By Panchali Saikia
China’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) has targeted intensive investment in dams, railways and highways with plans to complete the hydropower projects set out in the 11th Five Year Plan. These massive investments include plans for hydropower dams in lower and upper Mekong countries that are highly controversial because of their implications for the future of the resource-rich river. The Mekong River, with an estimated length of 4,350kms, originates in the Tibetan Plateau and flows through the Yunnan province of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Despite being one of the richest regions in terms of biodiversity, the basin also remains among the world’s poorest areas.
Unsustainable hydropower developments are affecting the hydrology of the Mekong by shifting the natural timing, the volume of its cyclic flows and the migratory paths of most commercially valuable species of wild fish. The situation has been worsened by uncoordinated and overlapping regional organizations which are driven mostly by economic and political interests rather than environmental concern.
Due to the lack of transparency and access to data, international frameworks have hardly been able to develop integrated solutions to these problems. A sustainable development of the economic potential of the river and the economic corridors of the region is essential, and most importantly, hydropower developments and opportunities need to be evaluated under the framework of potential risks to environment, fisheries and people’s livelihoods.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body – comprising Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand – formed for management of the river, has failed to address issues of trans-boundary natural resources and environment in an effective and timely manner. It has also failed to deal with domestic politics among the stakeholders. The MRC has several problems. First, it is dependent on donor agencies outside the region for funds. Most of the executive heads of the former Mekong committee and the Chief Executive Officers of the MRC secretariat have been from one of the donor countries or agencies. Second, the low-key presence of China and Myanmar and the unevenness of state-level interests and power is also a major challenge. Third, the low participation of the public and particularly the stakeholders living within the Mekong basin in the decision-making processes has challenged the credibility of the organization.
Meanwhile, there also exists the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) that includes the MRC countries plus China and Myanmar. Again, however differences in political, administrative and governance systems and considerable variations in social and economic needs among the GMS countries have led to differences of opinion, which is a substantial hindrance to a common approach.
The GMS too has failed in addressing some of the critical trans-boundary natural resources and environmental issues faced by the sub-region. Most of the development schemes and project activities that have been implemented by the GMS have not resulted in any significant impact at the key levels of policymaking.
A more efficient and effective cooperation among the GMS Economic Cooperation Program and the MRC is needed. The MRC needs to better apply itself in gathering information for more effectively guided investment and resource management at individual country levels, and make the information accessible to governments, universities, NGOs and other public undertakings. The GMS countries should meanwhile coordinate and continue with its present reforms, but it is also important to open up the economies by overcoming domestic resistance and cooperation with ASEAN. Greater dialogue among governments, regional institutions, civil society and the private sector is necessary to meet these challenges.
ASEAN, the World Bank, UNESCAP and UNDP, having a broader mandate throughout East Asia, can provide a great boost to the MRC by providing cooperation, improving understanding across countries, and providing opportunities for formal and informal dialogue. MRC’s existing cooperation under frameworks such as Mekong‐Japan, Mekong‐Ganga Cooperation, Lowe Mekong-China, Lower Mekong‐USA, and ASEAN-Mekong River Basin Development Cooperation (AMBDC) need to be reviewed. With the economic growth of China, India, US and Japan, development of the economic corridors with these countries along with integrated river basin management and basin-wide cooperation will not only improve infrastructure, promote trade and investment, promote access to sea ports and enhance economic growth, but also minimize cross-border barriers.
The next five years will be the most challenging and critical for the Mekong river basin as there will be extensive pressure for water development proposals on the mainstream and tributaries of the Mekong. On 26 January 2011 a new strategy was approved by the MRC in its 17th Council meeting that defines a basin development planning and regional cooperation for sustainable development of water resources. Since the signing of the 1995 Mekong agreement on sustainable development of the basin, it is for the first time the MRC has developed a shared understanding. However, the success of these strategies under an uncoordinated regional forum remains in doubt. Regional organizations should ensure more stable and sustained funding for their water management programs and develop a farsighted vision and strategy to bring tangible benefits to member countries.