Mekong River Commission
|Formation||April 5, 1995|
|Legal status||1995 Mekong Agreement|
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
|Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam|
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is an intergovernmental body concerned with the Mekong River basin and charged “to promote and co-ordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being by implementing strategic programmes and activities and providing scientific information and policy advice.”
Mekong Committee (1957–1978)
The origins of the Mekong Committee are linked to the legacy of (de)colonialism in Indochina and subsequent geopolitical developments. The political, social, and economic conditions of the Mekong River basin countries have evolved dramatically since the 1950s, when the Mekong represented the "only large river left in the world, besides the Amazon, which remained virtually unexploited." The impetus for the creation of the Mekong cooperation regime progressed in tandem with the drive for the development of the Lower Mekong, following the 1954 Geneva Conference which granted Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam independence from France. A 1957 United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) report, Development of Water Resources in the Lower Mekong Basin, recommended development to the tune of 90,000 km2 of irrigation and 13.7 gigawatts (GW) from five dams. Based largely on the recommendations of ECAFE, the "Committee for Coordination on the Lower Mekong Basin" (known as the Mekong Committee) was established in September 1957 with the adoption of the Statute for the Committee for Coordination of Investigations into the Lower Mekong Basin. ECAFE’s Bureau of Flood Control had prioritized the Mekong—of the 18 international waterways within its jurisdiction—in the hopes of creating a precedent for cooperation elsewhere. The UN’s involvement represented the UN’s "first direct involvement in international river basin planning" and "one of the UN's earliest spin-offs", as the organization functioned under the aegis of the UN, with its Executive Agent (EA) chosen from the carrier staff of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The U.S. government—which feared that poverty in the Basin would contribute to the strength of communist movements—proved one of the most vocal international backers of the Committee, with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation conducting a seminal 1956 study on the basin’s potential. Another 1962 study by U.S. geographer Gilbert F. White, Economic and Social Aspects of Lower Mekong Development, proved extremely influential, notably resulting in the postponement of (in White’s own estimation) the construction of the (still unrealized) mainstream Pa Mong dam, which would have displaced a quarter-million people. The influence of the United States in the Committee’s formation can also been seen in development studies of General Raymond Wheeler, the former Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, the role of C. Hart Schaaf as the Mekong Committee’s Executive Agent from 1959 to 1969, and President Lyndon Johnson’s promotion of the Committee as having the potential to "dwarf even our own T.V.A." However, US financial support was terminated in 1975 and did not resume for decades due to embargoes against Cambodia (until 1992) and Vietnam (until 1994), followed by periods of trade restrictions. However, Makim argues that the Committee was "largely unaffected by formal or informal U.S. preferences" given the ambivalence of some riparians about U.S. technical support, in particular Cambodia’s rejection of some specific types of assistance. However, the fact remains that "international development agencies have always paid the bills for the Mekong regime," with European (especially Scandinavian) nations picking up the slack left by the United States, and then (to a lesser extent) Japan.
The Mekong Committee was a forceful advocate for large-scale dams and other projects, primarily preoccupied with facilitating projects. For example, the 1970 Indicative Basin Plan called for 30,000 km2 of irrigation by the year 2000 (up from 2,130 km2) as well as 87 short-term tributary development projects and 17 long-term development projects on the mainstream. The Indicative Basin Plan was crafted largely in response to criticisms of the Committee’s "piecemeal" approach and declining political support of the organization; for example, the Committee had received no funds from Thailand, normally the biggest contributor, during the 1970 fiscal year. The completion of all 17 projects was never intended; rather the list was meant to serve as a "menu" for international donors, who were to select 9 or 10 of the projects. While a few of the short-term projects were implemented, none of the long-term projects prevailed in the political climate of the ensuring decade, which included the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Several tributary dams were constructed, but only one—the Nam Ngum Dam (completed 1971), in Laos—outside of Thailand, whose electricity was sold to Thailand. According to Makim, Nam Ngum was the "only truly intergovernmental project achieved" by the Committee.
This period was also marked by efforts to expand the jurisdiction and mandate of the Committee between 1958 and 1975, which did not receive the consent of all four riparians. However, these efforts culminated, in January 1975, in the adoption of a 35-article Joint Declaration of Principles for Utilization of the Waters of the Mekong Basin by the sixty-eighth session of the Mekong Committee, prohibiting the "unilateral appropriation" without "prior approval" and "extra-basin diversion" without unanimous consent. However, no Committee sessions were held in 1976 or 1977, as no plenipotentiary members had been appointed by Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam—all of which experienced regime change in 1975.
Interim Mekong Committee (1978–1995)
The rise of the Khmer Rouge made it obvious that Cambodia would be unable to participate in such an organization for the foreseeable future so in April 1977 the other three riparians agreed to the Declaration Concerning the Interim Mekong Committee, which resulted in the establishment of the Interim Mekong Committee in January 1978. The weakened interim organization was only able to study large-scale projects and implement a few small-scale projects, almost exclusively in Thailand; instead the institutional role of the organization shifted largely to data collection. The 1987 Revised Indicative Basin Plan—the high-water mark of the Interim Committee’s activity—scaled back the ambition of the 1970 Plan, envisioning a cascade of smaller dams along the Mekong’s mainstream, divided into 29 projects, 26 of which were strictly national in scope. The Revised Indicative Basin Plan can also be seen as laying the groundwork for Cambodia’s readmission. Indeed, the Supreme National Council of Cambodia requested readmission in June 1991.
However, Cambodia’s readmission was largely a side-show which masked the true issue facing the riparians: that the rapid economic growth experienced in Thailand relative to its neighbors had made even the modest sovereignty limitations imposed by the regime seem undesirable in Bangkok. Thailand and the other three riparians (led by Vietnam, the most powerful of the remaining three state) were locked in disagreement over whether Cambodia should be readmitted under the terms of the 1957 Statute (and more importantly, the 1975 Joint Declaration), with Thailand preferring to negotiate an entirely new framework to allow its planned Kong-Chi-Moon Project (and others) to proceed without a Vietnamese veto. Article 10 of the Joint Declaration, requiring unanimous consent for all mainstream development and inter-basin diversion proved to be the main sticking point of Cambodia’s readmission, with Thailand perhaps prepared to walk away from the regime altogether. The conflict came to a head in April 1992 when Thailand forced the executive agent of the Committee, Chuck Lankester, to resign and leave the country after barring the Secretariat from the March 1992 meeting. This prompting a series of meetings organized by the UNDP (which was terrified that the regime in which it had invested so much might disappear), culminating in the April 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin signed by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam in Chiang Rai, Thailand, creating the Mekong River Commission.
Since the dramatic confrontation of 1992, several seemingly overlapping organizations were created, including the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion (ADB-GMS, 1992), Japan’s Forum of Comprehensive Development of Indochina (FCDI, 1993), the Quadripite Economic Cooperation (QEC, 1993), the Association of South East Asian Nations and Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry’s Working Group on Economic Cooperation in Indochina and Burma (AEM-MITI, 1994), and (almost finalized) Myanmar and Singapore’s ASEAN-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation (ASEAN-ME, 1996).
Mekong River Commission (1995–present)
The MRC has undergone some evolution since 1995. Some of the "thorny issues" set aside during the negotiation of the Agreement were at least partially resolved by the implementation of subsequent Programmes such as the Water Utilization Programme (WUP) agreed to in 1999 and committed to implementation by 2005. The Commission’s hierarchical structure has been repeatedly tweaked, perhaps most notably in July 2000 when the MRC Secretariat was restructured. The data sharing protocols agreed to in 2001—largely in response to demands from donors, most notably the Global Environment Facility and their backers at the World Bank—represent another attempt to give meaning to elements of the regime’s textual tradition rendered ineffectual in practice. The 2001 Work Programme has largely come to be viewed as a shift "from a project-oriented focus to an emphasis on better management and preservation of existing resources." On paper, the Work Programme represents a rejection of the ambitious development schemes embodied by the 1970 and 1987 Indicative Basin Plans (calling for no mainstream dams) and a shift to a holistic rather than programmatic approach. In part, these changes represent a response to criticism of the MRC’s failure to undertake a "regional-scale project" or even a region-level focus.
2001 also saw a major shift in the MRC—at least on paper—when it committed to a role as a "learning organization" with an emphasis on "the livelihoods of the people in the Mekong region." In the same year its Annual Report emphasized the importance of "bottom-up" solutions and the "voice of the people directly affected." Similarly, the 2001 MRC Hydropower Development Strategy explicitly disavowed the "promotion of specific projects" in favor of "basin-wide issues." In part, these shifts mark a retreat from past project failures and recognition that the MRC faces multiple, and often more lucrative, competitors in the project arena.
The MRC is governed by its four member countries through the Joint Committee and the Council. Members of the Joint Committee are usually senior civil servants heading government departments. There is one member from each country. The Joint Committee meets two to three times a year to approve budgets and strategic plans. Members of the Council are cabinet ministers. The Council meets once a year.
Technical and administrative support is provided by the MRC Secretariat. The Secretariat is based in Vientiane, Lao P.D.R, with over 120 staff including scientists, administrators and technical staff. A Chief Executive Officer manages the Secretariat.
In April 2010, the Mekong River Commission convened a summit in Hua Hin, Thailand. All six riparian nations were in attendance, including China, Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Relations with the People's Republic of China and Burma
The Mekong River Commission and its predecessors have never included China (which was not a member of the United Nations in 1957) or Burma (which does not significantly rely or tap the Mekong), whose territory contains the Upper Basin of the Mekong. Although a New York-based organization called SERVIR has started a joint initiative project, SERVIR Mekong project, with five countries Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam including Myanmar which aims to tap into the latest technologies to help the Mekong river region protect its vital ecosystem. Although China contributes only 16–18% of the Mekong’s overall water volume, the glacial meltwaters of the Tibetan plateau take on increasing importance during the dry season. The ability of upstream nations to undermine downstream cooperation was perhaps best symbolized by an April 1995 ceremonial boat trip from Thailand to Vietnam—to celebrate the signing of the 1995 Agreement—which ran aground mid-river as a result of China filling the reservoir of the Manwan dam. Although China and Burma became "dialogue partners" with the MRC in 1996 and slowly but steadily escalated their (non-binding) participation in its various forums, it is at present unthinkable that either would join the MRC in the near future.
In April 2002, China began providing daily water level data to the MRC during the flood season. Critics noted that the emphasis on "flood control" rather than dry season flows represented an important omission given the concerns prioritized by the Mekong regime. In July 2003, MRC CEO Joern Kristensen reported that China had agreed to scale back its plans to blast rapids by implementing only phase one (of three) of its Upper Mekong Navigation Improvement Project; however, China’s future intentions in this area are far from certain. One area in which China has been particularly reticent is in providing information about the operation of its dams, rather than just flow data, including refusing to join emergency meetings in 2004. Only in 2005 did China agreed to hold technical discussions directly with the MRC. On 2 June 2005, at the invitation of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Water Resources, MRC CEO Dr. Olivier Cogels and a delegation of the Secretariat's senior staff made the first official visit to Beijing to hold technical consultations under the framework of cooperation between China and the MRC, within the scope of the Mekong Programme.The delegation identified a number of potential areas of cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Communication, Information and Transport. These discussions resulted in China supplying the MRC (beginning in 2007) with 24-hour water level and 12-hour rainfall data for flood forecasts in exchange for monthly flow data from the MRC Secretariat. The incentives for China to enter into cooperative regimes on the Mekong are substantially reduced by the alternative of the Salween River as a commercial outlet for China’s Yunnan province, made considerably more attractive by requiring negotiation solely with Burma, rather than with four different riparians. News media and official sources often portray China’s joining the Commission as a panacea for resolving the overdevelopment of the Mekong. However, there is no indication that China’s joining the MRC would provide downstream riparians with any real capacity to challenge China’s development plans, given the dramatic power imbalances exhibited by these countries’ relations with China.
The MRC has been hesitant to fully register concerns about Chinese upstream hydro-development. For example, in a letter to the Bangkok Post, MRC CEO Dr. Olivier Cogels in fact argued that Chinese dams would increase the river’s dry season volume as their purpose was electricity generation and not irrigation. While such dams certainly could increase dry season flows, the only certainty about future Chinese reservoir policies seems to be that they will be crafted outside of downstream cooperation regimes. Public statements from MRC leaders in the same vein as Cogels’ comments have—to some—earned the MRC a reputation of being complicit in allowing "China's dam-building machine float downstream."
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