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  Home   MRC News Speeches Keynote address by Dr Olivier Cogels

Water Resources and Poverty Alleviation in the Lower Mekong Basin

Keynote address by
Dr Olivier Cogels,
Chief Executive Officer
Mekong River Commission

IUCN World Conservation Congress,
Bangkok, Thailand
18 November 2004


Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

On 5 April 1995, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam decided to cooperate for the sustainable development of water and related resources in the Lower Mekong basin. An inter-governmental body was created for this purpose: the Mekong River Commission.

The four main areas of cooperation are:

  • Developing the basin: planning and coordinated implementation of basin-wide water resources development, supported by the international donor community,
  • Using the water: adoption of common rules for equitable and reasonable utilization of the water of the river system,
  • Protecting the people and the environment: prevention and cessation of harmful effects, through flood management and protection of environment and water quality,
  • Developing freedom of navigation on the mainstream.

The people of the Mekong basin are amongst the poorest in the world. Currently the GDP/capita within the basin is amongst the lowest in the world with an average daily income of less than one dollar per day. Still, the population continues to grow, with a population of 80 million plus anticipated by 2025.

For the Mekong people, especially the poorest, water has always played an essential role in sustaining their livelihoods. Many are subsistence farmers reliant on rice, wetland plants and wild caught fish to provide them the protein they require. The fishery is of prime importance. The current yield from the Lower Mekong Basin represents approximately 2% of world yield, including oceans. Rice is essential too. In the 10 years from 1990 to 2000 the harvested area for rice increased by an average of 10%. For tens of millions of people, the water of the river system remains the primary source of nutrition. Unfortunately, the increasing population in the existing socio-economic environment is placing huge pressure on this fragile resource, particularly on the fishery, both directly through increased fishing and habitat loss, and indirectly through modification of water quality and quantity.

In many places in the basin, fishery is one of the few sources of employment for an increasingly young, often landless rural population. This situation is not sustainable and urgent action is needed. Coupled with the pressures of population increase are the forces of nature. Flooding remains an important phenomenon for the sustainability of our wetlands and fisheries, however the incidences of flash flooding due to changes in land-use bring death, devastation and economic cost to the region. Plus the Mekong Delta needs to be protected against increasing saline intrusion.

If we are going to see an end to poverty in the basin, we must look at ways of making optimum and sustainable use of its prime resource – water. The water of the Mekong offers a high potential for balanced socio-economic development in the sectors of irrigated agriculture, fisheries, navigation, hydropower, flood management, water supply and sanitation, land use, tourism and recreation. More – but careful – developments and investments are needed in all water related sector, including hydropower, to meet rapidly increasing energy demands.

We all know very well that water resources development in such a large, international river basin is not without risks and difficulties. However, we believe that the risks of non-development or of insufficient cooperation are even higher. The agreement signed in 1995 shows that the governments of the four countries are aware of this need for cooperation. Bilateral cooperation on specific water issues are also more and more frequent. Development in one country may indeed have impacts in another country, and investments in one sector may have impacts on other sectors. But we believe that, if carefully managed on the basis of dialogue and joint planning and with due consideration for environmental and social impacts, the development of water resources in the Mekong basin may constitute a key to long term poverty alleviation and socio-economic well-being in the region.

Our approach to this urgent need is through Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) at basin scale, which allows for a holistic view of the various needs and interests of the member countries. With this approach, we trust that a well-balanced, equitable, and peaceful development of the basin is possible, for the direct benefit of the Mekong people.

Since 1995, the Mekong River Commission, as a permanent inter-governmental body, has integrated its IWRM activities in a strategic programme, which has benefited from strong support from the international donor community. Today, MRC has rich databases and Geographical Information Systems. It has developed powerful mathematical models which allow our experts to simulate the implications of various development scenarios and to support countries in appropriate planning and decision-making.

With its balanced approach, MRC has the capacity to further facilitate coordinated developments and investments in the water sector, ensuring sufficient environment and social protection.

MRC is progressing well with joint identification and planning of development projects in cooperation with the National Mekong Committees and line agencies. Cooperation with investment banks is consolidating as well. MRC’s work is enhanced through complementary regional initiatives such as the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) of the Asian Development Bank or the preparation of the World Bank Mekong Regional Water Resource Assistance Strategy. Active partnership with NGOs is also being developed and we particularly value our partnership with IUCN and our current active engagement with its broad membership.

Partnerships have also been built with several river basin organizations such as the Murray Darling Basin in Australia, and the Mississippi River Basin in the United States. Cooperation with China and Myanmar is progressing well and we believe that more information exchange may be expected on the basis of a constructive and objective dialogue. This World Congress provides an excellent opportunity for this.

MRC was created on the basis of a very good cooperation agreement signed in 1995. It is an institution owned and managed jointly by its member countries. It has valuable technical capacity and benefits from growing international support. MRC is in a privileged position to continue to act as a key facilitator and coordinator of sustainable water resources development in the Mekong basin, applying the principles of Integrated Water Management, with poverty alleviation being the main goal.

It was my pleasure to discuss these vital issues here with you and with this address I hope we continue to build a strong, open and constructive partnership that is grounded in an understanding of the basin’s fragile ecosystem and of the very vital requirements for development in this region.

Thank you for your kind attention.



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