Mekong River Commission


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Q&A - Frequently Asked Questions
about the Mekong River Commission

The following are taken from questions recently or frequently asked by journalists and members of the public to the MRC

The Mekong

WHAT IS THE MEKONG RIVER BASIN?

The Mekong Basin includes the mainstream Mekong River and all the tributaries that flow into it. Parts of Southern China, Myanmar and Viet Nam, almost one third of Thailand, and most of Cambodia and Lao PDR make up the basin. With a total land area of 795,000 square kilometres, the Mekong River Basin is nearly the size of France and Germany put together and the river itself is over 4,800 km long.

Name of the Mekong River in each riparian country:

China: Lancang
Myanmar: Mae Khaung
Lao PDR: Mekong/Mae Nam Kong
Thai: Mekong/Mae Nam Kong
Cambodia: Tonle Thom
Viet Nam: Sng Cùu Long

The Lower Mekong Basin, the part of the basin in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam accounts for about 82 percent of the total flow of water generated by the whole basin. The average flow is about 15,000 cubic meters per second (the equivalent of six Olympic sized swimming pools of water per second) with the discharge varying between dry season and wet season, for example, mean minimum flows at Kratie (Cambodia) are about 2,200 cubic meters per second. This more than doubles in flood season.

More than 60 million of some of Asia's poorest people live in the lower part of the basin. One third of these live on less than one dollar per day and many depend wholly or partially on the basin’s water resources for their survival with the river system providing abundant and diverse fisheries, irrigation for agriculture and forestry, transport, tourism and commercial opportunities, including hydropower.

However, population expansion, urban growth, pollution, agricultural development, deforestation, mining, a growing demand for hydropower energy and increasing pressure to develop the river system are putting this delicate ecosystem at risk - and if not managed wisely, such development could endanger a valuable economic, cultural and environmental resource.

The role of the MRC

WHAT IS THE MEKONG RIVER COMMISSION?

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is a regional inter-governmental agency. It is the job of the MRC, which has four Member Countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam) and two Dialogue Partners (China and Myanmar), to help the governments of the Lower part of the basin to manage the water resources of the basin sustainably; helping member countries to develop the river network in a way that preserves its existing use as a source of livelihoods and environmental services.

  • The MRC is a knowledge based institution. It provides capacity building, research, advice and support to Mekong governments in managing the watershed, agriculture and land use, flood risk reduction, (including flood forecasting), sustainable hydropower development, fisheries, waterways safety and potential commercial opportunities, such as tourism and trade.
  • The founding document of the MRC is the 1995 Mekong Agreement. The four Member Countries agreed to cooperate in developing, using, managing and conserving the basin’s water and related resources in areas such as fisheries, flood control, irrigation, hydropower and navigation. It emerged as an independent international organisation in 1995 from the former Mekong Committee established under the United Nations in 1957.
  • The four Member Countries also agreed to promote joint interests: to prevent water from being wasted, to sustain livelihoods and to protect the basin's environment including its natural resources, aquatic life, water conditions and ecological balance.
  • Most of the Commission’s regional programmes in fields such as basin planning, fisheries, hydrology, navigation and the environment are managed from Vientiane, where the MRC Secretariat has been located since 2004. The Flood Management and Mitigation Programme is managed from Phnom Penh, where a new Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Flood Centre opened in 2008.
WHAT DOES THE MRC DO?

The MRC offers analysis, provides advice, conducts research and monitors the status of water and related resources for the countries' mutual benefit and the people's well-being, across the basin. It has several strategic areas of focus, which currently include:

  • Agriculture, Irrigation and Forestry
  • Basin Development Planning
  • Environment (including Climate Change Adaptation)
  • Flood Management and Mitigation
  • Fisheries
  • Sustainable Hydropower
  • Navigation

Over the years the MRC has built up significant capacity to model the consequences of future development according to a range of different scenarios, to help the Member Countries formulate a common vision for the future of the basin. The MRC facilitates dialogue among governments, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and stakeholders as part of the planning process.

HOW IS THE MRC FUNDED?

The MRC is funded through member country contributions and international development partners. The Member Countries have committed themselves to gradually increasing their contributions so that they will eventually assume full financial responsibility for the organisation. Annual figures for contributions and expenditure are available in the MRC Annual Reports on the website http://www.mrcmekong.org

CAN THE MRC TELL THE COUNTRIES HOW THE MEKONG SHOULD BE USED?

The MRC's role, as defined by the 1995 Agreement, is an advisory one: responsibility for decision-making rests with the countries concerned. For major projects on the mainstream, there is a requirement for all countries to work together to reach an agreement. The policy of the MRC Secretariat is that we will do whatever we can to ensure that the diversity of views of various stakeholders is reflected in our work and that the outcome of our objective scientific analysis is made available to those responsible for taking such decisions.

HOW DO CHINA AND MYANMAR FIT IN WITH THE MRC?

Since 1996 China and Myanmar have been Dialogue Partners. They share information on developments within their countries that affect the Mekong. In 2002, the MRC signed an agreement with China for the exchange of hydrological data during the flood season. Talks are also underway to assess the possibility of joint work on safe navigation and the Strategic Environmental Assessment of potential hydropower schemes on the mainstream Mekong. There is an increasing level of technical cooperation with regular participation from technical experts from China and Myanmar.

DO MEMBER COUNTRIES COMPLY WITH THE AGREEMENT? WHAT HAPPENS IF THERE ARE VIOLATIONS?

Compliance with the 1995 Mekong Agreement is high and countries have committed to this, including implementing formal procedures for prior consultation on any proposed mainstream projects and maintaining critical flows at key locations in the Mekong mainstream. Some commentators have indicated that the MRC is not playing a role here, yet extensive studies and knowledge has been built up by the MRC with support from its Member Countries in order to provide the framework within which any individual project will be assessed. Before a decision on any works is taken, the formal process of discussion among MRC countries will begin with a view to reaching agreement. We expect that time to be reached soon for some of the proposed mainstream projects.

  • If one Member Country feels that procedures are being violated, there is a process under the Agreement that helps resolve disputes should they occur. The Joint Committee and the MRC Council are charged with addressing and resolving disputes referred to them by fellow Council members, fellow Joint Committee members or Member Countries.
  • If the Joint Committee or the Council is unable to resolve the difference or dispute within a timely manner, the issue is then referred to the governments of Member Countries to resolve by negotiation through diplomatic channels. Any dispute can, by mutual agreement, also be referred to a third party for mediation.

THE MRC AND HYDROPOWER

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE MRC IN HYDROPOWER DEVELOPMENT IN THE MEKONG BASIN?

In recent years, interest in the potential for hydropower development in the lower part of the basin has escalated. Many new proposals to develop hydropower schemes are being advanced by Mekong governments and the private sector, both on the tributaries, and more recently, a revival of interest for projects on the mainstream.

Pursuant to the MRC's mandate under the 1995 Agreement "to promote joint interests: to prevent water from being wasted, to sustain livelihoods and to protect the basin's environment including its natural resources, aquatic life, water conditions and ecological balance;" the MRC's Initiative on Sustainable Hydropower was formulated in 2008 and endorsed by the MRC Joint Committee in March 2009. The Initiative is coordinated across many of MRC's programmes and works to:

  • Facilitate dialogue to balance economic, social and environmental performance: Central to the MRC's work is the assistance it provides to Member Countries to help them understand and balance the impact of hydropower on the Mekong. In this role it facilitates dialogue among the major stakeholders, providing them with an opportunity to raise issues and express concerns regarding the building of dams in the basin.
    A series of meetings for parties involved in hydropower development and policy making including the Member Countries, civil society, NGOs, pressure groups and other interested parties were conducted throughout 2008 and early 2009.
    Consultation with stakeholders on the proposed mainstream hydropower schemes has been reinforced to include gathering the views of communities and villagers, particularly through the MRC’s Basin Development Programme.
  • Understand the sustainable development implications of mainstream Mekong dams: An immediate priority for the MRC is to assess the long-term implications of mainstream dam proposals and provide a broader understanding of the risks and opportunities of such development. While the benefits of hydropower are potentially considerable for Mekong countries, the construction of one or more of the 12 hydropower schemes currently under consideration would have profound implications for the sustainable development of the basin.
  • Provide guidance for dam design founded on the principles of integrated water resource management: One of the ways that the MRC is helping to assess the balance between opportunity and risk for proposed projects is to highlight a range of key issues and promote performance targets that need to be considered by developers at the project planning stage as well as by MRC Bodies, government line-agencies and other stakeholders when any proposed hydropower scheme is submitted for the MRC prior consultation process (see below).
  • Support the implementation of Notification, Prior Consultation Procedure and Agreement: According to the 1995 Mekong Agreement, before Member Countries may initiate any large scale infrastructure development on the Mekong, they must notify and consult with other riparian states in the basin. This process is formalised in the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA). The MRC supports the various MRC bodies and national line-agencies in implementing this process.http://www.mrcmekong.org/ish/support-PNPCA.htm
WHY IS THERE INCREASING INTEREST IN HYDROPOWER DEVELOPMENT IN THE MEKONG BASIN?
  • There are several factors driving the increased interest in the potential for hydropower on the Mekong. The rapid pace of export-led growth comes on top of efforts to improve and expand electricity access in urban centres and rural areas. Selling hydropower to satisfy energy demands in neighbouring countries also provides countries such as Cambodia and Lao PDR a means to generating much needed foreign exchange earnings that can be used to finance other development projects.
  • Although the idea of using the Mekong river system for electricity generation has existed for decades, since 2007, there has been an upsurge in interest in the potential for hydropower development in the lower part of the basin. Many new proposals to develop hydropower schemes are being advanced by Mekong governments and the private sector, both on the tributaries; and on the Lao, Lao-Thai and Cambodian reaches of the Mekong mainstream.
  • Volatility in the international price of oil and gas and concerns over climate change have all intensified the focus on hydropower.
  • Mekong governments see the potential earnings from electricity export as a means for reducing poverty, reducing national debt burdens and improving cash-flow, as well as achieving regional economic integration and energy security.
  • The MRC has estimated the hydropower potential of the basin at around 30,000 MW. Of this, 13,000 MW are on the mainstream, 13,000 MW on the Lao tributaries, 2,200 MW on the Cambodian tributaries and 2,000 MW on the Vietnamese tributaries. To date 11 schemes have been completed in the LMB tributaries totalling some 1,600 MW or five percent of the potential.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL EFFECTS OF THE PLANNED HYDROPOWER SCHEMES ON THE MAINSTREAM MEKONG?

Hydropower brings with it several concerns regarding the potential for impact on the environment, fisheries and people's livelihoods. These concerns need to be balanced with the economic and poverty alleviation priorities of the MRC Member Countries.

  • Hydropower dams can have both positive and negative consequences for people living downstream. On the positive side, for example, the storage of water for electricity generation upstream will regulate extremes of water levels. Dry season water levels could increase making water available for irrigation and urban water supply and there is some potential for flood attenuation from the larger reservoirs, upstream. Conditions for navigation will also improve.
  • However, damming will cause changes in flow regimes, water quality and sedimentation leading to changes in wetland areas, increased risk of bank erosion and the reduced flows of nutrients. In addition there are concerns over how water quality may be affected during construction. Hydropower operation can also lead to large daily fluctuations in water level downstream unless some form of re-regulation is incorporated. Perhaps the biggest impact on people’s lives could be the barrier effect that dams have to fish migration. If fish are unable to migrate, then they may not breed in sufficient numbers to maintain a level of fisheries that provides enough food for people in the basin. The Mekong is the largest single inland fishery in the world and home to 60 million people. In some places up to 80 percent of people’s animal protein comes from Mekong fish.
  • The MRC is working with Mekong governments to develop coordinated and integrated impact assessments, consistent and fair mitigation measures, and hydropower development strategies and policies and addressing these issues in a number of ways, including research and studies on fisheries, the aquatic environment and water quality. It also has a formal role as the facilitator of discussions amongst the four Member Countries on these proposals as part of the provisions of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. The MRC is currently conducting a Strategic Environmental Assessment of the proposed dams planned in Cambodia and Lao PDR to assess scale of likely risks and opportunities and the affectivity of possible mitigation measures. Later this year the MRC will publish the results of this work.
  • The need to develop coordinated and integrated impact assessments, consistent and fair mitigation measures, and hydropower development strategies and policies is becoming increasingly apparent to the governments, stakeholders and community members of the Lower Mekong Basin – and central to the 1995 Agreement.
IS THE MRC PRO- OR ANTI- DAMS AND HYDROPOWER?

The MRC supports sustainable hydropower development that furthers the joint interests of its Member Countries. The hydropower potential of the Mekong River Basin is significant and has barely been tapped. Meanwhile the energy demands of the region are soaring, and there are substantial opportunities for the trading of power.

  • All the Mekong countries include hydropower options in their development strategies, seeing this renewable technology as a means of bringing in much needed revenue that will enable them to improve social structures, including education, health and infrastructure.
  • At the same time, the MRC believes that successful development of the basin’s hydropower potential requires a well-structured and integrated programme founded on basin-wide planning, with due regard to environmental and social aspects and to sustainability. It recognises that there are opportunities and risks with hydropower development and it is essential that careful consideration is given to such aspects and that effective mitigation measures are incorporated.
  • Formal procedures exist under the 1995 Agreement for the notification, prior consultation and agreements covering projects on the tributaries and mainstream. These ensure all Member Countries are informed of potential projects and have an opportunity to enter into dialogue with the country promoting a project.
WHAT RULES GOVERN MRC MEMBERS DEVELOPING TRIBUTARIES?

This comes under the umbrella of the individual nation, but Member countries are required to notify other members of any plans on tributaries which might have downstream effects and this provides an opportunity for them to request clarification or further information.

HYDROPOWER AND CHINA

HOW DOES THE MRC FEEL ABOUT THE DAMS BEING BUILT ON THE UPPER MEKONG BY CHINA?
  • Although China is not a full member of the MRC, there is a cooperative working relationship which has gradually been improving over recent years. The basis of that cooperation is good scientific analysis and understanding of the Mekong – the potential impact of any human activity and where possible, the mitigation of that impact.
  • As a dialogue partner with the MRC, China is well aware of the potential consequences of hydropower construction and has indicated its willingness to work together at a technical level on these issues. China has also clearly stated that it will operate the upstream projects so that river flows downstream are maintained at acceptable levels.
  • The MRC uses modeling systems to assess the potential impact that the Chinese cascade of dams will have in the future and the results of this work is forms the basis of our discussions with China. For example, we are discussing potential cooperation in the Strategic Environmental Assessment of proposed mainstream dams.
  • North of Vientiane, about 50 percent of the Mekong’s dry season water flow comes from China, so the potential influence of the Chinese dams in increasing dry season flows will be more significant in the upper part of the lower Mekong basin (in northern Lao PDR and Thailand). However most of the wet season flows are generated in the area downstream of the Chinese dams and so they will have minimal influence on the flood peaks. For the basin as a whole, only about 16 percent of the overall Mekong flow (measured at the river mouth) comes from China, so although more research is needed in this area, especially on issues related to sediment flows, by the time the water from Chinese dams gets to the Tonle Sap and the Mekong delta (where most of the people live) the effects mentioned above will have diminished due to the magnitude of tributary inflows from Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as they start to dominate the flow pattern.

THE MRC AND FLOODS

WHAT IS THE MRC'S ROLE IN FLOOD MANAGEMENT AND MITIGATION?

The MRC's Flood Management and Mitigation Programme monitors the river levels throughout the flood season. With the assistance of hyrdometeorological data from China, this allows for early warning forecasting and mid to long term forecasts of river levels. As was seen by the 25-year flood this year the forecasting system was reasonably accurate and supported efforts by provinces and governments to put in place emergency measures which mitigated much of the damage the flood could have other wise caused. The FMMP also covers areas including structural Measures and Flood Proofing, Mediation of Transboundary Flood Issues, Flood Emergency Management Strengthening and Land Management.

HOW WILL THE DAMS BEING BUILT ON THE MEKONG IN CHINA AFFECT LAOS? WON’T THEY CAUSE FLOODING TO OCCUR, LIKE IN AUGUST 2008?

Floods during 2008 in northern Lao PDR were more severe than normal. The water level reached on August 15 at Vientiane was the highest recorded since records began in 1913. At 13.7 m above the gauge, the Mekong River was one metre higher than the maximum levels recorded in 1966, 1971 and 2002. MRC research indicates that the flooding was caused by unusually high cyclonic rainfall. There is no evidence that the August 2008 floods were caused by Chinese or any other dams. The storage capacity of the projects already constructed last year was too small to have changed flow rates significantly at that time.

THE MRC AND FUTURE CHALLENGES

WHAT ARE THE KEY ISSUES AND CHALLENGES FACING THE MEKONG RIVER BASIN?
  • In the last couple of years there has been a significant increase in the pressure placed on resources in the basin. The mainstream dam projects, for instance, have been talked about for 30 or 40 years but in the last year or so, the level of attention paid to those projects has increased and project promoters are now moving forward into feasibility studies and environmental impact assessments (EIA). So the challenges are to make sure that the consequences and implications of mainstream developments are assessed with a regional or basin perspective, and that is the role of the Mekong River Commission when we enter into consultations and discussions.
  • In the last five years we have seen quite a significant increase in planning activity in the basin. But, there is already pressure on its fisheries resources and on livelihoods, as you can see in the Tonle Sap and other areas. Fish catches have been decreasing and that’s not only due to new infrastructure, but also broader trends in the basin such as population growth and increased exploitation.
  • Also, developments in the upper basin in China will have an influence on the flows in the river and this will create both opportunities and risks for the Lower Mekong Basin. Opportunities include an increase in dry season flows, opening up options to use water for other purposes downstream, such as irrigation. At the same time, changes in flow regime may create risks related to the low and high flow rates, the timing of the reverse flow into Tonle Sap, and consequential impacts on fisheries and changes in sediment flows. We are increasing our dialogue with china on these issues.
WILL THE WORLD FINANCIAL CRISIS HAVE AN EFFECT ON THE FUNDING OF THE MRC?

The fallout of the financial crisis is being felt in Europe where much of the MRC’s Development Partners come from and this may lead to cuts in development aid budgets in future years. However, for the moment all MRC programmes are receiving pledged funds.

POLLUTION

HOW IS POLLUTION AFFECTING COMMUNITIES THAT DEPEND ON THE RIVER?
  • In general, the water in the river is relatively clean. The reason for this is that the number of people living along the Mekong is fairly low compared with the volume of the water. There can of course be localized pollution, such as close to large cities, close to mining sites and in the Delta where a lot of people live and there is intensive agriculture. The quality in some of the downstream tributaries can be lower due to localized pollution. Almost all of the 22 MRC’s mainstream monitoring stations are rated as ‘excellent’ for the protection of aquatic life. The few exceptions are My Tho station in 2002 and 2005, My Thuan station in 2006 and Chau Doc station in 2002. In these stations the water quality was rated as “class B,” indicating good/acceptable quality for the protection of aquatic life.
  • Some impairment is caused by salinity intrusion which can fluctuate from year to year due to the natural variability of the river flows. There is concern that salinity levels will increase in coming years as sea levels rise due to climate change and would have considerable impact on agriculture in the Delta.

CLIMATE CHANGE

HOW WILL CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACT ON THE MEKONG BASIN?

The countries of the LMB are recognised as among the most vulnerable to climate change in the world.

Although no-one knows exactly how rising world temperatures will impact on the basin, according to global climate modelling that has been downscaled to basin level by the MRC and its partners, the following is likely:

  • A change in rainfall patterns, which could increase the risk of flooding in some areas and affect agriculture;
  • An increase in the number and severity of extreme weather events;
  • An increased risk of extremes of hot and cold in different parts of the basin. This could make drought more likely and increase the risk faced by farmers in what are already poor areas;
  • Sea level rises of up to one metre are predicted, making the Mekong Delta one of the five most vulnerable deltas in the world.
  • Significant displacement of people and migration into urban areas
  • Changes in the flow of the river and tributaries, which could influence fish migration patterns, run-off and alluvial deposits.

As global concerns about climate change grow, the MRC is working to discover what it will mean to the people of the basin in terms of changing water resources, their future use and environmental impacts.

Although it is important to focus on long-term reductions in carbon emissions and the establishment of a global low carbon economy; perhaps more urgent for the 60 million people in the Mekong Basin in the near future will be strategies to adapt – to reduce the impact – and try to ensure that climate change doesn’t weaken efforts to reduce poverty or improve development.

WHAT IS THE MRC DOING ABOUT THE IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON THE MEKONG BASIN?

The MRC Climate Change and Adaptation Initiative (CCAI) is a collaborative regional effort of MRC Member Countries that will support the countries in adapting to the new challenges posed by climate change in the Lower Mekong Basin.

The initiative works by:

  • Understanding Climate Change in the Lower Mekong Basin: through research, climate and sophisticated hyrdro-meterological modelling to predict where potential severe impacts may occur
  • Adopting a Basin-wide, Integrated Approach: The main focus of this regional initiative is the basin wide integrated approach consistent with Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) and the MRC 1995 Agreement. The CCAI will focus initially on the basin-wide level, addressing basin wide and trans-boundary issues and the sectors for which it has a mandate and experience, as reflected in the different programmes of the MRC.
  • Working with partners: In the region, there are several international organizations, NGOs, and government agencies that are working on climate change and adaptation issues. The strategy of the CCAI is to work through a partnership approach.
  • Fostering Dialogue with Stakeholders: Through Regional Forums to foster dialogue and consultation with stakeholders concerned with climate change and adaptation activities in the Lower Mekong Basin.

THE MRC AS AN ORGANISATION

WHAT ARE THE UNIQUE ADVANTAGES OF THE MRC?
  • 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. As a regional body, the MRC can assist here by acting as a facilitator of dialogue and by looking into mechanisms for sharing of benefits across borders
  • 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.
  • Taking a strategic basinwide assessment allows us to determine and minimise risks.
WHAT ARE THE MRC'S SUCCESSES?

Recent MRC successes include:

  • Agreement on Procedures regarding water use and quality.
  • 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 an effective forecasting and warning service for the mainstream, 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. Significant 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.

     

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