The Mekong deserves immediate action to make a meaningful difference
For years, each of our countries had its own system to monitor and measure five important components of the Mekong River’s wellbeing: hydrology, sediment, ecological health, water quality and fisheries. However, having four separate monitoring systems for one river had created too much inefficiency, incompatibility and redundancy – especially at a time when there’s a pressing need for all of us to understand more deeply how one parameter drives another, share data in a more timely manner, and take actions that better protect the Mekong River Basin and its riparian communities.
That’s why the redesigned Core River Monitoring Network approved in November 2022 was such an achievement for the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and its member countries: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The redesign harmonises the network, while applying cutting-edge technology: we’ll soon have fewer monitoring stations along the river, but they’ll collect more diverse data – and transmit it in real-time.
This is just one exciting way in which the MRC is combining cooperation and innovation to tackle our most serious transboundary challenges. That’s also why we’ve chosen this as the central theme of the 4th MRC Summit, which kicks off on April 2 with an international conference that brings together a wide range of stakeholders.
More than 700 experts from around the world will convene for the conference in the Lao capital of Vientiane – the most to ever attend such an MRC event. They’ll share the latest thinking and practice, as well as deliver the key messages for the summit to address later in the week. Within the conference, we’ll also promote water-related innovation among our brightest youth: the finalists of our first-ever MRC River Monitoring Technology Competition for Mekong university students will present to judges their inventions in telemetry-sensory technology, to measure water level, water quality, rainfall or soil moisture.
Next, the summit takes center stage, as the MRC’s highest-level political gathering. Entitled Innovation and Cooperation for a Water Secure and Sustainable Mekong, the event will most notably be attended by the heads of government of each country and high-level officials from MRC Dialogue Partners China and Myanmar. Not only will these leaders renew their pledge to responsibly develop and safeguard the Mekong, but they’ll vow to do so collectively, through the MRC’s intergovernmental efforts.
At important moments like this, we should take stock and measure how far we’ve come. It was in the 1995 Mekong Agreement that all four countries enshrined a new treaty that committed them to cooperate and nurture sustainable development. That landmark Agreement was also significant because it established the MRC at both high and technical levels, to lead that multilateral effort. This was no small feat, considering the historical context: the mainland Southeast Asia was then a war-torn, traumatised region, deeply divided with palpable bitterness among neighbuors and external forces.
What was unforeseen in 1995, though, was that the first MRC Summit in 2010 would elevate Mekong cooperation to the highest political level. In doing so, this quartet of countries put forth a political commitment to work together beyond their national interest: that anything affecting their stretch of the mighty Mekong might also impact their neighbours. Thus, what affects their neighbour is in their self-interest, too. And vice-versa.
That said, recent years have seen our Basin experience a rapid transformation, with some alarming trends emerging. Exactly one year ago, in my first State of the Mekong Address as the MRC CEO, I stated that we faced an “unprecedented challenge” after four years of low-flow, one that had exacerbated the conditions we’d already identified in our 2018 State of the Basin Report: disappearing wetlands, deteriorating riverine habitats, reduced flows of nourishing sediment, growing pressure on capture fisheries, and rising salinity that spoils rice crops. All this negatively impacted the lives and livelihoods of millions of fishing and farming families in the basin. As I noted last year, “Some of this is caused by nature and climate change, of course. But much is also human-made.”
In the year since, though, the situation has improved. For starters, rainfalls and releases from upstream reservoirs helped replenish the river and made the first four months of 2022 wetter than in recent years.
Meanwhile, we also responded with decisive action, including: new guidelines for hydropower dam design, and transboundary environmental impact to facilitate fish movement; new navigation rules to foster greater river safety; innovative tools to better forecast floods and drought; a new monitoring station on the northern tip of the Basin, to quickly detect water changes; and the launch of a Joint Study – together with the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation – to develop a shared upstream-downstream understanding of the changing water-flow regime, which is a prerequisite for more effective cooperation. This should be based on science, not feelings.
At the recent UN Water Conference in New York, leaders from around the world made various commitments to water action. Here in the Mekong, we don’t just want any action, but action that makes a real difference. That’s why this summit is so important: Political will, from the top, is essential to our success – and to making a meaningful difference.
That said, none of our broader challenges will be easy to overcome. Nor have the differing, overarching national interests of individual riparian countries disappeared. This may spark occasional tensions among us, while external forces have their own interests, too. Given our region’s history and strategic location, we remain forever a potential hotspot for competition, intervention and power-plays.
Today, though, we live in peaceful times here, thanks to the cooperative spirit and institutions such as the UN, ASEAN and MRC – all of which lay down the rules of engagement, foster dialogue and build trust.
Nevertheless, we still live in dangerous times, with tectonic shifts in the global geopolitical landscape that have implications for Southeast Asia. Last year, in my State of the Mekong Address, I said our environmental crisis demands a sense of urgency. Our feet should be on fire. Today, I’ll add that we should also avoid pouring more fuel on the fire. The way we choose to act – and the way our friends within the region and without act – will determine the fate of the Mekong. And our fate, as well.
At our imminent 4th summit, I have full confidence that our leaders will send a message of unity. They will prioritise the key issues that must be addressed. They will also point out that cooperation, not conflict – and dialogue, not division – must prevail, just as they have during the three decades of the MRC’s existence.
Please join us in this Mekong spirit of cooperation and innovation to make a difference. Will you?
Anoulak Kittikhoun is the Chief Executive Officer of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat (Jan 2022-present).