Mekong River Commission Secretariat

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Welcoming remarks by
Jeremy Bird, CEO, Mekong River Commission Secretariat

Vientiane, Lao PDR
6 April 2009

Your Excellency Mr. Asang Laoly, Deputy Prime Minister, Government of the Lao PDR,
Your Excellency, Madame Khempheng Pholsena, MRC Council Member for Lao PDR,
Honourable Ministers and Ambassadors, Distinguished Guests, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen;

Firstly, let me welcome you all here to the Secretariat of the Mekong River Commission to share in celebrating the signing of the Mekong Agreement in 1995. It is a great pleasure to see so many familiar faces representing a tremendous depth of interest in the sustainable development of this unique river basin. And we are indeed honoured today to be joined by H.E. the Deputy Prime Minister to take part in this celebration.

Much has happened since we stood here one year ago on what was effectively my first day at the Secretariat. There was, for example, the major flood of August 2008 that brought the spotlight onto MRC’s flood forecasting activities and demonstrated the importance of effective response mechanisms. We have also seen emergence of strong support for MRC’s role in two key areas – adapting to climate change and ensuring the sustainability of hydropower developments. There has also been considerable progress in preparing a Basin Development Plan that reflects the needs of the region.

But let us ask ourselves what it is that makes this river unique. It is the rich culture and history characterised by numerous ceremonies and celebrations up and down the river. It is the life-giving nature of the river that feeds millions of people, from its abundant fisheries resource and extensive agriculture. It is also the power of the river system that can produce electricity and at the same time, its tranquillity that attracts tourists from home and abroad. It is also its role as a transport route for goods and people, moved at a fraction of the environmental cost of roads and rail.

Each of these facets of the Mekong are central to the mandate of the MRC. As a knowledge-based institution tasked with considering the joint interests of our four member countries, we are well positioned to advise on alternative development scenarios, and to monitor the quality of the water resource and the ability of the river to provide extensive benefits to its people.

Last year I referred to four themes underlying our work - the Regional dimension; Relevance of the organisation; Responsibilities; and Risk reduction. Allow me briefly to revisit these themes to see where we stand now.

On the regional dimension, we have seen encouraging signs of increased cooperation with our upstream Dialogue Partners and with other regional bodies. We are working on a new model of complementary regional, national and transboundary investments in Integrated Water Resources Management.

In terms of relevance, we are now demonstrating the role that MRC can play in facilitating dialogue on sensitive and complex issues. For example on answering the question, what is sustainable hydropower? To do so, requires us to engage actively with representatives of all stakeholders, the private sector, NGOs, and community groups as well as our member governments.

On our responsibilities, we have reviewed implementation of our Strategic Plan and identified areas that require more attention. We have affirmed the core river basin management functions central to the 1995 Agreement that will now help take us forward in setting goals and prioritizing our activities for the next Strategic Plan period and beyond.

Now, to reducing risks. Soon, we expect to receive formal notification of one or more of the mainstream hydropower dams proposed by the private sector. This will initiate the first prior consultation process and signal a real test of the Mekong Agreement – maybe the biggest test in its 14 year history. Here there are both opportunities and risks. It is the reduction of the risks and broadening of the opportunities where the Commission can add value, from an independent perspective taking into account the joint interests of its member countries.

Media attention in the development proposals for the Mekong is growing and will inevitably intensify further. Only last week at a well-known shopping complex in Bangkok, I saw an exhibition of photographs highlighting the importance of fisheries to the livelihoods of millions of people in the Mekong basin. How can the risks to those people of proposed developments be minimized? We have assembled some of the world’s top fisheries experts to assist MRC in providing objective and independent advice.

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;

MRC is also entering the final phase of its riparianisation process and, within a few more years, will be staffed entirely by nationals of the four member countries. This demonstrates the tremendous capability that has already been built within the region. In parallel, we are strengthening our efforts for further building capacity in the organisation and in line agencies, recognising that it is the staff of the organisation that are its major asset.

As the prosperity of the region grows, the levels of external support will diminish and MRC will face increasing demands on national budgets. More than ever, the value of the organisation will need to be demonstrated so as to secure the budget allocations necessary for it to fulfil its mandate. Some tightening of our belts is already needed as we face the prevailing economic crisis and the consequences of a strong US Dollar against the currencies in which our support is denominated.

Finally, let me focus on one other challenge that has faced us as an organisation for some time, that of greater stakeholder participation. We are addressing this at two levels. The first, by examining ways to increase stakeholder involvement in our governance meetings. And the second, on how to ensure meaningful engagement with a broad range of stakeholder interests in our work programme activities. Already you will have noticed some improvements, but we have more to do in this area.

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;

In closing, I would like to sincerely thank you all for joining us at this anniversary celebration of the Mekong River Commission and the past 14 years. My appreciation also goes to the MRC Council and Joint Committee members for their guidance and support over the past year, to the staff of the National Mekong Committees and line agencies with whom we work on a day to day basis, to our Dialogue and Development Partners for their invaluable support, and to those who engage with us and provide their views and information. Finally thanks for their hard work to all my colleagues at the Secretariat, both here in Vientiane and in Phnom Penh.

And for next week, may I wish you a Happy New Year - Sokdy Pi Mai.



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