The intricate politics of water

JINGHONG DAM

Rivers are commonly referred to as the lifeblood of nations. Rivers provide water but also sustain plant and animal life both on the banks and beneath the surface. Fish travel up rivers to spawn. Rivers feed the ground-water supply and help farmers keep an equilibrium between wet seasons and dry.

But who controls the river? What rights do various nations have when the river flows through their territory? One only has to look at the fate of the Colorado river in North America to see the downstream impact of up-stream actions. Thanks to the water consumption of California, the mighty Colorado no longer even makes it to Mexico where it flowed for thousands of years.

What if China did the same to the Mekong that flows through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam?  Pictured above is the awesome Jinghong dam in China, built to generate much needed electricity. But this dam can effectively turn-off the Mekong tap, and limit the river flow – affecting water supply and fishing.

China is not alone here. Since 2006 some 11 dam sites have been nominated for hydro dam construction in Thailand, in Cambodia and – with 7 slated projects – in Laos. Everybody wants a slice of the resource.

In attempt to co-ordinate management of the Mekong resource, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand governments formed the Mekong River Commission with which Myanmar and China also confer. The MRC was formed in 1995, but this last year has faced serious internal problems through lack of funding and very divisive disagreements between the member nations. In particular, the dam projects planned by Laos threaten to seriously impact the fishing on the river – estimated by the MRC to be an annual 4.4 million tonne catch worth almost $17 billion. That represents around one eighth of the value of the world’s total freshwater fish catch.

Make no mistake, as China flexes its economic muscle in the region, downstream nations namely Cambodia and Vietnam have a lot to lose.  Decreased flows from the Mekong have already led to increasing salination – from salty sea water – of delta flats in Vietnam, rendering farms and local freshwater fisheries unsustainable.

This year, in the face of the SE Asian drought experienced by the Mekong nations, China scored a diplomatic coup by announcing to the MRC that the Jinghong dam would release a substantial flow of water to alleviate the drought situation downstream for one month to mid-April 2016.

It was a generous gesture, but it was also a reminder that what can be turned on can equally be turned off.  The Mekong River, more than ever before, is up for grabs.

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Could Cambodia get an earthquake?

The Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology issued a statement Wednesday saying that Cambodia does not have natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunami.  The statement came out after there are reports about an earthquake in Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham province.

People in buildings around Phnom Penh and in Kampong Cham province claimed they had experienced what they believed to be a mild earthquake.

Secretary of State Ngor Pin said what people had experienced was not an earthquake. Although he could not say what caused the tremor, Ngor Pin said the ministry is investigating it.

So its official: Cambodia has no earthquakes or Tsunamis.

But not so fast. Recently a hydro dam project on the Sesan River situated on a site in Stung Treng province was delayed following the discovery that the site was virtually the epicenter of a 5.2 magnitude quake in 1978.  This was revealed by a local impact study which concluded that a similar ‘eruption’ could happen again. This view was promulgated by the 3S Rivers Protection Network, an environmental group who have lobbied, unsuccessfully against the widely unpopular dam.

“It is quite a concern,” they said. “If it erupts, the dam will collapse, which would be destructive for people downstream.”

The dam, a joint venture between Cambodia’s Royal Group and a Chinese company, with a total investment of $861 million, was recommended to have additional strengthening.

A 5.2 magnitude quake is not so catastrophic in scale compared to the big quakes that hit international headlines (usually these are 6.0 – 7.5 on the Richter Scale) but would be strong enough, given Cambodia’s jello-like land structure to cause very serious damage.

I also found reference to a major quake in the 15th Century when a quake that lasted for several minutes was recorded.

Meanwhile the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have published a risk assessment which suggests Cambodia has at least a 20% chance of experiencing at-least a Degree VI earthquake event within the next 50 years. They have used, I believe, the European “macro-seismic scale” and here a Category VI equals:

Felt by everyone indoors and by many to most outdoors. Many people in buildings are frightened and run outdoors. Objects on walls fall. Slight damage to buildings; for example, fine cracks in plaster and small pieces of plaster fall.

An unlikely outcome – how praCh Ly’s Khmer rap music opened up and healed old war wounds

praCh Ly didn’t know it, but his limited release rap CD was going to Number 1 in Cambodia, and was bridging two generations.

Rap music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In the early 90s the gangsta rap sound from the meaner suburbs of Los Angeles assaulted the radio waves and split black culture down the middle with old-school R&B on one side, with a younger edgier generation on the other.

For any teenager growing up in LA it would have been impossible to ignore artists such as Run DMC, NWA, Ice Cube – and if the epicentre of rap music was the suburb of Compton, then in neighbouring Long Beach, home of several hundred thousand Cambodians in the USA, rap music provided an outlet for a generation of young migrants who had grown up with a feeling of displacement that came from being war refugees in a fairly unsympathetic foreign land.

praCh is the seventh child of a refugee family. He was born in 1979 near Battambang, and his family came to United States to escape the Khmer Rouge. His family was quite typical in that the adults seldom talked about their experiences of war: the focus was on the new life, though the new life was extremely tough. Out in the streets, the conversations of young people seem to be mostly about gangs, guns and drugs. praCh Ly loved rap music, but he found his lyrical home when one of his older brothers started telling him stories about the Khmer Rouge and about the family’s desperate escape to a refugee camp. Soon he was recording samples of music, using a karaoke machine, and throwing over these beats his hard-hitting lyrics. His album, Dalama, pieced together a song by song his own life story.

This was in the year 2000, and praCh manned booth at the New Year celebrations held by the Khmer community of Long Beach each year. There was to be live music at the event, but he was told that his music was too aggressive, that he was not able to perform. But an artist is an artist – and displaying a precocious confidence – praCh got up on stage before the main acts which were due to play, and he introduced himself. He told the audience that he was going to do a rap piece, once in Khmer, and once in English – and that if they didn’t like it – then they were welcome to boo him off the stage.

He performed his piece called welcome, first in English – just him and the microphone with no beats or accompaniment – and the younger members of the audience loved it. When he then performed it in Khmer he got a standing ovation from old and young. “Do another one,” they yelled. This was his breakthrough.

His CD sold locally in modest numbers, but unbeknownst to him, a Cambodian DJ took a copy back to the Phnom Penh, and played tracks on the radio. They got a huge reaction – partly from the government who wanted to ban these tracks, but after it was argued that the subject of the rap music was history and not the present government, the authorities relented, and the fan reaction was so strong that pirated copies of Dalama sold in huge numbers; making praCh the first Cambodian rap star.

This got him big publicity with mentions in Newsweek and other mainstream media, and it took praCh into circles he never expected. In 2002 he was shoulder tapped to become chief organiser of the Khmer New Year’s festival in Long Beach – a role that put him right into the middle of his own community. In the past 12 years he has continued to be published as a rap musician and as a poet – and he has been in big demand on the speaking circuit, lecturing on human rights.

Rap music may not be your cup of tea – but what is interesting about praCh is that he uses an in-your-face medium to tell honest stories, and expose the history faced by so many families who lived through the 1970s. He was quite surprised at how his music has served to open up conversations with families – with the younger generation, informed by his music, beginning to ask their parents about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. This has been a healing process.

praCh is now probably regarded as the elder statesman of Khmer rap – and there are now several other names of Cambodian rap and hip hop artists both from Long Beach and from the homeland of Cambodia. It is a lively, dynamic genre. In 2004 he went on a 23 States tour across the United States and was a subject for Japan’s documentary film, which won NHK’s Best Documentary of the Year (2004).

He has also become active scoring movie soundtracks including the Khmer baseball documentary ‘Rice Field of Dreams’ (2010) and creating original music for the excellent Sundance Award Winning and *Oscar short-listed movie ‘Enemies of the People’ (2010).

Among his recent activities has been the founding and organising of the Cambodia Town Film Festival which ensures an outlet for Cambodia’s burgeoning film industry. He has been described as Khmer-America’s most influential citizen.

44 years since the Kent State Massacre – how many more?

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John Filo’s photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard. The protest was over the bombing of Cambodia.

By 1970 public sentiment in the USA toward their war in Vietnam had turned almost decisively. In late 1969 the spotlight had fallen on the My Lai massacre in which a village of innocent people were murdered by out-of-control US soldiers. There was no moral defense for this. The war was increasingly unjustifiable – except to the so-called political Hawks who saw Vietnam as the place where the communist dominoes would be stopped from falling (into Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia.)  Now on April 30th 1970 President Richard Nixon announced to America that, in fact, he was extending military action into Cambodia.

In fact the US had already been actively bombing the eastern parts of Cambodia, adjacent to Vietnam. This was Nixon’s “secret war” urged on by Henry Kissinger (three years later recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize.)

The announcement on April 30th spurred a planned demonstration by peace protestors across dozen of university campuses including Kent State University in Ohio. Here on May 4th 1970 the protestors were met by the National Guard who, under specific orders, aimed and fired their rifles at incredulous protestors. (Witnesses thought surely they were using blanks.)

Four students were killed.

The photo (above) was taken by a passer-by and widely published. Of all media images this is the one that took the horror of the Indo-China conflict right onto America’s own doorstep. Days later, fuelled by singer Neil Young’s anger over the event, Crosby Stills Nash & Young released the single Ohio which to me, even 44 years later distils the feelings I have toward wars in general.

Alas, the photo has echoes today, not in the USA so much as in the Freedom Park of Phnom Penh where Hun Sen’s soldiers have killed protestors seeking fair elections and living wages. A common element when I look at the photos of both events is that the soldiers are masked. The Ohio National Guard soldiers were wearing gas masks – their use of teargas was not successful because the breeze dispersed this – while the Cambodian riot police wear motorbike helmets.

I wonder if this is for physical protection or whether it reflects the shamefulness of meeting a peaceful protest with unnecessary brute force.

GARMENT WORKER

Source VoA News. A garment worker protesting low wages meets police force in Phnom Penh.

I weep for Savong’s older brother – Savet.

I weep for Savong's older brother - Savet.

In 2009 when I took this photo I was captivated more by the picturesque quality of what I saw than by the true human story. The man in the picture – his blue shirt contrasting gloriously with the fluffy delicious white rice he is cooking for the children at SOC – is no longer alive, and his story nags me as a reminder of Cambodia’s recent history.

His name is Savet, and he was Savong’s older brother; a figure to whom Savong remains deeply attached.

In the years immediately after Pol Pot, Cambodia went through a terrible period of impoverishment, and families scratched out what living they could.

This is how bad it was: Savet left home at age seven to fend for himself. He survived on a diet that included tree bark, insects and whatever he could afford to buy from begging. Imagine making that decision as a 7-year-old.

In many respects it is understandable that Savet became emotionally rather detached from his family. As a teenager he came and went from the household, but he spent many years of his adult life living in Poipet. In is last years he came home to Siem Reap where he helped Savong at the SOC. He was the stoic father figure that many of the children looked up to.

This was not to last. In time Savet contracted cancer and after a brief and painful battle his life ended in the same home in which he had begun his life.

Savong speaks admiringly of his brother who as a youngster took Savong under his wing and taught him the skills of begging. Together when the UN troops arrived in Cambodia, the two boys would sell banana cake and it was from Savet that Savong learned his first word in English which was something like: “Misterdollar.”

When Savet was on his deathbed, hooked up to a drip, he chastised Savong for not being by his bedside often enough. “In Cambodia,” Savong explained to me, “when you are on your deathbed then you have the right to insist that others gather around.”

Savong felt the sting of the rebuke, but what could he do? He was so busy running the school and the children’s home out in Bakong and he was unable to be in two places at once.

Savet’s death marked a change in Savong. I noticed almost immediately that my friend was much more serious in life, and that the grand adventure he was on – a young man who has started a school! – had now become a mission.

Perhaps Savong does everything in the name of his brother these days. I wouldn’t blame him. Savet was a victim of everything that went wrong in Cambodia in the 1970s and 80s, and ultimately he gave the last days of his life, as we see in the photo, preparing food and serving the needs of a younger hopefully luckier generation.

A recent story of a girl with an awful decision.

Savong and the Mystical Python

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Savong and his father, 2009. A family story that needs telling.

Over the years I have found that Savong very rarely talks about himself. What I know of him has come through in little snatches of conversation, and in things I have observed. I am a researcher by profession, and normally I ask a lot of questions. But when I’m with Savong, I tend to see little walls put up around himself, and out of politeness seldom venture into the territory of his own life.

One aspect of Savong’s life that I find fascinating is his relationship with his father.

Savong’s father was around 25 years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and as a young man he was recruited as a cook for the local soldiers. after the war Savong’s father and a good friend gathered bones from the local killing fields based halfway between Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, and he donated family land in order to build Wat Thmei,  otherwise known as the Killing Fields Pagoda, where Savong was educated. Savong’s father was a Buddhist monk, but these days he serves as a adviser on things spiritual as well as practical, and he also serves as a fortune teller for locals.  In these regards he is highly esteemed.

Fortune-telling?  For Westerners this seems like a dubious title.  Honestly,  how can one tell the future? In fact a lot of the advisory work he carries out is based not so much on reading the future as on reading the body language of his clients. He once told me that an important part of this work was to observe how is clients sit, how they stand, and how they walk. “You can tell a lot about a person from just watching these things,” he explained to me.

However here is a true story that makes me think that us Westerners may be missing a dimension in our lives that Cambodian Buddhists take for granted.

The year is 2006, and at that stage Savong’s School had just been built, and consisted of three classrooms in the middle of a rural field. Sharing the field was a small thatch hut in which Savong lived. One day, (it was early morning, before dawn,) Savong was woken from a sleep by a phone call from his father.

“Savong,” his dad told him, “get out of bed very slowly.”

“What is it?” asked Savong.

“Under your bed,” explained his father, “there is something very dangerous.”

So Savong very carefully rose from his bed and then, using the little torchlight of his phone, peered underneath the simple wooden bed. There, curled up and asleep, was a python.”

“It was this long,”  Savong told me, stretching his arms out wide. ” It was at least 2 m long.”

I have wondered since then how Savong’s father knew that there was danger under Savong’s bed. What little voice had prompted him to make that call early in the morning before dawn?

See also: Ghosts in the Cambodian Schoolyard