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When the four-member Ministerial Council of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) met at Pakse in southern Laos in October 2000, during disastrous floods on the Mekong, they asked for an urgent ‘scientific investigation.’ This in at least three respects was a departure from previous practice. First, it came directly and unanimously as a cry for help, from senior Ministers in the four Lower Mekong countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand). Secondly, the four Ministers assumed that the MRC Secretariat had the capacity, at virtually no notice, to undertake the task it was commissioning. Thirdly and unlike so many earlier MRC projects, the impetus in this instance (and substantial funding) came from the four riparian countries themselves, rather than from one or more international donors.
The MRC set up a Task Force on Flood Mitigation and Management (FMM) and an ‘International Consultation’ was held at Phnom Penh on 13-14 February 2001. The 40-50 participants at the regional meeting were mainly officers of the four national Mekong Committees and the MRC Secretariat, representatives of national disaster organisations, an official observer from the PRC and a small number of personnel from NGOs.
Substantial evidence was presented to show that: unusually early and heavy rainfall in northwest Laos and southwest China, in July, had added to rain from tropical storms (from the South China Sea) affecting southern Laos and Cambodia, so leading to major discharge of the Mekong across the Laos-Cambodia border and the filling of Tonle Sap in Cambodia up to six weeks earlier than usual; high rainfall in southern Laos in August and September from tropical storms which had crossed the Annamite Mountains resulted in high Mekong discharge downstream and severe flooding in the vicinity of Phnom Penh, at a time when Tonle Sap was already full; and the frequency and intensity of tropical storms from the South China Sea had resulted in high August-September-October rainfall, when discharge of Mekong floodwaters was slowed by the previous filling of Tonle Sap and high tides in September on the coast of the South China Sea.
Development of an effective “early warning system” for flooding in the Lower Mekong Region and a stronger information network in flood-prone areas was discussed,. What was neglected in this first regional meeting was any close review of the existing national efforts, needs and priorities in flood mitigation.
Are there broader implications in these developments, for regional cooperation in Lower Mekong and for the role of the MRC itself? Last October the MRC Secretariat was pitch-forked into a new task for which it was ill-prepared. It is now charged with the formulation of a regional strategy for flood mitigation and management in the Lower Mekong. The FMM is a rainy season counterpart of the long-planned Water Utilization Program (WUP, focused on dry season usage) which the MRC is now developing with World Bank funding. Both envisage having close working relations with the National Mekong Committees and line agencies in the four riparian countries. Together with the MRC’s Agriculture, Irrigation and Forestry Program (also approved by the Ministerial Council in October) the FMM and WUP will be integral components of the Commission’s Basin Development Plan (BDP) whose role was envisaged in the 1995 Mekong Agreement.
WATCHPOINT: Increasingly, the possibility is emerging that the MRC may be an important force for regional development in coming decades.
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