Mekong River Governance and ASEAN Community Building

CISS Commentary March 11,  2016

The Mekong River Basin is the biggest inland fishery in the world. Sustainable governance of the Mekong River is vital to ASEAN Community building, given that the Mekong River basin is the lifeline of more than 60 million people. The river is the source of food security and livelihoods.

Hydropower dams and climate change are threatening the livelihoods of millions of people. The dams degrade the river’s rich biodiversity, disrupt fish migration cycles, and trap nutrient-rich sediments.

Laos has constructed two hydropower dams on the mainstream of the Mekong River, namely Xayaburi Dam and Don Sahong Dam. These two dams may lead to the “dominos” of construction of another nine proposed dams. It is argued that “in the race to develop hydropower on the Mekong River, those who will lose out are the communities and the ecosystem. It is a loss that the region cannot afford”.[1]

The 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% of Vietnam’s rice export. The dams will have serious effects on the biodiversity and ecosystem of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, which is a large wetland that supports the livelihoods of about two million people, of which 60 percent are involved in agriculture.

The dams affect the fishery sector in the lower Mekong Basin, which is valued at about $17 billion a year, accounting for 3% of the combined GDP of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.[2] Food security in the Mekong Delta will be seriously hit. Nguyen Ngoc Tran, former Deputy Chairman of the National Committee of Science and Technology said that mainstream hydropower projects on the Mekong River caused a loss of $231 million in seafood and agriculture output to the Mekong Delta.[3]

The Mekong Sub-region is the poorest and most vulnerable region in Southeast Asia. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam are relatively new members of ASEAN and less developed when compared with the other members of the Association. The development gap and socio-economic inequality are the core issues in ASEAN Community building.

Developing the Mekong Sub-region and assisting CLMV countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam) in addressing the impacts and challenges caused by climate change and hydropower dams is critical to an inclusive regional integration. The Mekong countries need financial and technical support from the more developed ASEAN members, ASEAN’s dialogue partners, and other international donor institutions.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), which was founded in 1995, aims to ensure that the river is developed in the most efficient manner that benefits all member countries and minimizes harmful effects on people and the environment. Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam are the four members of MRC, Myanmar and China are the dialogue partners of MRC. However, MRC has not effectively managed the trans-boundary water resources due to the lack of legally binding agreements. It is therefore necessary to strengthen the enforcement role of MRC.

ASEAN-MRC Cooperation

In addition to MRC, there are various regional initiatives relating to economic integration in the Mekong Sub-region, among them are the ADB’s Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) program, the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation (AMBDC) and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI). These initiatives mainly focus on infrastructure development, energy, trade, investment, agriculture, forestry and minerals, tourism, science and technology, and human resources development.

As ASEAN is moving towards a people-centered community and a community of opportunities, it needs first and foremost to address poverty issues and development gaps. Mismanagement of the Mekong River has severe adverse repercussions on millions of people whose livelihoods depend very much on the river. Development without considering the interests of the people will lead to widening disparity, social and political ills, which in turn lead to social and political conflicts.

Due to strong considerations of national sovereignty and interests, and the lack of legally binding regional instruments, it is difficult to manage trans-boundary water resources. There is a need to strengthen the institutional capacity especially with regards to the implementation of policy blueprints of MRC and ASEAN. Strong partnership between ASEAN and other sub-regional mechanisms or institutions is vital to deepened regional cooperation and integration.

In 2010, former Secretary General of ASEAN, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan said “we wish to expand our collaboration by taking a comprehensive approach to making our regional growth balanced and efficient, which could not be achieved individually but collectively. Working in partnership with the MRC countries would add a new dimension to regional development that ASEAN thrives on.”[4]

However, over the past five years institutional cooperation and partnership between ASEAN and MRC have not been strengthened and the results of cooperation are limited due to the lack of political will, leadership, and resource mobilization from both institutions.

The Mekong River management should be regarded as one of the core issues of ASEAN. Without effective mechanisms and efficient resources to address the impacts caused by hydropower dams and climate change, the people living in the Mekong River Basin cannot escape from poverty, which in turn results in a widening development gap within the region. The tensions and conflicts over the Mekong’s resources may threaten regional security and development.

ASEAN’s dialogue partners need to show more commitment and support in assisting the people of the Mekong Sub-region in dealing with and adapting to changing water and nutrient flow, food scarcity and insecurity, environmental degradation, and climate change. Institutional cooperation and partnership between ASEAN and MRC is critical in promoting the sustainable development of trans-boundary water resources and narrow the development gap in the region.

[1] Bangkok Post, Right way forward for the Mekong River. 5 March 2016. Available at http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/886688/right-way-forward-for-the-mekong-river

[2] Luke Hunt, What is the value of the Mekong River? The Diplomat 4 January 2016. http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/what-is-the-value-of-the-mekong-river/

[3] Vietnamnet. Hydropower dams cause $231 million in damage to Mekong Delta. 6 March 2016. Available at http://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/environment/152083/hydropower-dams-cause–231-mln-in-damage-to-mekong-delta.html

[4] Mekong River Commission, News and Events, 4 April 2010, http://www.mrcmekong.org/news-and-events/news/asean-mrc-to-boost-cooperation-on-mekong-issues/

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