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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

New Declaration Presses Mekong Countries, Partners to Intensify Cooperation

This Week

The Southeast Asian members of the Mekong River Commission issued a landmark declaration at the 4th MRC Summit on Wednesday, reiterating the region’s commitment to cooperate and safeguard a beleaguered river that’s the lifeblood for some 70 million of their citizens.

More than merely symbolic, the Vientiane Declaration is significant for several reasons. First, it states that while development opportunities exist to benefit from large water infrastructure projects, including hydropower, there is an urgency to address the “growing risks and trade-offs” — especially, “adverse impacts, including transboundary impacts.” These are further exacerbated by climate change-fueled floods and drought. In response, the Declaration calls for the MRC, its partners, and other stakeholders in this region to further “intensify cooperation” and seek “innovative solutions.”

More specifically, the Declaration appeals for greater coordination from an industry accustomed to private, autonomous decision-making on when to withhold or release water: “We need … to move beyond water-resources planning to encompass operational management, including … transboundary coordination, especially in terms of timely and regular sharing of operational data from dams and other water infrastructure.” This would help riparian communities downriver prepare for such fluctuations.

On the other hand, the Declaration expresses the “highest political commitment” from each country’s leadership, for the multi-pronged role of the intergovernmental MRC: while entrusted to promote sustainable, responsible development of the Mekong, the MRC serves as a treaty-based forum for “water diplomacy” that aims to strike a balance between maximizing the benefits of development, while minimizing any harm to either the environment or the fishing and farming families.

Moreover, the Declaration enshrines the essential MRC role as a “regional knowledge hub” dedicated to implementing “basin-wide strategies, procedures, guidelines, and data- and information-sharing, that drives peaceful and mutually beneficial cooperation to achieve our shared vision.”

It was the host country’s leader, Laotian Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, who formally introduced the Vientiane Declaration.

“We call upon all Mekong basin states to join hands in managing the Mekong River Basin based on the principle of mutual respect for sovereignty and shared benefit with the slogan ‘One Mekong One Spirit’,” said Siphandone.

On this issue, said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, national interests align with regional interests.

“Achieving sustainable water, food, and energy security is our top priority agenda,” said Hun Sen. “We also recognize that the Mekong and the resources … are vital to the economic growth and well-being of countries and people in the basin … We must [also] avoid overusing the basin’s resources, which could lead to their permanent loss.”

Indeed, the river and its basin have faced a number of alarming trends in recent years, which the MRC Secretariat Chief Executive Officer Dr. Anoulak Kittikhoun highlighted in his 2023 State of the Mekong Address, on 3 April. This includes four straight years of changing low flow, reduced flows of nourishing sediment, rising salinity that spoils rice crops, mounting plastics pollution, and the ravages of worsening floods and drought.

That said, the news isn’t all bad. According to MRC analysis, water quality along the Mekong mainstream remains “Good” or “Excellent” in most places. Socio-economic growth and living standards have increased, region-wide, especially pre-COVID. And cooperation among the four Member Countries is yielding tangible results. The year 2022, for example, saw: 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, a prerequisite for more effective cooperation.

Overall, the 4th MRC Summit’s objective was to reiterate unwavering support for both the 1995 Mekong Agreement – which was a milestone for how it enshrined the principle of joint cooperation in pursuit of sustainable development – and for the MRC itself. That landmark 1995 agreement established the intergovernmental body as the prime platform for that regional cooperation.

The 1st MRC Summit was held in 2010, in Hua Hin, Thailand, and explored how to “meet the needs, keep the balance” – toward sustainable development. The 2nd Summit was in 2014, in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, and focused on “water, food, and energy security in the context of climate change. The 3rd Summit unfolded in 2018, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and spotlighted joint efforts and partnerships toward achieving the world’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, specifically in the basin.

Notably, this 4th MRC Summit immediately followed the largest International Conference in MRC history, with more than 600 experts, diplomats, students and others attending. During the conference, the MRC was praised 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. Innovation was also a hot topic, highlighted by the first-ever MRC River Monitoring Technology Competition for Mekong university students, and a virtual-reality session that explored how AI can better support flood and drought forecasting and decision-making.

Meanwhile, there were calls to scale up efforts in everything from synchronizing operations of dam projects to high-tech 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.

The core messages of these Conference participants were then woven into the Vientiane Declaration. As they presented that proclamation, the heads of government acknowledged that more must be done.

After praising the MRC for its “indispensable role,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh presented a stark statistic to illustrate the unsustainability of development today: From 2010 to 2020, “total flow in the basin decreased by 4-8%” – while its four countries increased water use “by 5-12%.”

Moving forward, Pham called for “people-centered” policies and actions by the MRC and Member Countries. “A population-wide, comprehensive and basin-wide approach should be taken,” said the Vietnamese premier, “to ensure sustainable livelihoods of the people.”

As for Thailand, representing its government was Dr. Surasri Kidtimonton, Secretary-General of the Office of National Water Resources, within the Office of the Prime Minister of Thailand.

Describing the Mekong as the basin’s “main blood vessel,” Kidtimonton said that as “the remaining challenges get more complicated … We all have missions to seek innovative development and management approaches, to thoroughly extend benefits from development to communities, and to mutually identify strategy on water and conflict management” – including, new financing mechanisms.

Beyond those heads of government, other key voices spoke up in favor of the Declaration – including MRC Dialogue Partner China and a representative of the MRC’s many Development Partners.

The Chinese Minister of Water Resources, Guoying Li, noted the significance that China has now attended 26 consecutive Dialogue events with the MRC and sent large, high-level delegations to every MRC Summit. He cited China’s desire to achieve “shared benefits” of Mekong development and is “actively promoting the building of the information-sharing platform.”

From Beijing’s perspective, “The MRC is an important mechanism for cooperation and consensus,” said Li, as the neighbours “drink from the same river and share a common future.” However, he noted, while “we should fully respect the legitimate rights and interests of all countries in the rational development and utilization of water resources … we should also work together to deal with the negative factors and noise that undermine sub-regional cooperation.”

Lastly, on behalf of the MRC Development Partners (DPs) – Swiss Ambassador to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand Pedro Zwahlen – acknowledged that the MRC’s achievements made it “an inspiration for transboundary water cooperation in other parts of the world.” He further encouraged Member Countries to promote “gender equality, social inclusion and protection of the most vulnerable groups,” as well as proactively explore the full range of development options.

As Zwahlen put it: “In the context of global climate commitments and energy transition – and noting advances in solar, floating solar, wind, pumped storage hydropower and grid-integration technologies – DPs call upon the MRC Member countries to consider all sources of renewable energies for the most inclusive and sustainable energy mix.”

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, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, the MRC serves as both a regional platform for water diplomacy and a knowledge hub – to manage water resources and support the sustainable development of the region.

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