Traveling up the Mekong and 3S Rivers in Cambodia

Mansfield Center colleagues; I am in Banlung, Ratanakiri Province, at the office of Bunthann Phou, my YSEALI counterpart in NE Cambodia. Bunthann works for 3SPN, a river protection NGO. He has been guiding me up the Mekong from Phnom Penh since Monday, so we are six days in. We started with some excellent meetings with the Cambodian NGO Forum, a network of 95 NGOs which lobbies the National Government for equitable economic development policies particularly those which benefit the poor and ethnic groups. They have an Environmental Policy Program, and hydropower development impacts is a major topic.

In fact,hydropower development on the Mekong and its tributaries is a huge issue of national importance today in Cambodia. The NGO Forum has formed a group called River Coalition of Cambodia with 57 member organizations to work on this issue—3SPN is part of that Coalition. Their scope is national, very ambitious. They have cultivated good relationships with the national government ministries (Environment, Agriculture, Mining and Energy, etc.). We discussed their strategies and I shared some strategic lessons from US experience, particularly the Columbia River basin and Clark Fork river in Montana. Since hydropower development is a new phenomena in Cambodia, I shared about community, State and tribal perspectives on the 100 years or so of hydropower history in Montana (e.g. Milltown Dam) and the greater basin (e.g. BPA and Northwest Power Conservation Council experience on the Columbia). In particular we discussed how advocacy, mitigation/compensation of affected communities, and restoration/recuperation have evolved in USA, with an emphasis on how long it takes to develop effective strategies.

The next day Germaine White of CSKT and I met, with our counterparts, with representatives from the US Embassy. We discussed several interesting current USAID funded projects (Stimson Center “Letters” on Mekong hydropower, and fisheries research led by University of Nevada), and also learned about a YSEALI Alumni Grant program in Cambodia–Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund. Proposals are coming up due on March 30–it requires 3 Alumni working together, so we hope YSEALI alums in Cambodia can take advantage of this grant! That afternoon I was able to make a presentation on Clark Fork river restoration–‘finding balance between industry and conservation,” to a group of undergraduate environment students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

On Tuesday we traveled up the Mekong to Kratie, and met on Wednesday with World Wildlife Fund Landscape Manager for the Mekong Flooded Forest, and its three protected areas: 1) Dolphin Conservation Area, 2) Fisheries Biodiversity Area and 3) RAMSAR wetlands in Stung Treng. The WWF team is working to engage local government leaders and communities around the importance of preserving the vast aquatic ecosystem of the central Mekong, which is still undammed from the Lao border for hundreds of miles through Cambodia to the mouth of the river in Vietnam. This area is home to nearly 800 species of freshwater fish, more than 10 times the number of species as all Montana! Also the middle Mekong hosts a population of 80 or so remaining Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins, which are now quite the tourist attraction–and a charismatic species symbolizing the unique character of the Mekong basin. Later that day we took a short boat trip with registered guides near Sambok to see the dolphins. The government is considering a huge hydropower dam project at Sambok, which would flood a vast area of productive agricultural land and forest land in the floodplain, as well as a large part of the protected area for dolphins and fisheries.

By Thursday we had made it upstream to Banlung, and in the morning we took off for the Sesan River, a major tributary of the Mekong. On Thursday evening we stayed in an indigenous village (Brao people) on the riverbank, where we were able to see the traditional lifestyle, and interview village elders and activists who work with 3SPN. We learned about their organizational strategies and heard about a recent grassroots victory in removing unauthorized foreign gold dredging operations that were degrading water quality in their area. I shared some of our experiences with mining damage to the watershed of the Clark Fork in Montana. We also learned about deterioration in the fisheries and other natural resources apparently related in part to large daily flow fluctuations caused by the 4 dams on the upper Sesan within Vietnam.

The next day Friday we motored down the Sesan River with a community member for about 20 kilometers, visiting several villages along the way and seeing some of the local culture, river and forest conditions, and wildlife. A few tourists are starting to use the Sesan River corridor, but access is still difficult. Luckily the dirt roads were dry this time of year, as in the rainy season access becomes extremely tough. Overall it was a special opportunity to see the grassroots work of 3SPN with indigneous river communities in the remote areas where they live.

Looking forward to the next 7 days of activities. Bunthann has created a very full schedule of meetings and activities, for which I am very grateful. Next week we will travel back across the Mekong at Stung Treng near the Lao border and go to the huge Tonle Sap lake in the west.

Cheers,,,,,,,,,,,,,Will MeDowell Clark Fork Coalition, Missoula, Montana, www.clarkfork.org

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