Mekong River Commission Secretariat

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MRC Secretariat CEO Mr Jeremy Bird

7th April 2008, Vientiane, Lao PDR


Your Excellency Madame Khemphaeng Pholsena, MRC Council Member for the Lao PDR, Honourable Ministers, Honourable Ambassadors, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;

Good evening and thank you for coming to the Mekong River Commission Secretariat tonight. I am honoured to see many of you from different countries and organisations here, and count your presence as a tribute to the position of the MRC, and also as an opportunity to bring together partners who have a stake in working together for the sustainable development of the Lower Mekong River Basin.

The MRC Secretariat Directors and I were in Phnom Penh on Saturday to celebrate Mekong Day 2008 by attending the opening of the new MRC Regional Flood Mitigation and Management Centre. The event was a testament to cooperation between the four Member States of the MRC and to the backing of our development partners in the region. Identifying the objectives of the MRC requires great collaboration, and we are fortunate to have the 1995 Agreement and a history and spirit of close cooperation behind us.

Happily, we also have the support of the donor community in the region. There are too many partners to thank individually so I will not attempt to do so, but tonight I would like to reiterate our appreciation for that support and to assure you that we at the MRCS take our responsibilities, as executors of that trust and financial support, very seriously.

This is my first week at the MRC headquarters in Vientiane, but already my second week in the job. Before arriving at Phnom Penh I was in Danang, Viet Nam, for the 27th Meeting of the MRC Joint Committee. I have thus already had a little time to get to know some of the staff of the Secretariat, particularly senior managers. My thanks go to the Officer-in-Charge, Mr Hung, the Division Directors, and the rest of the staff for making me feel so welcome from the start and for all their efforts to ease me into these important initial functions as smoothly as possible.

Also in Danang were delegations from the four MRC Member States, Cambodia, the Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam. The countries are our clients but also our supervisors here at the Secretariat, and I can only hope that the relationship with them continues to be as close for the rest of my tenure as CEO here.

Standing here looking out over the river, we see the changing conditions over the seasons. Yet, there is far more than we can see on the surface. Looking beyond the banks of the river, we see the benefits that it brings to millions of people, and at the same time, the increasing pressures on it as a resource. Looking around, we also see the success of the region, as the economies of our member countries grow rapidly.

Water management is all about reaching an appropriate balance between competing interests, whether it be the distribution of irrigation water among farmers, the competition between urban and rural users, or that between economic development and the environmental services provided by a river’s ecosystem.

At the MRC Secretariat, we have developed a unique capability to understand and analyse the existing behaviour of the river system, and we are working to strengthen our predictive capability to assess future development scenarios.

The opening of the Regional Flood Mitigation and Management Centre marked a new milestone in relation to flood forecasting and warning. The work of the Basin Development Plan Programme, with inputs from other programmes, will shortly provide a similar capability to help quantify, among other factors, the opportunities and risks associated with ongoing and new developments, trends in urban and industrial development, and the impacts of climate change. This provides another vehicle with which the MRCS can give objective information, analysis and guidance to those responsible for considering development options.

Your Excellency, Honourable Ministers and Ambassadors, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;

I would like to propose four themes to share with you this evening. As with “River” they all begin with the letter “R” and I see these themes as central to the work of the MRCS in this crucial period of its existence. The themes are Regional dimension; Relevance of the organisation; Responsibilities; and Risk reduction.

Firstly, the Regional dimension:
The 1995 Agreement, signed 13 years ago last Saturday, remains the foundation of regional water resources cooperation. Over the years, the spirit of the Agreement has carried the four countries beyond the implementation of rules and procedures, to find common paths and mutual benefits. In that time significant capacity has been built and the Secretariat is now accelerating the process of riparianisation with a clear roadmap for member countries to step into all management positions. In three years’ time, the welcome speech delivered by my successor should mark the culmination of that transition.

I am pleased to see that cooperation with our dialogue partners, China and Myanmar, continues to be strengthened. In addition to sharing river flow data, we are now firming up technical cooperation related to the safety of waterways transport and look forward to expanding this relationship into other areas of mainstream cooperation.

Our programme activities are defined by the joint interests of our Member States and the regional dimensions and mutual benefits of cooperation will continue to delineate the scope of our activities. We constantly need to ask ourselves what the added value of our involvement is, and how can we maximise the benefits of our common investments for each individual country, and for the region as a whole.

The second theme is the Relevance of the organisation
The development context in the Basin is changing rapidly. The baseline from which we are working today is already significantly different from that of ten, six or even three years ago. This is due not only to site-specific interventions in the form of new infrastructure, but also to the continuous pressures associated with rapid economic advancement, urbanisation and population growth.

We already have a good understanding of these issues and, in addition to our unique modelling capacity in hydrological aspects, we will soon be able to predict the multi-dimensional character of new developments. In response to our Strategic Plan, our planning programme is simulating the consequences of future development scenarios, including the cumulative affects of mainstream and tributary projects. Some of you will have heard of this work during the multi-stakeholder consultation on the Basin Development Plan held in Vientiane early last month.

To reap the benefits of cooperation, Links must be established between regional analysis capability, such as that developed by the MRC, and national planning systems. Now that the Commission has its assessment capability, it is important we pay attention to the institutional links and mechanisms that will allow our advisory services to be used effectively by the member countries.

Reducing poverty and improving the well being of the people in the basin are fundamental tenets of our organisation. These overarching aims will be kept firmly in mind as we formulate activities and further develop institutional relationships with the partner agencies that use our information and analyses. Both the MRC Council and the Strategic Plan require us to be more participatory in our work. The views of government agencies, the private sector, civil society, academia and our development and dialogue partners are essential ingredients in helping us to promoting sustainable development. We are determined that the recent BDP Stakeholder Forum will be just the first in a series of events which host discussion and listen to the views of different sectors on society, so informing decision making on the key issues within water resources development across the Lower Mekong Basin.

My third theme is the Responsibility of our organisation to support the joint interests of the four Member States, the development needs of the peoples of the region; and implementation of the 1995 Agreement.

All four countries are naturally looking to develop their economies and provide better services and livelihood opportunities to their populations, and it is the duty of the MRC to support this development by helping to make it as sustainable as possible. It is vital that the way forward be decided through cooperation and joint planning. That is a founding principle of the Mekong River Commission and one that we shall fully support. The MRC is wholly owned by the governments of the four riparian countries, and its task is to coordinate their use of Mekong water and related resources in a constructive and mutually beneficial manner.

Our vision is for an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound Mekong River Basin. This is a challenging objective, and one that we shall actively pursue. Our planning and participation policies are designed to be inclusive, to bring different groups into our discussions, and to give them a voice in the overall planning process. To accomplish this with our limited size and resources, we shall require the assistance of all our partners, and thus we will need close relations with line agencies and other organisations working at all levels across the basin. I will encourage the Secretariat staff to prioritise this approach, but will also depend on many of you, our guests here tonight, to make this objective a reality.
Our responsibilities under the 1995 Agreement are manifold, but I am confident that at the Secretariat we have the capacity to fulfil them. We have the scientific ability and access to the physical infrastructure for monitoring water flows and quality. We have excellent programme teams, plus accepted tools agreed by the Member States as mechanisms for notification and consultation on proposed uses of water that could affect the flows or environment of the Mekong River. To support sustainable development, we will make full use of our resources to meet the responsibilities defined in our founding agreement and Strategic Plan.

The fourth and final theme is Risk Reduction
In recent weeks there has been considerable focus in the media and in environment-related networks on the relevance of the MRC and its Secretariat to the risks involved in building dams on the mainstream of the Lower Mekong. This point has also previously been raised by our development partners. By identifying specific procedures for mainstream projects, the 1995 Agreement recognises there are both opportunities and risks associated with dams on the mainstream of the Mekong River.

Proposals for such dams have been investigated on various occasions and indeed have been discussed among riparian countries over a number of years, before and after the signing of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. However, it is clear that the regional development context has changed and that investigation of options for development of mainstream dams is rapidly advancing beyond the stage of master planning into more specific project proposals. The Joint Committee members of the MRC are well aware of these proposals.

The Secretariat has at least three roles in assessing and advising on opportunities and risks. One relates to the analysis of implications of projects including the cumulative effects of national projects. This draws on work under a range of our programmes and, as I mentioned earlier, is being brought together by assessing various development scenarios under the Basin Development Plan. Another is to provide advice on specific projects where requested, including through our forthcoming Hydropower Programme. The third relates to administering the formal notification and consultation procedures under the 1995 Agreement, and where required providing technical advice under such procedures and facilitating negotiation of agreements.

Your Excellency, Honourable Ministers and Ambassadors, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;

I look forward to working together with all of your organisations in achieving our vision for the Mekong River Basin. Where there is common ground, let us find ways of combining our skills and resources to achieve our mutual development aims. Where there are overlaps, let us communicate frankly and in a timely way to ensure we do not replicate efforts or obstruct each other in any way.

The Mekong River is one of nature’s most powerful and bountiful gifts, and I feel honoured to be given this opportunity to work for the future of this wonderful resource. It is a privilege to stand here this evening, so close to this life-supporting river, and to share my views on the way forward for the Mekong River Commission. I encourage you to join with us and reflect on the beauty of the Mekong River in all its dimensions.

Thank you for joining us this evening.

Now let us toast the spirit of cooperation in the Mekong Basin.



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