On the heels of the historic UN Water Conference in New York, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) wrapped up its International Conference on Monday with a sense among participants that it is time to move past aspirational words, and focus on taking action that makes a meaningful difference.
In this case, it would aim to better safeguard Southeast Asia’s most important river, which in recent years has been beset by the combination of worsening climate change and expanding water infrastructure projects. Hydropower, rice, and aquaculture production have increased, which has improved socioeconomic standards of living across the basin.
Still, those hardest hit by the adverse impacts, including COVID-19, are the millions of fishing and farming families in MRC Member Countries Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, who rely upon the waterway for food and livelihood.
The MRC was praised at the conference as a global model for water diplomacy and river-basin cooperation – especially in its basin-wide strategies, guidelines, and power to convene key players to the table and facilitate dialogue on issues of transboundary impact. Yet there were still calls to scale up efforts in everything from synchronizing operations of dam projects to flood and drought forecasting.
Moreover, there was a renewed push to deepen cooperation with upstream neighbors Myanmar and China, which is home to 11 cascade dams on the upper Mekong, known in China as the Lancang.
From the outset of the International Conference, officials of the host country – Laos – set the tone on the need for more decisive deeds to address the mounting challenges to “water security.”
“This situation is projected to worsen if we continue business as usual; more needs to be done,” said Bounkham Vorachit, the Laotian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, who also represents her country as a Member of the MRC Council.
Vorachit urged the engagement of all stakeholders – including international organizations, the private sector, civil society, and academia – to pay particular attention to the livelihoods of the poorest, most vulnerable riparian residents. Yet she acknowledged the essential role of each nation’s leadership.
“Mobilizing political will remains crucial,” Vorachit told the audience. “Equally important is to be forward-thinking and a willingness to consider innovative ways to approach local, regional, and international cooperation.”
The International Conference was to be immediately followed by the 4th MRC Summit, in which the heads of government for all four Member Countries were expected to reiterate their full support for both sustainable development and the MRC’s intergovernmental voice in advocating for it.
The International Conference itself was a wide-ranging, two-day affair, with the largest-ever attendance for such an MRC event – with more than 600 experts and dozens of panel discussions that ranged from social issues to cutting-edge technology.
Among the topics, UNICEF’s Paloma Escudero spoke about the roughly 30 million Mekong children and their fundamental rights to those water resources; World Wildlife Fund’s Lan Mercado on the urgency of sediment management; and International Water Management Institute’s Mark Smith on aligning global, regional, national and local agreements and actions. Meanwhile, this may have been the first water-related event to include potential applications of both Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality.
On the entire basin cooperation, Secretary-General Hao Zhao of the Beijing-based Lancang-Mekong Water Center, which has a partnership with the MRC Secretariat, assured the regional audience that the MRC and LMC water cooperation frameworks will work together, not in parallel.
“The key is to work together, shoulder to shoulder, and to maintain good cooperation,” Zhao said. “We also need real scientific data, to offset misperceptions.”
International water law expert Susanne Schmeier, who served as facilitator of the MRC International Conference, says she was struck by the MRC’s diversity of participants, especially from the grassroots, as well as the many innovative ideas presented at the Conference.
“People are tired of talk – and hungry to put all the talk into action,” says Schmeier. “I heard many good examples and commitments from the private sector, youth, and communities – not just from policymakers. And this is good news.”