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Cooperation never so needed for future of Mekong River basin

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Fishermen on the Mekong River arrange their nets. A 2016 Mekong River Commission warned of dire effects on fisheries due to development. Heng Chivoan

Cooperation never so needed for future of Mekong River basin

Today, we who live in the Mekong River basin face unprecedented risks and challenges.

More extreme weather – floods, storms and droughts – are already changing the river basin we once knew.

Our region has been deemed one of the most vulnerable to climate change impacts in the world.

And we still do not know the extent of impacts on the basin and the Mekong River system.

At the same time, we face difficult trade-offs between increased development in the energy, transport and agriculture sectors and adverse impacts on the environment and local livelihoods.

Fish catches are changing and are expected to decline, downstream sediment transport is reducing and threatening agricultural yields, and biodiversity is under pressure.

Last year, the Mekong region also faced an unprecedented tragedy when a major dam collapsed in Laos.

Never before have we faced such complex, uncertain circumstances, and never has the need to come together to find ways to mitigate risks, share benefits and boost resilience been greater.

That’s why, during my tenure at the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat, I will work diligently to reinforce the institution’s cornerstones, continue to deliver timely scientifically sound knowledge and propose sustainable solutions that are sensitive to diverse viewpoints and values.

In this way, the MRC will continue to serve as the Mekong basin’s only water diplomacy platform and forum for discussion and facilitating solutions to the regional challenges.

Boosting knowledge

Only by understanding the current state of the Mekong River basin, how it has changed and the drivers of these changes, can we manage today’s challenges more effectively.

The MRC’s forthcoming State of River Basin report, which we expect to publish later this year, will provide us with the latest and most comprehensive view to date of economic, social, environmental, climate change and cooperation trends in the basin.

This follows our recently completed Council Study, which outlines the potential impacts of development in the water and related sectors and opportunities to make smarter investments for the Mekong River basin now and in the coming years.

To ensure we monitor and share information about emerging risks and changes, the MRC has also taken steps to reinforce basin-wide monitoring networks and forecasting systems for floods and droughts.

Over the next few years, I hope to improve the way the 1995 Mekong Agreement and its five Procedures support the Member Countries’ efforts to manage the water resources of the basin.

This will also be reinforced through the planned Joint Environmental Monitoring Programme that will support the MRC Member Countries to monitor and report transboundary environmental impacts of Mekong mainstream hydropower projects.

The programme will be piloted on the existing dam developments, Xayaburi and Don Sahong, to enable the countries to respond when adverse impacts are identified.

Following the recommendations by the MRC during the prior consultation process, the Xayaburi and Don Sahong projects have made substantial improvements to their project designs to address stakeholders’ concerns on fisheries and sediment issues.

Collaborating for resilience

But given the host of uncertainties around the efficacy of mitigation measures, joint monitoring and adaptive management will be critical.

However, procuring knowledge about current and future challenges is not enough – all stakeholders in the Mekong River basin must collaborate and make informed choices to successfully optimise the benefits and manage the risks of development.

As a first step, the MRC continues to make efforts to enhance its data and information management to verify and share information and knowledge widely and swiftly.

We are also upping our efforts to continuously bring together government representatives, private sector actors, development partners, researchers, NGOs and civil society organisations for open and constructive dialogue on sustainable development.

As demonstrated by our latest Regional Stakeholder Forum on the proposed Pak Lay hydropower project in Laos, stakeholders’ input matters and has been factored into the consultation and decision-making processes.

Finally, effectively responding to changes and risks across the basin requires wider collaboration between the MRC Member Countries and beyond, not least with our upstream neighbour China.

I have planned a visit to China this June to further our ongoing collaboration. I plan to discuss opportunities for collaboration with the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, high-level exchange visits by MRC Ministerial Council and plans for enhanced information sharing.

Preparing for uncertain tomorrow

While the MRC is well established and recognised as the international treaty-based river basin organisation and primary water diplomacy platform in the Mekong River basin, we still have opportunities to improve basin-wide cooperation.

My priority is to further equip the MRC Secretariat with the facilitation and brokering skills needed to find solutions among countries, sectors and groups that may have conflicting views and interests.

With apologies to American Professor of Mathematics John Allen Paulos, if uncertainty is the only certainty then our security lies in being well prepared to adapt.

The MRC remains committed to achieving resilient, equitable live-lihoods for the basin’s populations, while promoting and preserving development gains.

I am fully committed to applying the MRC’s motto of “Meeting the Needs, Keeping the Balance” to social justice, poverty eradication and sustainable development.

To do this, I ask for the continued input from and cooperation between all stakeholders – only together can we ensure a resilient future for the Mekong River basin and its people.

An Pich Hatda is CEO of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat. He is the first Cambodian and the second riparian CEO of the MRC Secretariat.

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