The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is gearing up for another test of its effectiveness following the announcement of Laos’ plans to construct the Pak Beng hydropower project, the third proposed dam on the Mekong mainstream.
Laos must undergo a six-month consultation process before proceeding with the hydropower project, as mandated by the 1995 Mekong Agreement. For the previous two mainstream dams, Xayaburi and Don Sahong, the consultation processes ended in disagreement. Though downstream countries called for further studies of the social and environmental impacts of each dam, Laos nevertheless moved forward unilaterally with construction.
Critics point to the failure of previous consultation processes as evidence that the MRC can never be an effective platform for Mekong river governance. However, the value of the MRC should not be based entirely upon the success of the consultation processes for large infrastructure projects. The organization produces important data and analysis and works to strengthen norms of basin-wide cooperation, both of which can help to encourage more sustainable approaches to Mekong river development.
The MRC-led consultation process for the Pak Beng dam will likely place the MRC under heightened scrutiny in the coming months. The onslaught of criticism has already begun, with the MRC being characterized as “weak,” “all but irrelevant,” and as having a reputation that is “hanging by a thread.” For decades, critics have pointed out that the MRC lacks legally-binding authority over its member states. The 1995 Mekong Agreement that created the MRC does not give downstream states veto power over upstream development projects and no legal mechanism exists to punish states that fail to follow through with the MRC’s principles or procedures. Further, China’s refusal to join the MRC as a full member undermines the power of the regional organization. In the past, China has sidelined the MRC while developing infrastructure on its portion of the river and investing in projects in the lower Mekong states.
The international media has tended to focus on the MRC’s dramatic cuts in staff and foreign funding over the last few years as evidence of a crisis hitting the MRC. However, many reports of these cutbacks fail to point out that since 2010, the MRC has been undergoing a program of dramatic reforms to transfer ownership of the MRC from foreign donors to Mekong countries themselves. One part of this plan is a new funding mechanism in which member countries gradually increase their contributions to the MRC with the goal of achieving financial independence by 2030. If successful, the transfer of ownership from foreign donors to member countries will help the MRC achieve greater public legitimacy in the region and greater buy-in from member country governments. However, it will also require that the organization be much smaller and take on fewer responsibilities.
As is widely recognized in discussions on other Southeast Asian regional organizations like ASEAN, Southeast Asian nations tend to adhere strongly to the principles of non-interference and consensus based decision-making. Therefore, an intergovernmental body like the MRC is unlikely to be given the capacity to make binding regulations on hydropower development any time soon. However, the MRC can use other tools to influence decision makers and enhance the public’s understanding of the issues surrounding the Mekong Basin.
The MRC does data collection, analysis, and reporting work that help to influence decision making on Mekong river management and development. This work covers a wide scope, but much of it tends to get lost in the shadow of the attention-grabbing debates over hydropower. In an effort to respond to the serious risks to the basin posed by climate change, the MRC has developed basin-wide climate change scenarios and worked to coordinate climate change adaptation strategies across the Lower Mekong basin.
The MRC has also conducted extensive research on Mekong fisheries, which has shaped understandings of just how valuable these fisheries are. This is important because national estimates of the revenues from this sector had been dramatically underestimated. Some of the MRC’s most important research has been on the cumulative impacts of the proposed dams on the Mekong mainstream (Strategic Environmental Assessment, 2010; Council Study, ongoing; ISH0306, ongoing). Dam developers conducting the environmental impacts assessments for individual dams are not doing this type of comprehensive basin-wide analysis that takes into account the effects of cascades of dams.
In addition to its research and analysis work, the MRC also provides one of the few platforms for basin-wide dialogue on contentious issues surrounding Mekong river development. Even when this dialogue does not produce the optimal end-result, substantive benefits are delivered by these processes, which involve not only governments, but also a broader range of stakeholders. The MRC has struggled in the past to promote public participation in its activities. Multi-stakeholder engagement on issues of national importance is inherently controversial within the Mekong countries, where civil liberties are restricted to varying degrees. However, the MRC is making efforts to encourage more public participation in Mekong river governance.
The MRC is currently training its first cohort of RSAT facilitators. RSAT is a basin-wide hydropower sustainability assessment tool designed to help a wide range of stakeholders come together to discuss hydropower sustainability issues in a river basin context. With this tool and through other initiatives, the MRC could help to bridge the divide not only between Mekong governments but also between governments, their people, and the private sector. This is one aspect of the MRC that may set it apart from China’s new Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMCM), which seems to focus primarily on economic cooperation between Mekong governments.
Much has changed since the signing of the Mekong Agreement in 1995. Climate change, increased private funding for dams, increased Chinese engagement in the Lower Mekong basin, and hydropower development on the Mekong mainstream have all made basin-wide Mekong river governance more important and more complex. All Mekong countries stand to benefit if the MRC has the capacity to continue to provide high-quality knowledge products and act as a platform for improved cooperation on sustainable management of the Mekong River. However, in order to do so, the MRC must work hard to restore its image both within the Mekong region and internationally.
Gabriella Neusner is an intern for the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program and a second year graduate student at American University’s School for International Service.