Six countries, one river

Slowly down the Mekong: many issues still wait to be resolved. — Bloomberg

Slowly down the Mekong: many issues still wait to be resolved.   -  Picture credit: Wikipedia

Good politics is good economics. Unfortunately, the importance of the maxim is not always understood in many parts of the world.

More than 18 years after its constitution, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) appears to be afflicted by an existential crisis. Uncertainty looms around it as questions are being raised from different quarters. Did the MRC function all these years the way it was supposed to? Has there been any real value addition? Does the scope of the Mekong River Agreement (MRA) which paved the way for formation of the commission need a relook? Should the MRC be vested with statutory powers so it can go beyond its present advisory role?

A recent visit to parts of the Mekong river basin in Laos and Cambodia and discussions with officials of the MRC secretariat at Vientiane and Phnom Penh confirm that there are no easy solutions to many of the problems currently facing the commission.

The story so far

A bit of history first. Originating from the Tibetan plateau at an altitude of 5,000 metres in China, the Mekong river traverses 4,800 km through six countries — China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — before emptying itself into the South China Sea. The river has two parts, Upper Mekong which flows through China and Myanmar, and Lower Mekong covering the other four countries.

The MRC was constituted in 1995 following an agreement among the four Lower Mekong countries. The objective was to prepare a comprehensive development plan for the river’s lower basin that supports an estimated 300 million people, both directly and indirectly, dependent on the river for their livelihood. China and Myanmar, which opted out of the agreement and therefore out of the MRC, are only dialogue partners while the lower basin countries are active members.

The MRC was preceded by the Mekong Committee which was formed in 1957; the Committee owes is origin to the UN Economic Commission for Asia & Far East (UNECAFE) which was set up by the UN after World War II to help Asian countries adjust to peacetime development.

Subsequently, political upheavals made peace and development elusive to several countries in the region for many years.

Intractable issues

The problems currently facing the MRC are many and varied, some seemingly intractable. This is not surprising. The four signatories to the MRA, namely Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, are different from one another in language, culture, customs, political set-ups, economic and social conditions, and many other respects. As Hans Guttman, CEO of MRC, told the visiting IUCN delegation: “Consensus building, even on issues critically important to all members, poses a huge challenge.”

Questions are being raised by donor countries and organisations, mostly western, about their continued participation in MRC projects. An estimated 90 per cent of MRC’s annual budget of $22 million is funded by donors who now insist on a deadline for withdrawal of their support. The four member countries have, in principle, set the deadline at 2030 but many are sceptical about it.

The sceptics cannot not blamed. The member countries are vehemently opposed to one another on various issues.

The demarcation of the water-boundary between Laos and Thailand remains an open issue with Laos insisting on the 1926 formula prepared by the erstwhile French rulers and Thailand opposing it.

Again, Vientiane’s plan to set up a massive hydro power project, Xayaburi, on the bank of the Mekong river, has evoked a sharp response from Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City. For historical reasons, Cambodia and Vietnam are at loggerheads on various issues.

The sources of bilateral conflict are too many and go too far back. Whenever there is flood or drought in the lower basin, blame is laid squarely at China’s door. “National priorities are dictated by local political and other compulsions and not necessarily by the larger interests of the region,” observes Guttman.

Critical relationship

China and Myanmar are not MRC members, again due to historical reasons. The MRC is keen that these countries, which have so far chosen to remain only dialogue partners, become regular members in the greater interest of the region. Forging relationships between Upper Mekong and Lower Mekong countries is critical for exploitation of the full potential of the basin.

“We’ve kept our doors open for China and Myanmar for many years but their plans are not clear to us as yet,” says Guttman. “We sincerely believe consolidation of cooperation with China and Myanmar is critical for forming lasting practical partnerships in many areas of shared interest , more so in the context of probable withdrawal of donor countries.” There is a feeling that China, which considers itself a super power, will choose its own time and dictate its own terms for joining the MRC. Less than 20 per cent of the flow into the Mekong comes from China and Myanmar together.

While the MRA as a whole need not be subject to thorough scrutiny, some of its clauses certainly deserve a careful look, says Guttman.

One such clause is Article 33 which provides that technical staff to the MRC secretariat to be recruited from member countries have a maximum term of six years (the agreement in this regard originally provided a term of two to three years, which Vietnam still follows).

Such a short tenure is not useful because the term comes to an end before the person concerned can gain sufficient knowledge and experience to discharge the responsibility suitably.

Short on power

The thinking is that the MRC needs to be vested with some statutory powers. Donor countries pour in money, experts are consulted and reports are prepared but whether the recommendations contained in the reports are implemented is, of course, another matter.

When it comes to implementation, each country is guided by its own national priorities dictated by local conditions.

With appropriate authority, the MRC will be able to overrule small sectarian interests in favour of the larger common interests of the region.

There is also another problem. The language of each country is different, and English is used at the meetings. This creates a huge operational problem, leading to inordinate delays in the implementation of decisions.

Good politics, it is said, is good economics. Unfortunately, the importance of the maxim is not always understood in many parts of the world including the countries in the Mekong basin.

Bangla-India Initiative

The IUCN which, along with several other European organizations, is associated with various development projects in the Mekong basin, has mooted another project called ‘Ecosystem for Life: a Bangladesh-India Initiative’, focusing on the uplift of millions dependent for their survival on the river systems shared between the two countries.

The accent, however, is on the conservation of nature. There are as many as 56 such river systems and most of them originate outside Bangladesh.

The IUCN is exploring the possibility of replicating the experiences of the MRC in the Bangladesh-India Initiative.

It has been joined in this effort by experts in Bangladesh who stress the need to involve Nepal, Bhutan and China in order to work out a comprehensive river-related development plan for the entire region. The concept is not new but India’s response to it has been lukewarm so far.

As far as the Mekong goes, there are many grey areas still to be addressed by the countries concerned. Nor is there one Mekong basin development model which can be replicated in the Indian subcontinent, given the various national priorities and political considerations of each country. Besides, conditions vary from region to region.

Further, while the MRA was signed in 1995, India and Bangladesh signed the protocol on river trade and transit way back in 1972.

Although it would be presumptuous to claim the over 40-year journey has always been smooth and easy, one thing is certain: despite everything, the two countries have succeeded in developing a mechanism by which disputed issues are discussed, debated and sought to be sorted out through negotiation. Sadly, such a mechanism is yet to be put in place for the Mekong river basin.

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(The author was in Laos and Cambodia at the invitation of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).)

Published on August 29, 2013

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