Pou Sothirak, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, sat down with Khmer Times’ COO Kay Kimsong to discuss the Mekong river and Cambodia’s role in its conservation in light of China creating the Global Centre Mekong Study (GCMS) to conduct academic research on the river’s condition as development grows in the region.
KT: Can you explain the GCMS project and tell us your thought on whether or not it can be independent if funded by China?
Mr Sothirak: The GCMS is a network of think-tanks created on a proposition from Chinese leaders during the second Foreign Minister Meeting in 2016. Ministers of Foreign Affairs for five counties, Cambodia, Lao, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand, supported China’s proposition of creating the GCMS network to do academic research and provide policy recommendations. It is in support of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation initiative with all six countries. In terms of being independent, each country has an independent centre and China does not tell us what to do in our respective centres.
KT: What gains can Cambodia expect from the GCMS?
Mr Sothirak: You need to engage with us to make sure that projects are designed not only for commercial or economic benefit. You need to look at the environmental issues, the implications that might be created by the projects, particularity big infrastructure projects like the building of hydro-electric dams. Without proper studies, without proper analysis, it may create backlash and that is why I view the role of the centre as a way to provide additional information in terms of recommendations and policy input for governments.
KT: Do you believe that China will listen to recommendations from the centre as well?
Mr Sothirak: I firmly believe that. That is basically the purpose of setting up the Global Centre for Mekong Study. It is to do a proper study, and proper study means that you cannot just focus on the positive aspect, you also need to look at what the negative impacts of projects are and make suggestions to mitigate the negative aspects.
KT: Will the centre publicly release its findings?
Mr Sothirak: Once a study is done, we will send it it to the secretariat. GCMS will send it to the National Secretariat of the respected countries for their consideration. It is then up to the host country what they want to do with the report. Our guideline is to produce reports for the Foreign Ministry of respective countries on specific projects. If there is something to be careful about, we will say so and will make suggestions on how to go about mitigating any negative impact of the project.
KT: Which country really manages the Greater Mekong River these days?
Mr Sothirak: The Mekong river is shared by millions of people and everybody shares its benefits. In term of management, each country has their own structure. I don’t think there is a single body looking after the Mekong. The Mekong River Commission is an institution created by the members of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. China and Myanmar are not members. The role of the MRC is to coordinate discussion between countries before projects take place. So, the MRC is like a management body.
KT: How serious is Cambodia about the care of the Mekong river?
Mr Sothirak: I believe that Cambodia understands the importance of the Mekong river as a source of life by providing food, providing livelihoods, water, irrigation to produce crops and so on. Going forward, Cambodia is confronting challenges along the Mekong from developments in other countries, like dams in Laos. There are studies that show not only Chinese dams have impacts on the Cambodian side; Lao dams also impact us. So, I think Cambodia has to engage more with Laos over the Mekong. This is a very sensitive issue that needs discussing to ensure the river’s well-being.
KT: Regarding the decline of the river’s health, can that then lead to negative impacts on the Tonle Sap, our major source of fish stocks?
Mr Sothirak: Yes, because Tonle Sap is fed by the Mekong. You know during raining season, water flows to Tonle Sap, creating spawning grounds. These grounds need protection. If the natural water flow of the Mekong alters, it will impact Tonle Sap.
KT: What will GCMS Cambodia produce under funding from China?
Mr Sothirak: We have three research papers, two of them are policy papers, and the other one is an academic paper. We will focus on coordination aspects rather than competition.