Mekong basin ready for a new start

The Nation 17 October 1999

The past decade of the Mekong basin development has been marked by the conflicting and disintegrated interests of countries within and outside the region.

It is evident in the birth of a number of geo-matric economic growth zones initiated by both riparian states and outsiders with the consent of the regional countries. To name a couple there are the Greater Mekong Sub-region Economic Cooperation, initiated by the Asian Development Bank, and the Forum for Comprehensive Development of Indochina, initiated by Japan in 1993.

As it stands, most of these development initiatives fail to take into consideration the fact that a fifth of the 250 million Mekong population--about 50 million--are directly dependent on the river.

The 4,200-kilometre Mekong River flows from Tibet, through southwest China, Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia and then fans out at the Mekong Delta in Vietnam into the South China Sea.

The Asian Development Bank alone has poured in US$40 million in assistance and $460 million in loans into the region for infrastructure projects aimed at facilitating trade. The total contribution to the sustainable development of the river basin under Mekong River Commission between 1994-1998 totalled about US$43 million.

The over-emphasis on the hardware development and some lingering instability marked by low-intensity conflicts along the border, plus demarcation disputes, have resulted in the uneven distribution of prosperity, increasing cross- border drug trafficking beyond the Golden Triangle and human trafficking and illegal migration from poor countries to richer neighbours.

More alarming is the environmental degradation in the Mekong watershed areas and the river's growing contamination as a result of increased activities.

Yet, much is to be blamed on the lack of political will of the riparian states themselves.

Their individual and regional efforts to cope with the issues which directly affect the life of the 50 million people have not been forthcoming, and in fact are being outpaced by the lure of short-term business prospects and vested interests.

Moreover, the important role of the 1995 Mekong River Commission as the region's sole river organisation has been understated, and to a certain degree diluted by more economic-oriented powerful development organisations.

Hopes and optimism were overwhelming four years ago when the commission was reborn in 1995 through a marathon four years of squabbling among the riparian states which resolved to embark on a new mission to promote comprehensive and sustainable development and the well- being of the people.

To the donor community, progress has been slow since then in the river body's work towards creating a basin development plan, the first master plan for comprehensive Mekong development.

Some even blame the Mekong River Commission secretariat, the commission's implementing arm, for its slowness in handling activities.

Much criticism was directed at the secretariat's former chief executive Yasunobu Matoba, who was the body's first elected officer through open recruitment.

"He was slow in making decisions and much of the work he was assigned to supervise should have been decentralised," an official of a European country said.

However, Japanese officials involved with the Mekong development defended Matoba as a capable person. "Being the first to take this job, one must be very careful," an official said.

"The body is not supra-national by nature, making it difficult for some work to be smoothly and quickly carried out, since one must deal with a number of issues, ranging from sovereignty to conflicting interests," he said.

Now, with the secretariat's new Danish CEO in office, a different mindset and style of working could make a difference.

Several donors hope the new head will breathe fresh air into the secretariat, which moved from Bangkok where it was located for more than three decades to Phnom Penh a year ago.

"We hope that a decentralised working style will be introduced to move the river body along with speed and quality," an official said.

In fact, the 1997 Asia financial crisis, which has taken some shine off the Mekong sub-region, is a blessing in disguise. It revealed the destructive force of rapid economic development, giving riparian states and the donor community time to think about how they should continue.

Japan, which is by far the biggest donor to Southeast Asia and the Mekong sub-region, has slightly shifted its money diplomacy, emphasising more quality than quantity since its official development aid has shrunk by 10 per cent. A Japanese official said the Overseas Development Assistance office is putting more emphasis on global issues, human resource development and environmental protection.

He said the shift in emphasis is particularly due to the fact that growing demands for resources and capital have been directed to both sectors after the 1997 crisis.

Another important factor is the admission of Cambodia into Asean earlier this year, which completes the integration of the five Mekong Basin countries into the international development system.

It is hopeful that Asean will translate its political clout and well-established mechanisms into a positive gain for the Mekong's development.

Yet, the unfinished task for both donors and the Asean community is to encourage China and Burma, the two upstream nations, in order for the MRC to become a true river basin organisation.

Chinese plans to build dams along the Mekong have irked its Asean neighbours who claim that altering the river's flow could cause untold environmental damage.

With the Mekong River master plan in place by 2003, most donors, including Denmark, hope the organisation will move away from a project-implementing body to a policy-making and and problem-solving organisation.

Only then can the Mekong River Commission speak with power, and its role will not be diluted.