Dams and water diversion projects along the Mekong River threaten to overwhelm an ecosystem that supports 60 million people and thousands of species, according to a consensus of scientists, NGOs and governments. But amidst this pending crisis, the main mechanism set up to protect the river is becoming all but irrelevant.
The Mekong now needs more protection than ever, experts say, but the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – an international body that manages Mekong development and water resource use – has been steadily losing power for years, say current and former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Mekong member countries consider the [MRC] ‘consultation process’ as a complete failure and will imminently take benefit of this weakness to promote and carry out their own controversial projects,” said a former employee, who remains in contact with many current MRC members and other river experts.
With frustrated donors turning away from the MRC, the commission is losing more than half its funds and employees. Development partner funding totalled $115 million for the 2011-2015 period, while the 2016-2020 period will see only $53 million, Truong Hong Tien, the officer in charge of the MRC secretariat, said in January. The commission is also reducing its staff from 180 to 90 people.
“It’s too big. We want to become faster, more effective,” Tien said in an interview. But MRC employees and other experts believe the size reduction will only serve to make the commission weaker and encourage its members to act unilaterally in building projects.
The MRC’s predecessor, the Committee for Coordination on the Lower Mekong Basin, was a “forceful” advocate of massive dams, according to water science expert Jeffrey Jacobs’ history of the committee, published in 1995.
Cambodia had effectively dropped out of the Mekong committee during the Khmer Rouge period and was not readmitted until the mid-1990s. In the interim, Thailand’s rapid economic growth led it to oppose even modest limitations on its sovereignty by the committee, according to Jacobs.
During the early 1990s, Thailand was planning a water diversion project from the Mekong and wanted to renegotiate a new agreement that would offer fewer obstacles to the project, Jacobs wrote.
The commission CEO at the time, Chuck Lankester, a Canadian national, was “very tough” and willing to push back against controversial projects, including the diversion. In response, Thailand forced him to resign from the committee and leave the country, where the secretariat was based at the time.
The episode led future CEOs to be softer and more conciliatory, the former MRC employee said. Thailand’s move also prompted the UNDP to organise regional meetings, which culminated in an April 1995 agreement that gave birth to the current form of the MRC.
Meanwhile, various overlapping bodies were created during the 1990s, which “gradually chipped off tasks and responsibilities” from the commission, the former employee said.
The 1995 agreement was a legal milestone in the river’s management, according to Remy Kinna, the Mekong legal director at NGO EarthRights International. It was accompanied by a document called the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), which established rules for when members had to ask the MRC for consultation before starting certain projects.
However, these documents had weaknesses, Kinna said, and are vague about certain procedures. Dams on tributaries are exempt from consultation requirements, unlike dams across the main Mekong stream.
Also, member nations don’t consider the PNPCA to be legally binding.
These deficiencies became apparent when Laos submitted the proposal for the controversial Xayaburi Dam in September 2010. In February 2011, Laos filed an environmental impact assessment, which the former MRC employee condemned as being of poor quality, with no attention to cross-border impacts. The commission, meanwhile, called for more studies and suggested that construction be postponed.
“Weak argumentation and soft MRC leadership resulted in blatant disregard of any further [river dependants’] concern regarding the environmental and fishery impacts of the Xayaburi Dam,” the ex-employee said.
Despite protests by the MRC and many conservationists and Mekong communities, Laos continued to develop the dam.
Tom Fawthrop, a documentary filmmaker who studied the river’s history, said that he witnessed the Lao delegation threaten to walk out of MRC meetings if the dam was brought up.
Thailand was complicit in supporting the Xayaburi Dam, since its investors include the four largest banks in Thailand, Fawthrop added.
Laos briefly halted construction in 2011 to commission a Finnish engineering firm, Poyry, to conduct a study in May 2011. Poyry’s findings – that the dam did not violate international agreements – were broadly criticised by NGOs and the MRC secretariat. However, no solution was reached and the dispute was tabled. Laos continued the construction, which is 65 per cent complete today.
A similar scenario to the Xayaburi is now playing out with the construction of the Don Sahong dam, one of the 11 dams planned in Laos.
“Environmental studies conducted by Laos pretend that there is no cross-border environmental impact, which is a lie heavily contested by Cambodia and Vietnam,” said the former MRC employee.
Vietnamese researchers found that the Laotian dams could make the Mekong lose up to 65 per cent of nutrient deposits in Kratie. Travel routes of fish would be blocked completely, leading to the extinction of at least 10 per cent of fish species in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Fisheries in both countries would produce 50 per cent smaller yields. Dams would even prevent the Tonle Sap from flooding, which would deal irreparable damage to fish populations and plunge local communities deeper into poverty.
The economic damage to Cambodia alone would be $450 million per year. The only way to prevent this is by not building the dams, the 800-page study maintains.
But Laos will not budge.
“Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam requested Laos to study environmental impacts, but Laos has denied them,” said Te Navuth, secretary general of Cambodia’s National Mekong Committee. “They said that this project has no effect on anyone.”
The MRC secretariat said in an email that “if the MRC is unable to resolve a dispute in a timely manner, the dispute shall then be referred to the Member States’ governments to resolve through diplomatic channels”.
So far, however, the Cambodian government’s exhortations against the Don Sahong have gone largely ignored.
MRC employees and observers have condemned the secretariat and its CEOs as “too soft” and said that many staffers are there for the cushy jobs that pay more than those any individual country’s water ministry.
With the dam issue looming, Thailand has also begun projects to eventually divert billions of litres of water from the Mekong per year, according to Thai Royal Irrigation Department spokesman Thanar Suwattana.
The plan is a violation of the PNPCA. During the wet season, diverting water within a basin requires a notification to the MRC, and diverting water between two basins requires prior consultation. During the dry season, intra-basin diversion requires consultation, and inter-basin diversion requires an agreement.
Thailand gave no notice of its plans to the MRC, and a different former MRC employee, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that it’s unlikely that the commission will be able to do anything about it. Cambodia and Vietnam, which are experiencing their worst droughts in decades, stand to lose any water that Thailand keeps.
The MRC’s toothlessness has made donors – including Australia, the EU, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the IUCN, Japan, Luxemburg, Sweden, Switzerland, the US and the World Bank – reconsider giving it aid, according to a current MRC employee as well as the former employees.
“Recent mainstream and tributary hydropower developments reflect the challenges of implementing the PNPCA,” the donors said in a joint statement last year, adding that a review of the PNPCA’s implementation is “particularly important given the lack of agreement on the Don Sahong PNPCA process”.
At the same time, the MRC has moved to put donor funds into a single “basket”, to donors’ chagrin, current and former MRC employees say.
“The Basket Fund was an MRC attempt to give MRC management full control over the donor money,” the current employee said in a message. “Donors liked to pick individual programs (eg ‘Navigation’) where they could set clear goals which they could then measure if the money had been well spent” via technical advisers.
Currently, the donors have not yet provided 2016-2020 funds because of the “lack of clarity” on the MRC’s future structure. Many employees have not been paid in months.
“Without clarity on these issues as a matter of urgency, many Development Partners will not be in a position to provide funding,” the 2015 statement said.
Meanwhile, the MRC reorganisation is in a state of bureaucratic disarray, said the current employee.
The MRC secretariat said that the reduction in funds had been long expected, but employees said that MRC’s ineffectiveness at resolving dam disputes had a major role in funding loss.
“Little is left of the 1995 agreement – it’s become a big joke,” said one of the former employees.
With all these issues plaguing the MRC, some past and current employees expect it to break apart in the near future, or be absorbed into another organisation. Some believe that absorption may actually be a way to save the commission.
“It really makes sense to include both Myanmar and China in a new MRC. Setting up a new ‘Lancang MRC’ is the opportunity to do that,” the current employee said. Lancang is China’s name for the Mekong.
The employee noted that “2,000 research years of modeling, data collection and analysis is in danger of being lost if the MRC crashes into bankruptcy”.
However, he added, absorption carries its own risk. It’s important to make sure that “all that data does not simply disappear into some bureaucratic black hole in China where nobody can reach it”.