Cambodia has joined other Southeast Asian countries to sign a declaration pledging to safeguard the Mekong River through coordinated action, while urgently addressing the risks of further hydropower development along the waterway.
On Wednesday, Southeast Asian members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) issued the Vientiane Declaration at the 4th MRC Summit, attended by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The declaration serves to reinforce the region’s commitment to cooperate and protect the river that serves as the lifeblood for about 70 million people.
The Vientiane Declaration
The declaration places a sense of urgency on addressing the development of large water infrastructure projects, including hydropower. It states that while development opportunities exist, there is an urgent need to examine the “growing risks and trade-offs”, especially, “adverse impacts, including transboundary impacts”.
Discussions that took place during the summit highlighted that these issues are further exacerbated by climate change-fuelled floods and droughts. In response, the declaration calls for MRC, its partners, and other stakeholders in the region to “intensify cooperation” and seek “innovative solutions”.
The declaration also appeals for greater coordination from an industry it describes as being accustomed to private, autonomous decision-making on when to withhold or release water “We need to move beyond water-resources planning to encompass operational management, including transboundary coordination, especially in terms of timely and regular sharing of operational data from dams and other water infrastructure,” the declaration states.
It also calls for the “highest political commitment” from each country’s leadership, while enshrining MRC’s role as a “regional knowledge hub” dedicated to implementing “basin-wide strategies, procedures, guidelines, and data- and information-sharing, that drives peaceful and mutually beneficial cooperation to achieve our shared vision”.
The host country’s leader, Laotian Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, formally introduced the Vientiane Declaration. She said, “We call upon all Mekong Basin states to join hands in managing the Mekong River Basin based on the principle of mutual respect for sovereignty and shared benefit with the slogan ‘One Mekong One Spirit’.”
Speaking at the summit, Prime Minister Hun Sen, added, “Achieving sustainable water, food, and energy security is our top priority agenda. We also recognise that the Mekong and its resources are vital to the economic growth and well-being of countries and people in the Basin. We must [also] avoid overusing the Basin’s resources, which could lead to their permanent loss.”
The Mekong River’s Woes
In recent years, the Mekong River and Basin have faced a number of alarming trends, which MRC Secretariat Chief Executive Officer, Anoulak Kittikhoun, highlighted in his 2023 State of the Mekong Address on April 3. This includes four consecutive years of changing low flow, reduced flows of nourishing sediment, rising salinity that spoils rice crops, mounting plastic pollution, and worsening floods and drought.
In spite of this, according to MRC analysis, water quality along the Mekong mainstream remains “good” or “excellent” in most places. In addition, socioeconomic growth and living standards have increased regionwide, especially pre-pandemic. MRC also noted that increased cooperation among the four member countries is yielding positive results.
In 2022, new guidelines for hydropower dam design and transboundary environmental impact to facilitate fish movement were released, along with navigation rules to foster greater river safety and innovative tools to better forecast floods and drought. A new monitoring station was also installed on the northern tip of the Basin to quickly detect water changes.
Another positive step forward was the launch of a joint study with Lancang-Mekong Cooperation to develop a shared upstream-downstream understanding of the changing water-flow regime.
MRC International Conference
The 4th MRC Summit followed the largest International Conference in MRC history, with more than 600 experts, diplomats, students, and others attending.
During the conference, innovation was a hot topic, featuring the inaugural MRC River Monitoring Technology Competition for Mekong university students, and a virtual-reality session exploring how AI can better support flood and drought forecasting and decision-making.
There were also calls to scale up efforts, from synchronizing operations of dam projects to high-tech flood- and drought-forecasting. A renewed push was made to deepen cooperation with upstream neighbours Myanmar and China. The Upper Mekong, known in China as the Lancang, is home to 11 cascade dams.
The core messages from conference participants were then woven into the Vientiane Declaration.
Countries Pledge Cooperation
During the summit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh presented stark statistics to highlight the unsustainability of development. He said between 2010 to 2020, total flow in the basin decreased by four to eight percent, while its four countries increased water use by five to 12 percent.
He called for “people-centred” policies and action by the MRC and member countries. “A population-wide, comprehensive and basin-wide approach should be taken to ensure sustainable livelihoods of the people,” the Vietnamese Prime Minister said.
Surasri Kidtimonton, Secretary-General of the Office of National Water Resources, within the Office of the Prime Minister of Thailand, attended the summit on behalf of the Thai government. He said, “The remaining challenges get more complicated. We all have missions to seek innovative development and management approaches, to thoroughly extend benefits from development to communities, and to mutually identify strategy on water and conflict management.”
Chinese Minister of Water Resources, Guoying Li, also attended the summit. He said China is keen to achieve “shared benefits” of Mekong development and is “actively promoting the building of the information-sharing platform”.
“The MRC is an important mechanism for cooperation and consensus,” said Li. “[Neighbours] drink from the same river and share a common future.”
However, he added, “We should fully respect the legitimate rights and interests of all countries in the rational development and utilisation of water resources. We should also work together to deal with the negative factors and noise that undermine sub-regional cooperation.”
Swiss Ambassador to Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, Pedro Zwahlen, encouraged member countries to add more renewable energies to their mix.
“In the context of global climate commitments and energy transition, and noting advances in solar, floating solar, wind, pumped storage hydropower and grid-integration technologies, DPs call upon MRC member countries to consider all sources of renewable energies for the most inclusive and sustainable energy mix.”