The Future Shape of Mekong Cooperation

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Photo: Flickr/Adrian Zwegers

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is the regional, intergovernmental organization tasked with facilitating the sustainable development of shared water resources between the countries of the Lower Mekong Basin – Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Although the organization has been recognized as among the leading multilateral resource management bodies in the developing world, it has come under increasing criticism over the past decade for its inability to prevent unchecked hydropower development along the Mekong mainstream and tributaries.

Many critiques of the MRC can be linked directly to the limitations of its foundational document – the 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin (the Mekong Agreement for short). Although the Mekong Agreement was seen as an achievement at its inception, the relatively narrow scope and meager authority it provides the MRC have largely relegated the organization to consultative, facilitation, and information gathering functions.

Where the MRC’s forerunner – the Cold War-era Mekong Committee – established a veto power for its members over certain types of developments, the Mekong Agreement provides no such authority, and instead, enables only non-binding consultations between the member countries on qualifying projects through the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation, and Agreement (PNCPA) process. As a result, any member country can legally move forward with a hydro-development project, regardless of the long-term consequences for or desires of the other member countries, and irrespective of its predicted ecological impact on the basin.

Over the past two years, the MRC has begun implementation of a comprehensive decentralization of organizational responsibilities. Although the fundamental structural components of the organization will remain in place, key technical and financial responsibilities are being shifted away from its central body – the MRC Secretariat (MRC-S) headquartered in Vientiane – to line agencies within the member countries, under the coordination and guidance of each country’s National Mekong Committee (NMC). At the same time, the MRC-S has cut its staff by half, per the terms of the MRC’s 2014 Regional Roadmap for Decentralization and Reform, and is working to wean the organization away from donor funding and towards member country-driven self-sufficiency.

At the highest level, this process aims to create a sense of ownership and responsibility for the MRC’s mission within the member countries. By pushing for their deeper involvement in MRC programs and activities, the hope is that governments in these countries will more proactively engage with the organization, relying on its resources and expertise to adopt more carefully thought out planning approaches and devise more sustainable long-term strategies for development throughout the Lower Mekong Basin.

Three Visions for the MRC

In February 2017, two members of our research team traveled to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam to participate in the first PNCPA meetings on the proposed Pak Beng Dam, and to attend a series of workshops on sustainable development in the Lower Mekong Basin. During this visit, we spoke with nearly 50 experts and stakeholders, including former and current MRC staff, river basin management experts, hydrologists, and government officials, seeking to understand and evaluate the decentralization process, and to hear opinions on the MRC’s outlook going forward.

In our discussions, we heard a remarkable range of opinions on the MRC, its planned decentralization, and the future of resource management in the basin. Ultimately, we identified three broad views of the MRC, and from those, derived three visions for the organization’s future – optimistic, skeptical, and pessimistic. None of our interviewees fit into any single camp; however, we believe that these categorizations provide a useful framework for considering the distinct paths available to the MRC as it proceeds with its decentralization plan.

Optimists believe that the MRC plays a critical role in enabling cooperation and coordination among the member countries with respect to resource management, and can continue to serve as a platform for quadrilateral engagement for years to come. This group is generally composed of those working directly with the MRC, including those within the organization, and those acting on behalf of its closest development partners.

While optimists acknowledge many of the MRC’s deficiencies, they generally excuse these as consequences of the narrow mandate provided by the Mekong Agreement and the unwillingness of member countries to surrender sovereignty over development decisions. They argue that the MRC’s existence as a platform for cooperative development is an achievement in itself. Optimists expect that the decentralization process will successfully address key criticisms of MRC operations, and that the organization’s future will be assured if it can effectively transform into a member country-driven resources management body.

Skeptics view the MRC as lacking the capability to truly fulfill its mandate to enable sustainable and cooperative resources management due to its lack of political authority and weak institutional capacity. This group of stakeholders includes many from the policy and diplomatic realms who view the MRC favorably in the context of its role in enabling regional cooperation, but who have become frustrated by the lack of progress in pressing member countries to engage in genuinely cooperative and sustainable development.

Skeptics doubt that the current decentralization process will improve the management of the Mekong River’s resources, or the living standards of riparian populations, and believe that the organization’s fundamental weakness will prevent it from achieving its aims. At the same time, they view the MRC as the “only game in town,” and recognize its symbolic significance in the region. Even if the organization’s political capital remains low, these individuals tend to believe that the MRC could be retooled as a more explicitly technical organization, to continue carrying out information gathering, environmental monitoring, and sophisticated scientific analyses, while leaving more difficult political coordination functions to the member countries’ diplomatic corps.

Pessimists argue that the MRC not only fails to achieve its core sustainable development objectives, but also primarily serves to shield member countries from criticism for their failure to appropriately address development issues in the basin. This group is composed of stakeholders with substantial work experience on development issues in the region, including some who have worked directly with the MRC in the past.

Pessimists view the MRC’s lack of political authority as a fatal institutional flaw that cannot be remedied by any reorganization, shift of responsibilities, or adjustment to funding mechanisms. In particular, they criticize the PNCPA process as being fundamentally insufficient to adequately address stakeholder concerns around proposed hydropower projects. While few seriously call for the immediate dismantling of the MRC, “pessimists” have little hope that the member countries will cede the authority necessary for the MRC to effectively manage the region’s resources, and believe that it should eventually be disbanded if the member countries are unwilling to more aggressively support its mandate.

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