Lan­cang-mekong River:

Pool­ing Re­sources

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Wang Yan in Siem Reap

In 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.

News china: How do you per­ceive the role of mech­a­nisms like the MRC and the Lan­cang-mekong Co­op­er­a­tion (LMC) in the re­gion as an in­ter gov­ern­men­tal 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. De-

veloped 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 Proce-

dure 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.

High-level of­fi­cials from the six ri­par­ian na­tions of the Lan­cang-mekong River join hands dur­ing a cer­e­mony at the Mekong River Com­mit­tee Sum­mit, April 5, Siem Reap, Cam­bo­dia

Pham Tuan Phan

Tian Fuqiang

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