Monday, September 25, 2017

Mekong’s way forward: A shared burden

Mekong riparian countries need to manage the Mekong River through a “shared burden” strategy for sustainability and broad ownership.

Dr Pham Tuan Phan, CEO of the Mekong River Committee (MRC), said it is important to manage one of the world’s great rivers, which runs through six countries, in a way that does not rely on one country alone.

Pham was speaking on Monday at the 31st Asia Pacific Roundtable organised by Malaysia’s Institute of Security and International Studies. He said the four riparian countries of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia created and fund the MRC to manage the river cooperatively. “The burden is shared, with support from many development partners,” he said.

But burden sharing alone among MRC members is insufficient, he said, adding that there are key mechanisms at work – national projects of basin significance and joint projects.

The national projects refer to projects of one country that benefit other members, such as storage dams providing flood and drought security, and watershed management providing better water quality, among others. In joint projects, two or more countries invest in and share the benefits, such as joint investment in a hydropower project in one country and flood protection work that benefits two countries.

Dr Phan said there are now 15 frameworks for the development of the Mekong, including the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) project, which was the brainchild of China. Last year, China hosted an LMC leaders’ meeting and identified numerous areas for cooperation. LMC members include China, Myanmar and the MRC members.

He said that the more cooperation among the six countries the better. “The challenge of LMC is to build on what MRC has accomplished for the past 22 years in terms of knowledge, strategies, procedures, guidelines, tools, basin-wide data accumulation, monitoring infrastructure and routine operations.

Regarding the future, the MRC needs to continue its strengths and work on its weaknesses. “We need to promote the 1995 master plans as the best deal in town and a mechanism that works,” he said.

The Mekong river basin is complex with great risks and opportunities, he said. Therefore, national development within and outside the water sector affects the basin one way or another. Past development brought great benefits as well as negative effects.

In the past decade, the MRC has conducted studies that deal with broad questions: Basin Development Plan 2 assessment, socio-environmental assessment, and initiative on Sustainable Hydropower.

In Thailand and Vietnam, he said, development has brought benefits as well as damage to those countries and the basin. Ongoing development in China, Laos and Cambodia will further impact the environment, including sediment and fishery reduction problems. However, he added, this development is also transformative – turning poor countries like Laos and Cambodia into middle-income countries and lifting millions of people out of poverty.

Dr Phan warned that traditional ways of life are sometimes not sustainable, as poor people will exploit natural resources to survive. Water resource development is also not the only development that has a negative impact, as other external factors also must be considered, such as population growth, industrialisation, migration and trade.