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MRC's 25th Anniversary: A time to look back and see what lies ahead

Vientiane, Lao PDR, 01 Apr 2020

It has been 25 years since Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – all members of the MRC – signed on 5 April 1995 the Mekong Agreement to develop and protect Southeast Asia’s mighty Mekong River. Dr An Pich Hatda, who is the MRC Secretariat CEO, spoke with Khmer Times on what the organisation has achieved and faced, and key challenges facing the Mekong River and ways forwards.

 

KT: If you can pick some of MRC’s key achievements over the last 25 years, what would they be? 

Dr Hatda: For the past 25 years, we’ve brought the four member countries together, despite their vested interests, to implement various basin-wide procedures, guidelines and strategies to develop, manage and protect the Mekong River. We’ve gained recognition as a well-established regional knowledge hub and water diplomacy platform through our services and products. 

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Government representatives from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam met in Chiang Rai of Thailand on 5 April 1995, to sign the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin. This Mekong Agreement established the MRC, whose history of cooperation dates back to 1957.

 

Specifically, we’ve put in place a common basin-wide strategy, called the Basin Development Strategy, for development and management of the Mekong River. Such a strategy captures development opportunities and lays out measures to minimise risks. With our Preliminary Design Guidance, and Sustainable Hydropower Development Strategy, we’ve offered comprehensive guidelines to advise our members on how to develop mainstream dams in line with their commitments in the 1995 Mekong Agreement. These can help avoid, minimise and mitigate harmful effects. 

Our monitoring and reporting systems on basin conditions and impact of mainstream dams have likewise been widened. We’ve grown our network of monitoring sites in hydrology, sediment, water quality, fisheries and ecological heath to provide fundamental information for study, management and protection of the River. The information has helped our members to effectively tackle flood and drought risks for vulnerable communities, too. 

We’ve also carried some of the most critical studies to aid members’ planning, investment and safeguarding the River systems. One of them, for instance, is the Study on Sustainable Management and Development of the Mekong River including Impacts of Mainstream Hydropower Projects, or the Council Study. Through its findings, we were able to advise the countries on trade-offs between water resource development and its impacts on the people, economies, and environment of the basin. 

Our water diplomacy platform is working and well recognised. We’ve provided a forum for discussion and conflict resolution that is observable in real time. In fact, without the MRC and our consultation process, there would have been a lack of procedures and guidelines to facilitate regional discussion of large-scale infrastructure impacts. There would also have been a lack of transparency of planning, publicly accessible project documents, and various forms of research made available through the MRC.

Besides, our cooperation with China has become a lot better in recent years. We’ve deepened our technical and political cooperation through data sharing, notification of water flow, technical exchanges, joint research, and policy dialogue. 

Finally, we’ve successfully reformed to become a leaner organization. We’ve been fully led and staffed by riparians. Thanks to member countries’ recognition of our value, they’ve increased their financial contributions to the organization and given us their highest political support via three successful Summits. Contributions from the countries now cover almost 40% of core funding, and by 2030 these will be full. 

This is a testimony that the 1995 Mekong Agreement works. But, of course, we’ve challenges to be addressed.

 

KT: Can you tell me more about these challenges?  

Dr Hatda: While water and related developments have over the last decade brought about economic growth and poverty reduction in all the four Mekong countries, they’ve brought along different obstacles, too. 

Mekong at Sangthong District Lao P.D.R

The Mekong River in the Lao capital city Vientiane observed from the sky in early December 2019, showing the area’s low water level and the algae that were building up at the very shallow part of the river.

 

For one, we’ve witnessed increasing pressures on the River. There have been permanent alteration of flow regimes, a continual loss of wetlands, deterioration of riverine habitats, and reduction in fish catches and sediment transport. There has also been limited information sharing on river infrastructures and their operations. All of these have threatened agricultural yields and livelihoods of some 65 million people living in the basin. 

We’ve also experienced more extreme weather conditions, such as floods, storms and droughts. We’ve faced difficult trade-offs between increased developments in the energy, transport and agriculture sectors, and the conservation and protection of the environment and local livelihoods. 

The increasing developments in the mainstream and tributaries highlight the increasing need for the sustainability and coordinated operational management of tributary and mainstream projects, including hydropower. 

Here, the challenge for the MRC is to ensure the consequences and implications of developments are assessed and dealt with from a proactive, basin-wide perspective. 

In addition, we’ve faced challenges in coordinating multiple actors, at several levels and across different sectors, in the Mekong region. Questions about overlapping mandates, regional versus national prerogative, which organisations are best placed to lead, contribute, or rather focus their efforts elsewhere, need to be resolved and with all parties focusing on outcomes for the basin as a whole and the people living there. 

In short, I think the challenge for the MRC is how to stay ever more relevant and useful to the region. It’s the question of how to timely address the needs and emerging issues, facing the member countries, for equitable and reasonable use of the Mekong systems.

 

KT: Why is it so important for the MRC members to continue having, or perhaps beefing up, their regional collaboration for sustainable development in the Mekong basin? 

Dr. Hatda: The importance lies in that throughout the Mekong region, there has been competing and tight demand for water use, on the back of rising populations and different initiatives set up by the Mekong governments to support their economic growth. While this growing demand represents the need for economic development and expansion, it also puts the River’s sustainability at risk, especially as a result of infrastructure development across its systems. This situation may pose great threat to the issue of benefits sharing and the reasonable and equitable use of the Mekong systems among the riparian countries. 

That’s why the need for regional cooperation in sustainable management of the shared water and related resources of the Mekong River basin has never been more paramount. In fact, the competition for these diversified resources can also be an opportunity: it can be turned into a catalyst for cooperation and peace. But it must be done through a platform governed by rules. 

Here, I think the MRC is in the best position to do this, given its six decades of Mekong cooperation history, with a record of extensive knowledge. It’s the only treaty-based river basin organisation in town. Its potential to bring the development in the Mekong region toward more sustainable, creating peace and prosperity for the region, can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked or undermined. 

Ones may imagine the region without the MRC in such a time of tight contest for water use.

 

KT: What should the member countries do to address the challenges in the River?  

Dr Hatda: I think our member countries need to align regional and national interests much more than before, if the Mekong River is to be developed and managed in a sustainable and equitable manner. 

The issue of sustainable development within the lower Mekong basin requires mitigating the risks and seizing the opportunities that the River creates for the people in a manner that conserves the river’s functions for future generations. 

Basin-wide cooperation in pro-active regional development planning and coordinated management must be further strengthened. This is to ensure long-term security of water, energy, food and livelihoods, to address environmental needs, and to realise opportunities for collaborative development that shares benefits across borders. 

The members also need to advance their current knowledge, data and information and up-take MRC products accumulated over the past 25 years. If they’re to address future challenges effectively, they need to beef up these efforts now. 

Of course, one country acting alone can’t achieve this goal; they need to work together, as a team, with a shared goal and a common interest. They need to honor their commitments to each other and to stakeholders. They need to practice due diligence in development planning and implementation in line with regional and national guidelines. They need to open up more and share more with the MRC, especially data and information that could help clear up misunderstanding and aid better planning and management.

 

KT: What kind of role do you think the MRC should play in the future? 

Dr Hatda: I believe the MRC should shift its role. It should evolve, from cooperation primarily on knowledge creation and sharing, to more pro-active basin planning – that is, assessing and recommending basin-wide projects not in the countries plans – and coordinated operation of more and more infrastructures. 

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An overview of the first Mekong mainstream dam – the Xayaburi hydropower project – during its construction in November 2018. In the lower Mekong, 11 dam projects were proposed, with two already online – the Xayaburi and Don Sahong.

 

The Commission needs to continue improving its data, information, forecasting and communication systems in order to monitor, analyse, predict and inform the decision-makers and public more timely and accurately in response to rapidly changing basin. 

Finally, it needs to pro-actively work with China as the upstream country in order to secure benefits and address risks that could only be managed from a whole of basin approach. 

I believe these actions would better position the MRC to address the current and future changes in the basin. It would help tackle emerging development issues and meet the needs of the members, while keeping the balance of interests among the countries, and between developments and protection of the environment and local livelihoods. 

Only time and continued political commitments can tell.

 

Read this Q and A in Khmer Times, published on April 1, here

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MRC's 25th Anniversary: A time to look back and see what lies ahead

It has been 25 years since Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam signed on 5 April 1995 the Mekong Agreement to develop and protect the Southeast Asia’s mighty Mekong River.


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