Changes along Mekong Challenge Planning Process

Vientiane, Lao PDR, 14th Mar 2008

Economic growth will lead to significant changes in the annual flows of rivers in the Mekong Basin, and the use of their water, complicating the task of development planning, and making it vital that decision-making processes become wider and more inclusive. That feeling was one of the major themes expressed by participants at a stakeholder forum in Vientiane, hosted by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) on March 12-13.

The forum, organised by the MRC’s Basin Development Plan Programme, gave representatives from different areas of society a chance to share their views on current planning and development scenarios in the basin, and on how events in the near future may shape resource use in coming years.

A traditional view of the Mekong is that its power has not been harnessed – that because of the lack of storage dams, a lot of water is not utilised but is left to flow into the sea unused. This means there is enormous potential for hydropower, agriculture and other activities if wet season flows can be harnessed. The conventional wisdom applied by economic planners is that the excess water that causes flooding in the rainy season can be stored to generate hydro-electricity and irrigate crops during the dry season.

However, there is increasing acknowledgement that if the natural flood pulse of the Mekong and its tributary rivers is restricted, and dry season flows increase to far above their natural levels, then the reproductive cycles of fish and traditional farming systems could be disturbed. Such a scenario could lead to environmental and food production problems, particularly among the poorest people of the region.

The meeting did not seek to produce any agreement on such issues, but rather gave a platform for decision-makers and researchers from governmental, international, non-governmental, and private organisations to share information and express views on basin development. Some participants called on the MRC to use the second phase of the Basin Development Plan to bring more groups and views into the planning process. Officials from the Member States of the MRC - Cambodia, the Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam – stressed the need to cooperate to use the rich resources of the Mekong to improve living conditions across the basin.

MRC staff pointed out that there are no magic solutions to the challenges facing decision makers in the basin. While research, monitoring and scientific modelling can provide much information on current situations, and on the possible effects of large individual projects such as storage dams, the cumulative effects of rapid development will affect rivers and the land and communities around them in ways that cannot be exactly determined. The Basin Development Plan will help meet this gap, provided that information is provided by all countries and sectors of society.

Several participants expressed their appreciation of this first chance to become involved in the planning process, and emphasised that now is the time to accelerate this involvement, at a time when decisions are taken that will affect water and water use in the Lower Mekong Basin.

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