Mekong River Commission Secretariat

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Remarks to Informal Donor Meeting
Vision for the Next Three Years


given by
Jeremy Bird, MRC Secretariat CEO, June 20, 2008
MRC Secretariat, Vientiane

The MRC’s vision is for “a world class, financially secure international river basin organisation serving the Mekong countries to achieve the basin vision”. Its mission is “to promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being”.

The key words and phrases to consider in these statements are coordination, mutual benefit, people’s well being, and sustainable development. In my introductory speech here at the MRC Secretariat in April, I noted the importance of the river to the social, economic and cultural development of the region. I also recognised that we need to look below the water’s surface to appreciate the full value of this resource.

Since then, I have had more time to get to know the organisation and its programmes. Listening to some of the criticism of the MRC over the past years, it sometimes appears that people are suggesting there are two Mekong Rivers:

One is the river we see flowing outside the MRC Secretariat building, a river that is subject to rapid development pressures from a range of sources: from private sector hydropower (driven by expected flow changes in the mainstream, high oil prices and concerns over climate change), from changes to watersheds (caused by mining, plantations, and continued shifting cultivation practices), from increasing pollution loads created by rapidly increasing urban development and agriculture, and shortly, from significant changes in flow rates and timing and sediment transport as a result of dams being built in China.

The other river would be the one that we model and discuss within MRC programmes. The question is, to what extent does this one represent reality? In the same way that we can calibrate our numerical models to ensure that predictions for flood events or sedimentation patterns are representative, perhaps we should also calibrate the approach used by our other programmes to gauge the extent to which they are consistent with national planning systems. Then we could see whether there is a link in place that takes the results of our work to the desks of people making decisions and also whether the integrated water resource management concepts that we readily punctuate in all our reports are really those that are directing investments?

If the correlation is weak, then indeed we would have to accept the criticism that has been targeted at us. It could perhaps be said that in the past there was not always good correlation between MRC programmes and national planning systems, but it should be remembered that we have spent much of that time building the necessary foundations for future mutual understanding, models and procedures.

This is not something that happened in the US, Australia or Europe overnight. We learnt from our recent visit to the Columbia Basin that in some places billions of dollars have been - and continue to be - spent on rectifying the impacts of dam construction. We have a chance to get it right first time, and we are working towards that goal. I will refer to just some of the items we are now fast tracking across our programmes – this is a start and there will be more. We will, however, need a far larger flexible fund to deal with these if we are to avoid compromising our ongoing important activities, and here the Water Management Trust Fund can play a significant role in allowing us to react quickly and effectively.
Two years ago, no one foresaw this level of development on the mainstream. There was rather some impression that the status quo would continue. Let me read you a couple of extracts from relevant reports:

Mainstream dams or weirs in the mid and lower Mekong are therefore most unlikely to be part of any balanced development scenario that complies with the objectives of the 1995 Agreement
This comes from a World Bank-supported Mekong Water Resources Assistance Strategy report in November 2004, and is the conclusion based on study of the potential impacts on fisheries.

Going back further in time,
Data from all reaches are insufficient to describe important fish stocks and migrating patterns, locations, and characters of spawning and rearing habitats:
The projects cannot be safely designed or mitigated without first establishing a sound and reliable database”.
This was not taken from an NGO report, nor from a Fisheries Programme paper, but rather from a technical study undertaken for the Mekong Secretariat on run-of-river mainstream dams in 1994.

Unfortunately the necessary studies to fill these information gaps were not initiated. We now need to move forward quickly to make up for lost time. The challenge is to see what can be done with the available knowledge to take a more integrated perspective. I will return to those actions we have taken in a short while. For the minute though, I would like to come back to the four R’s that I referred to in my inaugural remarks at the MRC Secretariat.

First the Regional Dimension

There is no question that the gradual underlying changes in the basin caused by growth, expansion, and individual project proposals have regional dimensions and impacts.

  • The MRC is a unique regional body – governed by the four countries;
  • The MRC, through its programmes, can act as a facilitator of dialogue;
  • It can look into mechanisms for sharing of benefits across borders

Secondly, let us consider the Relevance of the organisation:

  • No other organisation has the mandate or capacity to present an overall integrated basin perspective. The MRC can through the 1995 Agreement and its Procedures, the Strategic Plan, the Basin Development Plan, the Environment and Fisheries Programmes, and so forth.
  • The MRC has a singular ability for professional analysis both within sectoral areas and across sectors – hydropower, fisheries, navigation, irrigation, water quality, wetlands and so on.
  • The Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement, although written for an individual project, provide the framework for viewing all sectors from a strategic perspective.
  • Just last week the Lao government shared information concerning plans for possible mainstream dams with us, a move that encourages all the members to openly share strategic planning data.

Thirdly there is the Risk Reduction function of the MRC:

  • We study the distribution of the benefits from development s– who pays, who gains, who loses. There are always trade offs, but there is a need to internalise the externalities of projects otherwise there will be significant risks to peoples livelihoods
  • In technical and financial matters we can learn from other countries. For instance, we have observed the cost of retro-fitting hydropower plants in the US to make them more ecologically sound, and can avoid developers having to do the same here.
  • There is a reputational risk to countries, to developers, to financiers, to development partners as well as to the MRC, if plans are not made and executed carefully.
  • Sustainability assessments need to be made, but we must ask are the examples we have already seen the result of soft financing, and are they replicable under market mechanisms? Here, we need to look outside the box.

Fourthly comes Responsibility.

  • Under the 1995 Agreement, the MRC is responsible for achieving mutual benefits and for protecting the joint interests of the member countries.
  • We should concentrate on inclusiveness in all that we do.
  • We also have an advisory responsibility, implying that we musty get our scientific information out on the table where it is of practical use to the four countries.

When judging the record of the MRC, we need to look at what has been achieved so far. Yes, these achievements have taken a long time, but that is normal in the field of international resource management. Our successes include:

  • Procedures – there are still some gaps in this work, but a lot has been achieved.
  • Modelling capability – agreement has been reached on a joint model for the Mekong, our Decision Support Framework.
  • Navigation – waterways transport is safer now than at any time.
  • Flood Management – we are on the verge of a system that will provide a forecasting and warning service, and are also developing mitigation and response strategies.
  • Fisheries – the MRC has developed an extensive understanding of the nature, scale, importance and inter-relationships of fisheries. Fascinating results are coming through on the links between fish productivity and flood magnitude.
  • The BDP process now appears more aligned with national systems and is addressing the big development questions.
  • In environment we have a good track record on water quality monitoring and wetlands work.

We are also confronted with new challenges, including climate change, agriculture and food security, the ‘fifth R’ – Riparianisation and how to recruit well qualified staff whole overcoming any perceptions of bias, location (which is hopefully a short term question), and the greater involvement and ownership of line agencies, so that our work in better linked to national systems

Meeting these challenges will require interaction and coordination – working across sectoral divides. The emerging MRC Hydropower Programme provides an example of how this can be achieved, and how issues can be focused, as does the second phase of the Basin Development Plan. In fact, across all our work there is already a push to meet the challenge posed by the mainstream hydropower developments.

In line with our Strategic Plan 2006-2010, the Basin Development Plan is fast-tracking studies on flows and sediments to look at the cumulative impacts of mainstream development.

The Hydropower Programme is facilitating dialogue through various approaches, including holding a multi-stakeholder consultation in September, convening expert group analysis on the ‘barrier effect’, and conducting a strategic environmental assessment of the proposed mainstream projects.

The Fisheries Programme is conducting an ichthyoplankton survey, modelling the cascade effect of the dam projects to estimate fish survival rates, reviewing mitigation experiences elsewhere in the world, carrying out baseline surveys and assessing the potential for future reservoir fisheries. The Environment and Navigation Programmes are contributing by working on guidelines for sustainability assessment and standard specifications for lock designs respectively. In general, across the MRC we are networking with the Lao government through forthcoming discussions with the Department of Electricity, engaging with the M-Power Network of stakeholders, approaching our dialogue partners, China and Myanmar, trying to bring the private sector and financiers into discussions through the International Hydropower Association, and talking to the media openly about what is going on.

More broadly, let us now look at what the measures of success will be when I hand over to my successor in three years time. What will she or he comment on in the welcoming remarks on the occasion of Mekong Day 2011? I hope that the next Chief Executive Officer will be able to recognise that the MRC:

  • Has brought the principles and concepts of integrated water resource management and coordination into practice in the planning and management of basin development;
  • Has defined its long-term management functions (for 5 to 20 years plus) and is working along the roadmap to a sustainable and secure financing base;
  • Is successfully implementing the riparianisation programme and has implemented the recommendations of the organisational review – already 13 of 38 items have been addressed;
  • Is an organisation where people want to work and to which line agencies, developers, consultants, institutions and NGOs come automatically as a source of information and advice;
  • Has disseminated its knowledge effectively. As we stand, millions of dollars have been spent on research and yet certain reports are not yet in the public domain. We need to publish the backlog of reports and seriously re-vamp our website and links to NMCs;
  • Has adopted an open and transparent culture across all its work areas including dissemination of findings, recruitment and procurement, new funding arrangements, etc.

To achieve these goals we will have to strengthen existing partnerships and open new ones. This is not a question of defending our turf, but of reaping the mutual benefits of collaborative working relationships. Any success can be measured against the 4R’s:

  • Does it have a regional dimension through MRC added value?
  • Have the knowledge and analysis that the MRC can mobilise been used in decision-making – was it relevant?
  • Were the MRC’s responsibilities under the 1995 Agreement satisfactorily observed?
  • Have the risks associated with both new developments and underlying growth trends and other drivers been identified and minimised?

I would like to finish by returning to the question of the two rivers – what does the calibration look like? If the river we are talking about in our governance meetings and represented in our work programmes closely mirrors what is happening in the real world, then we can be happy that we have done our job.

Thank you




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