Managing the Mekong River for All

The Khmer Times, 10 February 2016

The Mekong River and its related resources are natural assets of mainland Southeast Asia, supporting the livelihoods and food security of more than 60 million people. The Mekong River Basin is the largest inland fishery in the world and the main source of soil nutrients in a region where about 60 percent of the population relies on agriculture.
Hydropower dams and climate change are threatening the ecosystem and biodiversity of the river, as well as the economic and social wellbeing and living standards of millions of people. The dams degrade the river’s rich biodiversity, disrupt fish migration cycles, and trap nutrient-rich sediments.
Due to increasing energy demand, Laos has constructed two hydropower dams on the main stem of the Mekong River – the $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam and the $300 million Don Sahong dam. These two dams adversely impact Cambodia and Vietnam, which are the two downstream countries. Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is home to 20 million people and constitutes 90 percent of Vietnam’s rice exports.  The dams will have serious effects on the biodiversity of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, which has a large wetland supporting the livelihoods of more than 2 million people.
The Mekong Sub-region is one of the least developed and most vulnerable regions in Southeast Asia. Addressing the impacts and challenges caused by the construction of hydropower dams and climate change is critical to poverty reduction and sustainable development in the region. Furthermore, sustainable and inclusive management of the river helps prevent tension and conflicts over water resources between riparian countries.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) was founded in 1995 with the aims of ensuring that the Mekong is developed in the most efficient manner, one that mutually benefits all member countries and minimizes harmful effects on people and the environment in the Lower Mekong Basin. Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam are the four members of the MRC, Myanmar and China are its two dialogue partners.  However, the MRC has not effectively managed the trans-boundary water resources due to the lack of legally binding agreements. As a result it is necessary to strengthen its enforcement role.
Various regional initiatives in the Mekong Sub-region include the ADB’s Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) program, the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation (AMBDC), and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) focus on development and poverty reduction by investing in infrastructure development, agriculture, human resources and energy. They also aim to protect the environment, and promote tourism, trade and investment.
As ASEAN is moving towards a people-centered community of opportunities, it needs to foremost address poverty issues. Mismanagement of the Mekong River has severe adverse repercussions on millions of people whose livelihoods depend on the river. Development without participation from the local communities leads to poor development. Economic inequality and social exclusion are the two main root causes of social and political ills, which in turn leads to social and political upheavals.
Managing trans-boundary water resources is difficult due to the lack of legally binding regional instruments and sincere political will of the riparian countries to forge a collective identity through collective interest. There is a need to strengthen regional institutions. Strong partnerships between ASEAN and the MRC are vital to enhance regional cooperation on Mekong River management.
It needs to be emphasized that trans-boundary water resources management is one of the core issues of ASEAN. Without effective mechanisms and sufficient resources to address the impacts caused by hydropower dams and climate change, people living in the Mekong River Basin cannot escape poverty. Tensions and conflicts over Mekong water resources will threaten regional security and development.
ASEAN and its dialogue partners need to show more commitment and efforts in assisting the people in the Mekong Sub-region in dealing with and adapting to changing water flows, nutrient flows, food insecurity, environmental degradation, and climate change. More financial and technical support is required to assist local communities to become more socially and ecologically resilient. Building a mutually supportive community in the Mekong River Basin is essential for sustainable and inclusive development.

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