The 4th Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit kicked off on April 5 in the Lao capital Vientiane, with leaders from across the Mekong region in attendance to discuss the challenges faced by the Mekong basin, including the construction of hydropower dams upriver.

This year’s summit is being held with the theme of “Innovation and Cooperation for a Water Secure and Sustainable Mekong”.

After arriving in Laos on April 4, Prime Minister Hun Sen posted an update on the summit, saying that part of their time in Vientiane will be spent reviewing the progress and achievements of the MRC, which were undertaken through concerted efforts and partnerships aimed at achieving sustainable development in the Mekong basin, a goal which was set at the last MRC summit in 2018.

“The summit will also discuss challenges that are happening in the Mekong basin and set future strategies in order to jointly solve the challenges more effectively as well as to push drive cooperation and partnership for sustainable Mekong River,” the post said.

Sri Thamrong, Minister Delegate attached to the Prime Minister, accompanied Hun Sen to a press conference held at Phnom Penh International Airport just before their departure to Laos.

Thamrong said the summit will make an effort to preserve the Mekong River’s natural balance to protect the interests and lives of all of the people of the Mekong countries while protecting the environment and safeguarding the ecological balance.

He added that the discussions at the summit will also touch on topics such as flood prevention, droughts and the use of water resources from the Mekong River for activities like aquaculture done in a sustainable way.

“The construction of hydropower dams along the river will also be discussed, including ways to mitigate the impacts of the construction so as not to damage the livelihoods of the people in the Mekong River basin and move forward in a sustainable way.

“Moreover, the meeting will look into other areas of interest related to the economy and its connection to the Mekong River in each country in the region, all of which hold an economic interest in protecting the river.

“As you’re probably aware, activities like combating climate change or preventing drought, for example, require each country to present their strategies for things like their plans for climate change adaptation, and then we must find ways to coordinate them and work together,” he said.

He added that the meeting of the MRC Summit will also look into the issue of ship navigation, river restoration and prevention of environmental pollution that affects the river, indicating that one step they hope to take this year is to get financial commitments from all MRC members to create a fund for conservation purposes.

Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives in the Lao capital of Vientiane to attend the 4th MRC Summit, on April 4. SPM

He said the Mekong River region has many development partners active in many projects along the river, such as the UN, EU, US, Japan and others.

The MRC said in a press statement on April 4 that they had wrapped up their international conference on April 3, with participants stressing that it was time to move past aspirational goals and lofty words and to focus on taking action in the near-term that will make an immediate difference.

The press statement pointed out that, in recent years, the river has been beset by a combination of worsening climate change and expanding water infrastructure projects.

The MRC position statement recognised that hydropower, rice cultivation and aquaculture production have increased and improved the socio-economic situation and the standard of living across the basin, but those hardest hit by the worst of the current adverse impacts of development on the Mekong River are the millions of fishing and farming households in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

The April 3 MRC international conference brought together more than 600 experts for dozens of panel discussions that ranged from topics like social issues to the use of cutting-edge technology.

Bounkham Vorachit, Lao Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, said that there is a need for more decisive deeds to address the mounting challenges to “water security”.

“This situation is projected to worsen if we continue business as usual. More needs to be done,” she said.

Vorachit urged the engagement of all stakeholders – including international organisations, the private sector, civil society and academia – to pay particular attention to the livelihoods of the poorest, most vulnerable riparian residents, according to MRC press release.

“Mobilising political will remains crucial,” Vorachit told the audience. “Equally important is to be forward-thinking and have a willingness to consider innovative ways to approach local, regional and international cooperation.”

The MRC said in January that the 4th MRC Summit and International Conference will see the six Mekong River countries discuss the latest developments, opportunities and innovative solutions to unprecedented challenges facing Southeast Asia’s largest waterway, from water-related development impacts to climate change.

“The Mekong is undergoing tremendous transformations,” says Anoulak Kittikhoun, the CEO of the MRC Secretariat. “We need to innovate constantly – in policy, approach and technology – to make the management and development of the Mekong River Basin more responsible and sustainable.”