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Against the current on the Mekong

Jan 03. 2018
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National interests and policies regarding the river aren’t flowing in the same direction

A series of summit meetings are planned this year on the future development of the Mekong River basin, and Thailand needs to start playing a more active role. The nations along the river have to agree on a clear, unified strategy if this valuable resource is to be safeguarded from ruinous exploitation.

Leaders of the six riparian countries – Thailand, China, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam – will gather in Phnom Penh next week for their second Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) summit. In March it will be Hanoi for a conference of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), which has been 

sponsored by the Asian Development Bank since 1992.

Though the LMC and GMS have identical memberships and significant overlap in their objectives, their focuses differ. The latter considers matters of infrastructure and economic links among the nations of mainland Southeast Asia. The former has a broader outlook, weighing political, security, economic, social and cultural aspects.

The overlaps between the two entities lie in agriculture, trade, tourism, the environment and human resources, all subjects that the national leaders will discuss in different forums at different times. It is important that they pursue every chance to review cooperation schemes to zero in on targets and practise their aim – and to avoid redundancy and wastes of time and resources.

Meanwhile the countries bordering the lower reaches of the Mekong – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – will meet in April in Siem Reap, Cambodia, as the Mekong River Commission (MRC). That body seeks to regulate water use and consider the implications of development projects on the main river stream. Such projects must undergo a process of prior public consultation to gauge likely ecological and social impacts.

The MRC’s task is made difficult by the fact that China and Myanmar further upstream are building hydroelectric dams and modifying the river channel to facilitate navigation. Neither nation is obliged to adhere to formal agreements on such developments. It makes little sense, obviously, to have a single body attempting to regulate only the lower part of a 4,900-kilometre river. Whatever happens further upstream is bound to have an impact along the entire length. People in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam are, for example, catching fewer fish because of what’s happening far to the northwest.

China has built eight dams and plans several more, and its claim to enjoy “good cooperation” with the MRC tends to ring hollow. In particular it points out that water released from its reservoirs helped ease a severe drought in Vietnam in 2016 and that its expertise has aided the Lower Mekong countries during annual flooding. Beijing is not interested in joining the MRC, which would require its signature on a restrictive 1995 treaty. It prefers instead to remain a “dialogue partner”.

This stance must be rejected as unacceptable. The entire Mekong River – known in China as the Lancang – should be governed as international waters under international law. Thailand should press for a more viable arrangement and a review of overlapping schemes and regulations. The LMC forum next week, at which all the Mekong countries will be represented, would be a good place for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to begin driving the points home.

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