Friday, 2 April 2010

The Mekong: A matter of life and death

via CAAI News Media

By The Nation
Published on April 2, 2010

Next week's Mekong Commission meeting in Hua Hin must address greater protection for this region's greatest water source

Unless something substantial and tangible is done as soon as possible, the current drought affecting the Mekong River will become a new regional crisis that will affect some 60 million people who depend directly on this majestic river. But it is not only those people along the riverside who will be affected. We must also add their inland compatriots. In the riparian countries, hundreds of millions of lives also hinge upon the health of the 4,000-kilometre river.

The Mekong Summit, to be held next week in Hua Hin, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), will be an appropriate forum to review Mekong issues and come up with programmes that will enable riparian countries to develop their economies in a sustainable manner and manage water resources in ways that will preserve the Mekong's environment and ecosystems.

In the past decade, the MRC has failed to deliver effective programmes. Most of the previous plans were made without consultation with civil society organisations or stakeholders who live along the river and depend on it.

Obviously, riparian countries are also to blame for the lack of progress. Each of the four lower Mekong Basin countries - Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - still thinks primarily of its own interest, instead of the whole region. This kind of national focus is the biggest stumbling block in promoting cooperation along the Mekong. For instance, a dozen new dams are planned for construction in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Who is acting as watchdog over these projects?

Even though dam construction - which used to be the main source of hydro-electric power - is considered outmoded, riparian countries still crave these huge projects, without due consideration of long-term negative consequences on the people and ecosystem. Alternative energy resources must be explored, especially those that are renewable or use biofuels.

To add salt to the wounds, the upper riparian countries, China and Burma, have not made the situation along the Mekong any better. Of late, criticism has been levied on China for its ongoing dam construction despite the current drought that is greatly affecting its southwest region. However, Beijing has been quite forthcoming in providing new information and data on its portion of the river to the MRC, something that it has not done before. This can only be viewed as a good beginning.

A comprehensive cooperative framework among the countries of the lower and upper Mekong is imperative to handle the current crisis and prevent future crises, be they through flooding or water shortage.

One of the most important elements in the Mekong's future management is the people who live on, by and from the river. Any moves, ideas or programmes must go through a dialogue and consultation process with them. Their representatives must also be brought into decision-making at the top levels. It is unfortunate that, at this stage, most of the riparian countries, with the exception of Thailand, do not have active civil society organisations to support the Mekong causes. Thai stakeholders, at least, have been holding discussions and contribute inputs to the government to help ensure that any programme related to the Mekong will be based on a holistic approach.

The MRC must shape up and open up. There should be more transparency in all policies and programmes. Lip service will not help. It is hoped that the Hua Hin Declaration will reflect regional leaders' common sense and courage in making long-term commitments to ensure that the Mekong will continue to flow for thousands more years to come.

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