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Mekong River Faces Development Challenges

  • Ron Corben

Vietnamese fishermen collect catches from the Mekong river near Arey Ksat village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Feb. 6, 2014.

Vietnamese fishermen collect catches from the Mekong river near Arey Ksat village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Feb. 6, 2014.

A summit of four countries bordering the Mekong River has led to calls for greater cooperation managing the river's vital water resources.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), which includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, has also concluded there is a need for more study of the rising challenges of population growth, water demand and impacts of climate change on the watershed.

Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said strengthening regional cooperation is needed to ensure sustained development along the Mekong. He warned of severe negative impacts facing the region and pointed to the mounting pressure on water and related resources in the Mekong River basin, home to 60 million people.

Vietnam faces rising salt water intrusion into the Mekong Delta region due to lower fresh water flow, reduced 10 percent during the past three decades.

Vietnam Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Nguyen Minh Quang called for Laos to consult with other Mekong River countries before completing construction of two dams on the lower Mekong.

But Laos is pressing ahead with completion of the controversial 1,285 megawatt Xayaburi Dam. Environmentalists say the 260 megawatt Don Sahong Dam, near the Lao border with Cambodia, would have a significant impact on migratory fish, vital to feeding millions of people, especially in Cambodia.

The U.S.-based non-government group, International Rivers says work on the projects should be halted immediately. International Rivers activist Painporn Deetes says the leaders should have condemned the rush to build dams.

"This is disappointing, no words on the status of construction on at least two dams that are being built on the mainstream river," Deetes said. "But the Mekong River needs immediate action from the decision and action from all leaders. It is very important for member countries to recognize this is really an international river - an international issue."

No enforcement powers

But the Mekong River Commission, created in 1995 as a means of scientific research has no enforcement powers, relies on member states to back pledges made at the summit meetings.

Senglong Youk from the Cambodia based Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT) says the commission should be reformed to take into account recommendations and calls by civil society.

"The Mekong River Commission needs to be reformed," he said. "The MRC is like a [paper tiger], it is like a postman, it has no power at all. No authority at all to put the pressure on any country specifically like Laos PDR that make the decisions to build the dams on the Xayaburi and Don Sahong."

Environmentalists are preparing to step up a campaign to delay the Don Sahong project, which still requires Laos National Assembly ratification, now expected in December.

Laos told the summit it would carefully consider the concerns about dam construction impact.

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