Mekong River

A new leader addresses the ‘State of the Mekong’

The Mekong River Commission CEO discusses water diplomacy and his duty to ‘sound the alarm’ over the health and stewardship of the waterway

April 13, 2022
A new leader addresses the ‘State of the Mekong’
Boats steer past Phnom Penh at sunset and through the Tonle Sap River, near the waterway’s confluence with the Mekong River. Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

Despite new country collaborations on Southeast Asia’s most important waterway, Anoulak Kittikhoun believes that “given the state of the Mekong today, we cannot just relax.”

“Our feet should be on fire,” Kittikhoun said during the inaugural State of the Mekong Address. “I wish I would only bring you good news about the health of the river. However, it is my duty to continue to sound the alarm.”

Broadcast on multiple social media platforms, the 5 April speech was intended to “bring the science directly to the people so that we can discuss Mekong issues based on facts and not feelings,” said Kittikhoun, who became the Mekong River Commission’s CEO earlier this year.

His speech delivered in Vientiane, the capital of Laos and host city of the commission, focused on imminent challenges facing the Mekong Basin, ranging from hydropower dam development and management to climate change. In a following discussion with Southeast Asia Globe, Kittikhoun elaborated on water diplomacy goals and defended what some experts consider the commission’s shortcomings.

“Being in the Mekong development and protection business is not like selling ice cream,” Kittikhoun said.

While the frozen treat can sell itself, brokering and balancing the economic, social and environmental interests of the Mekong countries is a tougher deal to strike.

The Mekong River Commission Secretariat in Vientiane. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP

The Mekong River Commission is an inter-governmental organisation tasked with promoting cooperative development of the waterway, which flows through China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The commission was established after the dissolution of an earlier, UN-created river governance scheme and signed into existence by the latter four countries with the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

The anniversary of the agreement’s ratification is marked on 5 April, referred to by the commission as “Mekong Day.”

A key message from Kittikhoun’s speech was his priority to improve the commission’s role as a “water diplomacy” platform between the agreement’s four signatories, as well as with the two unsigned upstream countries, China and Myanmar.

The former has its own inter-governmental framework in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, named after the river section flowing through China, which exists as a counterpart to the Mekong River Commission.

Hydropower dam development and management is a cornerstone of diplomacy on the riverway. The Mekong Dam Monitor, run by environmental analysis firm Eyes on Earth and U.S. think tank the Stimson Center, tracks 45 of the largest dams on the river system, including 11 in China.

Data sharing is part of the foundation of the cooperation and commission’s relationship, Kittikhoun said. Despite data disputes in recent years, Kittikhoun believes the path has been set for greater collaboration.

In 2020, just months after Chinese dam operations were accused of causing drought across the Mekong Basin, China’s Ministry of Water Resources agreed to provide the Mekong River Commission with year-round hydrological data. In the 18 years leading up to the agreement, water level and rainfall data from China had only been shared during the wet season from June to October.

Officials from the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and the Ministry of Water Resources did not respond to requests for comment.

“Ten years ago, we did not have a year-round data sharing agreement. We did not have this agreement to work with the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation framework. We did not have as intense of activities in terms of going back and forth with our Chinese colleagues,” Kittikhoun said. “Although this has been interrupted somewhat by the Covid pandemic, we will soon be back on track.”

To highlight the advancements in collaborations, Kittikhoun’s speech referenced a joint study with the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation as evidence of the commission’s efforts to “strengthen its role as a cooperative water diplomacy platform.”

The study was approved in 2021 and is expected to use data from all six Mekong countries to examine the changing hydrological conditions in the basin. By the end of the study’s first phase this year, Kittikhoun hopes to have immediate recommendations for improved Mekong management.

“Because this is a joint study under the framework of both the MRC and LMC, whatever comes out of it, I think the six governments would take it quite seriously because it’s not just a study by NGO or researcher or university,” Kittikhoun said. “China is actively involved in terms of their national experts. So, whatever we collectively recommend together should be able to be accepted by the six governments.”

Recommendations are the extent of the Mekong River Commission’s power over water governance.

“The MRC is not a regulatory body,” Kittikhoun said. “Some people may want us to be a regulatory body, but no government has agreed to that. Given the mandate that we have, we have to do work in that method, which is a cooperative framework.”

While Myanmar has “expressed interest in the past” in joining the commission, the change in governments following the February 2021 military coup has dampened interest for the time being, Kittikhoun said.

“Myanmar is in a unique position because a very small size of the basin is in Myanmar and they don’t have major plans in terms of Mekong water resources development,” Kittikhoun said during an interview with the Globe. “We welcome Myanmar as a dialogue partner, and in the future as a member, but… it is not as critical as cooperation with China.”

Article 39 of the Mekong Agreement built a legal pathway for either country to join, stating “any other riparian State, accepting the rights and obligations under this Agreement, may become a party with the consent of the other parties.”

While the agreement’s member states “have always extended the invitation,” Kittikhoun said the Chinese government has been clear about its stance and is “satisfied with the existing arrangement with the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation.”

Though the commission chief expressed optimism for the prospect of further cooperation, there may be inherent limits to China’s interest in its downstream partner organisation. 

A key reason for that is its control of the Mekong’s source, explained Ming Li Yong, a fellow at the U.S.-based research group East-West Center.

“As an upstream country, there is no real reason or incentive to join the MRC because as an upstream country it is in an advantageous position,” Yong said.

“China would want to do things on their own terms rather than on the terms set by Lower Mekong countries,” said Yong, who studies water governance in the Mekong Basin, adding that the Chinese government “might cooperate with the MRC in non-controversial ways.”

Cooperation over hydropower dam development among the signatories of the Mekong Agreement in the Lower Basin hinges on prior consultation, a process the commission facilitates where countries come together to discuss the pros and cons of proposed water-use projects on the Mekong mainstream.

“The prior consultation process is not a yes or no process, not an open or ended process. It’s about really finding ways to work together in different steps to secure meaningful results that address key concerns,” Kittikhoun said in his first reference to the process in the final minutes of his speech.

A general view of the Cambodia’s 400 megawatt Lower Sesan II hydroelectric dam is seen during the inauguration in Stung Treng province on December 17, 2018. Cambodian premier Hun Sen opened the largest dam in the country, swatting away warnings about the disastrous impact it could have on the environment and local livelihoods. Photo: Ly Lay/AFP

A significant shortcoming of the prior consultation process is that it does not apply to tributaries, according to Yong, who elaborated that this shortcoming was showcased by the Lower Sesan II Dam, which faced opposition prior to its completion in 2018. The dam is located near the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers, both tributaries to the Mekong, in the northeastern Cambodian province of Stung Treng.

“To change this, you would need a change to the 1995 agreement, which is very difficult. And if you open that up, it’s a can of worms. It can also lessen the other strong clauses in the 1995 agreement,” Kittikhoun explained to the Globe

“It is something that cannot be done in a short time,” he said. “We have to learn how to make current procedures effective and slowly work to strengthen the capacity of countries to manage their own projects in the tributaries.”

While Yong said prior consultation was limited by its inability to say “yes or no” to a dam, she noted the process “definitely helped in terms of increasing scrutiny of the dams, disseminating information about the proposed projects and creating a space for public debate around these dams.”

Sokphea Young, a research fellow at University College London who studied transnational environmental movements against dams in the Lower Mekong, appreciates the work towards more data transparency but said “it doesn’t make any significant change even if you have the data.”

“The Mekong River Commission is a mechanism that allows people to participate in a more democratic way, but the decisions are not democratic decisions,” Young said. “Transboundary relations in the Mekong are still fragile and driven by economic purposes rather than environmental purposes.”

Fishermen reel in a catch from the first row of dai fisheries on Tonle Sap River, a tributary of the Mekong River. Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

Environmental concerns across the basin were a significant portion of Kittikhoun’s inaugural address.

“The Mekong is facing unprecedented challenge: experiencing four straight years of low flows, our wetlands are disappearing, nourishing sediment is reduced and rising salinity is spoiling rice crops,” he said. “Coupled with the Covid pandemic, and its response, all of this has created untold hardship for millions of vulnerable fishing and farming communities.”

Five of the Mekong’s 10 lowest annual water flow years have occurred in just over a decade, according to an analysis of Mekong River Commission data by the Stimson Center. The main example Kittikhoun used to explain the effect of low flows was Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia.

No one can control all of these resources. No one can make decisions for all of the countries.”

Sokphea Young, research fellow, University College London

Low flows have affected biodiversity and fish populations within the lake, subsequently diminishing fisheries reliant on the waterbody. The amount of water dam reservoirs hold back is at the heart of this challenge, Kittikhoun said.

While the Mekong River Commission’s stated mission is the “sustainable management and development” of the waterway, Young doesn’t believe the idea exists in Southeast Asia.

“There is no sustainable development in the region. Every course alters the natural ecosystem, then you change the entire system as well,” Young said. “No one can control all of these resources. No one can make decisions for all of the countries. So each country has its own separate economic and political reasons for development.”

Kittikhoun was selected by the Mekong River Commission Joint Committee as the next CEO and appointed the position in January by the commission’s Council of Ministers, which consists of representatives from the four signatory countries. His tenure goes until 2024.

Previously the chief strategy and partnership officer for the commission, Kittikhoun is the organisation’s eighth CEO and the first Laotian to hold the role.

As Laos continues to invest in dam development to electrify neighbouring nations, Kittikhoun said he is duty bound to be objective and neutral as CEO but also in an ideal position to advise his country.

“I do understand the position and interests of Laos in terms of hydropower development. Laos is a landlocked country, it has many disadvantages compared to its neighbours. It’s a late developer,” Kittikhoun said. “So hydropower development is one of the key priorities. But I’ve always said, in both my capacity at the MRC and also as a Laos citizen, you really need to develop very responsibly.”

To Kittikhoun this means sharing information, consulting neighbouring states, listening to experts and finding ways to cooperate.

Kittikhoun closed the State of the Mekong Address by highlighting the role he and the commission hold as brokers between Mekong Basin countries.

He spoke of calls from “downstream nations” to receive more data and better warnings about impending emergencies from countries upstream. Countries upstream meanwhile need “downstream nations to understand the legitimate needs for water use, and water resources development,” he said.

He noted persistent requests for protection and aid from vulnerable communities and the need for organisations to continue improving collaborations based on the Mekong Agreement.

Kittikhoun urged action and cooperation with the commission’s efforts from residents and governments of the Mekong region: “The choice is yours.” 

He left those within the sound of his voice with the question of whether they will respond to the calls to address the Mekong’s uncertain future.

“Will we just sit and hope our problems go away? Or will we rise to the occasion, and together, build knowledge, make innovation and maintain cooperation?”

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