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Cooperation activities for water resources development in Mekong River basin of International Mekong River Commission: Realities and challenges to Vietnam

(LLCT) - Flowing through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the Mekong River plays a particularly important role in socio-economic development of these six countries in the basin. However, these countries have different interests in the exploitation and use of water resources of the Mekong River. The exploitation of water resources of upstream countries has had a great influence on the development of downstream countries, especially Vietnam. In 1995, the International Mekong River Commission was officially established with the main role of promoting, coordinating the management and development of water resources in a sustainable manner for the common good of all nations. However, this role has not been fully and effectively implemented. Therefore, Vietnam needs to promote cooperation to bring into full play the Commission's active role in the use, management and protection of water resources.

Keywords: Cooperation, water resources, Mekong River Commission.

1. Overview of the Mekong River and the Mekong River Commission (MRC)

With a length of 4,909 km, the Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world and the 10th river in the world in terms of total flow (about 475 billion m3 annually, and the average flow is about 15,000m³/s). The Mekong River originates from the high mountains of Qinghai province, along the length of Yunnan province (China), flowing through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and into Vietnam and then discharging into the East Sea. The Mekong River basin has a total area of 795,000km2, of which the part of the four countries of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam is the lower basin, accounting for over 77%(1). With about 800 species, the Mekong is the second most bio-diverse river in the world (after the Amazon). This river has a fishing value of about 11 billion USD/year(2). The lower Mekong region is the “home” to more than 60 million people of 100 different ethnic groups, forming one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. About 85% of the inhabitants of the basin are farmers and fishermen living below the poverty line(3).

Although the Mekong is an international river with high biodiversity and plays an important role in the lives of people in the countries in the basin, the exploitation and use of water resources of countries upstream has a serious impact on countries in the downstream region. Therefore, reality is urging for cooperation among countries in the Mekong River region to develop water resources in the Mekong River sustainably. The creation of the International Mekong River Commission is one of the efforts to respond to this urgent need.

In 1957, the United Nations-sponsored Mekong Committee was established to exploit, encourage and coordinate the development of water resources of the Mekong River among the downstream countries, including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The Committee’s activities focused on mobilizing capital and technology from donor countries and international organizations for research, survey and investment. However, due to the war, the exploitation plan was delayed. In January 1975, the lower stream countries passed the Joint Declaration of Principles for Utilization of the Waters of the Lower Mekong Basin, an important milestone in the process of developing the Mekong cooperation institution.

In 1977, Cambodia left the organization due to political instability, leading to the establishment of the Interim Mekong Committee in 1978, which included: Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. On April 5, 1995, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam signed an Agreement on Cooperation for Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Under this agreement, the Mekong River Commission was established and the management responsibility rests with the four member countries. Also on April 5, 1995, member countries signed the Protocol to Establish the International Mekong River Commission (MRC). In 1996, China and Myanmar became the dialogue partners of the MRC.

The Commission has a role to promote, coordinate the sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the common good of states and the well-being of communities by implementing strategic operations and programs, providing scientific information and policy advice. The organizational structure of the Mekong River Commission includes Council, Joint Committee and Secretariat. Member States have established the National Mekong River Committees to further support the Commission in performing its duties.

Areas of cooperation: Under the cooperation agreement for the sustainable development of the Mekong region, the member countries cooperate in all areas of sustainable development, use, management and protection of water resources and natural resources, related areas of the Mekong basin, including the main areas: irrigation, hydroelectricity, navigation, flood control, fisheries, rafting, entertainment and tourism to achieve optimal multi-purpose use and mutual benefit to all participant states and reduce to the lowest extent harmful effects caused by natural phenomena and human activities.

Regarding the management, use and protection of water resources, the Agreement on cooperation for sustainable development of the Mekong River basin signed in 1995 in Chiang Rai, Thailand (hereinafter referred to as the 1995 Mekong Agreement) established principles of fair and equitable use of water in the Mekong River system (Article 5), cooperation in maintaining mainstream flows (Article 6), and prevention and cessation of harmful effects on the environment especially in terms of water quality and quantity of water (Article 7) and Regulations on the use of water and out-of-basin water transfer (Article 26).

2. Content of MRC water resources development cooperation in the Mekong river basin

To carry out its role of water resources management, use and protection under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, the MRC has reached a number of important agreements and cooperation as follows:

In 2001, the MRC Council adopted a Procedure for the Exchange and Sharing of Data and Information. In 2003, the MRC Council adopted the Water Use Management Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA). Also in 2003, China signed an agreement to provide hydrological data during the flood season. In 2005, the MRC established the Regional Flood Center. In 2006, the MRC Council approved the Procedures for the Maintenance of Flows on the Mainstream. In 2008, China signed an agreement to expand the provision of hydrological data during the flood season. In 2011, the member countries adopted the first Mekong Basin Development Strategy, and the MRC Council also adopted the Water Quality Procedure and agreed on the need for further study of the impact of mainstream development. In 2013, China agreed to expand the provision of information on hydrological data.

Regarding cooperation, MRC has implemented a number of important cooperation programs such as:

Firstly, Basin Development Plan (BDP) with three phases from 2001 to 2015. The achievement were as follows: the MRC member countries were helped to improve their capacity in watershed development planning from a comprehensive consideration of economic, social and environmental aspects to the use of tools to assist in assessing the impact of basin development scenarios; awareness of integrating the basin development vision into national and sub-regional development planning was raised; favorable conditions and opportunities were created for member countries to share and learn from experience and knowledge in legal, technical, strategic and policy areas.

Secondly, the Mekong Integrated Water Resources Management Project (MIWRMP) (2011-2015). As an international river basin organization, the MRC is particularly interested in integrated water resources management to meet the development needs of countries in the basin while maintaining a balance in the Mekong River basin. The project was built based on 3 main components, which are: regional component to provide a framework to support regional cooperation in implementing integrated water resources management in the lower Mekong basin; cross-border component to help strengthen cooperation among MRC countries in transboundary water resource management implementation; country component - administered by MRC countries to strengthen integrated water resource management in their own countries.

Over the time of implementation, the project has supported the implementation of cross-border water resource management among member countries, including two projects between Vietnam and Cambodia on integrated transboundary water resources management in the Se San river basin and the Mekong Delta. Furthermore, the project also provided technical support to the implementation of MRC’s legal procedures, especially the first time the consultation process under the Procedure for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) for the proposal to build hydroelectric works on the Mekong mainstream. From 1995 to the end of 2016, MRC received a total of 53 water use project dossiers as specified in the Mekong Agreement and PNPCA. Of these, 50 were submitted for notification purposes and 3 were submitted for prior consultation(4). In 2018, Laos continued to send an announcement to MRC on the implementation plan of the Pak Lay hydropower project.

Notably, all four previous consultations involved hydropower projects on the mainstream of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The first case is Xayaburi hydroelectricity with a capacity of 1,285MW, located in Xayaburi province (Northern Laos). The second is Don Sahong hydroelectricity with a capacity of 240MW near the border of Laos and Cambodia. The third is a hydropower project, built in Pak Beng district with a design capacity of 912MW in Oudomxay province (northern Laos). The fourth is the Pak Lay hydropower dam project (located at the foot of the Xayaburi project) with an expected capacity of 770 MW in Xayaburi province. The implementation of the prior consultation process created opportunities for MRC countries to jointly discuss and appraise neighboring development projects and to address issues related to their territories and interests. In addition, in the case of Xayaburi hydropower, it was the consultation results that influenced and motivated the Lao Government and investors to conduct an environmental impact assessment from the project and decide to invest in an additional 400 million USD to adjust the construction design to address problems of fish migration and sediment transport.

Thirdly, the Flood Management and Mitigation Program (FMMP). Flood is a natural phenomenon that occurs from August to December every year in the Mekong Delta region. Flooding brings fertile alluvium, rich aquatic resources, abundant freshwater, maintains a diverse ecosystem of the floodplains in the region. However, floods also cause negative impacts on people’s lives such as damage to people and property, infrastructure like roads, works, affecting people’s lives as well as the socio-economic development of the countries in the region. With experience of previous floods in the region, especially the flood in the year of 2000, Vietnam proposed to the International Mekong River Commission’s Flood Management Strategy the initiative to be adopted in 2001, then the Flood Management and Mitigation has been implemented since 2004 with the common goal of “preventing and minimizing human and property damage caused by floods, while maintaining the benefits brought by floods”.

Since its implementation until now, FMMP has achieved some initial results namely: a regional flood centre has been established in Phnom Penh to update, exchange inspection information throughout the basin, developing a reliable flood forecasting and warning system; technical guidelines for flood risk assessment and mitigation and flood proof and structural measures for the proposed pilot project areas have been proposed; possible transboundary flood problems in the Mekong River basin have been identified while a set of documents utilizing legal aspects of the 1995 Mekong Agreement has been developed to strengthen cooperation, coordination and resolution decision on cross-border flood management issues; capacity-building for emergency flood management through training courses and training for officials and communities in skills (swimming classes for children, safe school programs, prevention planning floods and storms, etc) has been conducted and brought practical results since the 2011 flood season; floods have been mitigated by means of effective land use planning through flood information systems, 5 types of flood information maps were made for the 3 pilot districts of Cambodia and 2 districts of Vietnam.

Fourthly, the National Adaptation Plan (NAP). The Mekong River has great potential for navigation and currently the waterway system here has developed rapidly along with the economic development of the basin countries. However, as the waterway transport activities develop, difficulties and shortcomings have also revealed, affecting traffic safety and generated negative impacts on the environment. Therefore, the MRC has developed the National Adaptation Plan with the aim of “strengthening freedom of navigation and developing trade for the mutual benefit of the MRC member countries, supporting coordination and cooperation in safe, efficient and sustainable transportation in terms of the waterway environment”.

Fifthly, the Initiative on Sustainable Hydropower (ISH). With the rich amount of water and great potential from the flow, the Mekong basin has great potential for hydropower. In the past few decades, countries in the Mekong River basin have conducted research and construction of hydroelectric projects on the main stream and tributaries of this river. In the mainstream, China currently has four large hydroelectric plants in operation. Recently, 11 more proposals for hydroelectric dams on the mainstream of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia continue to be considered, including the controversial project Xayaburi. On the tributaries, there are 135 projects (Laos has 100 projects), of which 25 projects are in operation, 13 projects are under construction, 23 projects are licensed and 74 projects are in the research phase(5). Although hydropower projects will have a negative impact on downstream countries, the economic benefits from these projects as well as the economic development needs of the project countries are huge. Therefore, many countries in Mekong basin continue to develop hydropower projects.

In response to the massive development of hydroelectricity and visible negative impacts of those projects on downstream countries, the MRC launched ISH with the main objective: “assisting member countries in hydropower development and management decisions on the basis of integrated water resources management throughout the basin, through the established mechanisms of the MRC, systems of national standards and in accordance with the 1995 Mekong Agreement”. ISH activities focus on: increasing awareness and dialogue on sustainable hydropower development; conducting a sustainability review of hydropower projects in the Mekong River basin; strengthening technical capacity and databases supporting sustainability assessment in hydropower development; enhancing application of basin sustainability analysis and assessment tools for hydropower development; enhancing the application of new financial mechanisms, especially the Benefit Sharing Mechanism (BSM) related to hydropower in the Lower Mekong Basin.

It can be said that, although the MRC has achieved some results in the management, use and protection of water resources of the Mekong River, both the hydropower development strategy of China and Laos have proved that the MRC cannot address water problems that threaten the Mekong River and the livelihoods of 60 million people. These cases raise the question of whether the designed legal framework is sufficient to promote cooperation in the use, management and protection of water resources. Is it enough to prioritize projects and programs that guarantee benefits for all participatory countries? Is it enough to use the water of the Mekong River system in a rational and equitable manner? This is a problem for all members of the MRC and the issue facing Vietnam is much more urgent.

Vietnam is the last country that the Mekong River flows through before emptying into the East Sea. Vietnam (especially the Mekong River Delta) is considered to be the most sensitive and vulnerable to the exploitation and use of water resources of the Mekong River in the upstream countries. The exploitation and use of water resources of upstream countries such as the construction of hydroelectric dams makes the amount of alluvium deposited in the Mekong Delta sharply reduced, reducing the fertility of agricultural land, along with climate change, hydroelectric works on the Mekong River also increase the erosion of river banks and embankments, worsen the problem of drought, saltwater intrusion, and increase the risk of land loss. In addition, the use of water by irrigation works, especially the irrigation systems of the countries in the upper stream has a strong environmental impact on the Mekong River in Vietnam at the same time, reducing the production of aquatic resources of Vietnam on this river. Therefore, strengthening cooperation for sustainable development of water resources in the Mekong River in the MRC is an urgent requirement for Vietnam today.

3. Solutions to strengthen Vietnam’s role in the MRC

Firstly, close cooperation with MRC member countries and two dialogue partners China and Myanmar should be strengthened in the exchange and sharing of information, especially data on water use of Mekong countries and China. Currently, China’s sharing and exchanging of information about the operation of hydropower projects on the mainstream is very limited. Therefore, to avoid extremes, countries need to strengthen cooperation, information exchange and dialogue to minimize negative impacts on the Mekong Delta and help Vietnam proactively respond to these negative effects.

Secondly, Vietnam needs to strengthen dialogue with MRC countries and two partners to dialogue on legal regulations on water resources of the Mekong River. Among the Mekong countries, there is a need for a consensus on considering water resources Mekong as a common property of the countries in the basin and the riparian countries which enjoy the right to fair and reasonable access to this water source. On that basis, Vietnam should proactively propose legal regulations for the exploitation, use and protection of water resources to ensure the sustainable development of the Mekong basin.

Thirdly, as China is a key factor in the sustainable development of the Mekong River, Vietnam needs to coordinate with other MRC countries to expand cooperation and call for China’s participation in the MRC as a member. However, at present, this is very difficult, so for the time being Vietnam needs to strengthen cooperation with MRC members to consolidate the Commission’s position in dialogue with upstream countries, especially China. Strengthening and expanding cooperation should be done step by step. Initially, it is to improve the sharing and exchange of official information and data to balance the interests of stakeholders and then to implement common management. Next comes to a detailed agreement on common governance or general principles for water use and sharing.

Fourthly, we need to be aware of the fact that the exploitation and use of water resources of the Mekong River of the countries in the basin is an inevitable need in the socio-economic development of each country and the riparian countries, there are differences in national interests in the exploitation and use of this water source. Therefore, it is necessary to respect the national interests of the countries in the basin. What we need to do is to balance the interests of Vietnam and other countries in the sustainable development of Mekong water resources.

Vietnam needs to strengthen cooperation with countries in the MRC and call for support from the international community to help MRC countries exploit and use the Mekong River water effectively for socio-economic development. Because, although all countries in the lower Mekong River have access to abundant natural resources, the benefits to be gained from these resources depend on the capacity of each country to use them effectively for the country’s economic development(6). For example, Thailand and Vietnam have developed more efficient infrastructure based on population size and economy-key factors for enhancing the likelihood of sustainable economic growth. And in this case, the water resources allocated to Thailand and Vietnam have been used more effectively to support agricultural and industrial activities, while supporting ecosystem protection, food security and human wealth. In contrast, Laos and Cambodia do not have the financial and human resources to effectively use their water resources. Rice growers, for example, may face higher costs of accessing water for irrigation even though they are closer to the water source(7). Therefore, supporting the less developed countries in the MRC like Laos and Cambodia to help these countries use Mekong River water resources economically and efficiently is very important to mitigate negative impacts from their uses of the Mekong water sources on Vietnam.

Fifthly, Vietnam needs to promote research activities on the impacts from the exploitation and use of water resources of the Mekong River, especially the impacts of hydropower projects on the mainstream to the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. From those research results, Vietnam needs to exchange information and research results with countries in the basin so that these countries can consider and take into account Vietnam’s interests when developing projects. In addition, the results of such research should be widely publicized to the international community. From that, we actively call for international organizations and partners’ support for Vietnam’s adaptation to negative impacts from hydropower projects on the Mekong River.

In summary, Vietnam needs to strengthen cooperation within the MRC and its dialogue partners and MRC’s international cooperation partners to gradually achieve shared governance of the Mekong River water resources and mitigate negative effects from water use by upstream countries on the sustainable development of Vietnam, especially the Mekong River Delta(8).



(1), (3) Vietnam Mekong River Commission website, http://vnmc.gov.vn/news/18.aspx.

(2) Apisom Intralawan, et al. (2019), Reviewing benefits and costs of hydropower development evidence from the Lower Mekong river basin, Wiley Interdisciplinary Review: Water.

(4) International Mekong River Commission: Water Diplomacy Rules for the Mekong River.

(5) Vietnam Mekong River Commission: the Initiative on Sustainable Hydropower (ISH)

(6), (7) Serey Sok, et al. (2019), Regional cooperation and benefits sharing for sustainable water resources management in the Lower Mekong Basin, Lakes and Reservoirs Magazine: Science, policy and management for sustainable use, No. 24 (3), p.218.

(8) Le Hai Binh: Mekong River Commission - Practice and outlook, Journal of Political Theory, No.7-2019.

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