Mekong River Commission Secretariat

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Handover speech by Dr Olivier Cogels,
Chief Executive Officer,
Mekong River Commission Secretariat,
Vientiane Lao, PDR 9th August 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen

It does not seem so long ago that I walked into this hall on my first day of work here on 9 August 2004. Many of you will probably remember that few days later we celebrated in this lobby the official opening of this new headquarters building, and the then Prime Minister of the Lao PDR H.E. Bounnhang Vorachit planted a small tree. If you look outside behind you, you’ll see that this tree is today over 6 metres high.

Today I am very pleased standing here once more in front of many friends and partners who I have learned to know and appreciate during these three years. I have completed my term of office as Chief Executive Officer of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat and yesterday, I handed my responsibilities over to Director Do Manh Hung, the Assistant CEO for the period July 2007-June 2008. I am sure Mr Hung, who will now be Officer-in-Charge of the Secretariat, will be grateful for your continued support in his work.

I will now leave this beautiful building in which I have spent a wonderful time with an extraordinary team, in front of such an inspiring river. Sometimes I think I would like to be this tree outside, standing there for many more years looking at this magic river on the one leaf and at the hard-working staff of the MRCS on the other leaf. But my life is to continue moving, making new friends in this region and around the world.

From the first day I arrived in Vientiane, I fell in love with this wonderful country and its exceptionally kind and welcoming people. I also have come to love and discover many facets of the other countries of the Mekong Basin. I have chosen to stay in this country for a while and I look forward to continuing to support water resources management and international cooperation in this and other parts of the world. Important institutions are being built in this region, such as the newly established Water Resources and Environment Agency in Lao PDR. Being a water man for over 30 years, I will be pleased to continue to assist the countries and their institutions in their efforts to better use and manage their water resources for the benefit of their economies and their people.

Coming back to the subject of today, let me say that, personally, my term at the helm of the MRCS has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my career.

It has been an honour and a pleasure to work with such a fine team of people and I feel together with all my staff and with the very generous support of so many donors and partners, we have achieved a great deal over the past three years. I feel I am leaving a stronger MRC than when I arrived. We are in a very sound financial position. Following some solid fundraising efforts we have doubled the yearly funding to almost US$25 million per year. This means we have increased the confidence of our donors, who we now refer to as our development partners to reflect their involvement in our shared work.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for your support and cooperation over the past three years, without which we could not have achieved the progress we have.

During my mandate, we have taken the first steps towards a new orientation of the organisation and I am proud to have played my part in refocusing the MRC to put economic growth for poverty alleviation much higher on the agenda.

Changing the orientation of such a multilateral organisation, which is almost 90 percent funded by a wide range of donors with different views and priorities, is of course not an easy task and needs years of diplomatic efforts and communication. Although initially there was been some concern within the donor community for this new orientation, I am now pleased to see that those who have supported the MRC so generously for many years seem to realise, more and more, that in less developed countries the priorities of a river basin organisation may be quite different to those in more developed nations. While I feel I am leaving the MRCS too early to see the fruits of this reorientation, I believe we have now a good base on which to continue building.

Increasing country-ownership of the organization has also been very high in my priorities. And it is my profound hope that the MRC countries will push forward with our new Strategic Plan and make it happen the way they want it. I am convinced that if the MRC member countries pursue this new orientation, putting sustainable development and economic growth higher on the agenda, MRC will rapidly be able to reach a higher political profile and gradually become a more powerful and useful player in the region.

MRC’s future will rest on political commitment and motivation at the highest levels. This means the organisation must be in a position to deliver more concrete, tangible and visible results for the direct benefit of the people and of the economies of the member countries. Our region has huge economic needs which for a large part can be addressed through appropriate and sustainable development of the available water resources – the need for more food, more energy, more effective flood protection, and increased trading through navigation.

The water resources in this region are huge but almost undeveloped as compared to other regions in the world. For example, the US is able to store behind their dams 6000 m³ water person. In the Mekong basin, we are only able to store less than 300 m³ per person, which is 20 times less. This is why the people and the economy of this region remain extremely vulnerable to climatic variations, suffering from high impacts of droughts and floods. And probably this will even become worse with climate change.

Let us not forget that under this monsoon climate, more than 80% of the water flows during only half of the year, while during the other half, the level of the river is extremely low. More investments in storage and redistribution of water through an integrated approach at the scale of the whole river system are urgently needed to manage these flow variations and to meet people’s needs in an approach of shared benefits. This is why MRC, with its new orientation, should be able to offer high economic benefit to its member countries on the one hand, while ensuring sustainable and peaceful development on the other hand.

I am very pleased to see that the change in the MRC’s orientation has also brought with it a major improvement in our relationship with China. Yesterday I received a letter from the representative of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledging the improvements of the relations between China and the MRC during my term. We should not lose this momentum as it will be very important to cooperate with China for developing appropriate operating rules of the cascade dams which are now under construction on the Lancang. If operated properly, these dams can be seen as an opportunity to significantly increase the level and flow of the river during the dry season. I have good reasons to believe that China is open for a constructive cooperation on this matter.

Over the past three years we also have expanded our working relationships with the development banks and this should continue to be one of MRC’s priorities as we take a larger role in such regional initiatives as the Greater Mekong Subregion Programme (GMS). In April 2007, on the occasion of the Hanoi International Conference on the Mekong River Commission, I proposed the launching of a major regional programme in the water sector, called the “Mekong Programme”. I really hope this initiative will soon become an ambitious joint investment programme, managed by all Mekong countries, in partnership with investment banks and the private sector.

I think the MRC is approaching an important but very delicate turning point in its history towards one day being a totally country-driven, development oriented international river basin organisation, which, if successful, will be seen as an example for the whole developing world. But I also believe that a lot of political, diplomatic, and managerial efforts will be needed to maintain the right direction.

I wish the member countries all success in their future stewardship of this important regional institution. I am sure that the guidance of the Joint Committee and the Council will be steady and firm and keep it on the forward track.

As I said before I have learned much from the MRC and the member countries over the past three years and I will take this valuable experience with me into my future professional life. It has been wonderful work with you all and I hope sincerely we have the opportunity to continue to work together, here in Lao PDR, or elsewhere in this region or around the world.

Thank you everyone for everything.





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