The following are taken from questions recently
or frequently asked by journalists and members of the public
to the MRC
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:
Myanmar: Mae Khaung
Lao PDR: Mekong/Mae Nam Kong
Thai: Mekong/Mae Nam Kong
Cambodia: Tonle Thom
Viet Nam: Sông 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
- 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
- Agriculture, Irrigation and Forestry
- Basin Development Planning
- Environment (including Climate Change Adaptation)
- Flood Management and Mitigation
- Sustainable Hydropower
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
HOW WILL CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACT ON THE MEKONG
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
- 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
- Sea level rises of up to one metre are predicted, making
the Mekong Delta one of the five most vulnerable deltas in
- Significant displacement of people and migration into urban
- Changes in the flow of the river and tributaries, which
could influence fish migration patterns, run-off and alluvial
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.