Vientiane, Lao PDR/Hua Hin, Thailand, 27th Nov 2009
The issues of both mainstream hydropower and freedom of navigation on the Mekong River are in the spotlight this week in Thailand as the Belgian government agrees to increase its support to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) with a US$ 10.4 million contribution over the next four years.
Improving river transport infrastructure could be a means for boosting trade and staving off economic downturn says the MRC.
“Improving the safety of navigation in the Mekong Basin is vital for the economic development of the region,” said Jeremy Bird, CEO of the MRC; the inter-government organisation that helps Mekong Basin countries manage their water resources. “It is essential that Mekong countries improve the quality of waterborne transport. By using rivers in a more efficient manner, export potential can improve and this will, in turn, help the region achieve its poverty alleviation goals.”
“The Government of Belgium has supported the MRC’s Navigation Programme since 2006, and this has been a catalyst for significant increases in trade volumes through waterborne transportation across the Mekong basin. We are most pleased to receive this additional support today,” he said at a ceremony in Hua Hin to mark the Belgian government’s contribution to the MRC programme.
The MRC says that while the river can be difficult and sometimes dangerous to navigate, river transport is more efficient than moving goods by road or rail, as well as much more environmentally friendly. For example, on average one litre of fuel can move one ton of cargo 182 km by river, compared to 71 km by rail and 21 km by road. Similarly, river freight produces on average about one fifth of the greenhouse gas CO2 per ton per km that is produced by trucking goods on the road.
US$ 6 million of the Belgian funding will be earmarked for the further improvement of properly marked navigation channels in priority stretches of the river, which the MRC says will help make Mekong travel less precarious. In the long-term, this will make the use of the river more efficient and help to boost trade in the region and to further increase the total tonnage being transported by river.
Meanwhile, the remaining US$ 4.4 million of the funding will go towards helping Mekong Countries assess sustainable forms of hydropower that balance environment, social and economic considerations to utilize the renewable energy sources in the region. Past studies have shown that hydropower brings with it several concerns regarding the potential consequences on the environment, fisheries and people's livelihoods says the MRC.
“However, these concerns need to be balanced with the economic and poverty alleviation priorities of the region,” said Rudi Veestraeten, Belgian Ambassador to Thailand, in Hua Hin. “On top of our support to improving Mekong navigation; the Government of Belgium is pleased to offer this support to the MRC Member Countries, so that they can work together to develop coordinated and integrated impact assessments, consistent and fair mitigation measures, and hydropower development strategies and policies that take into account their impact on the ordinary people in the Mekong Basin; especially those living in poverty whose lives depend on the river for day-to-day survival.”
The US$10.4 million contribution to both the Navigation and Sustainable Hydropower Programmes of the MRC will make Belgium one of the organisation’s most significant Development Partners.
More research is being undertaken to determine how the potential for river trade can be put to optimal use in the Mekong Basin. Recent increases in regional economic development and investment opportunities, rehabilitation of the most important ports, improvement of inland waterways, an improved system of aids to navigation, and fast growth of food production, water-related tourism and foreign trade will in the near future require a considerable expansion of the transport capacity of the river.
More than 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin depend on the river system for food, transport and economic activity. Freshwater fisheries in the basin have a commercial value of US$2 billion per year, making it the world’s most valuable inland fishery. Eighty percent of the animal protein for Mekong inhabitants comes from the Mekong, with 70 percent of the commercial catch being long distance migrant species, which in the future, could be particularly vulnerable to the barrier affect of dams on the river.
The MRC is responsible for cooperation on the sustainable management of the Mekong Basin. In dealing with these challenges, it looks across all sectors including sustaining fisheries, identifying opportunities for agriculture, maintaining the freedom of navigation, flood management and preserving important ecosystems. Superimposed on these are the future effects of more extreme floods, prolonged drought and sea level rise associated with climate change. In providing its advice, the MRC aims to facilitate a broad range of dialogue among governments, the private sector and civil society on these challenges.
Photos available on request
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