Laos: The Mekong River Commission Approaches 50 : What Of Its Future?


E.C. Chapman

The origins of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) go back to 1957 when the 'Committee for the Coordination of Investigations of the Lower Mekong Basin' was established under ECAFE (later ESCAP). That it has survived so long, in various forms and through major crises in the 1970s and early 1990s, is in large measure due to UNDP’s commitment and management. After competing interests between Thailand and Vietnam surfaced in 1992-93 and China’s Manwan Dam was then seen, wrongly, as a major threat to the sustainability of Mekong flow downstream , it was UNDP that brought the four Lower Mekong countries together again. In April 1995 the governments of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia committed themselves to the 'Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin'.

After 1995 life for the MRC continued smoothly, at least initially. The MRC headquarters remained in Bangkok; China (controlling the upper half of the Mekong basin) showed no interest in joining the Commission, though it was represented by observers in meetings of the Ministerial Council and Joint Committee after 1997; the MRC’s staff grew steadily in numbers to about 100, with senior administrators and project staff enjoying international-level salaries; and much effort was devoted to attracting and administering donor-funded projects. These sometimes produced tangible benefits for particular riparian countries, such as small-scale improvements in irrigation, navigation, river ports and ferry services, but the proliferation of investigations resulted in many reports and recommendations which had little effect. All too commonly the MRC could not attract the funds needed for implementation.

Then, in 1997-98, the MRC headquarters moved to Phnom Penh, with considerable loss of well-qualified staff through early retirement and resignations. At the same time the Commission came under heavy fire from its Donor Consultative Group and Ministerial Council for the continuing failure of its Joint Committee to address key requirements of the 1995 Agreement. Articles 5 and 6 of the Agreement, relating to the proposed Water Utilization Programme (WUP) and Basin Development Plan (BDP), provided for the determination and management of minimum dry season (October-April) and wet season flows in the Mekong mainstream. These two Articles assumed that four-country cooperation would be automatic, so that under Article 26 the MRC could then devise 'rules' governing any proposed diversions from the Mekong mainstream.

The 1995 Agreement made no suggestions as to how these demanding objectives were to be achieved, for the management of flow in the lower half of one of the world’s largest rivers. Again UNDP came to the rescue. In 1997, at a time when overall donor support for the MRC was waning, but support from Scandinavian countries and Finland was increasing, it engaged the Stockholm Environment Institute to advise on the MRC’s future focus and strategies. At the same time UNDP encouraged the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to be involved in the proposed WUP. As sequel to these efforts, in late 1998 the MRC Council adopted a Strategic Plan which aims at reducing and coordinating projects within ‘Key Result Areas’. It also began negotiations with the World Bank which led to formal approval (February 2000) of start-up funding under the GEF for the WUP, 2000-2006.

Now, five years after the 1995 Agreement was signed, the MRC seems to have an assured financial future supported by UNDP and other donors, and at project level by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and a continuing group of international donors led by Japan and countries in northwest Europe. It also has a new and energetic Danish CEO, Mr Joern Kristensen, appointed last September. But the achieving of regional cooperation by the four Lower Mekong countries may still pose problems. Their various interests in water allocation from the mainstream or from Mekong tributaries for irrigation, hydropower generation and urban water supplies continue to grow. And in the coming decade, although the PRC currently seem unlikely to join the MRC, China plans to begin construction of its enormous Xiaowan Dam on the upper Mekong, with effects downstream.

WATCHPOINT: Will the MRC accept its opportunities in the new millennium, and grow into a leading regional development agency for the Mekong Basin, in association with the World Bank and the ADB?


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