Urgent Need to Safeguard Mekong River, Experts Say

More than 600 key stakeholders gathered for the MRC International Conference to call for urgent action to be taken to safeguard the Mekong and livelihoods of the millions of people who depend on it
A united rally for urgent action to be taken to safeguard the Mekong River and conserve the waterway. Kiripost/Siv Channa
A united rally for urgent action to be taken to safeguard the Mekong River and conserve the waterway. Kiripost/Siv Channa

A united rally for urgent action to be taken to safeguard the Mekong River and conserve the waterway that millions of livelihoods depend on has been made by key stakeholders at the annual Mekong River Commission (MRC) International Conference.

Following on from the UN Water Conference in New York, MRC wrapped up its International Conference on Monday. One key message that emerged among attendees was that meaningful action needs to be taken over aspirational words alone.

Stakeholders called for action to better safeguard Southeast Asia’s most important river, the Mekong. Recent years have seen the waterway suffer from a combination of climate change and large-scale hydropower projects, which have drained water resources and impacted the river’s ecosystem.

While rice and aquaculture production have increased, boosting the livelihoods of many living across the Mekong Basin, those hardest hit are the millions of fishing and farming communities who rely on the river for food and income. These families live in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

The MRC, which was formed in 1995 to boost regional dialogue and cooperation in the Lower Mekong River Basin, was praised at the conference as a global model for water diplomacy and river-basin cooperation.

However, calls were made to scale-up efforts to have a bigger impact. Areas flagged up include synchronizing the operation of dam projects to flood and drought forecasting. A renewed push was also made to strengthen cooperation with upstream countries, Myanmar and China, where 11 cascade hydropower dams sit on the upper Mekong, known in China as the Lancang.

The conference was hosted by Laos, which urged for more decisive measures to address the mounting challenges relating to water security.

“This situation is projected to worsen if we continue business as usual; more needs to be done,” said Bounkham Vorachit, Laotian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment and a member of the MRC Council.

She also urged all stakeholders to pay attention to the livelihoods of the most vulnerable, while acknowledging the key role each nation’ leadership plays.

“Mobilizing political will remains crucial,” Vorachit said. “Equally important is to be forward-thinking and a willingness to consider innovative ways to approach local, regional and international cooperation.”

The International Conference attracted more than 600 experts, making it the largest attendance at an MRC event. Throughout the two days, dozens of panel discussions took place that ranged from social issues to cutting-edge technology.

On basin cooperation, Secretary-General Hao Zhao of Beijing-based Lancang-Mekong Water Center, which has a partnership with the MRC Secretariat, assured the regional audience that MRC and LMC water cooperation frameworks will work together, not in parallel.

“The key is to work together, shoulder to shoulder, and to maintain good cooperation,” Zhao said. “We also need real scientific data, to offset misperceptions.”

International water law expert Susanne Schmeier, who served as facilitator at the conference, said “People are tired of talk, and really hungry to put all the talk into action. I heard many good examples and commitments from the private sector, youth and communities, not just from policymakers. This is good news.”

The International Conference is followed by the 4th MRC Summit. At the summit, heads of government for all four member countries are expected to reiterate their backing for both sustainable development and the MRC’s intergovernmental voice in advocating for it.