The Mekong River's Pandora s box 

A woman fishes in the Mekong River in Laos in September 2010.

Though Zeus warned Pandora never to open the box given to her, the temptation proved too strong and Pandora forever unleashed into the world misery, suffering and sorrow.

Today, much like this mythical Greek tragedy, the decision-makers of the Mekong sub-region face a similar temptation in the form of a cascade of hydropower dams proposed for the Mekong River.

They have also received Zeus’ warning from a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report that warns of grave social and environmental consequences should the dams proceed.

In September last year, the government of Laos initiated a regional decision-making process, facilitated by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), for the proposed Xayaboury dam located in the eponymous mountainous province in northern Laos.

Over the next four months, the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will make a joint decision on whether or not to approve construction of the dam, which would be the first of 11 mainstream dams proposed for the lower stretch of the river that runs through the four countries.

The initiation of this regional decision-making process on the Xayaboury dam pre-empted by three weeks the release of the SEA report, which was commissioned by the MRC in May 2009 and was originally intended to inform future decisions on mainstream dam development.

Whilst to most it would seem common sense to consider the SEA report’s recommendations before moving to more advanced stages of decision-making, it is perhaps not surprising that the Xayaboury dam has been pushed quickly ahead by its proponents, leapfrogging the launch of the SEA report by weeks.

The SEA report concludes that construction of dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream would irreversibly undermine the ecology and economic productivity of the river and will place at risk the livelihoods and food security of millions of people who depend upon the river’s resources.

It recommends that decision-making on Mekong mainstream dams, including Xayaboury, be deferred for 10 years due to the massive risks and vast impact associated with the projects, and the need for more than 50 more critical studies to ensure that decision-makers are fully informed about these risks.

With very limited commitment to transparency and accountability in this new decision-making process, however, it seems that common sense might be in short supply, although civil society groups and the wider public have tried to make their opinions heard.

While the regional decision-making procedures over the Xayaboury dam began three months ago, the MRC only publicly released an ambiguous roadmap for its implementation late last month.

Remarkably, whilst comment is invited, the project’s documents have not been disclosed to the public, rendering the process opaque, unaccountable and increasingly lacking in credibility.

In October 2009, for example, a 23,000-signature petition calling for the Mekong River’s mainstream to remain free of dams was sent to the prime ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

More recently, in September last year, Thai community groups representing about 24,000 people in five provinces along the Mekong River submitted a petition to Thailand’s Prime Minister asking him to cancel the Xayaboury dam.

If built, the Xayaboury dam will displace over 2,100 people, at least 200,000 people would suffer a direct impact on their livelihoods through the loss of fisheries, riverbank gardens, agricultural land and forests.

The dam would also block a critical fish migration route – including for 23 fish species that travel from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake – and scientists from around the world have concluded that there is no viable mitigation technology. Up to 41 fish species would face the threat of extinction, including the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish.

The myth of Pandora’s box has long been used as a lesson in the dangers of curiosity, temptation and the weaknesses of human nature. The question is, can we heed Pandora’s lesson before it is too late?

The decision lies in the hands of the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

On first inspection it may appear that Thailand is a key decision-maker, as it plans to purchase 95 percent of the Xayaboury dam’s electricity. In addition, the project’s lead developer is Thailand’s second largest construction company, Ch. Karnchang, and four major Thai banks are considering financing the project.

However, as the Mekong River is a shared resource between all four lower Mekong countries, and joint decision-making over its sustainable and equitable sharing is embodied in the 1995 “Mekong Agreement” that mandates the MRC, in fact it is decision-makers from all four Mekong countries that will formulate the final decision on whether the project is approved or not.

As Vietnam contemplates this crucial decision, serious consideration must be given to the trans-boundary impacts the Mekong Delta may suffer as a result of the development of the Xayaboury and ten other proposed dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream.

The Mekong River is an integrated ecosystem and upstream development can have unintended – but severe – downstream consequences.

By altering the delta’s important life-cycle of water, silt and nutrients, the mainstream dams could have far-reaching implications for the delta’s rice production, fisheries, and agriculture, with implications for the local and national economy.

In a world facing a growing food and water crisis, working together to protect and share the Mekong River’s rich natural resources, rather than undermining them, should be a high priority for the region’s decision-makers.

If, like Pandora, decision-makers choose not to heed the advice of the SEA report and instead open the dam-building box, grave misfortune is certain to follow.

It is yet not too late to prevent the tragedy of these dams from being unleashed. Some boxes are meant to remain unopened.

By Ame Trandem
Ame Trandem is a campaigner with the NGO International Rivers, a partner of the Save the Mekong coalition.

Could smartphones go stupid? 

A member of the media browses through the Acer M900 smartphone.

Smartphones are rapidly becoming ubiquitous, but they risk becoming a victim of their own success, so clogging networks they are unable to do many of the smart applications that fuelled their sales.

Analysts warn that the mobile industry soon faces growing pains, with congestion choking service at peak times and locations, and operators forced to hike prices and capping or slowing data use.

In either case many popular services that have driven smartphone sales could suffer.

Mobile industry leaders recognise this threat and it will be one of the key questions they address this coming week at their annual gathering.

More than 50,000 people from over 1,300 companies are set to attend the four-day Mobile World Congress opening Monday in Barcelona, including executives from dozens of top firms.

Sales of smartphones have rocketed over the past few years — nearly 470 million of them sold in the past two years according to Gartner market research firm — and developing nifty applications for them has become a major industry in itself.

But with each smartphone generating as much as 24 times as much data traffic as a regular mobile phone the volume of network traffic has exploded, with the network firm Cisco forecasting it to grow 26-fold by 2015.

Mobile operators have been hard pressed to keep up.

"The explosion in data traffic and the strain on networks is beginning to show with service quality already suffering," Torbjoern Sandberg, chief executive of Birdstep mobile connectivity firm, said in a recent statement.

While spectacular overloading of networks such as with AT&T in the United States and 02 in Britain in December 2009 — which the carrier linked to smartphone use — is rare, users more often encounter dropped calls and slower service at rush hour or in crowded public transport.

"Bandwidth congestion will continue to be a serious problem for operators, especially in the most populated areas during peak usage times," said Merav Bahat of Flash Networks, a company which helps operators improve network performance.

"It will not render smartphones dumb, but it will frustrate users who expect a wireline-like experience on their mobile device," she added.

Congestion hits first the bandwith-hogging and most popular smartphone application — video.

Video streaming already accounts for 37 percent of mobile data traffic, according to the latest Mobile Trends Report by Allot Communication, and Cisco expects video to account for two-thirds of traffic by 2015.

But frequent interruptions would render video streaming nearly unusable at peak traffic times.

Video calls on mobiles, which may finally take off this year, would also suffer, as would voice calls on alternative services such as Skype.

E-mail and web browsing would continue to function, but at slower speeds.

Operators have already begun put smartphone users on a data diet, either limiting use or slowing data speeds after a certain volume has been reached.

"Unlimited data has already come to an end because most operators realise there isn’t sufficient capacity available in the network," said Coleago Consulting CEO Stefan Zehle.

But expensive data diets stunt the development of the market, Magnus Rehle of Greenwich Consulting noted, leaving operators with the early adopters which are heavy data users rather than a mass subscriber base with different usage patterns.

Mobile operators are also scrambling to add more capacity, but according to recent calculations by network optimization firm Tellabs, they could run themselves into the red in three years trying to build to meet forecast data growth.

"Carriers can spend themselves bankrupt well before users run out of hunger for capacity," said Tellabs chief executive Rob Pullen.

A recent report by the A.T. Kearney consulting firm calculated that at current trends mobile operators will end up 21 billion euros ($28.5 billion) short of the amount needed over the next four years to expand their networks to keep up with forecast data growth.

A number of firms such as Flash Networks and Tellabs say that the problem is not smart phones but dumb networks, and offer technology that promises to create intelligent networks that optimize the flow of data, allowing operators to do more with less.

But as the A.T. Kearney report noted, improving networks and hiking fees for consumers is unlikely to be sufficient without addressing the video streaming sites who are paying almost nothing to pump huge amounts of data across networks to consumers and have few incentives to compress data.

The consultancy concluded there are "clear structural problems in the economic model" of the fixed and mobile Internet "making it increasingly inefficient and ultimately unsustainable as traffic growth continues…"

All smoke, no fire 


Vietnam’s ban on smoking and its curbs on tobacco promotion are being observed comfortably in the breach

A man smokes tobacco in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. A public smoking ban that took effect almost one year ago has been ineffective, and tobacco companies are having a field day in Vietnam.

Nguyen Thanh Binh, a journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City, says with sense of irony that he is virtually unaware of any smoking ban.

“When the ban came into force a year ago, everyone kept talking about it. But since then we’ve seen no enforcement or sanction, so what’s the point of observing it?” said the 25-year-old scribe who smokes 15 cigarettes per day on average.

A Vietnamese government decree effective January 1 this year prohibits smoking indoors in public places. But little headway has been made since.

“We have to admit that enforcement and compliance are [still] poor,” said Pham Hoang Anh, Vietnam director of HealthBridge Canada, an international NGO which seeks to work with partners worldwide to improve health and health equity through research, policy and action.

“[It is] due to the weak level of sanctions, unclear enforcement mechanisms, low public awareness of the regulation and of the hazards of secondhand smoke, and high social acceptability of smoking.”

Expats are none the wiser about the ban.

“Australia banned smoking in bars while I was living in Vietnam. Moving back home and having to leave your drink with a security guard was very strange but it did inspire a kind of camaraderie amongst the smokers,” said an Aussie expat in Hanoi who declined to be named.

“Here [in Vietnam] that’s less necessary as most expats already know each other. I’ve never seen the smoking ban enforced. No one even knows there is one.”

The Global Adult Tobacco Survey 2010, the international standard for systematically monitoring adult tobacco use and tracking key tobacco control indicators, shows that currently around 15.3 million people actively smoke in Vietnam and an estimated 46.8 million are exposed to secondhand smoke.

“[These facts] provide strong evidence that the tobacco epidemic continues throughout the country,” said Jorge Alday, a spokesperson for New York-based NGO World Lung Foundation.

Smoking caused around 40,000 deaths in Vietnam in 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates. This figure could surge to 70,000 by the end of 2030 if drastic measures are not taken, the UN agency warns.

Internationally, second-hand tobacco smoke kills upward of 600,000 people every year, nearly a third of them children, according to the first-ever global assessment published last month in the British medical journal The Lancet.

Big brother

It is not just the ban that has been ineffective.

Anti-tobacco groups have criticized tobacco companies for capitalizing on legal loopholes in Vietnamese laws to launch aggressive marketing campaigns to promote the habit and the product.

Vietnam ratified in 2005 the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, an international treaty which requires countries to restrict tobacco publicity. Vietnamese laws also ban direct and indirect advertising, sponsorship and promotions, even at sales outlets.

Under the regulations, cigarette companies are not supposed to display more than one pack of a cigarette brand at any sales point. But companies and retailers have circumvented this rule by displaying different varieties of the same brand like menthol, lights or regular, anti-tobacco groups say.

They add that this strategy will lead to brands creating a variety of flavors or types so that, as in Vietnam, certain brands can dominate a large section of the display, while using just one pack of each kind.

As for indirect promotions, Alday of the World Lung Foundation says, “In Vietnam as in many other places, direct advertising has been replaced by more subtle promotional techniques such as corporate social responsibility projects. Examples include funding education or youth projects across the country or even providing disaster relief.”

Anh of HealthBridge Canada adds, “The aim of these activities is to manipulate the public’s attitude toward their reputation and send the message that they are looking out for the public’s best interest.”

Vietnam’s amended Trade Law 2005 bans all forms of sponsorship by tobacco companies. But the law stopped short of completely prohibiting sponsorship of philanthropic activities.

So far this year, British American Tobacco–Vinataba (BATVJ), a joint venture between the London-based British American Tobacco company and the Vietnam National Tobacco Corporation, has been in the news for providing five Vietnamese provinces with 22.5 million seedlings totaling VND1 billion ($51,300). BATVJ is also being investigated for cooking its books between 2006 and 2008, police in the southern province of Dong Nai, where the joint venture is based, said in October.

The Vietnam National Tobacco Corporation (Vinataba) had also, through media channels, announced pledges of VND5 billion to support poverty alleviation efforts in Bac Ai District in the south-central province of Ninh Thuan.

But the Bac Ai District government said in a recent report that they had received nothing from Vinataba and asked the state-owned tobacco giant to honor its “corporate social responsibility.”

Anti-tobacco groups have urged Vietnamese legislators to clearly define advertisement to prevent any circumventing ploys by the tobacco industry.

The government has been drafting a comprehensive tobacco control law since 2008 but the bill is set to be submitted to the National Assembly, Vietnam’s legislature, for reviewing and passing early next year.

“There are plenty of gaps that can be filled in this issue… Vietnam should follow the WHO guidelines on the protection of public health policies from commercial and other vested interests belonging to tobacco industry,” said Anh.

Vietnam plans to impose heavy environment taxes on tobacco from 2012 onwards. Currently, cigarettes are taxed at 32 percent. With a tax increase of 20 percent, retail prices would increase by about 10 percent and government tax revenues will go up by VND1.9 trillion, the WHO estimates.

“The tobacco epidemic has had severe health and economic consequences for individuals and the society,” said Nguyen Thi Xuyen, deputy minister of Health. “To protect Vietnamese from tobacco use’s related burdens, the Ministry of Health has strongly supported policies for implementing the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.”

‘What will be, will be’

Journalist Binh said he is not afraid of any health consequences of tobacco. This gung ho attitude towards smoking impacts worries anti-tobacco groups the most. They say that as long as there is little awareness of the health dangers, smoking will remain socially acceptable.

According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey 2010, 47.4 percent of Vietnamese men currently smoke. At a conference in HCMC last week, the Tumor Hospital filed a report pointing out that the southern economic hub records around 6,000 new cancer cases every year. So far this year, the hospital has admitted over 14,000 cancer patients compared with 13,200 last year. Lung and liver cancer accounted for the highest percentage among the male patients, the hospital report said.

But Binh said he saw no reason to worry. “What will be, will be. I have been smoking in all the places that I used to smoke.

“The ‘ban’ here is [almost] nothing. As far as I can see, changes are too subtle to be noticed.”

Hanoi claims it came in under-budget on anniversary party 


Hanoi spent VND265.928 billion (US$13.64 million) on its millennial anniversary, Hoang Manh Hien, vice chairman of Hanoi’s People’s Committee, said at a meeting on Wednesday, December 8.

The sum is far below some of the astronomical projections that have surfaced in recent weeks. If the figure is indeed accurate then the city managed to pull the event off well under-budget.

The money was spent on PR, cultural activities, and gifts among other things, according to Hien.

The city appears to have cut impractical and unreasonable addendums from the event budget, he told a meeting of the Hanoi People’s Council, the municipal legislature.

According to Hien, the Council had approved VND350 billion ($17.95 million) for the event.

City authorities recently called for a public report on expenditures for the week-long October festival after local media outlets reported rumors that the celebration cost VND4-5 trillion (US$205-257 million).

Last month, one lawmaker filed a note to the Finance Ministry asking officials there to address rumors that the festival organizers had blown VND94trillion ($4.82 billion), or on tenth of the country’s gross domestic product.

Municipal authorities roundly denied the allegations.

Still, even after the first official expenditure report, suspicion lingers among some city deputies.

Deputy Vu Duc Tan said the report is incomplete, considering that funding for the event came from more places than just the municipal budget.

Tan added that the report omitted several costly development projects that were supposed to conclude in time for the anniversary – like the 30 kilometer Thang Long Boulevard and Hoa Binh Park.

In the meantime, Nguyen Van Nam, Chief of the People’s Council’s Budget Committee, said the deputies will have to wait until all the expenditures have been settled on the balance sheet.

During the same meeting, several development-weary deputies criticized a proposal calling for high-rise construction along the city’s 40-kilometer riverfront.

Deputy Nguyen Viet Hung said the project, which was estimated to cost $7 billion, would pave  the city center with a high density of buildings.

Hanoi, he fears, could make the same mistake Seoul did when they developed the banks of the Han River. Hung said the plan would prove “a misery” that would sap the city of its “ancient and romantic” beauty.

Councilman and architect Tran Trong Hanh agreed.

Hanh argued that the project has already been criticized by many deputies and would transform the serene waterfront into a cold rampart. Hanh was equally concerned by a proposed adjustment to several sections of the river’s dyke which is almost 1,000 years old.

Climate change wreaks havoc on shrimp, salt harvests 


Salt farmers working in a field in the central coastal region. Scientists say that today’s severe and unpredictable storms have significantly impeded traditional salt harvests.

A close-up look at losses and damages to shrimp and salt farmers in Ha Tinh and Ca Mau provinces aims to persuade international donors for a national program in response to climate change.

Unpredictable storms have been murder on Tran Van Tinh’s shrimp crop, literally.

“In the last five years, shrimp yields have become about 30 percent lower. In 2007, storms came very late, so most of the shrimp in my pond died, even though it was almost harvest time,” said the 28-year-old farmer of Thach Bang Commune in Ha Tinh Province’s Loc Ha District said.

Salt farming [a traditional practice of pumping seawater into enclosed fields for natural evaporation] has also been hit hard by changing weather patterns.

Le Thi Van, a salt farmer in Loc Ha, said floods have shortened the harvest season from around seven months to around four over the past five years.

She’s spent a lot of money trying to upgrade her salt fields.

“My family usually repairs and refurbishes the field once every two to three years,” she told researchers. “Recently, we’ve had to do it every year due to rapid degradation. This year we spent VND2 million (US$103) on upgrades alone.”

Tinh and Van are among farmers in the coastal region whose livelihoods have been affected by the climate change. Vietnam, which has more than 3,000 kilometers of coastline, is expected to suffer some of the most severe and immediate economic consequences of those changes.

Last week ActionAid Vietnam— the local chapter of a South Africa-based non-governmental organization— released a report on the toll shifting weather patterns are taking on poor Vietnamese communities.

The researchers focused on farmers in Ca Mau Province in the Mekong Delta and the north-central province of Ha Tinh.

The study, entitled “Losses and Damages: Research on climate impacts on poor communities in Vietnam and their responses,” was co-authored by the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies at the Vietnam National University-Hanoi.

No farmer interviewed in the report could explain why excessive and unseasonable rains caused heavy damage to shrimp farming.

The researchers, however, say that the farming is a delicate balance. According to the report, shrimp thrive in brackish waters – with salinity levels between 12 percent to 25 percent. Too much or too little fresh water can throw these ratios off, leading to shock, slow growth or death, the researchers said.

 Many respondents also complained that unusually severe storms had burst pond banks killing whole crops. Researchers found that rising sea levels have lead to disastrous saltwater intrusion in ponds near coastal regions.

Farmers in Ca Mau Province’s Lam Hai Commune have been very worried about rains in the last few years. “In 2009, for example, rains were heavier and lasted longer than usual, leading to a decline in output and a two-third drop in their income,” according to the study.

In troubled waters

Truong Quoc Can, food rights coordinator for ActionAid Vietnam, said that in Ha Tinh’s Loc Ha District heavy and irregular storms cut into salt and crop yields.

“Losses and damages to salt-producing households in Loc Ha have forced many people, especially women, to abandon their salt fields and migrate to other places in search of work,” he told Thanh Nien Weekly via email. “Climate change has serious consequences for disadvantaged groups, including the elderly, women, children and poor households because they don’t have the financial and working capacity to recover and reinvest.”

According to the study, Vietnam’s average temperature, rainfall and sea levels have all risen over the course of the past five decades.

The average temperature in Vietnam rose about 0.5 to 0.7 degrees Celsius, and the sea level has risen about 20 centimeters during 1958-2007, the researchers found.

Climate change has increased the severity of seasonal typhoons, floods and droughts, the team said.

The report authors expressed concern that a rise in sea level will significantly affect the low-lying Mekong Delta in general and Ca Mau in particular, which could be almost completely inundated with seawater during certain parts of the year. According to the report’s authors, Ca Mau Province has one of the longest coastlines in the country.

The report cited Ca Mau’s Office of Flood Prevention and Mitigation as saying that the province is addled by dozens of serious erosion points and that “people and property could slip into the sea or river at any time.”

According to the World Bank, a one-meter rise in the sea level would affect ten percent of Vietnam’s population, while a rise of three meters would affect 25 percent of its population as well as 12 percent of its land area and 17 percent of its agriculture, mostly in the Mekong and Red River deltas.

Who’s responsible?

ActionAid’s Can said the study aims to move the issue of compensation for losses and damages for climate-affected communities to the political fore.

“On an international level, ActionAid believes that countries with developed industry, who cause pollution, are responsible for offering financial support to developing countries – victims of climate change – to help them cope with the issue,” he said. “On a national level, the [Vietnamese] government is responsible for applying related policies and programs.”

He added that the organization hopes to produce a case study on the issue and develop a series of adaptive strategies for affected states.

He acknowledged the recent actions that local authorities have taken to cope with climate change but insisted that a more active, community-based strategy would be needed to effectively improve people’s awareness of the issue.

Can further described the majority of the adaptive measures being taken by rural residents as “passive.”

“[The current strategies] focus more on coping with natural disasters rather than actively adapting,” he said.

Effective coping methods will require a fundamental shift in the daily rhythms of affected farmers – like changing the timing of crop harvests or developing a secondary source of income, he said.

Can suggested that shrimp farmers in Ca Mau’s Nam Can District may want to consider breeding crabs and planting vegetables to prevent the possibility of total crop failure in the event of a natural disaster.

Lehman creditors seek to probe firm: report

The Lehman Brothers building is pictured in New York September 15, 2008.

Unsecured creditors of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc asked a court overseeing Lehman’s bankruptcy proceedings for permission to investigate how the firm ran out of money, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

The group said that JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N), which acted as a middleman between Lehman and other lenders, helped spark a liquidity crisis at Lehman before it filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings earlier this month, the Journal reported on its website.

The group made the allegation in a filing with the federal bankruptcy court in New York, the Journal reported.

“These assertions raised by the creditors’ panel are unfounded conjecture,” JPMorgan said in a statement released to the Journal. “We will address them at the appropriate time in bankruptcy court.”

According to the court filing, about $17 billion in Lehman cash and securities were being held at J.P. Morgan as collateral, the Journal reported. In its claim, the creditors group alleges that J.P. Morgan “withheld $17 billion in excess assets” from Lehman Brothers “in the days just prior to the bankruptcy filing,” the paper said.

The creditors say that refusing to make the assets available to Lehman might have contributed to Lehman’s cash problems, the paper said.

JPMorgan and Lehman representatives were unavailable for comment.

Source: Reuters