Mekong Utility Watch

Four Mekong Basin governments funded to cooperate

February 14, 2000

Sustainable water management in the Mekong River Basin, and protection for the environment, aquatic life, and the ecological balance of the basin is receiving an $11 million influx of funding from the Global Environment Facility. The project aims to bring the four downstream nations together for improved and sustainable basin management.

The grant to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) was approved by the World Bank’s board of executive directors at the beginning of February. The MRC is an inter-governmental organization of the four lower Mekong Basin states: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The Water Utilization Project aims to support the MRC in developing an integrated and comprehensive Basin hydrologic modeling package and a functional and integrated knowledge base on water and related resources and use these tools to establish “Rules,” one of MRC’s five major goals.

The rules, or obligations, of the member states will establish guidelines for water utilization and ecological protection for sensitive ecological systems including wetlands and flooded forests.

“The Mekong Basin possesses a large portion of the region’s potential water sources. These water sources have the ability to support economic growth through irrigation, hydropower, navigation, water supply, and tourism,” said Mei Xie, water resources management specialist for the World Bank.

“This grant will support MRC and the member states to ensure that development of the water resources is carried out in a sustainable manner that preserves the environment. Implementation of the Mekong Agreement requires strong political commitment from all member states and the participation and support of stakeholders in the basin and external parties,” Xie said.

In achieving the Bank’s overall objective of poverty alleviation through sustainable development of natural resources, the Bank supports this regional initiative that helps countries deal with trans-boundary issues, such as international water resources. The 1995 Mekong Agreement reflects the goodwill of MRC member states to cooperate in the sustainable development of the basin, and to create a positive foreign policy environment in the region.

“In the past, the MRC has collected a huge amount of information on the Mekong Basin but because of insufficient integration of data and expertise, it was ill-equipped to use its data for management purposes,” said Xie. “The MRC’s new Strategic Plan calls for a shift of MRC focus away from managing specific projects to managing water and natural related resources in the Basin.”

The project will be implemented by the MRC who will work through a Secretariat located in Phnom Penh and through the National Mekong Committees, with national line agencies, local communities, and other stakeholders such as the private sector and NGOs to enhance the project’s sustainability. The Bank is cooperating closely with UNDP and bilateral donors in this effort.

The Mekong River originates high on the Tibetan Plateau. Six countries share the Mekong Basin: China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. At 4,800 kilometers (2,976 miles), the Mekong River ranks twelfth in the world in terms of length and eighth in terms of average annual runoff.

The flow in the Mekong varies with the tropical monsoon climate. The flows begin to increase at the onset of the wet season in May, peaking in August or September, and decreasing rapidly until December. The flows recede slowly during the annual dry period from December to their lowest levels in April.

An enormous volume of water flows through the Mekong Basin in the wet season, resulting in extensive flooding.  The flood waters support a productive and diverse freshwater ecosystem, but also result in loss of human life and damage to crops and structures. During the dry season, a dramatic reduction of flow leads to water shortages for domestic and agricultural use, and limiting navigation.

The coastal plain of the Delta constantly suffers from an intrusion of seawater.

The World Bank project analysis concludes that the Mekong Basin’s water resources have the ability to support economic growth through irrigation, hydropower, navigation, water supply and tourism.

Equitable sharing of the water resources and sustainable development of the natural resources in the Basin becomes most critical during the dry season.

Laos relies heavily on river transport and the reduction of dry season flows could adversely affect navigation.

Cambodia has the long-term potential for increasing its irrigated agriculture.

Over the decades, Vietnam and Thailand have developed extensive irrigation systems that currently face dry season water constraints. Vietnam makes use of dry season flows for seawater repulsion and for irrigation.

Thailand has recently been studying options for diverting water from the Mekong, and for inter-basin diversion from Thai tributaries to the Mekong.

Hydropower development in the Mekong Basin is gaining momentum in China and Laos, the World Bank says. Currently, there are only 500 MW of installed capacity in the Lower Mekong and 1500 MW along the Chinese portion of the River. China is constructing several hydropower projects on the Mekong River. Laos has plans to construct a number of medium sized hydropower projects on Lao tributaries to the Mekong.

Both China and Laos would like to export power to Thailand. Options for creating a regional power grid are under study.

But a 1998 analysis by Aviva Imhof of the International Rivers Network, a California based conservation group, says the market for hydropower has slowed due to the Asian economic crisis.

“The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand will defer purchases of electricity from several multi-billion dollar projects in Laos, citing the slowdown in Thailand’s power demand. Last June, EGAT announced that the commissioning dates of four privately funded hydropower projects – Nam Theun 2, Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy, Nam Ngum 2 and Nam Ngum 3 – will be postponed by two years, to 2006,” Imhof wrote.

The World Bank analysis sees benefit in hydropower projects that would help increase the dry season flows because they store wet season flows in order to generate power during the dry season.

How to share the potential additional dry season flow is of key interest to the Mekong’s downstream countries.

The Basin supports one of the most productive and biodiverse freshwater eco-systems in the world. Annual floods support a rich riverside habitat and an extensive network of wetlands.

Water flooding into nutrient rich areas, combined with high levels of solar energy, help fuel a high powered ecosystem.

Tonle Sap, the Great Lake of Cambodia, and the Delta’s estuarine fisheries are the most productive areas. Fresh water capture fisheries constitute a major source of protein and an important element of food security for the Basin’s mainly poor and rural population.

There are at least 1,200 different fish species in the Basin, and the annual fish harvest in the Basin could be as high as one million tons, the World Bank estimates.

This project has a seven-year span, and even so it should be seen as a step on a long road, the World Bank analysis concluded.

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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