Countries in the Mekong basin, notably those located in the lower part of the river – Asia’s seventh longest – are in need of a collective strategy to secure their future, given China’s control of the upstream part and ongoing changes in global geo-politics.
The 4,909km-long river runs from Tibet in China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But only its lower portion is regulated by an international agreement and an organisation.
The lower part is popularly known as Mekong, while the upper part in China is called Lancang.
While all six countries in the basin increasingly utilise resources from the Mekong, such as for the construction of dams in its main course and major tributaries, and for navigation and fishing – there remains no clear procedures for all countries to ensure proper management of the environment and fair resource distribution.
Differences and sometimes disputes over water resource utilisation and management have occurred occasionally over the past decade, when some of these activities led to cross boundary impacts in the sub-region.
Hydropower construction and operations in the Mekong mainstream in China and Laos’ territories have also caused severe impact to the downstream countries.
Dams can create fluctuation of water flows, block navigation route and prevent fish natural migration up and down the river.
Four countries in the lower Mekong – Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – signed an agreement back in 1995 to establish regulations for river utilisation and set up the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to coordinate and enforce the agreement.
As the inter-governmental organisation, the MRC is struggling to influence the decision of the individual sovereign nations over the water utilisation with Laos, a member, deciding to push ahead with the construction of Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in the Mekong mainstream. More dams, including those in Pak Beng and Pak Lay, are in the pipeline.
MRC’s major mechanism under the 1995 agreement known as the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) is not so effective in influencing its members’ decisions.
The creditability of the PNPCA as a mechanism to consult stakeholders is less, as seen in the move by civic groups to boycott the latest public hearing on the planned Pak Lay dam recently. The Pak Lay dam is the second biggest dam on the Mekong, being built by China.
The MRC and its four members now face another big challenge in terms of being able to manage the Mekong basin affairs, as China has sponsored the establishment of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in 2016, that will include all six Mekong countries into one framework.
While jurisdiction of the MRC and the LMC is different, there are some overlapping areas particularly the water resource management.
There have been calls over the past few years for the expansion of the MRC to cover the upper part of the Mekong basin, by inviting China and Myanmar to become full members.
Yet both have maintained their status as “dialogue partners”, since 1996.
With this status, MRC has been able to get a certain degree of cooperation on water resource management, with China agreeing to share hydrology information with the organisation.
But other matters remain elusive.
The LMC’s institutions and mechanisms show trends of eclipsing MRC in the near future as Beijing has plenty of resources and funds to forge bilateral cooperation with countries downstream.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who oversees the LMC, has rejected the idea that the MRC is being overshadowed and has suggested that the two would support and complement each other.
MRC also tries to have closer relations with the LMC’s Water Resource Cooperation Center.
MRC’s CEO Pham Tuan Phan met with senior Chinese officials in Kunming on the sidelines of the First Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Forum last week to discuss further cooperation between the two organisations.
“China has welcomed our call to strengthen cooperation between the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center and MRC for the benefit of the whole Mekong River basin,” CEO Pham said.
“We will be working on further identifying key areas of cooperation that are vital to our work for sustainable development of the Mekong River and the basin’s people.”
According to Pham, the head of the Chinese Joint Working Group for the centre Yu Xingjun also said that the LMC was trying to find possible ways to work with the MRC.
One of the key areas where cooperation is needed is the sharing of flood forecast data from the Jing Hong hydropower station.
Sharing of the hydrological data during the dry season will benefit development planning and drought management in the Mekong, said Pham.
China and MRC have renewed the 2002-agreement in 2013, on the provision of hydrological information on the Mekong River.
Under the agreement, China now provides water-level data during the flood season for five months from June to October twice daily from two stations located on the Mekong in China.
This information is fed into the MRC’s flood forecasting system.
China contributes 13.5 per cent of the flow of the Mekong River, according to a MRC statement.
The MRC said it needs more cooperation from China and LMC to update its strategic plans on sustainable hydropower and basin development strategy.
“There is no better time than now for China to cooperate with the MRC if it is for the interest of the whole basin population of over 70 million people,” said Pham.
Indeed, the proposal to have closer cooperation between MRC and LMC was stressed clearly during a MRC summit in Cambodia’s Siem Reap in April this year.
But the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam did not spell out the term ‘cooperation’ clearly, given the fact that many countries mostly rely on China under many other sub-regional cooperation schemes.
Cooperation in this sense is not based on equality and reciprocity, but China in many aspects plays the role of a “donor” country. Asia news network
Supalak Ganjanakhundee is Editor of the Nation (Thailand).
The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers, websites and social media platforms across the region.