KT: If you can pick some of MRC’s key achievements over the last 25 years, what would they be?
Dr Hatda: For the past 25 years, we’ve brought the four member countries together, despite their vested interests, to implement various basin-wide procedures, guidelines and strategies to develop, manage and protect the Mekong River. We’ve gained recognition as a well-established regional knowledge hub and water diplomacy platform through our services and products.
Specifically, we’ve put in place a common basin-wide strategy, called the Basin Development Strategy, for the development and management of the Mekong River. Such a strategy has captured development opportunities and laid out measures to minimise risks. With our Preliminary Design Guidance, and Sustainable Hydropower Development Strategy, we’ve offered comprehensive guidelines to advise our members on how to sustainably develop mainstream dams in line with their commitments under the 1995 Mekong Agreement.
Our monitoring and reporting systems on basin conditions and impact of mainstream dams have likewise been widened. We’ve grown our network of monitoring sites in hydrology, sediment, water quality, fisheries and ecological heath to provide fundamental information for the management of the river. The information has also helped our members effectively tackle flood and drought risks for vulnerable communities.
We’ve also conducted some of the most critical studies to aid the members’ planning, investment and safeguarding of the river systems. One of these is the Study on Sustainable Management and Development of the Mekong River including Impacts of Mainstream Hydropower Projects, or the Council Study. Through its findings, we were able to advise the countries on trade-offs between water resource development and its impacts on the people, economies and the environment.
Our water diplomacy platform has worked well and gained recognition. We’ve provided a forum for discussion and conflict resolution that is observable in real time. In fact, without the MRC and our consultation process, there would have been a lack in procedures and guidelines to facilitate regional discussion of large-scale infrastructure impacts. There would also have been a lack of transparency in planning. Through the MRC, project documents and various forms of research have become accessible to the public.
In addition, our cooperation with China has become a lot better in recent years. We’ve deepened our technical and political cooperation through data sharing, notification of water flow, technical exchanges, joint research and policy dialogue.
Finally, we’ve successfully reformed to become a leaner organisation. We’ve been fully led and staffed by riparians. Thanks to member countries’ recognition of our value, they’ve increased their financial contributions to the organisation and given us their highest political support via three successful Summits. Contributions from the countries now cover almost 40 percent of core funding, and will reach full funding by 2030.
This is a testimony that the 1995 Mekong Agreement works. But, of course, there are still some challenges to be addressed.
KT: Can you tell me more about these challenges?
Dr Hatda: While water and related developments have, over the last decade, brought about economic growth and poverty reduction in all the four Mekong countries, they’ve brought along different obstacles, too.
For one, we’ve witnessed increasing pressure on the river. There have been permanent alterations of flow regimes, a continual loss of wetlands, deterioration of riverine habitats and reduction in fish catches and sediment transport. There has also been limited information sharing on river infrastructures and their operations. All of these have threatened agricultural yields and livelihoods of some 65 million people living in the basin.
We’ve also experienced more extreme weather conditions, such as floods, storms and droughts. We’ve faced difficult trade-offs between increased developments in the energy, transport and agriculture sectors, and the conservation and protection of the environment, as well as local livelihoods.
The increasing developments in the mainstream and tributaries highlight the growing need for sustainability and coordinated operational management of related projects, including hydropower.
The challenge now for the MRC is to ensure consequences and implications of such developments are assessed and dealt with from a proactive, basin-wide perspective.
Coordinating multiple actors, at several levels and across different sectors, in the Mekong region has been difficult as well. Questions about overlapping mandates, regional versus national prerogative, which organisations are best placed to lead, contribute or even focus their efforts elsewhere, need to be resolved. All parties must focus on outcomes for the basin as a whole and the people living there.
In short, I think the MRC needs to figure out how it could stay ever more relevant and useful to the region. It’s a question of how to timely address the needs and emerging issues facing the member countries for equitable and reasonable use of the Mekong systems.
KT: Why is it important for the MRC members to continue having, or perhaps beefing up, their regional collaboration for sustainable development in the Mekong basin?
Dr. Hatda: The importance lies in the fact that throughout the Mekong region, there has been a demand for water use, on the back of rising populations and different initiatives set up by the Mekong governments to support economic growth. While this growing demand represents the need for economic development and expansion, it also puts the river’s sustainability at risk, especially with infrastructure developments across its systems. This situation may pose great threat to the issue of benefits sharing and the equitable use of the Mekong systems among the riparian countries.
That’s why the need for regional cooperation has never been more paramount. In fact, the competition for these diversified resources can also be a catalyst for cooperation and peace. But it must be done through a platform governed by rules.
I think the MRC is in the best position to do this given its six decades of Mekong cooperation history. It’s the only treaty-based river basin organisation around. Its potential to bring holistic development in the Mekong region cannot and should not be overlooked.
KT: What should the member countries do to address the challenges in the river?
Dr Hatda: I think our member countries need to align their regional and national interests if the Mekong River is to be developed properly.
The issue of sustainable development within the lower Mekong basin requires mitigating risks and seizing opportunities that the river creates for the people in a manner that conserves the river’s functions for future generations.
Basin-wide cooperation in proactive regional development planning and coordinated management must be further strengthened. This is to ensure long-term security for water, energy, food and livelihoods, to address environmental needs and to realise opportunities for collaborative development that is beneficial across borders.
The members also need to advance their current knowledge, data and information and up-take MRC products accumulated over the past 25 years. If they’re to address future challenges effectively, they need to boost their efforts now.
Of course, one country acting alone can’t achieve this goal. They need to work together as a team with a shared goal and a common interest. They need to honour their commitments to each other and to stakeholders. They need to practice due diligence in development planning and implementation in line with regional and national guidelines. Finally, they need to share more with the MRC, especially data and information that could help resolve misunderstandings and aid better planning and management.
KT: What kind of role do you think the MRC should play in the future?
Dr Hatda: I believe the MRC should evolve from focusing on information dissemination to more proactive basin planning – that is, assessing and recommending basin-wide projects not in the countries’ plans. It should also coordinate operation for more infrastructures.
The Commission needs to continue updating its data, information, forecasting and communication systems in order to monitor, analyse, predict and inform the decision-makers and the public on a timely and accurate manner.
Finally, it needs to proactively work with China, as the upstream country, in order to secure benefits and address risks that could only be managed from a whole basin approach.
I believe these actions would put the MRC in a better position to address the current and future changes in the basin. It would help tackle emerging development issues and meet the needs of the members, while keeping the balance of interests among the countries.
Only time and continued political commitments can tell.