|CERES No. 089 - September - October 1982 (FAO Ceres, 1982, 50 p.)|
Decades of strife and disappointment have not suppressed the hope that the mammoth project will one day revitalize the agriculture of Southeast Asia
by Tom Sharp
Unfortunately, the Mission has had to confirm the earlier indications of unusually unfavourable natural conditions for food production, especially for rice, in the 1981 monsoon season. Given the extreme vulnerability of the food production system in Kampuchea to the vagaries of its own weather patterns, and the uncontrolled surges of the great Mekong River, the Kampuchean people and - to a lesser extent - the outside agencies that have assisted them, have been denied by drought and flood the full benefit of the greater efforts so far made in 1981." - from the preface to the report of the FAO assessment mission to Kampuchea by the FAO Office for Special Relief Operations (OSRO).
The report details "exceptional" climatic and hydrological conditions: unseasonal floods in May and June (when rains have normally just begun), severe drought from June to August (normally wet) and heavy floods in August. These combined to cause:
- substantial losses in rice plant nurseries
- destruction of floating rice plantings by early and quickly rising flooding
- reduced overall land preparation due to drought in some areas and floods in others
- destruction of rice, maize and vegetable crops in the fields by excessively high floods in August, and
- lower than average yields per ha due to delays in rice transplantation."
A heavy burden for an already badly battered people.
It need not have happened. It has long been accepted that it is technically and economically feasible to harness the Mekong River. Floods and droughts, often annual occurrences in much of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Kampuchea, Thailand and Viet Nam, can be avoided. What is now known as the Interim Committee for Coordination of Investigations of the Lower Mekong Basin has spent the past 25 years trying to translate that dream into reality. So far it has achieved only mixed results.
The Mekong is the world's twelfth longest river, its eighth largest in terms of average annual discharge. It rises at a height of about 5 000 m in the northeastern rim of the great Tibetan plateau in southwestern China and discharges, after a course of more than 4 000 km, about 475 billion m3 of water a year into the South China Sea. It passes through or along the borders of China, Burma, the Lao PDR, Thailand, Kampuchea and Viet Nam. Its lower basin encompasses almost all of both the Lao PDR and Kampuchea, plus northeastern Thailand and the southern tip of Viet Nam. The basin also extends into south central Viet Nam around Kontum, Pleiku and Me Thuot.
The largely monsoonal climatic and hydrologic regimes of the lower basin result in highly variable water availability. Figure 1 shows the maximum, minimum and mean discharges of the river since 1924. River water levels commonly range over 10 m or more between dry and wet seasons, and rainfall is highly concentrated into only four to five months of the year. More than 75 percent of total average annual precipitation falls between May and September. Thus of roughly 1 700 mm of rain that falls in an average year, 1 300 mm falls in only five months. For this reason, the region experiences both droughts and floods even in normal years.
FAO statistics show that 70-75 percent of the population of the lower Mekong basin are farmers or fishermen. Some of these people are among the poorest in the world: the Lao PDR, for example, has a per caput GNP of only about US$ 100, according to World Bank estimates. Kampuchea could well be worse off, and although Thailand's per caput income was a relatively high US$ 682 in 1980, actual incomes in the near-constant drought conditions of the northeast are much lower.
One crop a year
The most direct and effective way to raise living standards within the region would be to improve agriculture. And, indeed, soils are fertile, sunshine is ample throughout the year and soil temperature is never low enough to prevent growth. The only problem is water availability. Most farmers are limited to one crop a year, usually rice. Year-round water supplies, how ever, would permit double cropping and diversification into higher-value cash crops with consequent widespread, possibly dramatic, increases in the general standard of living.
Hence the Mekong project.
The project is so huge that it is difficult to grasp. Thirteen possible dam sites have been identified on the main stream alone. The largest of these, the Pa Mong, would actually involve three dams. In the first stage alone it would irrigate about 40 000 ha and house 4 800 MW of electricity-generating capacity. Tributaries within three of the four countries (Kampuchea does not participate in the Interim Committee) could be developed to irrigate more than a million additional ha of farmland, while potential power-generating capacity is an astonishing 16 000 MW.
It has been estimated that the total area irrigated could reach 10 million ha. Hydropower-generating capacity could exceed 30 000 MW.
The project is not concerned only with irrigation and hydropower. The Committee's goal is the "comprehensive development of the water and related resources of the basin... for hydro-electric power, irrigation, flood control, drainage, navigation improvement, watershed management, water supply and related developments." Such disparate activities as fish farming, boat building and the introduction of Babassu palms as a fuel crop are encouraged. In fact, the 1982 work programme contains over 100 separate projects under six headings.
These are: (1) hydrology and meteorology - maintenance of 320 hydrological stations basinwide and continuing daily collection of data from all stations for compilation in Bangkok; (2) basin planning - ecosystem mapping and socioeconomic studies; (3) land and water resources development - six small dams under construction, pump irrigation schemes, flood control; (4) navigation improvement - port construction and fleet improvement and shipbuilding; (5) agriculture and fisheries - seed multiplication projects, fish culture, ley farming; and (6) power, industry and minerals - a prefeasibility study of integrated vegetable oil-cum-livestock processing for northeast Thailand.
Partly because the project is so large and diversified, its progress is difficult to measure. But rough rules of thumb can be developed, one of which concerns irrigated area. Three percent, or 1.8 million ha, of the basin's total 60 million ha is now believed to be irrigated, meaning that 18 percent of total potential irrigated area of 10 million ha has been achieved. Much of the 1.8 million ha, however, according to FAO statistics, was already irrigated in the early 1960s, so that actual Mekong project achievements may be more on the order of five percent of the final target.
Four percent committed
Another rough gauge can be developed from total investment estimates compared with funds committed so far. In 1970 the Committee estimated that total direct investment in the project might near US$12 billion over a 30-year period, but so far only $473 million - a tiny four percent - has been committed. Admittedly, the $12 billion includes projects that would not be sponsored by the Committee, but even so, if project development were to continue at the same pace, more than 250 years would be required for its completion!
Such computations, of course, as secretariat staffers point out, are misleading. No project of the size and scope of the Mekong scheme could possibly be implemented without repeated detailed studies based on reliable data. Quite simply, when the Mekong Committee was formed 25 years ago very few reliable data were available on the basin. Data collection was begun almost immediately and has continued uninterrupted through all of the changes in the region. The secretariat now has more than 20 years' worth of reliable climatic, hydrological and other data, which is considered the essential minimum for most projects.
But other indicators show the same slow start. A look at the maps is instructive: areas of light grey, indicating reservoirs that are either planned or under study, abound. But there are relatively few dark grey, or completed, reservoirs.
Mr. Bernt Bernander, the Interim Committee's Executive Agent, shrugs off all suggestions of delay. Forty percent of the world's population, he points out, lives in international river basins, the development of most of which is governed by their own organizations. Development programmes in most basins are delayed because owner interests "do not coincide." A boundary commission between Sweden and Finland has decided not to develop its river at all. "This commission, incidentally," he continues, "has, unlike the Mekong Committee, very strong powers. Its decisions cannot be appealed." The Snowy Mountains project in Australia, which required cooperation among several largely autonomous states, "took 40 years from identification to implementation, even within a single country."
But even Bernander admits that there has been only limited progress toward main-stream projects, whose development is the main business of the Committee. The problem here, of course, is that no main-stream development has been possible since the political changes within the region in 1975. The Mekong Committee itself did not function between 1975 and 1978, and when it did reconvene, it was without Kampuchean representation. In view of Kampuchea's absence, the remaining three countries had an informal understanding than mainstream projects would be halted until that country could rejoin. No one knows when that will be.
But even with such partial paralysis, there seems to be no doubt that the Mekong Committee will continue. Bernander says that "all of the countries involved are very anxious to maintain this forum for consultation" and that both Kampuchean regimes - the one in power, which is not recognized by the UN, and the one in exile, which is - wanted to join. "Even now," he says, "Kampuchea has a national Mekong Committee which follows what is happening in the main committee through tripartite meetings between Viet Nam, the Lao PDR and Kampuchea."
Further evidence of the basic strength of the Mekong project is that basic climatic and hydrological data, which has undoubted strategic value, continues to be transmitted daily to the Mekong Annex in Bangkok from all three participating countries. Even in the dark days of 1975, when no one really knew what was going to happen next, Lao kept selling its power from the Nam Ngum Dam to Thailand without the slightest break. From such simple links does regional cooperation grow.
But if it is business as usual despite an embargo on main-stream projects, how is it that no more than 11 tributary projects - eight in Thailand, three in Lao - have been completed? Most of them involve only one country, so regional political considerations do not intrude. There are probably two answers.
First, the Mekong Committee does not have strong powers. Its original brief was merely to coordinate investigations into development possibilities in the lower basin, leaving implementation to the countries themselves. Since then, although its charter has not changed, the Committee has become involved in implementation in many cases, often through stipulations by donor agencies and countries. This additional responsibility, however, often serves to highlight the problems. One staffer, speaking about irrigation projects, mentioned local shortcomings in the layout and provision of distribution services. Briefly, the dam is built or the pumps are supplied and transmission and lateral canals are dredged and faced. But then the local farmers, who are supposed to provide the final input of channels to their fields, often do not cooperate. This problem, by no means limited to Mekong project schemes, is common throughout the region.
The second reason is lack of finance. Countries usually decide to go ahead with Mekong projects, but then there is the problem of funding. National budgets are often insufficient, so that foreign funding is required and this can be difficult to raise. One example of this sort of problem is the Nam Pong Dam in Thailand where the irrigation system from the dam, 15 years after the dam's construction, was still reaching only 10 percent of the designed area.
Another aspect of the funding problem says Bernander, is that the World Bank, the United States and the EEC have all stopped aid to Viet Nam, and other donors are lukewarm. Soviet finance, however, says Bernander, is going into projects in the delta, but these are not listed by the secretariat. "Some of the work in the delta is going ahead, but because it is not formally justified by the USSR as Mekong project cooperation it is not included in our figures."
In contrast, the Lao PDR and Thailand appear to be doing quite well at present in terms of foreign funding by Mekong project standards. US$ 47 million was committed to the project in 1981, which is more than twice the annual average since the beginning.
Given so many variables, perhaps the best measure of the project's worth is to examine purely local changes that have been brought about by completed schemes. Thus the secretariat can point with justifiable satisfaction to greatly improved downstream dry-season flow rates in rivers on which dams have been constructed. Flows in the Chi River during the dry season prior to the construction of the Nam Pong Dam were around 10 m3 per second; now they average 60-70 m3 per second. Before the Nam Ngum Dam was built in Lao, downstream dry-season flow rates were 40-50 m3 per second; now they are around 300 m3 per second. Clearly the dams are doing their basic job of regulating flows in the rivers to permit year-round cultivation. In other spheres, the secretariat has achieved great success - measured in demand for fingerlings - at a couple of fish farms at Nong Teng and Tha Ngone in Lao, and in river transport projects in the same country. Flood control and irrigation schemes, which currently absorb up to 70 percent of available funding, are also promoting local change with 120 pumps now installed at various locations in Thailand, 37 additional units in the Lao PDR and 27 units in Viet Nam.
Important side effects
Further, all of the Mekong project schemes have important but unquantifiable side effects. How, for example, would one measure the reduction in rural-urban migration because of improved standards of living in the countryside? And while it might be comparatively simple to measure better health resulting from increased agricultural productivity, measuring the social effects, including a decline in the number of refugees in the region, might be more difficult. But it is widely accepted among United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) workers that lack of food figures in the current Kampuchean refugee situation simply because, after good harvests in 1980, many of the refugees went home because, they said, food was once more available there.
When will Kampuchea rejoin the Mekong Committee, so that repeats of the 1981 disaster can be better resisted? No one knows. But that it will rejoin, and that the Mekong will continue to be developed, is certain. As the Committee itself says in one of its recent publications: "It is hardly conceivable that so many dedicated partners (25 countries and even more international agencies) in this great enterprise could be on the wrong track. The potential of the Mekong is so great, the driving force and appeal that the project generates so compelling, the will to cooperate so evident, the rewards of harmonious economic and social development of the entire basin so vital, that the project must endure."