I am writing in response to an article published in the May 20 edition of the Phnom Penh Post titled River’s in danger, but MRC is ‘weak’. I’d like to provide our views on the mandate of the Mekong River Commission and our approach to implement it.
As the CEO of the MRC Secretariat, I would like to first thank the Post for its continual reporting on the work of the MRC. As defined by the 1995 Mekong Agreement signed by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam on April 5, 1995, the MRC serves as a platform for regional cooperation on the management of water-related resources for sustainable development of the Lower Mekong River Basin.
It also acts as a knowledge hub of key basin development issues for better coordination and policy-making by the member countries. It is not a regulatory body of the management of water-related resources, as generally perceived by the public.
Everything the MRC does follows the agreement, a set of procedural rules, and the strategies and roadmaps agreed at the MRC’s highest decision-making body, Council of Ministers.
For regional cooperation, the MRC has put in place the official Procedures for the Member Countries to follow on water use of the Mekong and its tributaries. One of the five procedures, called the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), defines steps for cooperation on development projects involving water use such as hydropower projects.
The process is not meant for approval or disapproval of the proposed project itself, but rather it provides the member countries with an opportunity to review impacts of the proposed project on neighbouring countries and agree on mitigating measures.
The Xayaburi and Don Sahong Hydropower projects, both on the mainstream of the Mekong River in Laos, are the only two projects to date that have been through the Prior Consultation process under PNPCA in accordance with the set rules. In this process, the MRC’s joint committee, an implementing body, was to review the project proposals, discuss the potential impacts and agree on recommendations for mitigating measures.
At the end of a six-month consultation, however, they were referred to the MRC Council as the member countries could not reach a unanimous agreement at the JC level. The Don Sahong case was further referred to the diplomatic channel by the council in accordance with the procedural rules, when they could not resolve differing positions.
Although the two cases could not reach consensus through the prior consultation process, the process has prompted the member countries to take into considerations the impacts their development projects would cause on their neighbouring countries.
In the case of Xayaburi, the Lao government and its project developer have decided to put an additional $400 million to redesign the dam to mitigate some of the concerns raised during the prior-consultation. This would not have happened without the MRC or PNPCA.
Similarly, the MRC’s restructuring also follows the agreed strategies and roadmaps. Our decrease in both funding and staffing levels didn’t happen by chance. It’s a long-term strategy of the MRC to become more self-sufficient by 2030 as committed by all heads of the four MRC’s member countries at the first MRC summit in 2010.
We then developed a regional roadmap for decentralisation and reform that clearly sets out how the MRC would shift from its heavily donor-funded, program-based structure to a more self-financed, function-based organisation. The decrease in external funding is in line with the planned increase in member country’s contributions.
Our donors support this initiative and continue financing our efforts. The MRC’s 2016-2020 strategic plan, which has been developed in close consultation with the Member Countries, donors and relevant stakeholders, requires $65 million to implement all the activities.
Many donors have committed their continuous support with funding agreements and pledges. We have so far secured about 90 per cent of the required funding through those donor commitments and the four member countries’ contributions.
All the member countries have respected the 1995 Mekong Agreement, other procedural rules and agreed strategies for cooperation on the development and management of water-related resources in the region.
I strongly believe that the MRC offers a valuable platform for regional cooperation for sustainable development in various water-related sectors. And if we are to see the sustainable development of the Mekong River and its water and related resources that contributes to poverty alleviation and economic growth, the MRC will remain as relevant as ever.
I hope this letter would help illustrate a more balanced view on the MRC’s mandate in water diplomacy and regional cooperation.
Dr Pham Tuan Phan
CEO of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat