A view of the Mekong River at Luang Prabang in Laos (picture Allie Caulfield / Flickr)
A view of the Mekong River at Luang Prabang in Laos (picture Allie Caulfield / Flickr)

The intergovernmental way of doing business took another knock yesterday at a meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a body that brings together Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia to manage the water resources of the region.

The Mekong river is 4,350km long, rising in Tibet and flowing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia until it reaches the sea in Vietnam, and its river basin drains the whole of the region.  Millions of people depend for their livelihoods and their diets on the river; it is fragile ecosystem that needs to be protected.

To build a dam or divert the flow upstream will have important consequences downstream, and because upstream and downstream are in different countries an international organisation was set up to try to manage these issues.  The treaty binds the member states to consult with each other on river management projects, but it does not ultimately constrain them in their decisions.  The national government ministers are supposed “to review and come to mutual conclusions on the management and development of water and related resources”, but if they do not come to “mutual conclusions” a country can simply press on as it wishes.

The current dispute is over water management projects in Laos, to which the other three countries object.  What can they do if their objections are ignored?

NGOs in the field are in no doubt.  Kirk Herbertson, Southeast Asia Policy Coordinator for International Rivers, says that:

The Mekong River Commission is in desperate need of legal and institutional reform.  It’s a broken process that needs immediate fixing.

An international system that takes decisions but cannot enforce them, or that cannot take the right decisions at all, is in serious need of improvement.  Anyone familiar with the European experience will agree with that.

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