MRC public forum spotlights need for trust, transparency and data sharing
Luang Prabang, Lao PDR, 13 October 2023 — The need to share more data and other relevant information is vital to build trust and promote transparency, especially by the water infrastructure projects already existing or planned along Southeast Asia’s most important waterway, according to the common view reached at a major public forum of the Mekong River Commission (MRC).
The one-day 13th Regional Stakeholders Forum (RSF) – held 5 October in the historical Laotian city of Luang Prabang – brought together nearly 200 participants from the four MRC Member Countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam), as well as from civil society organizations, China, development partners, academia and the private sector. The event itself underscored data sharing and trust building.
Speaking for the host country, Mr Chanthanet Boualapha, the Laotian Vice Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, praised several hydropower projects by name – for openly sharing data on operations. He urged several other projects to follow suit, so “their development can be responsible and address the concerns of our neighbouring countries and communities, whose livelihoods are tied to the river.”
In his welcome remarks, Dr Anoulak Kittikhoun, the CEO of the MRC Secretariat, spoke about the wider context of why exactly cooperative data and information sharing is so important. In recent months, he has spoken about the five most “troubling” trends affecting the Mekong, as well as how the region’s strategic location is a “forever hotspot for competition, intervention and powerplays.”
“We’re navigating broader shifts in global politics, the climate and the Mekong River Basin, all of which have profound impact on economies, the environment and river flow,” Kittikhoun said. “With changes come uncertainties. One vital way to address and mitigate these uncertainties is through transparency, which hinges on trust, and we build this trust through data sharing. All three are intrinsically linked.”
Beyond the call for hydropower projects to share more data and information, in line with the recently concluded Joint Study phase 1 between the MRC and LMC Water Resources Cooperation, among other significant recommendations was for collective action on the emerging 2023 State of the Basin Report This blueprint for action, drafted every five years – the last was in 2018 – identifies the most urgent Environmental, Social, Economic, Climate Change and Cooperation challenges facing the Mekong. To mitigate these challenges, sharing timely, accurate data is essential for the MRC, state actors, the private sector and others to craft responses.
As this new SOBR is still in the development process, the RSF provided opportunity for participants to discuss a range of recommendations. Among the most noteworthy, the changing climate requires detailed climate risk assessments, risk informed decisions and prioritized adaptation measures. Mitigation measures related to environmental impact should be provided in greater detail. Riverine residents should be engaged to assist with monitoring and reporting environmental conditions; enable their access to data sharing platforms. In fact, the communities directly affected by water infrastructure development must not be left behind. Engage these communities and civil society organizations, so they can participate in planning such projects.
Participants drew other conclusions about the need for a more inclusive, basin-wide approach to water infrastructure data sharing, coordination and notification. For example, at the Xayaburi hydropower project, where the dam operator who initiated fish tagging and sediment monitoring stated the majority of the fish monitored could pass the dam and that there were “no significant change in sediment” observed before and after the project construction. For this, the lessons learned should be made publicly available – and in local languages – to further build trust and understanding.
The broader public also heard for the first time the interim report on the Heritage Impact Assessment of the Luang Prabang hydropower project by the UK-based independent consulting firm CBA, where the company found that there would not be significant impact to the outstanding universal value of the UNESCO world heritage city of Luang Prabang due to the project. The participants, however, called for hydropower projects to do more than improve data sharing; they should also promote transboundary stakeholder consultation, during the pre- and post-public consultation process, under the MRC Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement.
In one manifestation of how the MRC’s own transparency and data sharing has built trust and vice versa, CSOs at the RSF, speaking on behalf of affected riparian communities, expressed a desire to work more closely with the intergovernmental agency, on their issues of concern – through joint projects and other activities. To expand such data sharing, some attendees advocated that relevant information like this should not only be published in the region’s lingua franca, English, but in various Mekong languages.
One lasting message at the forum was of broad support for the MRC, especially its data sharing efforts. As Boualapha, the Laotian official, told the audience: “[We] always acknowledge the important role that the MRC plays in promoting cooperation on water management […] towards water, food and energy security, as well as an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable Mekong River Basin.”
Note to Editors:
The MRC is an intergovernmental organization established in 1995 to boost regional dialogue and cooperation in the Lower Mekong River Basin. Based on the Mekong Agreement among Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam, the MRC serves as both a regional platform for water diplomacy and a knowledge hub – to manage water resources and support sustainable development of the region.