Voice of America 7 October 2006
By Benjamin Robertson
Recent changes at the commission that is responsible for the management of Southeast Asia's Mekong River are raising concerns about how it combines two tasks – economic development and environmental protection.
Stretching 4,800 kilometers from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea, the Mekong River helps meet the daily water and food demands of over 60 million people.
But the effort to both safeguard the river's ecosystem and tap its economic potential is controversial.
As Southeast Asia develops economically, the river is increasingly being harnessed for hydropower dams, farm irrigation and barge traffic.
The Mekong River Commission, which represents the governments of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, is in charge of managing the river.
Olivier Cogels is the commission's chief executive officer and recently was in Beijing to consult on China's use of the Mekong and rivers that feed into it. He said that until last year the commission focused mainly on environmental protection. Now it also has begun to consider economic and social development. "I believe the governments today are knowledgeable enough to know that if they want to develop their resources they have to do it in a certain way," he said.
Critics, however, say some development projects affect water levels,block the flow of fertile silt and disrupt fish spawning. The river accounts for two percent of the world's annual fish catch.
The commission's shift in vision has concerned environmentalists and rights groups. Many critics complain it now only represents the four governments and not the people who live along the Mekong. Others suggest influential business interests will be able to persuade the governments to develop the Mekong at the expense of local residents.
Philip Hirsch, a resource management lecturer at the University of Sydney, and author of a report on the Mekong, says the commission needs to show it listens to community groups as well as governments. "The role of the MRC should be to do what is best for the river, to influence decisions for what is best for the river. This makes it very difficult if the river basin organization sets itself up as an investment broker, as an organization that is essentially trying to attract investment to make profits from the river," he said.
Cogels, however, says it is possible to balance economic growth and the needs of those who live along the Mekong. He rejects the criticisms of some aid agencies that say all development is wrong. "The donor community in the world is too cautious and afraid of environmental catastrophes and believe countries are not mature enough to handle it by themselves and I think that is wrong," he said.
He also notes that since the commission's mandate changed, it has worked more effectively not only with member governments and but also with two Mekong countries that are not part of the commission – Burma and China.
Much of the Mekong's water comes originally from smaller rivers in China, but a number of recent dam projects in China led to complaints of reduced flow in the downstream countries. In 2004, a sudden drop in the water level led to anti-China demonstrations in Mekong river countries.
Cogels says since then China and the commission have begun to cooperate more closely. They now regularly exchange information on water levels, river widening projects, and dam construction.