The Future Shape of Mekong Cooperation

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The Future Shape of Mekong Cooperation

A closer look at the paths ahead for the Mekong River Commission.

The Future Shape of Mekong Cooperation
Credit: Flickr/Adrian Zwegers

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is the regional, intergovernmental organization tasked with facilitating the sustainable development of shared water resources between the countries of the Lower Mekong Basin – Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Although the organization has been recognized as among the leading multilateral resource management bodies in the developing world, it has come under increasing criticism over the past decade for its inability to prevent unchecked hydropower development along the Mekong mainstream and tributaries.

Many critiques of the MRC can be linked directly to the limitations of its foundational document – the 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin (the Mekong Agreement for short). Although the Mekong Agreement was seen as an achievement at its inception, the relatively narrow scope and meager authority it provides the MRC have largely relegated the organization to consultative, facilitation, and information gathering functions.

Where the MRC’s forerunner – the Cold War-era Mekong Committee – established a veto power for its members over certain types of developments, the Mekong Agreement provides no such authority, and instead, enables only non-binding consultations between the member countries on qualifying projects through the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation, and Agreement (PNCPA) process. As a result, any member country can legally move forward with a hydro-development project, regardless of the long-term consequences for or desires of the other member countries, and irrespective of its predicted ecological impact on the basin.

Over the past two years, the MRC has begun implementation of a comprehensive decentralization of organizational responsibilities. Although the fundamental structural components of the organization will remain in place, key technical and financial responsibilities are being shifted away from its central body – the MRC Secretariat (MRC-S) headquartered in Vientiane – to line agencies within the member countries, under the coordination and guidance of each country’s National Mekong Committee (NMC). At the same time, the MRC-S has cut its staff by half, per the terms of the MRC’s 2014 Regional Roadmap for Decentralization and Reform, and is working to wean the organization away from donor funding and towards member country-driven self-sufficiency.

At the highest level, this process aims to create a sense of ownership and responsibility for the MRC’s mission within the member countries. By pushing for their deeper involvement in MRC programs and activities, the hope is that governments in these countries will more proactively engage with the organization, relying on its resources and expertise to adopt more carefully thought out planning approaches and devise more sustainable long-term strategies for development throughout the Lower Mekong Basin.

Three Visions for the MRC

In February 2017, two members of our research team traveled to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam to participate in the first PNCPA meetings on the proposed Pak Beng Dam, and to attend a series of workshops on sustainable development in the Lower Mekong Basin. During this visit, we spoke with nearly 50 experts and stakeholders, including former and current MRC staff, river basin management experts, hydrologists, and government officials, seeking to understand and evaluate the decentralization process, and to hear opinions on the MRC’s outlook going forward.

In our discussions, we heard a remarkable range of opinions on the MRC, its planned decentralization, and the future of resource management in the basin. Ultimately, we identified three broad views of the MRC, and from those, derived three visions for the organization’s future – optimistic, skeptical, and pessimistic. None of our interviewees fit into any single camp; however, we believe that these categorizations provide a useful framework for considering the distinct paths available to the MRC as it proceeds with its decentralization plan.

Optimists believe that the MRC plays a critical role in enabling cooperation and coordination among the member countries with respect to resource management, and can continue to serve as a platform for quadrilateral engagement for years to come. This group is generally composed of those working directly with the MRC, including those within the organization, and those acting on behalf of its closest development partners.

While optimists acknowledge many of the MRC’s deficiencies, they generally excuse these as consequences of the narrow mandate provided by the Mekong Agreement and the unwillingness of member countries to surrender sovereignty over development decisions. They argue that the MRC’s existence as a platform for cooperative development is an achievement in itself. Optimists expect that the decentralization process will successfully address key criticisms of MRC operations, and that the organization’s future will be assured if it can effectively transform into a member country-driven resources management body.

Skeptics view the MRC as lacking the capability to truly fulfill its mandate to enable sustainable and cooperative resources management due to its lack of political authority and weak institutional capacity. This group of stakeholders includes many from the policy and diplomatic realms who view the MRC favorably in the context of its role in enabling regional cooperation, but who have become frustrated by the lack of progress in pressing member countries to engage in genuinely cooperative and sustainable development.

Skeptics doubt that the current decentralization process will improve the management of the Mekong River’s resources, or the living standards of riparian populations, and believe that the organization’s fundamental weakness will prevent it from achieving its aims. At the same time, they view the MRC as the “only game in town,” and recognize its symbolic significance in the region. Even if the organization’s political capital remains low, these individuals tend to believe that the MRC could be retooled as a more explicitly technical organization, to continue carrying out information gathering, environmental monitoring, and sophisticated scientific analyses, while leaving more difficult political coordination functions to the member countries’ diplomatic corps.

Pessimists argue that the MRC not only fails to achieve its core sustainable development objectives, but also primarily serves to shield member countries from criticism for their failure to appropriately address development issues in the basin. This group is composed of stakeholders with substantial work experience on development issues in the region, including some who have worked directly with the MRC in the past.

Pessimists view the MRC’s lack of political authority as a fatal institutional flaw that cannot be remedied by any reorganization, shift of responsibilities, or adjustment to funding mechanisms. In particular, they criticize the PNCPA process as being fundamentally insufficient to adequately address stakeholder concerns around proposed hydropower projects. While few seriously call for the immediate dismantling of the MRC, “pessimists” have little hope that the member countries will cede the authority necessary for the MRC to effectively manage the region’s resources, and believe that it should eventually be disbanded if the member countries are unwilling to more aggressively support its mandate.

Finding a Path Forward

A unifying sentiment across each of these competing viewpoints is the sense that the weak mandate given to the MRC through the Mekong Agreement has prevented the organization from succeeding in ensuring sustainable development outcomes in the region. Although in the popular discourse the MRC is believed to be providing oversight of the development of basin’s water resources, in reality, its role in this regard is limited by the weak language of the Mekong Agreement, and it has not been granted the authority necessary to force, or even aggressively press for, sustainable development from the member countries.

The member countries alone retain decision-making authority on all manner of development projects – including potentially harmful hydropower developments – with the MRC generally limited to collecting and sharing information, and coordinating consultations under the PNCPA, with no power to veto or even require changes to proposed project designs.

There is very little political will within any of the member countries to renegotiate the Mekong Agreement in a manner that would legitimately bolster the MRC’s political authority. Doing so would require an unacceptable surrendering of national sovereignty, and is widely viewed as a non-starter. Therefore, to more effectively achieve its objectives, the MRC must find a means to support individuals within the member countries to pursue a more sustainable development path.

The current decentralization process takes an important step in the right direction by consciously shifting the locus of activity away from the MRC-S towards the member country line agencies and NMCs. Our team proposes taking this a step further, by proactively building the political salience of the NMCs within their home governments as a means to elevate the importance of sustainable development and resource management.

The NMCs are the national coordinating bodies for MRC projects and operations within each member country. NMCs are not explicitly included in the Mekong Agreement, but instead, are authorized by each country’s domestic laws. As a result, each NMC is structurally unique, even as each effectively operates as a department under the authority of the environmental and water resource ministries within their respective home countries.

Building up the NMCs’ political capital will be neither easily nor quickly achieved. As each group operates within the unique political context of its respective home country, four distinct and carefully tailored approaches will be necessary. Generally, the NMCs suffer from a lack of sufficient resourcing, and while they maintain interministerial working groups, they each operate under the auspices of relatively weak ministries. Elevating the political standing of the NMCs will require enhancing each group’s technical knowledge, capabilities, and funding, while at the same time, encouraging the involvement of highly competent and politically empowered figures with links to key ministries beyond those tasked with environmental conservation, such as those responsible for foreign affairs, commerce, development, and possibly defense.

Our research has not yet expanded into exploring the specific means by which NMC empowerment can occur; however, this should be a key area for future investigation. In general terms, the MRC, along with its development partners and supporters, should continue to expand technical capacity-building exercises for individuals within the member countries with the goal of providing sophisticated technical skills for those who wish to remain in the region to tackle the difficult challenges ahead.

At the same time, serious consideration should be given as to how engagement with sympathetic political figures within the region’s governments can be increased as a means to highlight the critical nature of the MRC’s mission and work. While the member country governments are understandably cautious where issues of economic development are concerned, continuous efforts should be made to engage with key ministries to explain in clear terms the importance of sustainable development of the basin, and the inextricable links between a thriving basin environment and their own economic, political, and security interests.

Jack Guen-Murray, Monzima Haque, and John Lichtefeld undertook this research as graduate students at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington DC, with guidance and support from The Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program.