n the transboundary Lancang-Mekong River area, a dozen multilateral cooperation mechanisms exist, among which the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is one of the most important. The MRC as an intergovernmental organization was created when Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam signed the Mekong Agreement in April 1995. The member countries agreed to cooperate on areas such as fisheries, flood control, hydropower, irrigation and navigation. China and Myanmar have been dialogue partners of the MRC since 1996.
The MRC convened its first summit in 2010, hosted by Thailand and its second summit in 2014, which was hosted by Vietnam. The third quadrennial MRC summit was hosted by Cambodia and held on April 5, 2018 following a preparatory Ministerial Meeting the day before, and an International Conference of stakeholders on April 2.
This year, the summit again brought together the prime ministers of the four member countries, as well as ministerial representatives from the dialogue partners. The Chinese delegation was led by E Jingping, Minister of Water Resources. On the sidelines of the event, NewsChina interviewed MRC CEO Pham Tuan Phan from Vietnam, and Chinese expert Professor Tian Fuqiang of the Department of Hydraulic Engineering at Tsinghua University, inviting both of them to speak on water cooperation issues within the region.
NewsChina: How do you perceive the role of mechanisms like the MRC and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in the region as an intergovernmental organization in forging commonality? Can you give some examples?
Pham Tuan Phan: I think the MRC has a primary and unique role to play in the regional governance of water and related resources for sustainable development.
For example, through our water diplomacy platform we have brought together the member countries and other stakeholders to work cooperatively and achieve a common goal. On top of this, the countries also agreed to implement five joint projects that would lead to investment in water development and management.
It should be noted that there has been high demand on Mekong water use to boost economies in the region. Without proper dialogue and a benefit-sharing mechanism, because development in one country may mean losses in another – the upstream-downstream country dynamic – one can expect tensions to come into play. But when there is a proper mechanism for the countries to work together, exchange dialogue and share benefits, chances are that this creates the opportunity for cooperation and peace to grow.
This is where the MRC comes into its most important role as a platform for water diplomacy and regional cooperation through which the members share the benefits of common water resources and address transboundary challenges in the basin; despite diverging national interests, the MRC is able to make the development in the Mekong region more sustainable which will bring unity and prosperity to the region.
Tian Fuqiang: To the best of my knowledge, China has good cooperation with the MRC since it was formed, and this engagement has grown steadily over time, as circumstances have allowed and were required. The scale of cooperation has recently expanded considerably.
Many mechanisms, including the LMC, MRC and the Greater Mekong Subregion program have their own special role inside the region. The MRC, which was set up in 1995, and the LMC which was set up in 2016 are the two that focus on water resource management.
There is a reason why the two countries did not join this mechanism. The MRC of course has made significant progress in promoting regional cooperation, but it has been dominated by a Western mentality. From its beginning until 2016, the heads of the MRC were all experts from either European countries or the US, people from outside the Mekong area. These developed countries are in a postmodern phase, so they are paying more attention to ecology and the environment. The concerns of the Mekong region are different. Developed countries have set up enough dams and hydropower facilities for infrastructure construction. But the developing countries need to develop more infrastructure including dams to achieve SDGs. China has also almost built enough dams, and we have also started to limit the number of new dams. But in the Mekong area, the Xayaburi Dam [in northern Laos] with limited power generation capacity, is the only one of 12 planned dams currently under construction.
Infrastructure in five Mekong countries remains underdeveloped, resulting in frequent floods and droughts. The less water infrastructure the less developed economy and society, such as Myanmar and Cambodia. China has just moved out of an underdeveloped state, so it has more fresh experiences and lessons to share with Mekong countries. LMC mechanism based on the present situation, and aims to serve all six riparian countries within the area. I am glad to see, with the consensus of all six riparian countries, Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center was set up in China as the platform for comprehensive water resource cooperation.
Above all, the LMC and MRC can cooperate and indeed have done a lot in the last two years. As far as I know, the two have made joint evaluations of certain extreme weather or climate conditions, including China releasing emergency water flows to help alleviate downstream drought in the lower Mekong area in early 2016. The two sides have, through cooperation, obtained first-hand systematic material to evaluate the effect of water release on different sectors of the river basin. Now the two mechanisms are preparing to go further in their joint research in drought and flood prevention, to understand the causes, the different effects and also to prepare for better coordination among members. For example, if there is flooding upstream, but not downstream, dams can adjust water flow through releasing water. If there is a drought, dams play an even more significant role in increasing water flow. Through understanding water, we can further value and manage water. The LMC and MRC have also jointly cooperated in sediment evaluation, to cope better with climate change and water management.
NC: Are there hurdles remaining regarding the cooperation among member countries within the region?
PTP: Our member countries have been cooperating well under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, and with strong and continuous support from partners around the world. They have also respected the agreement. But since the Mekong River flows through six countries, and the MRC members are only lower-reach countries, we have always wanted our dialogue partners – China and Myanmar – to join us to form one organization.
I believe we could do more and achieve more with the joining of the two – for the sake of our shared water and people’s livelihoods. We need also to work closely with the LMC, and it should also work with us in the same spirit of cooperation and openness.
TF: There is gap among basin countries. For example, Vietnam, on the lower reaches, has been negative towards water conservancy projects because of sediment decreasing. Laos does not have many resources other than hydropower for the country’s development. Thailand has the plan to divert the Mekong tributeries for irrigation. Both the upstream and downstream regions should have equal rights to develop through rational and equitable use of Mekong water resources. Vietnam has benefited from the Mekong River for thousands of years through rich sediment deposits, and it continues to have this right for its future benefit, while upstream countries enjoy equal rights to develop and take advantage of the water resources.
Of course, riparian countries are all responsible to maintain and preserve the river’s environment as well for the sustainability. It is not reasonable to blame all the negative impacts, including pollution, drought or flood on upstream countries, while depriving these countries the right to explore the water resources. Nature has endowed countries equal rights along the river to benefit people, and this should be borne in mind by everyone in the region.
I do belive the reciprocal responsibility and rights among countries within the region should be realized with function of Lancang-Mekong Wagter Resources Cooperation Center.
There are many successful joint development cases internationally, such as the Senegal River Basin Integrated Water Resources Management Project. The US and Canada also jointly developed the Columbia River. Of course the situation of each transboundary river is different, and it requires specific wisdom to find a balanced way of joint development.
NC: What is your perspective on hydropower dam construction along the Lancang-Mekong River? Is there a possibility of future joint development projects in the basin?
PTP: At the core of our work [the 1995 Mekong Agreement], any proposed construction of hydropower dams on the Mekong mainstream requires a prior consultation process under the MRC Procedure for Notification, Prior Consultation, and Agreement (PNPCA).
It is understandable that countries’ national plans are made from a national perspective. The MRC will bring countries together to optimize their future plans to increase benefits and reduce potential costs. I am very interested in the Senegal River scheme and other examples of development projects for jointly owned and operated dams. These cases tell us that it is only through joint investment, and by sharing the costs and the benefits, that countries will address the bigger impacts of development that one country could not do alone.
At the same time, the MRC is now working with its members to develop a joint environmental monitoring scheme for the current mainstream dams. The development of this scheme is based on the recommendations of the past prior consultation processes of the proposed three mainstream dams: Xayaburi (2011), Don Sahong (2015) and Pak Beng (2017) [all in Laos].
The scheme will include monitoring of five key environment parameters, including hydrology, sediment, water quality, aquatic ecology and fisheries, to be conducted close to the dam sites. Results from the monitoring will inform the adaptive management measures of the hydropower projects.
TF: For the Lancang-Mekong River, hydropower projects in upper stream do have both positive and negative impacts. However, our previous studies indicated that the overall benefit can offset disadventages. Upstream hydropower development has made a significant contribution to ecological preservation in a certain way. Better infrastructure will contribute to poverty alleviation for the whole river basin. With better cooperation, there is more space for the six countries to undertake disaster prevention and mitigate climate change impacts, including rising sea levels. A realistic solution is to attain shared opportunities through acknowledging a changing dynamic.
NC: Are there any ecological compensation projects so far among MRC members? What’s your view of setting up an ecological compensation system among member countries?
PTP: We do not have an ecological compensation project among the MRC members yet. At the national level, there are laws and regulations. At the regional and transboundary level, these kinds of schemes have to be negotiated. A possibility would be to have MRC regional funding to manage and protect key ecological or environmental assets with regional significance. We are now at the initial stage of preparing a strategy for basin-wide environmental management.
TF: I think there should be an ecological compensation system in the basin, but it does not mean compensation in monetary terms. It could focus more on mutual benefit and common prosperity beyond water issues.
China as the upstream country has made a lot of efforts and sacrificed its own rights to minimize the impact on the downstream region. It is very important to involve more countries within the region to set up a common dataset and model toolkit to better learn what the real situation of the river is. When China was underdeveloped as it was decades ago, people had to cut trees, which caused severe erosion – this was the situation before the 1980s. Fortunately, with better development, China can put more effort into environmental preservation.
We do not seek financial compensation for our contribution to the river’s protection, however, we wish at least the people living downstream would recognize China’s contributions, and perceive our water management system through a holistic point of view. With better cooperation, every member can profit through the process.
Thailand and Vietnam, as lower stream countries, enjoy better economic development and so it is viable for these wealthier countries to invest in poorer countries upstream in projects to better maintain the river environment. If some countries only insist on a non-cooperative attitude toward the issue, while continuing to object to upstream countries’ development plans, it will result in mutual loss. With mutual understanding and cooperation, the process of assisting a neighbor’s development will ultimately benefit oneself as well. The way the game is played decides the final result.