Mekong River Commission Secretariat

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Mekong River Commission
Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre (RFMMC)
7th Annual Mekong Flood Forum (AMFF-7)

Welcome Address by
Jeremy Bird, CEO, Mekong River Commission Secretariat

Bangkok, Thailand
13 – 14 May 2009

Dr. Siripong Hungspreung, Director General of the Department of Water Resources, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and Secretary General of Thai National Mekong Committee;

Excellencies and Dialogue Partners;
Representatives of Development Partners and International Organisations;
Distinguished Delegates;
Ladies and Gentlemen

As Chief Executive Officer of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat, it is my great pleasure to welcome you all here today to participate in the 7th Annual Mekong Flood Forum. On behalf of the MRC Secretariat, I would like to extend my special thanks to Dr. Siripong Hungspreung for finding the time in his busy schedule to take part in this important event.

The MRC's Flood Management and Mitigation Programme – or FMMP - has been in operation for almost four years now. Last Friday I listened to the report of an independent team which has reviewed its performance, and although there were naturally lessons to learn, the overall message is that FMMP is well on its way to achieving its primary goals. The Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre has now been firmly established in Phnom Penh as a central part of FMMP and performs a vital river basin management function of MRC.

The Mekong is one of the world's largest river basins. Floods have always been part of the river's annual cycle and were a major influence on the characteristics of the river system that we see today – for example, the delta, the reverse flow into the Tonle Sap and the impressive inland fisheries that sustains so many people. Many of the effects of the floods are highly beneficial - by enriching aquatic habitat and replenishing soil fertility.

However, we also know that extreme floods can be devastating. This was very clearly demonstrated again in August last year by the flooding of northern Thailand and Laos, including the home of the Secretariat in Vientiane. It caused an estimated 135 million US dollars worth of damage to property and crops. It also caused loss of life – while putting many others at risk. Livelihoods were destroyed in a region that is beset by poverty. Many of the people impacted by the August floods lost crops and are still receiving emergency food aid.

Last year’s floods were caused by unusually high cyclonic rainfall. The water level reached on August 15 at Vientiane was the highest since records began in 1913. At 13.7 m above the gauge datum, the Mekong River was one metre higher than the maximum levels recorded in 1966, 1971 and 2002. Yet the flows represented only a 1 in 25 year flood, indicating that efforts to protect land through flood protection embankments can also lead to higher river levels. Flood management is a complex interaction of social, environmental and technical factors.

With the potential impact of climate change, we don't know if climactic events like last year's floods will continue to be considered unusual by future generations. What we can be sure of however, is that this underpins the strong need to plan, mitigate and more accurately forecast flooding.

The MRC's Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre in Phnom Penh has been doing this for years. Last year’s flood was a real test for the organisation. Throughout the crisis, the Mekong River Commission continued to work with meteorological and water resource agencies in its member states of Cambodia, the Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam to monitor river and weather conditions and forecast the likelihood of flooding. Daily updates on water levels were provided on the MRC website, and more detailed information was routinely sent to the concerned government agencies, academic institutions, and international, regional and non-governmental organisations every day throughout the flood season.

The information provided by the MRC is designed as a service to assist relevant national agencies in implementing their flood warning, preparedness and response plans, including delivery of assistance to affected districts.
In Vientiane the impact of this information was dramatically visible. Volunteers joined the army in wielding shovels where – and I think it is safe to say – the government’s efforts to rapidly deploy sandbags saved the city from serious flooding.

But there are lessons from those rather frantic days in August as well – which we would do well to learn.
The MRC was criticised in various media for its response to the flood – with accusations that warning systems failed. Improvements can always be made, but overall the trends and scale of flooding were predicted well. The messages though highlight a need. We need to be work more closely with national agencies and be more open proactive in adopting a flood forecasting strategy that includes the media.

The 2008 flood season provided the first real opportunity to asses the performance of the MRCs flood forecasting models and expertise in the face of an extreme event. I am pleased to say that in general - they performed very well upto two or three days ahead.

It became apparent that for various reasons flood forecasting was less accurate beyond three days. To improve this requires both more information from the network of measuring stations on the ground and better satellite interpretation, that has gone through calibrations or ground truthing. Priority sub basins are being identified for these improvements.

Also was also clear that improvements in information flows are needed between MRCS and member states. MRC's action plan developed after August’s floods is addressing such issues. There is also a clear need to improve the channels of communication between local communities and the relevant flood forecasting, mitigation and response agencies.

We are grateful to our Dialogue Partner China for the provision of daily hydrological data from the upstream part of the basin during the flood season. This enhances our capacity to provide more accurate flood forecasts and we are pleased that this partnership has recently been reaffirmed.

Some villagers in northern Thailand and Laos blamed the big flood on construction of dams in China on the Lancang river. It is perhaps not a surprising conclusion if you imagine yourself watching from the river bank as water levels rise beyond alarm levels and are aware of dam construction upstream. However, the reality is the intense rain was natural event resulting from Typhoon Kammuri and the dams currently in place are too small to make any significant difference to flood flows. Again there is a need to improve communications links and media coverage so that there is a better appreciation of the actual situation.

Increasing technical cooperation with China will be continue to be important in years to come in order to develop a common understanding of the river system and improve our capability for flood management.

It is in the spirit of improving this performance that we are here today. Your ideas are what we are here for. We will present to you the 2008 Annual Mekong Flood Report and the reports of the five Components of our Flood Management and Mitigation Programme. I hope that we can use this as basis for the discussions – as to how we improve the delivery of the very important forecasting services and the services of the other Components.
I would briefly like to highlight the progress that we have made with respect to the development of the Flash Flood Guidance System. A short video on this very important type of flooding will be shown at the end of this inaugural session.

I would also like to express my profound gratitude and sincere thanks to the governments of the Member States and Dialogue Partners for their support to and intense cooperation with us. I also thank the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Japan, the United States, the Asian Development Bank and the European Commission for their continuing support for the MRC’s Flood Management and Mitigation Programme.

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Representatives of Donor, International and Regional Organizations, Ladies and Gentlemen, I have come to the final part of my welcome address.

I look forward to the Forum Statement and its recommendations which will help the MRC Member States and the MRC to manage the floods, their positive and negative effects, in an integrated manner and provide a more secure and better future to the flood vulnerable people in the basin.

Let me wish you all a fruitful and interesting 7th Annual Mekong Flood Forum.

Thank you.




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