New Directions for the Mekong

April 6, 2018

The Mekong Basin is home to about 70 million people, 80 percent of whom live in rural areas and their livelihood is much dependent on agriculture and natural resources. The source of their livelihood however is under threat due to interconnected issues such as the changing pattern of water and sediment flows, overexploitation of natural resources, environmental degradation, climate change, and natural disasters.

The 3rd Summit of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) wrapped up yesterday with the issuance of Siem Reap Declaration to further promote sustainable development of the Mekong River Basin through the enhancement of the implementation of the 1995 Mekong Agreement and the role of MRC in a broader regional cooperation. Two documents were endorsed at the summit, namely the Strategic Plan 2016-2020 and the Basin Development Strategy 2016-2020.

How to strengthen regional cooperation and partnership to mitigate the risks and seize the opportunities has been the key agenda of the summit. The first MRC Summit was held in Thailand in 2010 and the second MRC Summit was in Vietnam in 2014. The 4th MRC Summit is scheduled to take place in Laos in April 2022.

Under the theme “One Mekong One Spirit”, the third MRC Summit has drawn remarkable attention from regional and international stakeholders alike. Hundreds of participants attended the MRC international conference right before the summit to share their views on how to strengthen regional collaboration and partnership to address emerging challenges in the Mekong region.

The leaders underscored the importance of information and knowledge sharing, institution building and policy coordination, regional capacity to deal with climate change and natural disasters such as floods and droughts, and the complementarity and synergy of regional mechanisms, cooperation and partnership for sustainable development.

The leaders also stressed the necessity to connect MRC with the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), Asean, and the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation Mechanism (MLC). Chinese Minister of Water Resources E Jingping said that MLC does not aim to dominate or substitute but to complement the existing regional mechanisms. The message was made in response to the concern that the MLC was going to challenge or make other regional institutions less relevant.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen proposed a five-point policy for future consideration. First, promote and strengthen the coordination mechanism, and develop water resources in a durable manner for the interests of local communities. Second, address the main challenges that affect sustainable development of the Mekong River Basin. Third, develop mechanisms and concrete action plans to deal with natural disasters. Fourth, continue strengthening institutional capacity and human resources to effectively and efficiently implement regional programmes and projects. Fifth, enhance cooperation and partnership with dialogue partners and development partners as well as regional and international institutions.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc recommended that other MRC member countries to consider ratifying the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses adopted in 1997 and the Convention on the Protection and Use of Trans-boundary Watercourses and International Lakes adopted in 1992. These two international legal instruments could help strengthen sustainable water resource management.

Other policy proposals include developing a joint monitoring and evaluation mechanism to harmonise resource-related interests of each member state, using scientific data and cross-border impact assessments for project development, investing in renewable energy and efficient use of energy, promoting cooperation on water-energy-food security nexus, promoting gender equality in the region, and linking regional development goals with the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

The political will and commitment are quite clear. Now the question is how to concretize those initiatives and proposals. Technical capacity and financial resources have been the main constraints in implementing projects and delivering expected outcomes. As it is, the MRC has been largely relying on external sources of funding for its operation.

Institutional reforms of the MRC must be more robust and its members agreed to contribute more funding to support the operation and functioning of commission in order to realise the vision that it would become financially independent by 2030. This in turn would strengthen the ownership and effectiveness of this inter-governmental body.

Moreover, the promotion of responsibility to implement, strengthening of bureaucratic capacity and leadership, and the enhancement of joint efforts and multi-stakeholder partnership will help strengthen regional resilience – especially now, with global and regional economic uncertainties anticipated from the fallout of an ongoing trade war between China and the US.

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