By Jonathan Cox
Mekong River, February 2, 2016
With the threat of climate change, a long-lasting drought, and contentious dam construction in Laos, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has its work cut out for the rest of the year. Composed of delegates from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, the MRC is in charge of managing the river that provides livelihoods and power for much of Southeast Asia. Several delegates said yesterday that the organization will face challenges in the years ahead.
“Water remains as important as ever,” said General Surasak Karnjanarat, the head of the MRC’s delegation from Thailand. “It needs to be recognized as key to various development goals…but the situation has become more complex due to a number of challenges we are facing.”
As the MRC works to address such problems as climate change and drought, it is aiming to slash its size in an effort to become economically independent by 2030.
At the 22nd MRC meeting yesterday at the Intercontinental Hotel, delegates from around the world discussed how the organization can become leaner while still meeting the goals in its five-year plan.
Details of that plan have not been released to the public yet, and so these goals remain vague. Rhetoric released by the MRC simply refers to “optimizing basin-wide development” and “improving national water resources development.” In total, the MRC said it will need $65 million to execute the plan; they hope that roughly $45 million will come from international donors.
Donors, though, have their doubts about the MRC. Deputy head of the MRC’s European Commission Luisa Ragher said the commission needs to increase its transparency if it is to gain donors’ trust. She pointed to the reduction of the number of independent observers allowed to attend certain meetings from 15 to just two as an example of the organization’s opaqueness, and called for more independent observation.
Ms. Ragher added that including fraud prevention in the MRC’s new management plan would be critical to earning donor trust. “We need to create a framework for people to report instances of fraud and misconduct,” she said.
The MRC’s problems are not just monetary, however. Their river monitoring system, with stations to measure rainfall and water levels at various points along the river’s length, needs physical repairs, delegates said. Monemany Nhoyboouakong, Laos’ vice president of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said at the meeting that some of the aging equipment should be replaced entirely. “We need to improve the existing meteorological stations,” she said.
Other challenges faced by the MRC over the next five years may be less easy to manage. One such problem is this year’s severe drought conditions. Caused by the cyclical weather pattern El Nino, the current drought has already affected hundreds of thousands of hectares of crop fields across the region, and resulted in economic crisis for many farmers. Mr. Karnjanarat said that the MRC needs to focus on using its resources to help farmers in the river basin who have been most hurt by the shortage of water.
“The impact of drought has been felt by all of us,” he said, “and prolonged drought since 2014 has affected our agricultural sectors,” he said.
Also briefly discussed at yesterday’s meeting was the 260 MW Don Sahong Dam that Laos has proposed building along the Mekong near the Cambodian border. The construction of that Lao dam and others have stirred up controversy within the MRC.
During Laos’ construction of the Xayaburi dam, Cambodian fishers and farmers downstream protested, saying that the dams will stop the flow of fish and sediment into Cambodian waters. Despite not receiving the required approvals from the MRC, the Lao government constructed the dam.
Ms. Ragher said governments needs to push for better cooperation between the members of the MRC. “We need transboundary cooperation on water bodies,” she said. “We need to know whether the redesign changes to the plans for the Don Sahong Dam comply with MRC regulations.”
Tackling these issues while cutting staff will not be easy for the MRC, “Member countries need to find a way to maintain their functions despite decentralization,” Mr. Karnjanarat said.