Friday, June 10, 2011

Mekong River Commission Sets a Visionary Example of System-wide Watershed Management

Earlier this week, 14 delegates from the four member countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) visited the Mississippi River Basin and some of the people and organizations working on Mississippi River water resource issues.  Later in the week they traveled to Washington, DC, where they will meet into next week with water resource experts from various agencies and organizations.

On Monday, I was privileged to meet with the visiting MRC delegates at the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center in Alton, Illinois.  There, and throughout the day at other places in the Alton area, we came to better know each other; discussing ideas on water resource management approaches in large aquatic systems such as the Mekong and Mississippi River watersheds.

As we listened to one another, and grew to better understand the MRC and its delegates, the issues they face and the comprehensive, systemic approach they are embracing, two things became strikingly apparent.  First, the people in both river systems are facing many of the same problems and issues and concerns, and have much to learn from each other.  Second, it is the people of the Mekong River valley who have most to teach and the communities of the Mississippi River basin the most to learn from this exchange.  I offer this overview of the MRC, its issues and its visionary, comprehensive approach as a brief introduction into that learning process.

The MRC was formed in April 1995 when the governments of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam signed an "Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin," in which they consented to jointly manage their shared water resources and the development of the Mekong River's resources.  In 1996 China and Myanmar, the two other Mekong River countries, became "Dialogue Partners" with the four MRC member countries, and now work together with those countries within a cooperative framework.

The MRC has as its mission to "promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being," working toward a vision of a Mekong River Basin that is "economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound."

Because of economic and environmental concerns over large dams, until recently mainstream Mekong River dam planning had effectively been tabled in Southeast Asia.  However, MRC-member states became concerned over the impacts of in-place and planned dams in China within the upper Mekong River basin (specifically the recently-completed Xiaowan Dam and approved-for-construction Nuozhadu Dam).  During flooding in 2008 and a 2010 drought, many in Thailand, and some in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, blamed flooding and drought impacts on China’s upstream water management actions.

In part because of those upstream dams, lower Mekong dam proposals are now moving forward.  There are currently plans in various stages of development for up to eleven dams on the lower main stem of the Mekong River (the section of the Mekong River downstream of China). The proposed dams would be placed in sections of the River bordering or within three of the four MRC-member countries. 

The impacts of both the upstream dams, outside of the MRC's direct purview, and the proposed lower Mekong River dams are now the central issues with which the MRC must contend.  It has done so by putting into place a very ambitious, robust and comprehensive strategic plan (available here as a pdf file), which "suggests its role will be promoting the harmonisation of benefits shared among the Member Countries, monitoring the environmental health, and undertaking environmental and social impact assessments, and, where needed, strategic impact assessments."

The MRC strategic plan lays out two main goals for 2011-2015 period.  Those goals are to:
  1. Support the implementation of an Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM)-based Basin Development Strategy to address the urgent needs and priorities for the integrated management of water and related resources of the Mekong River Basin towards 2030; and
  2. Transition toward implementation of the MRC four core functions and increased Member Country contributions to the delivery of these tasks.
The "four core functions" mentioned in goal two set the framework for the future work of the MRC, and are:
1. Secretariat Administrative and Management Functions
2. River Basin Management Functions:
  • Data acquisition, exchange and monitoring
  • Analysis, modelling and assessment
  • Planning support
  • Forecasting, warning and emergency response
  • Implementing MRC Procedures
  • Promoting dialogue and communication
  • Reporting and dissemination
3. Capacity Building and Tools Development Functions
4. Consulting and Advisory Services

Underlying the strategic plan and all of MRC's work are the truly visionary aspects of their plan.  They are ten key values and principles of sustainable development that will guide all of MRC's work and they include:
  1. Continuing the comprehensive implementation of IWRM so that transboundary water governance becomes more integrated and responsive thus ensuring equitable sharing of benefits and minimizing risks associated with any development interventions.
  2. Stimulating pro-poor development.
  3. Protecting the environment.
  4. Dealing with climate change effects.
  5. Closing the different development levels and capacity gaps among the Member Countries by prioritizing funding and capacity building.
  6. Taking a “Whole of basin” approach.
  7. Enhancing stakeholder participation and gender mainstreaming, with inputs from and equal participation of both men and women at all levels, ensuring that MRC programs benefit both men and women equally.
  8. Promoting transparency and openness.
  9. Encouraging aid effectiveness and donor harmonization, and
  10. Building strategic partnerships with other regional initiatives and other international river basin organizations.
Under terms of an agreement between the MRC and Mississippi River Commission formalized in July 2009, this month's US State Department-sponsored visit is part of an initiative to help "determine how best to adapt to climate change as it affects the Mekong river system . . . and promote the sustainability of hydropower development, address water and food security, manage and cope with floods and droughts better, and increase navigation and trade on their inland waterways" (see this media release regarding the agreement).

The 2009 agreement was crafted based upon a hope that both the MRC and Mississippi River Commission would "profit from a closer partnership" and "sharing." After listening to and learning from our Mekong River colleagues, I couldn't agree more.

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