chanthalangsy has been advised that his home, which falls within the catchment of the planned Nam Ou 1 dam, will not be submerged, yet many other homes in his village will be.

”They will build more dams and the problems will get worse. When it’s finished there might not be enough water for our gardens and not enough fish to catch. There won’t be compensation. We’ll have to move.”

The Mekong and its tributaries are the front line of a massive development drive by Laos’ communist, one-party leadership to lift the nation from the ranks of Asia’s poorest countries.

Although hydroelectric power will bring much-needed revenue to the impoverished country, many fear that dams will cost dearly Laos, and all those for whom the Mekong is a lifeblood. In Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, more than 60 million people depend on the Mekong for food, income and transportation.

Ground zero for the Mekong is the gargantuan Xayaburi Dam, a project led by Thai construction firm Ch Karnchang. Dynamite and heavy machinery have already blasted, gouged and scraped away entire mountainsides above both banks of the swift-flowing waters about 30 kilometres from the provincial town of Xayabury.

Steep, winding, unmade roads carry a constant procession of trucks, earth movers, workers and occasionally armed soldiers to the expansive site. The $3.4 billion price tag of 810-metre-long and 32-metre-high Laos-Thai mega dam is being footed by a conglomerate of six Thai banks.

On its completion in 2019, around 95 per cent of the hydropower dam’s 1260 megawatts will be exported to Thailand. This is almost a third of the power generated by the 16 major dams of Australia’s Snowy Mountains Scheme, built over a period of 25 years to generate around 3700 megawatts.

Along with the immediate environmental impact of a project of such magnitude, hundreds of villagers have been resettled to make way for the dam.

At the new village, Natornatoryai, close to the construction site, teacher Khao Thevongsa, 28, is dissatisfied with the location, with its steep hills of barely arable land and the constant stream of traffic to the site.

She hopes that the dam may become a tourist attraction in its own right. ”We have to start from zero,” she says, ”but when the dam is finished maybe tourists will come here to see it and we can earn more money.” Almost every answer to a question begins with, ”We don’t have a choice.”

About 300 were first shifted to Natornatoryai, which is about 35 kilometres from the river. ”The old people didn’t want to move here,” says 63-year-old Khamkeo Daovong as her daughter-in-law and child play on her concrete floor. ”I was born near the river and so were my parents. Many people cried when they saw their new homes.”

Daovong complains that her house was unfinished when she moved in. The mismatched cinder-block and terracotta bricks were paid for out of her own pocket to keep out the dust and wind. Compensation in the form of rice and about $16.40 in cash per month dried up after one year instead of the promised three.

”I was given pigs and ducks to raise, but it’s very difficult to make money. I used to pan for gold, but now I just do nothing.”

According to non-government organisation International Rivers, about 25 families have already left the village to return to the river to fish, tend their river bank gardens and pan for gold.

For those who live in Laos, open opposition to the dam is unthinkable. The Lao regime has a history of ruthlessly silencing dissent.

On December 15 last year, Sombath Somphone, 62, a prominent campaigner for the environment and the rural poor, and a champion for sustainable development, was abducted from a police roadblock by two unidentified men in the nation’s capital, Vientiane.

Somphone, the 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay prize, often referred to as Asia’s Nobel prize, has not been seen or heard from since. The Laos government denies any involvement. The official explanation for his disappearance was a ”business dispute”, although the activist has no business interests.

The incident brought rare international attention to Laos, as then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, led calls for a thorough and transparent investigation into Somphone’s whereabouts and wellbeing.

International calls to the Laos government for action and information on Somphone remain unheeded. In a recent statement by New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, Asia director Brad Adams accused the Lao government of direct involvement in the activist’s disappearance.

”Lao authorities have not answered the simplest questions, such as why, if Sombath was kidnapped, did the police at the scene do nothing to protect him,” Adams said. ”The absence of any real investigation points to the government’s responsibility.”

The reasons for the activist’s disappearance are unclear. But Somphone’s abduction has worsened an already fearful climate in Laos’ environmental grassroots organisations.

Land rights and enforced disappearances aside, dams on the Mekong have serous ramifications far beyond the borders of Laos. The Xayaburi Dam is the first of 11 dams planned for the Lower Mekong River, nine of which are in Laos. Environmentalists have already blamed China’s five Mekong dams, as well as drought, for some of the lowest water levels seen on the river in 50 years. China denies it is responsible.

On top of providing crucial sediment for arable land downstream, the Mekong sustains the world’s largest inland fishery, with 877 species. According to conservation group Great Rivers Partnership, this supplies an industry worth between $3.84 billion and $6.89 billion.

Fish are a foundation of regional food security. In Cambodia, 80 per cent of the nation’s animal protein is provided by freshwater fisheries. Alarmingly, a study of the proposed 11 Lower Mekong hydropower dams by the International Centre of Environmental Management concluded that the dams would reduce fish numbers by 26 per cent to 42 per cent.

Regional famine is a worst-case scenario. Claims by the Lao government and Xayaburi dam officials that fish ladders will allow safe passage for migratory Mekong fish species have been met with great scepticism.

Organised dissent to the Xayaburi Dam has mainly come from Thailand. A flotilla of Thai fishermen and villagers who worked the Mekong travelled to Vientiane to protest during the Asia-Europe Meeting.

In April, delegates from eight Thai provinces on the Mekong were joined by protesters from Cambodia as they occupied the entrance to the headquarters of the dam’s construction company, Cr Karnchang, one of the dam’s financiers.

Although limited at present, opposition to dams on the Mekong may be about to rise rapidly as more dams are built and their impact becomes apparent. Beyond street and river protests, there are rumblings at the highest levels of government that threaten to become a diplomatic stoush.

Should the worst fears of environmentalists materialise, countries downstream from the dams stand to bear the brunt of any damage to the Mekong’s ecosystem. Although Vietnam and Cambodia have plans for their own hydropower projects, they have already objected to the Xayaburi Dam through the Mekong River Commission, of which Thailand and Laos are also members.

Both countries have argued that work on the Xayaburi Dam breaks an agreement forged in December 2010 that no dams would be built until studies on negative trans-boundary environmental impacts were completed.

Vietnam has called for a 10-year moratorium on all Mekong dams. Such concerns have been brushed aside by Lao Deputy Minister for Energy and Mines, Viraphonh Viravonghas, who claimed the extensive construction is merely ”preparatory work”.

”Laos has simply ignored the requests repeatedly made by Cambodia and Vietnam to study the trans-boundary impacts of the dam,” says Ame Trandem, south-east Asia program director at International Rivers.

”The Mekong is becoming the testing grounds for new technologies, which may prove to have disastrous effects. The entire future of the river’s ecosystem is at stake. The Xayaburi Dam is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Dave Tacon is an Australian journalist based in Shanghai.

Delivering Water From Disaster


Bryan Denton for The New York Times


Published: June 10, 2013

If one incident best highlights the perilous state of the world’s fresh waters, it’s the “pig spill” in China last March. After the slaughter and illegal dumping of a diseased herd, the authorities in Shanghai went fishing for 16,000 bloated carcasses in the Huangpu River, which flows through the city. Hardly the thing you wish to hear about if you use the Huangpu for drinking water.

On the other side of the world, Greg Lyons tends a stretch of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts as a citizen volunteer. One by one, Lyons collects some of the 8 million plastic treatment disks released by a wastewater plant that malfunctioned in March 2011. The disks, two-inch wafers caked with sewage, today serve as a reminder of how massive public waterworks designed to protect the environment can sometimes go haywire. Lyons’s catch by October 2011: 16,000 disks. The situation would have shocked 19th-century Transcendentalists who used the Merrimack to inspire a modern philosophy of humans in kinship with nature.

And then there is the Ganges, arguably the most polluted large river in the world. Each year it carries 16,000 tons of ash from cremated bodies along with a cocktail of sewage and toxic chemicals produced by a dense population and rapidly developing economy. This is no way to treat the goddess Ganga.

A panorama of our conflicted relationship with water is unfolding not only with the sensational fishing expedition for pigs or sewage disks, but with the countless decades of neglect and millions of misguided decisions we make daily regarding this essential resource. This was a chief finding of 350 water experts who recently issued the Bonn Declaration on Global Water Security.

And yet waterborne threats remain under the radar. Exposure to unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation results in 3.4 million deaths, mostly poor children, each year from diarrhea, yet this fact never makes the news. Threats also are rising in rich countries like Australia. In January, after drenching rains, residents of Brisbane were asked to restrict water use after the city’s drinking water dwindled to just a six-hour supply. This occurred after the city’s main treatment plant became clogged with sediment washing down from poorly managed land upstream. Across the United States, despite advanced pollution controls, more than 200 million people live within 10 miles of degraded fresh water. Europe is a global hotspot of aquatic biodiversity loss.

It is ironic that many of today’s water problems arise from the very solutions we administer. Proliferation of costly, so-called hard-path engineering, like centralized sewers and large dams, provide undeniable benefits, such as improved hygiene and stable water supply. But they also degrade waters with pollution, obliterate natural flow cycles and block the migration routes of fish and other aquatic life. By throwing concrete, pipes, pumps and chemicals at our water problems, to the tune of a half trillion dollars a year worldwide, we’ve hung a huge technological curtain between the clean water flowing through our faucets and the background array of problems in our rivers, lakes and groundwater. It is no surprise that the public is largely unaware of this or its growing costs.

And virtually unknown to most is the collateral damage to freshwater biodiversity arising from mismanaged watersheds and waterways. Despite overuse and contamination, freshwater ecosystems host a trove of diverse life, almost 10 percent of all known species and one-third of all vertebrates. The 20,000 aquatic species now extinct or imperiled are sending us an important message about our stewardship of fresh water.

Although water has figured prominently in the U.N. development agenda for decades, the world is at a critical juncture as the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Goals take shape over the coming 12 months. In the wings looms a hastily designed and politically motivated post-2015 development agenda. The developing world argues for autonomy in pursuing whatever water-related goals it deems necessary for growth, with a more or less singular focus on the basics of clean drinking water and sanitation. In contrast, the developed world argues for all nations to adopt a broader perspective emphasizing environmental protection, yet is retreating from financial support for the poor to help realize this outcome.

These two perspectives can be reconciled. While it is imperative that we meet the water and sanitation needs of all people, it would be wildly counterproductive if success were achieved at the expense of nature. In a financially strapped world, it is hard to imagine how preservation and sensible use of the rivers, lakes and wetlands would not be a valued component of any long-term development plan. And with the specter of climate change, the very water systems we today abuse, if better managed, could climate-proof society, for example by employing wetlands as natural shock absorbers against floods.

The price tag and environmental damage of poor stewardship and hard-path water management strategies mean that we need to design solutions that deliver basic water services while preserving freshwater ecosystems for future generations.

We are not against sensible deployment of water engineering. But by exporting to poor countries identical versions of the developed world’s model for water management, we risk locking the development agenda into a vicious cycle of capital-hungry and energy-intensive solutions, resource degradation and overuse, and an expanding reliance on costly remediation. We advocate instead a do-no-harm strategy in lieu of emergency care and endless rehabilitation of damaged water systems.

If we fail, we will still have development — but not the sustainable kind.

Charles J. Vorosmarty is professor of civil engineering at the City University of New York and director of the CUNY Environmental CrossRoads Initiative. Claudia Pahl-Wostl is  professor of resources management and director of the Institute of Environmental Systems Research, University of Osnabrück, in Germany.

Vann Molyvann Throws Weight Behind CNRP


By  – June 11, 2013

Vann Molyvann, the country’s pre-eminent architect who designed some of Phnom Penh’s most historic buildings in the post-independence period, has thrown his weight behind the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) for the July 28 national election.

Mr. Molyvann, 86, a protege of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and former Minister of Culture, said the newly established opposition party was the only hope for the future of Phnom Penh’s urban development.

“My conviction is that we cannot continue to develop Phnom Penh in the way that it has been done during the last two decades,” Mr. Molyvann said in an interview on Monday, adding that development in the city under the ruling CPP has been carried out without regulations, or proper planning and forethought.

“[E]verybody is taking land and selling it to foreigners and they are now creating huge skyscrapers without a plan,” he said, adding that projects beneficial to the city, such as the city’s new drainage system, had not actually been spearheaded by the Cambodian government, but by Japanese aid agency JICA.

“I can say that Phnom Penh has been saved by the Japanese cooperation JICA, and Angkor Wat in Siem Reap has been saved by Unesco with France and Japan,” he said.

Spokesman for the Council of Ministers Phay Siphan said he did not know why Mr. Molyvann had endorsed the opposition as he had previously worked with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

Yim Sovann, spokesman for CNRP, said he welcomed Mr. Molyvann’s support and that it proved that a wide range of people from all walks of life are turning to the opposition. “[Mr. Molyvann’s endorsement] will boost the image of the CNRP,” Mr. Sovann said.

Shifts in global water systems — markers of a new geological epoch: The Anthropocene


Contact: Terry Collins

Contact: Alma van der Veen
Global Water System Project 

Shifts in global water systems — markers of a new geological epoch: The Anthropocene

Experts in Bonn to detail how science can help people mitigate or adapt to major global human-induced water system changes

 IMAGE: This is an image of North America from the data visualization video “Water in the Anthropocene, ” to debut May 21 at….

Click here for more information. 

A suite of disquieting global phenomena have given rise to the “Anthropocene,” a term coined for a new geologic epoch characterized by humanity’s growing dominance of the Earth’s environment and a planetary transformation as profound as the last epoch-defining event — the retreat of the glaciers 11,500 years ago.

And in Bonn, Germany May 21-24, world experts will experts will focus on how to mitigate key factors contributing to extreme damage to the global water system being caused while adapting to the new reality.

“The list of human activities and their impact on the water systems of Planet Earth is long and important,” Anik Bhaduri, Executive Officer of the Global Water System Project (GWSP).

“We have altered the Earth’s climatology and chemistry, its snow cover, permafrost, sea and glacial ice extent and ocean volume—all fundamental elements of the hydrological cycle. We have accelerated major processes like erosion, applied massive quantities of nitrogen that leaks from soil to ground and surface waters and, sometimes, literally siphoned all water from rivers, emptying them for human uses before they reach the ocean. We have diverted vast amounts of freshwater to harness fossil energy, dammed major waterways, and destroyed aquatic ecosystems.”

“The idea of the Anthropocene underscores the point that human activities and their impacts have global significance for the future of all living species — ours included. Humans are changing the character of the world water system in significant ways with inadequate knowledge of the system and the consequences of changes being imposed. From a research position, human-water interactions must be viewed as a continuum and a coupled system, requiring interdisciplinary inquiry like that which has characterized the GWSP since its inception.”

Among many examples of humanity’s oversized imprint on the world, cited in a paper by James Syvitski, Chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and three fellow experts (in full:, and in a new “Water in the Anthropocene” video to debut in Bonn May 21 (available at and


  • Humanity uses an area the size of South America to grow its crops and an area the size of Africa for raising livestock
  • Due to groundwater and hydrocarbon pumping in low lying coastal areas, two-thirds of major river deltas are sinking, some of them at a rate four times faster on average than global sea level is rising
  • More rock and sediment is now moved by human activities such as shoreline in-filling, damming and mining than by the natural erosive forces of ice, wind and water combined
  • Many river floods today have links to human activities, including the Indus flood of 2010 (which killed 2,000 people), and the Bangkok flood of 2011 (815 deaths)
  • On average, humanity has built one large dam every day for the last 130 years. Tens of thousands of large dams now distort natural river flows to which ecosystems and aquatic life adapted over millennia
  • Drainage of wetlands destroys their capacity to ease floods—a free service of nature expensive to replace
  • Evaporation from poorly-managed irrigation renders many of the world’s rivers dry — no water, no life. And so, little by little, tens of thousands of species edge closer to extinction every day. 
 IMAGE: This is an image of Africa from the data visualization video “Water in the Anthropocene, ” to debut May 21 at….

Click here for more information. 

Needed: Better water system monitoring and governance

The water community stresses that concern now extends far beyond ‘classic’ drinking water and sanitation issues and includes water quality and quantity for ecosystems at all scales.

Says GWSP co-chair Claudia Pahl-Wostl: “The fact is, as world water problems worsen, we lack adequate efforts to monitor the availability, condition and use of water — a situation presenting extreme long term cost and danger.”

“Human water security is often achieved in the short term at the expense of the environment with harmful long-term implications. The problems are largely caused by governance failure and a lack of systemic thinking in both developed and developing countries. Economic development without concomitant institutional development will lead to greater water insecurity in the long-term. Global leadership is required to deal with the water challenges of the 21st century.”

“Humanity changes the way water moves around the globe like never before, causing dramatic harm,” says Bonn conference keynote speaker Joe Alcamo, Chief Scientist of the UN Environment Programme and former co-chair of the GWSP. “By diverting freshwater for agricultural, industrial and municipal use, for example, our coastal wetlands receive less and less, and often polluted, freshwater. The results include decreased inland and coastal biodiversity, increased coastal salinity and temperature, and contaminated agricultural soils and agricultural runoff.”

Adds Charles Vörösmarty, co-Chair and a founding member of the GWSP, which receives input from more hundreds of international scientists: “By throwing concrete, pipes, pumps, and chemicals at our water problems, to the tune of a half-trillion dollars a year, we’ve produced a technological curtain separating clean water flowing from our pipes and the highly-stressed natural waters that sit in the background. We treat symptoms of environmental abuse rather than underlying causes. Thus, problems continue to mount in the background, yet the public is largely unaware of this reality or its growing costs.”

Aims of the Bonn meeting

Featuring 60 special topic sessions, “Water in the Anthropocene” is a capstone event for the GWSP, which is developing “Future Water,” the water-related component of the emerging new multi-dimensional international collaborative environmental research framework, Future Earth.

A goal of the meeting is to synthesize major global water research achievements in the last decade and help assembling the scientific foundations to articulate a common vision of Earth’s water future.

It will recommended priorities for decision makers in the areas of earth system science and water resources governance and management.

And it will constitute a scientific prelude to October’s Budapest Water Summit, a major objective of which is to elevate the importance of water issues within the UN General Assembly negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals — a set of globally-agreed future objectives to succeed the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2015.

 IMAGE: This is an image of Europe from the data visualization video “Water in the Anthropocene, ” to debut May 21 at….

Click here for more information. 

Observers expect adoption of “water security” as a Sustainable Development Goal

Water expert Janos Bogardi, Senior Advisor to GWSP, says the absence of defined global water quantity and quality standards for personal use, agriculture and healthy ecosystems are critical gaps as the world community develops its next set of shared medium-term objectives.

“These definitions constitute a cardinal challenge today for scientists and politicians alike. It is important to reach consensus in order to make progress on the increasingly important notion of ‘water security’,” says Dr. Bogardi, stressing that changing terminology will not in itself solve problems. “Replacing the word ‘sustainability’ with ‘security’ is not a panacea.”

With respect to quantity, less than 20 liters daily for sanitary needs and drinking is deemed “water misery” while 40 to 80 liters is considered “comfortable.” (Current US per capita average daily consumption is over 300 liters; daily usage in urban Germany is about 120 liters per capita and in urban Hungary, where water is relatively expensive, the figure is 80 liters.)

Missing also are authoritative scientific determinations of how much water can be drawn without crossing a “tipping point” threshold into ecosystem collapse. While there is no general rule, GWSP scientists say withdrawals of 30% to 40% of a renewable freshwater resource constitutes “extreme” water stress, but underline scope to continue satisfying needs if water is returned and recycled in good quality. Mining fossil groundwater resources is by definition non-sustainable.

The GWSP is developing water quality guidelines for people, agriculture and ecosystems in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.

“The urgency of formulating the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and a tracking system for their success means that quite soon the SDG negotiators must offer-up water targets,” says Dr. Vörösmarty. “Whether they focus predominantly on continuing the Millennium Development Goals (narrowly on drinking water and sanitation for human health) or formulate a more comprehensive agenda that simultaneously optimizes water security for humans as well as for nature remains an open question. The water sciences community stands ready to take on this challenge. Are the the decision makers?”

Definitions of water security

In 2007, World Bank expert David Grey and Claudia Sadoff of IUCN, defined water security as “The availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environments and economies.”

Their use of the term “acceptable” acknowledges that water security has relative, negotiable meanings.

In March, another formulation was set out by UN-Water, the United Nations’ inter-agency coordination mechanism for all water-related issues.

It defined water security as: “The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.” (see

About the Global Water System Project (

The Global Water System Project seeks to answer the fundamental, multi-faceted question: How are humans changing the global water cycle, the associated biogeochemical cycles, and the biological components of the global water system and what are the social feedbacks arising from these changes?

GWSP Core Themes:

1. What are the magnitudes of anthropogenic and environmental changes in the global water system and what are the key mechanisms by which they are induced?

2. What are the main linkages and feedbacks within the earth system arising from changes in the global water system? How resilient and adaptable is the global water system to change, and what are sustainable water management strategies?

GWSP gratefully acknowledges support of its activities provided by the four Global Environmental Change programmes of the International Council for Science — DIVERSITAS, International Human Dimension Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) — and by national and international research funding agencies. The GWSP International Project Office received decade-long support from the Ministry of Education and Research of the Federal Republic of Germany (BMBF).

‘On Average, Humanity Has Built One Large Dam Every Day for the Last 130 Years’


Ours is a planet and a time deeply shaped by one species — us.
MAY 20 2013, 1:43 PM ET
chinadam.gifChina’s Three Gorges Dam as seen from space over the past three decades (Google/Philip Bump)

When we think about the dams that are reshaping our planet and its waterways, the projects that come to mind are the massive ones, such as the Three Gorges Dam in central China (as captured in the gif above).

This is one of the largest of *many*. According to a new report, there are now 48,000 “large” dams (15 meters or taller) around the planet, which works out to a construction rate of one new dam every single day over the last 130 years. Over email, Owen Gaffney of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme in Stockholm said that another 1,600 are currently under construction. As journalist David Biello wrote on Twitter, “You know what says Anthropocene like almost nothing else? Water.”

Ours is a planet and a time deeply shaped by one species — us. Our waterways bend and bloat to meet our needs. Our atmosphere bears the emissions wrought by our fossil-fuel habit. Even in the depths of the remotest jungles,scientists are now finding our buildings. We are, of course, not the first species to have a dramatic effect on our planet — cyanobacteria beat us to that punch more than 2 billion years ago — but we are the first to do so knowingly, and that makes a world of difference.