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The Mekong Can Become Many Rivers in One

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/07/31; July 31, 2001.]

Joern Kristensen
International Herald Tribune
PHNOM PENH

Tuesday, July 31, 2001

From high in Tibet the Mekong River flows for more than 4,300 kilometers through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before reaching the sea. One of the world's great rivers, it it is a major supplier of food and water for millions.

Over the past 30 years, the population of the Lower Mekong Basin, encompassing Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, has doubled. By 2025 the population is expected to reach more than 100 million. The pressure on natural resources will increase dramatically, as will the demand for additional food, water and energy.

Six years ago, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam signed a landmark agreement recognizing "that the Mekong River Basin and the related natural resources and environment are natural assets of immense value."

The four countries decided to cooperate in all fields of development and management of the river basin and its resources.

This year, the 1995 Agreement on Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin, which has the status of an international treaty, is facing its first serious test, with the announcement of the four-nation agreement on commercial navigation on the river between China, Laos, Burma and Thailand. The agreement would open a major shipping route from Simao in China's Yunnan Province to Thailand, via Burma and Laos.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, France, the colonial power in Indochina, believed control of Mekong navigation was the key to riches. Falling water levels in the dry season, various shoals and rapids, and the mighty Khone Falls in southern Laos all conspired to defeat this dream, which the recent navigation agreement revives.

A new river trade route through the underdeveloped region of Laos, Burma and northeastern Thailand could have obvious benefits for the people of that region, creating much larger markets than they have been able to reach.

But it could also mean that further downstream small producers could be hurt if they have to compete with imports from China. Moreover, river work that would be required for such a new shipping route, such as removing shoals and rapids and dredging the riverbed, could affect the reproduction of fish, as well as create changes in the downstream water flow.

Three-quarters of the population of the Lower Mekong Basin, mainly farmers and fishermen, earn their living from the river. That is why it is so important to take fully into consideration how a new river trade route will affect their livelihoods. For that, the policies, standards and knowledge that have been developed through hard-won international agreements are indispensable.

The risk of one sector benefiting at the expense of others is real. It is critical that universally accepted planning and resource-sharing arrangements be adhered to, and be seen to be fair by all parties, if the Mekong is to be managed in a sustainable way to cater for the area's growing population.

It is time for all parties to sit down with the six countries that share the river and work out rules for sound management. Participants should include the Asian Development Bank, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the Mekong River Commission, the World Bank, the UN Development Program, bilateral donor agencies and civil society groups. The Association of South East Asian Nations could lend its weight.

The challenge is to find ways to manage development of the Mekong so that the benefits are shared equally and harm to the environment is minimized.

The writer, chief executive of the Mekong River Commission, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.


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