Water Conflict and Cooperation/Mekong River Basin

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This article is based on Mekong Case Study, by Ti Le-Huu and Lien Nguyen Duc, as part of a UNESCO-IHP, PCCP Series Publication (2003).



Geographical Setting

The Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia and one of the largest rivers in the world. In terms of drainage area (795,000 km2), it ranks twenty-first in the world and twelfth in terms of its length (4,800 km). However, its large runoff (475,000 million m3) places it eighth in the world table of great rivers. Starting at an elevation of over 5,000 m in the Tanghla Shan Mountains on the Tibetan plateau, the Mekong flows south, cutting through southern China to the common MyanmarLaosThailand boundary. It then flows a further 2,400 km to the ocean. In terms of river flow, the Mekong Basin has two almost distinct parts: the upper parts in China and Myanmar account for 16 percent and 2 percent of the flow, respectively; and the lower part covering the other four riparians accounts for 82 percent of the Mekong flow.

In the upper part of the basin, the Mekong is known as the Lancang River, which passes through a series of north/south Hengduan Mountains ranges, with Kawagarbo the highest mountain in Yunnan at 6,740 meters. The river flows south from Kawagarbo, through a series of gorges, hemmed in by mountain ranges before changing direction along its southeastward course and then south into its valley in Yunnan. Here, the valley extends to the Myanmar border, has ranges of 1,100 to 1,400 meters on both banks, and gorges of 300 to 500 meters. The upper basin has a total catchment area of about 200,000 km2. The climate of this region is primarily subject to the Indian monsoon, and its mountains were once covered with lush rain forest. In addition to cultivated tropical crops such as fruits, rubber, aromatics, and tea, the native flora of the upper basin has been preserved in networks of deep, zigzagging valleys.

The Lower Mekong Basin catchment area exceeds 600,000 km2 and comprises almost all of Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), one-third of Thailand (its northeastern region and part of its northern region), and onefifth of Viet Nam (the Central Highlands and the Delta). It is estimated that some 62 million people live in the Lower Mekong Basin area, more than 40 percent of the total population of these countries.

The mean annual rainfall ranges from 1,000 mm near central northeastern Thailand, to 4,000 mm in the Truong-Son mountain range between Laos and Viet Nam. Wet season rainfall (80 to 90 percent of total rainfall) is usually sufficient to grow rice (the main crop), but rainfall is unevenly distrib uted during the growing season, causing drought damage throughout the basin nearly every year. Where there is annual rainfall of 2,000 mm or more, there is little drought damage, but in most of the basin, rainfall is only 1,000 to 1,200 mm/year. An adequate water supply could double paddy yields. Each year about 475,000 million m3 of water empties into the South China Sea off the Mekong Delta. At Pakse, for example, where the drainage area accounts for 69 percent of the total area, the maximum discharge (57,800 m3/sec) is more than fifty times the minimum discharge (1,600 m3/sec).

The flow of the Mekong and its tributaries is closely related to the rainfall pattern. The water level starts to rise at the onset of the wet season (April–May), reaching a peak in August, September, or October. It then falls rapidly until December, and afterwards recedes slowly during the annual dry period, or dry season, to reach its lowest level in March–April just before the monsoon. The Mekong carries an enormous volume of excess water during the wet season, resulting in severe flooding, and substantial damage almost every year in the fertile flood plains along the mainstream and the major tributaries, as well as in the vast flood plains of the Delta. In contrast, during the dry season a serious reduction in flow often leads to drought; this not only results in a shortage of water for domestic and agricultural use but also limits the navigable depth in the mainstream. Most seriously affected during the dry season is the coastal plain of the Mekong Delta, where low flow results not only in a shortage of water for both people and agriculture, but also in intrusion of salt water into the delta. An area of some 2.1 million ha is normally affected by salt water.

Tonle Sap, the great lake of Cambodia, buffers water flow in the delta downstream of Phnom Penh by storing portions of peak flow from July to September and releasing it from October to April. During the flood season, excess water enters the lake through the Tonle Sap River. As the Mekong water level recedes, the Tonle Sap reverses direction and the lake releases water into the Mekong – both stored Mekong floodwater and the yield of its own catchment area. The seasonal flood of the Mekong comes chiefly from the tributaries that join the mainstream along its lower course. In the Vietnamese Delta, the Mekong finally distributes its waters through eight branches into the ocean. Tidal influence contributes significantly to the extent of salinity intrusion; the tidal range varies from 2 to 4 m. The role of tidal forces is more prominent during the dry season when the river discharge is normally about 2,000 m3/sec.

Historical Development Context

Early Stages of Mekong Cooperation (Late Nineteenth Century to 1946)

Transition Period (1947-56)

The Mekong Committee Period (1957-75)

Development Needs and Cooperative Objectives

Approach to Development


Data Collection and Investigation

Inventory of Resources and Development Plans

Mobilization of Funds

Sustainability of Development

The Interim Mekong Committee Period (1976-95)

Development Philosophy


General Observations

Recent Developments and Perceptions of Ongoing National Development Needs

Summary of Development Needs and Emerging Trends in Cambodia

General Aspects of Socioeconomic Conditions

Perception of Priorities in Water Resources Development

Remarks on the Importance of Mekong Cooperation

Summary of Development Needs and Related Policies in Lao PDR

General Socioeconomic Conditions

Priorities of National Development

Summary of Development Needs and Related Policies in Thailand

General Socioeconomic Conditions of the Country

Important Socioeconomic Features of the Mekong Region in Thailand

Emerging Issues

Summary of Development Needs and Emerging Trends in Viet Nam

General Socioeconomic Conditions

Emerging Trends in the Mekong Areas in Viet Nam

Summary of Development Needs and Trends in Yunnan Province, China

Recent Economic Development Trends and Implications for Water Resources Management

Towards Sustainable Development Under the Mekong River Commission (1995 to Present)

Strategic Global Economic Thrusts

Globalization of Economies

Global Social and Environmental Concerns

Subregional Strategic Thrusts



Energy Development

Tourism Development

National Strategic Thrusts

Overall Analysis of Legal and Institutional Mekong Cooperation Frameworks

Cooperation in the Mekong has existed since the beginning of the twentieth century. The foundation of such cooperation has always been the wish of the riparian countries to jointly develop the rich resources of the Mekong Basin for the benefit of the people in this region. The riparian countries’ political will to cooperate marks an important feature for development of this region. Therefore, analysis of the legal and institutional frameworks must be based on this important foundation of cooperation. It can be recognized that the legal and institutional framework should be a vehicle to achieve the expectations of the respective founders. It must be built to direct the common efforts toward common goals, and to mobilize further support to increase momentum injected by the political will to cooperate. As such, the framework must be regularly adjusted to suit development needs and aspirations, to strengthen cooperation, and to consolidate the foundation of understanding and confidence. This chapter highlights important developments in the legal and institutional framework of Mekong cooperation, and analyzes the changes in the above context. It should be noted that this chapter draws heavily from the previous studies undertaken as part of the MRC project on “Preparatory Organizational and Legal Studies” completed in 1994.

Early Stages of Mekong Cooperation

Legal Aspects

Early international efforts to coordinate development of the Mekong resources started in the 1920s. From 1925–54, a series of agreements was signed by concerned parties in this region of the Mekong Basin. These agreements dealt mainly with the use of waters of the Mekong River for navigation purposes. Among them, the most important agreements are listed below:

  • The Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation between Siam and France, signed at Paris on February 14 1925.
  • The Convention between Siam and France relating to the Regulation of the Relations between Siam and Indochina, signed at Bangkok on August 28 1926 (hereinafter referred to as the “1926 Convention”).
  • The Rules and Regulation of the Permanent Franco–Siamese High Commission of the Mekong, Resolution No. 1 of January 21 1928.
  • The Convention of the Regime for Maritime and River Navigation on the Mekong and for River Navigation Approaching to the Port of Saigon, signed by Cambodia, France, Laos, and Viet Nam at Pau on November 29 1950 (hereinafter referred to as the “Pau Convention”).
  • The Agreement regulating Inland Navigation on the Mekong and Inland Navigation on the Approach to the Port of Saigon (with Protocol relating to the dissolution of the Mekong Advisory Commission), signed by Cambodia, France, Laos, and Viet Nam at Paris on December 29 1954 (hereinafter referred to as the “Paris Convention”).

Institutional Aspects

By these agreements, three commissions were established: 1) the Permanent High Commission of the Mekong (PHCM) established by the 1926 Convention; 2) the Consultative Commission of the Mekong (CCM), created in 1950 by the Pau Convention;and 3) the Mekong Commission, established in 1954 by the Paris Convention. It is interesting to note the following important features of these commissions:

  • The first commission covered all the four riparian countries of the lower basin, although the contracting parties were only two: Siam and France (for Indochina). The second and third commissions were concerned only with the three Indochinese states (and France).
  • The first commission dealt with navigation and multiple uses of the river proper as well as boundary demarcation. The second and third commissions were restricted to navigation development.
  • The first commission has more executive and regulatory power. The second and third commissions have only consultative power.

It is also interesting to note the institutional changes of the technical body serving each of the commissions:

  • The secretariat serving the France–Siam Permanent High Commission was located in Vientiane, (Laos) with a president nominated by France and two

secretaries, nominated by France and Siam. The secretary nominated by France had more management responsibility and administrative power.

  • The secretariat of the Consultative Commission and the Mekong Commission was located in Phnom Penh with a number of technicians to assist in the work. The secretariat of these commissions started to build up a permanent technical foundation for cooperation: a centralized data bank. The commissions were constituted of two representatives from each of the participating states on equal footing.
  • The process of selecting the president/chair and the head of the secretariat improved from the first to the third commission. This represents a clear progress in the evolution of the secretariat of these commissions, in terms of improving the effectiveness of cooperation of the sovereign states.

An Analysis of the Frameworks

The legal framework for cooperation of the France–Siam Permanent High Commission of the Mekong was quite extensive. The institutional framework was not well developed and not equipped to deliver what the legal framework covered. To illustrate this observation, one may note that apart from the provisions governing the use of Mekong waters for navigation, there were provisions dealing with other uses in the 1926 Convention: the utilization and diversion of the water of the Mekong for agricultural, industrial, or commercial uses, especially for the purposes of irrigation and generation of electric power.

While the Permanent High Commission functioned from 1928 until the Second World War, it did not proceed with further arrangements envisaged in the convention for the utilization and diversion of Mekong waters for agricultural, industrial, and commercial uses. The slow development of the region, coupled with cooperative efforts producing only small achievements, weakened the commission. This could have been because large-scale demand for non-navigation uses of the Mekong waters did not emerge until after the Second World War. It was only after the war that development was seriously examined.

It is important to note that the Lower Mekong, given the presence of natural obstacles, is not fully navigable throughout its entire course. Navigation was only the most popular and economic means of large-scale transport of goods for the lower part of the Mekong River, where ocean-going vessels could sail between Phnom Penh and the sea. Therefore, the number of active members engaged in cooperative efforts was confined to only those of the Indochinese states in the subsequent period for navigation development.

The Consultative Commission and the Mekong Commission were established in 1950 and 1954 respectively, to focus mainly on navigation. The institutional framework of these two subsequent commissions was more developed and better equipped, and also had more riparian participation. The center of efforts was navigation between Southern Laos, Cambodia, and the sea. A number of instruments were established to facilitate development. However, with the weakening economic condition of France and subsequently its withdrawal from the region, the development of navigation lost most of its momentum. The institutional framework for common navigation development turned toward national development. These national bases were not lost but can readily be reintegrated for future cooperation and development.

Cooperation Through the Mekong Committee

The idea of developing the waters of the Mekong River for multipurpose use has evolved since the establishment of ECAFE in 1947. The concept of development of the natural resources, essentially the water resources of the Mekong River, was encouraged by this regional UN organization. In 1951 the ECAFE Bureau of Flood Control investigated international rivers, and it selected the Mekong River for particular attention while enlisting the support of four riparian countries in undertaking the studies. A principal finding of the study (completed in 1952) was that the river offered highly attractive opportunities for the development of hydropower and irrigation. The ECAFE then focused attention on development of the Mekong water resources, and provided some useful guidelines for the planning and development of the mainstream of the Mekong River.

Legal Aspects

Under the auspices of ECAFE, the four governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Viet Nam (South Viet Nam) signed, in September 1957, the Statute to establish the MC. It was the first time that an intergovernmental organization dealing with the concept of integrated development of the Mekong river basin was established in the region.

The functions of the committee, as stipulated in the article 4 of the 1957 statute, are to promote, coordinate, supervise, and control the planning and investigation of water resources development project in the Lower Mekong Basin. To these ends, it may:

  • Prepare and submit to the participating governments plans for carrying out coordinated researches, studies, and investigation.
  • Make requests on behalf of the participating governments for special financing and technical assistance, and receive and administer separately such financial and technical assistance.
  • Draw up and recommend to participating governments criteria for the use of the water of the mainstream for the purpose of water resources development.
  • Employ on behalf of the participating governments personnel to assist the committee in the performance of its functions.

Institutional Aspects

The committee comprises four members; each member is appointed with plenipotentiary authority by one respective government. The members of the committee hold the chair in turn for a one-year period. Ordinary meetings of the committee are held three times a year. All participating countries attend the committee’s meetings. Representatives of other governments, international organizations, and specialized agencies may be invited to attend in the capacity of observers. The committee annually submits reports to the participating governments and UNESCAP (formerly ECAFE).

In addition to the sessions that the committee holds annually, it has a secretariat to support it in the daily work between sessions. The Mekong secretariat was originally composed of specific divisions, attached to the UNESCAP secretariat, and headed by an executive agent. The secretariat was given three important functions: program planning, management, and coordination. The secretariat gradually expanded its scope of work, from originally only two divisions – engineering (for hydrology and planning) and navigation – to four major divisions (engineering, navigation, agriculture, and social and economics) and two special units (planning and environment).

The executive agent was responsible for technical and administrative management. The executive agent’s terms of reference covered several areas:

  • coordinating all technical studies undertaken at the committee’s request
  • monitoring the preparation of reports and studies
  • negotiating external assistance for projects to cover technical assistance and investments needs
  • upervising the execution of projects
  • ensuring the proper use of funds channeled through the secretariat
  • serving as project management of UNDP institutional program support.

In 1958, an advisory board was established to advise the committee on all technical and financial aspects of its work. It consisted of engineers and experts in agriculture, finance, and economics. By the mid-1960s, the advisory board had begun to offer advice on a wide range of subjects and problems. However, the advisory board ceased to provide its advice in 1976 because of the impasse caused when the three members failed to appoint plenipotentiary members to the committee. The National Mekong Committees have several basic functions that, as far as linkages between the Mekong secretariat and the member states are concerned, can be summarized as follows:

  • To participate in the committees’ work program within the framework of national and regional policies.
  • To advise the member states’ representatives to the Mekong Committee on all matters concerning the Mekong secretariat, including the preparation and the content of its work program.
  • To follow-up the Mekong secretariat’s progress in the policy matters pertaining to the implementation of its work program, to analyze progress, and to analyze technical and other reports prepared by the Mekong secretariat.
  • To ensure linkage and liaison with national institutions.

On several occasions during the period from 1957–75 the committee adjusted its legal documents to meet the needs for changes. The 1957 statute was amended in 1962, 1967, and 1972. The committee had to approve its rules of procedure (1963), and some legal documents concerning the terms of reference of the advisory board (1963 and 1968) and the committee’s executive agent (1968).

In 1975, the four member countries signed the “Joint Declaration of Principles for Water Utilization of the Lower Mekong Basin.” The Joint Declaration adopted the principles elaborated in the Helsinki Rules, that is, those of equitable utilization and the duty not to cause appreciable harm. In addition, it has introduced principles specific to the development and management of the Mekong Basin. Article II states that “development and control of water resources of the basin are directed towards their optimum utilization for the benefit of all peoples of the basin states.” Other specific principles and criteria for the development of the Mekong River Basin include: “Development should be implemented under the guidelines of the Indicative Basin Plan which should be prepared and approved jointly by the Committee” (Preamble) and “Individual projects on the mainstream shall be planned and implemented in a manner conducive to the system development of the basin water resources” (Art. V).

Evolution of the Framework with Basin Development

Making use of the experiences of previous cooperative efforts, the framework of cooperation established by the Mekong Committee was much more specific and realistic. Detailed technical preparation and institutional support by ECAFE formed important elements for the constitution of the Mekong Committee’s legal and institutional framework for cooperation.

The social and economic conditions in riparian countries in the Lower Mekong Basin were still underdeveloped at the end of 1950s. The legal framework was established to create development opportunity for the four sovereign countries, three of which in the Indochina peninsula had just become independent countries. The resources of the four countries were limited for undertaking any major projects.

The statute assigned the Mekong Committee the functions of investigation and planning of water resources development as well as project selection but did not bind the member countries to an international contract. The committee at times acted as a legal entity, taking initiatives in negotiations and in drafting agreements and plans of operations. Although the committee was not empowered to be a signatory to agreements, in certain cases it undertook such responsibilities (for instance in 1965, when it signed the convention concerning the Nam Ngum dam construction). During the first decade of its existence, the committee exercised great flexibility and broadened its scope of cooperation as a result of three statutory amendments aiming at responding to development demands and widening its scope of activities:

  • The first amendment in 1957 dropped the reference to “quorum,” ruling that the committee should be alternated by representatives of all participating countries.
  • The second amendment in 1962 gave the committee the right to serve as a recipient and administrator of financial and technical assistance from donors, as well as the right to acquire title to property.
  • The third amendment, in 1965, reflecting the widening scope of activities that were undertaken by the committee, changed its title to “Committee for Coordination of Comprehensive Development of the Lower Mekong Basin.” The committee was given the right to undertake construction works and other development projects, in addition to its original functions of investigations and planning. However, Cambodia was not in a position to ratify the 1965 amendment, and this has prevented the third amendment from becoming effective.

In addition, within the framework of long-term cooperation for basin development, an important document was signed in 1975 on a “Joint Declaration for Utilization of Water Resources of the Lower Mekong Basin.”

It is important to note the process of development of the Mekong legal framework with the above important documents referred to in this analysis. Analysis of these documents should be made in the context of cooperative development. An overall analysis of the process of development can be summarized as follows: the Mekong legal framework has slowly evolved to correspond with the needs of the riparian countries and with the stronger will of cooperation and mutual confidence.

The process of change was illustrated by the following factors:

1. To increase the readiness of cooperation among the riparian countries.
2. To better interact with cooperating countries and international organizations.
3. To move from a planning organization toward a development agency.
4. To lay foundations for further developments in each country without causing adverse effects on the others.

The ECAFE, and subsequently UNESCAP, provided the committee with an important foundation for institutional development. The generous financial and institutional support of UNDP constituted an important instrument for expanding the scope of work to strengthen cooperation among the riparian countries.

The Mekong institutional framework continued to grow from a small institution dealing with all the work on behalf of the countries to a multidisciplinary institution in the early 1970s, with more support in the riparian countries. This development process corresponded well with the development needs and was in tandem with the training program. The participation of riparian staff continued to grow in the planning work of the secretariat.

This process of institutional development has left important memories for sustainable development of the Mekong resources. One may, however, notice that there was little improvement in the participation of riparian decision makers in the important preparation of policy options of the committee. A Mekong advisory board was established to fill this gap. Unfortunately, this board could not replace an important missing link between policy option developers and decision makers in each country.

Establishment of the Interim Mekong Committee

Legal Aspects

In 1976 and 1977, as a consequence of the political change in the region, the committee faced difficulties. During the period of 1976–7, Cambodia failed to appoint its plenipotentiary representative. No committee session could be held in those two years and, as a consequence, no new activities could be introduced into the committee’s work program.

In April 1977 three riparian states, (Lao PDR, Thailand, and Viet Nam) had a meeting and agreed not to wait any longer. They subsequently signed a Declaration on January 5 1978 to establish the Interim Mekong Committee (IMC).

The functions of the IMC, as stipulated in the Declaration of 1978, are to promote the development of water resources of the Lower Mekong Basin. Toward these ends, it may:

  • prepare and approve plans for carrying out coordinated researches, studies, and investigation
  • make requests on behalf of the participating governments for financial and technical assistance, and receive and administer such assistance
  • employ on behalf of participating governments personnel to assist the IMC in the performance its functions
  • draw up and recommend to participating governments criteria for use of the water of the Lower Mekong Basin for the purpose of water resources development.

Institutional Aspects

The institutional aspects of the IMC are very similar to those of the MC. However, because of the interim nature of the institution, financial support from the international donor community was mostly of a relatively short-term nature. This coincided with a major shift in the support policy of UNDP, which moved from institutional support granted to the committee in the previous decades to programoriented support. This fact has resulted in a more serious consideration in the policies of the committee members of ensuring sustainability of the Mekong cooperation program. The main features of the new policies included enhancement of the participation of the riparian countries in the formulation of projects and preparation of the annual work program of the committee, improvement of the work efficiency of the secretariat, and improvement in financial resources. Important achievements in terms of sustainability of cooperation included the increase in financial contributions by the members to the operation of the committee, and the establishment of the Mekong Administrative Reserve Fund, which could assure continuity in the operations of its secretariat for several years.


In the absence of Cambodia, the IMC was formally established in 1978. It can be said that the framework of cooperation under the IMC is a continuation of that of the MC in the process of the Mekong Basin development. This important improvement in the legal status of the IMC is a major factor to encourage the participation of this organization in the development projects of the basin.

The new role of the IMC enabled it to concentrate on food and power production, flood control, and navigation. The establishment of the IMC necessitated the reorganization and restructuring of the national Mekong committees and the Mekong secretariat. It also maintained the cooperation among riparian countries and financial support from the international community. However, because of the absence of Cambodia from the framework of cooperation in this period, most basin-wide activities could not be implemented.

It can be noted that, after the last proposal for amendment in 1965, which could not be ratified, the committee continued to function under the legal framework formulated in the 1978 Declaration. The activities of the committee advanced with great rapidity to respond to the demands of the riparian countries.

An institutional framework became more important in order to achieve the goals of the committee, defined as: “the comprehensive development of water resources and related resources of the Lower Mekong Basin.” The role of the Mekong secretariat was described as being “to mobilize and manage effectively inputs and investments and to coordinate the assistance to the Mekong Committee towards this end.”

During the IMC period, the Mekong secretariat underwent reorganization several times with a view to rendering it more operational and effective. The new secretariat, more able to respond to the requirements in planning, programming, program management, and mobilization of resources, is now equipped to coordinate inputs and to monitor program implementation. Moreover, it assists riparian countries in the implementation and design of projects, and the transfer of new technology, through training and maintenance of information systems.

The riparianization policy was also an important organizational issue during this period. This policy aimed to fill professional posts at the Mekong secretariat with personnel from Mekong riparian countries. Strengthening the national Mekong committees was also an important part of the institutional development process during this period.

Establishment of the Mekong River Commission

Structure of the Mekong River Commission
Structure of the Mekong River Commission

Legal Aspects

As discussed earlier in Section 2.4.3, the increasing gap in the levels of economic development among the countries led to an increasing divergence in aspirations for cooperation in the development of the Mekong water and related resources. The divergence in aspirations resulted in a long process of negotiation between 1991 and 1995 among the riparian countries in the Lower Mekong Basin on the new framework of cooperation when Cambodia was about to resume its membership. The negotiation led to the signing of the “Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin” in April 1995 to establish the MRC (MRC, 1995).

The importance of cooperation for the development of the Mekong water and related resources to achieve sustainable prosperity in the Mekong riparian countries continues to be recognized as the main driving force in the 1995 agreement. The agreement includes the expectation that cooperation for economic growth and prosperity will extend beyond the Lower Mekong Basin and that the two upstream countries will join the cooperation in the future, and:

Promote and assist in the promotion of interdependent subregional growth and cooperation among the community of Mekong nations, taking into account the regional benefits that could be derived and/or detriments that could be avoided or mitigated from activities within the Mekong River Basin undertaken by this framework of cooperation. (MRC, 1995)

The agreement also kept in place the emphasis on joint development and pragmatism in planning for decision making through the formulation of a basin development plan (“the general planning tool and process that the Joint Committee would use as a blueprint to identify, categorize and prioritize the projects and programs to seek assistance for and to implement the plan at the basin level”).

Although most of the fundamental principles of the cooperation legal framework among the international river basins stipulated in the Helsinki Rules and the Mekong Joint Declaration of 1975 are in place, the 1995 agreement adopted these principles within the framework of “a dynamic process of water allocation” (Radosevich and Olson, 2000). Articles 5, 6, and 26 mainly reflected the dynamic process.

As stipulated in the agreement, implementation of Article 26 (to establish Rules for Water Utilization and Inter-Basin Diversions together with the related implementation mechanisms) is expected to ensure that the signatory parties will “utilize the waters of the Mekong River system in a reasonable and equitable manner in their respective territories.” Towards this ultimate goal, implementation of Article 26 would need to establish common understanding of all riparian parties concerned on an effective framework for a dynamic process of water allocation, which would enable the following key tasks of cooperation in water utilization be successfully carried out:

1. To establish the time frame for the wet and dry seasons as overall guidelines, including application to Article 5 on the reasonable and equitable utilization of water from the Mekong River system, and to Article 6 on the maintenance of flows on the mainstream.

2. To establish the location of hydrological stations and to determine and maintain the flow level requirements at each station as guidelines stipulated in Article 6 and as a tool to optimize the multiple-use and mutual benefits of all riparians and to minimize the harmful effects that might result from natural occurrences and human activities.

3. To set out criteria for determining surplus quantities of water during the dry season on the mainstream: such criteria must take into account all relevant factors and circumstances to ensure reasonable and equitable utilization of the waters of the Mekong River system in accordance with Article 5.

4. To improve upon the mechanism to monitor intra-basin use: this mechanismwould help to ensure the most reliable data possible are collected and to regularly assess intra-basin water utilization.

5. To set up a mechanism to monitor inter-basin diversions from the mainstream: such a mechanism would help improve water utilization to serve the peoples of the Mekong countries.

Institutional Aspects

The 1995 Agreement also mandated a new organizational structure consisting of three permanent bodies: the council, the joint committee, and the MRC secretariat.

The council, which meets once a year, consists of one member from each country at ministerial or cabinet level. The council makes policy decisions and provides other necessary guidance concerning the promotion, support, cooperation, and coordination of joint activities and programs in order to implement the 1995 agreement.

The joint committee consists of one member from each country at no less than head of department level. The joint committee is responsible for the implementation of the policies and decisions of the council, and supervises the activities of the Mekong River Commission secretariat.

The MRC secretariat is the operational arm of the MRC. It provides technical and administrative services to the council and the joint committee. Under the supervision of the joint committee, the chief executive officer is responsible for the day-to-day operations of more than 100 professional and general support staff. The main counterparts for MRC activities in the four member countries are the national Mekong committees (NMCs). The organization structure of the MRC is shown in Figure above.

Development Philosophy

The signing of the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin (hereafter referred to as “the agreement”) in April 1995 marked a new phase of cooperation among the Mekong riparian countries for joint development of the Mekong water and related resources. The MRC emphasizes management of existing and potential water resources with the new concept of integrated water resources management (IWRM) under a “program approach,” in contrast to the “project approach” of the MC and IMC periods (Phan Do Hong, 2003). The agreement establishes the MRC with a new mandate and a new vision. The new mandate extends the areas of cooperation and calls for more active participation of the countries in the policy and decision-making process for joint development work. The new mandate aims to reach a more specific focus of the new cooperation vision: an interdependent subregional growth. In order to realize the vision, the countries agree to establish a Basin Development Plan (BDP) with a new concept: as “the general planning tool and process that the joint committee would use as a blueprint to identify, categorize, and prioritize the projects and programs to seek assistance for and to implement the plan at the basin level.” This concept is reflected in the increase in areas of cooperation, improvement in the planning and development process, and strengthening the protection and conservation of the environment. The BDP therefore aims to enable the MRC:

1. “To cooperate in all fields of sustainable development, utilization, management, and conservation of the water and related resources of the Mekong River Basin including, but not limited to, irrigation, hydropower, navigation, flood control, fisheries, timber floating, recreation, and tourism, in such a way as to optimize the multiple use and mutual benefits of all riparians and to minimize the harmful effects that might result from natural occurrences and human-made activities.”

2. “To promote, support, cooperate, and coordinate in the development of the full potential of sustainable benefits to all riparian states and prevention of wasteful use of Mekong River Basin waters, with emphasis and preference on joint and/or basin-wide development projects and basin programs.”

3. “To protect the environment, natural resources, aquatic life, conditions, and ecological balance of the Mekong River Basin from pollution and other harmful effects resulting from any development plans and uses of water and related resources in the Basin.”

Furthermore, the concept of the BDP is also linked to the determination of the riparian countries to “promote and assist in the promotion of interdependent subregional growth and cooperation among the community of Mekong nations, taking into account the regional benefits that could be derived and/or detriments that could be avoided or mitigated from activities within the Mekong River Basin undertaken by this framework of cooperation.”

Planning for Decision Making in Historical Perspectives

Evolution of Mekong River Basin Planning for Decision Making

Idealistic International Approach

National Development-Oriented Approach

Integrated Basin Development Planning Approach

Mekong Basin Cooperative Development in the 1970 Indicative Basin Plan (1970 IBP)

Mekong Basin Planning Philosophy and Purpose of the 1970 IBP

Formulation of the 1970 IBP

Important Lessons

Mekong Basin Cooperative Development in the 1987 IBP

Mekong Basin Planning Philosophy and Purpose of the 1987 IBP

Formulation of the 1987 IBP

Important Lessons

Emerging Trends in Planning for Decision-Making

Possible Trends

Other Related Experiences in Water and Related Resources Planning

Mekong BDP in the Basin and National Development Perspectives

Development Scenario

Conceptual Role of the BDP in the Basin Development Perspectives

Remarks on the Application of System Analysis in the Mekong Basin Development Planning

Changes of Methodologies in the Historical Contexts

Approaches to Development

Emerging Issues of Potential Conflict and Opportunities for Enhanced Cooperation

Observations on the Mekong Frameworks for Negotiation and Mediation

The Mekong Spirit: International Recognition of the Mekong Cooperation

On the basis of the potentials identified, national, bilateral, and multilateral efforts were made to develop these resources to meet the development needs of the subregion. Among the sub-basins in the Mekong Basin, the northeast of Thailand was the region having the highest development rate during the 1960s and 1970s. This rate was attributed to the opportunity created by the Mekong cooperation, as acknowledged by a senior Mekong official, Dr Boonrod Binson, a former Member for Thailand on the committee, when commenting on the role of the committee in development of Thailand:

In the 1950s, development of the northeast was considered to be of a lower priority than the other regions, especially the Central Plain, because of its remoteness and underdeveloped status. The establishment of the Mekong Committee attracted many donors to this region of Thailand. As a consequence, the northeast has obtained good financial support from both outside and inside to attain its position today. (Lecture by Dr Binson on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Integrated Energy Development Institute of Thailand, April 17 1992).

Twenty-six donor countries and nineteen international organizations have recognized the common efforts of the riparian countries in the Lower Mekong Basin. The recognition of the Mekong spirit of cooperation resulted in an important flow of assistance and investment to the subregion – to the tune of 1,600 to 2,000 million up to 1987 (Phan, 1994) – and was manifested with the award of Magsaysay in 1968.

In recognizing the importance of human resources development in the mission to develop the Mekong River Basin, emphasis was placed on the training of riparian personnel in various fields of cooperation, as an important element contributing to sustainable cooperation and sustainable development of the Mekong River Basin. The human resources development program was implemented over the years, with great efforts devoted to the riparianization of cooperation (that is, depending less and less on expatriate technical staff) and to disseminating the spirit of the Mekong cooperation.

Foundation of the Mekong Spirit (IMC, 1993)

The establishment of the Mekong Committee in 1957 laid down one of the most important foundations for cooperation among the riparian countries. This foundation is based on the principle of mutual accommodation for the betterment of the Mekong people in building up confidence and trust. It continued to be manifested in the many resolutions on principles and criteria for use, allocation, conservation, and development of the Mekong water resources. The legal framework of cooperation continued to evolve on the basis of this foundation into an increasingly complete form of the “Mekong spirit” of cooperation. This spirit began with the two principles adopted in 1957:

  • As a result of the projects recommended, the existing low water discharge of the Mekong would not be reduced in any way at any site.
  • The supplies to be diverted for irrigation purposes would be met by some storage of flow during high stages of the river.

Cooperation among the Mekong riparian countries has therefore been built on the foundation of mutual benefits among the riparian countries, creating opportunities for development, mobilizing international assistance, and promoting stability of peace in the subregion.

Evolution of the Mekong Spirit

Ever since 1957 the Mekong spirit has continued to develop and evolve in joint development efforts and cooperation. The evolution of the Mekong spirit is necessary to keep pace with the increasing complexity of the development process, to continue to support and coordinate development activities effectively, and to guide common efforts in overcoming short-term issues. Such evolution continues to solidify the foundation of cooperation. The important features of achievements from the evolution could be summarized in the following key words: shared vision, mutual understanding, mutual trust, and common goals.

Shared Vision of Cooperation

The introduction of integrated development and detailed investigation programs initiated by UNESCAP (then ECAFE) at the early stage of the Mekong cooperation program had provided necessary inputs to firmly establish a shared vision of cooperation among the riparian countries. The milestone was reached when the first Indicative Basin Plan was published in 1970 (widely known as the 1970 IBP) to provide details of possible schemes to develop the Mekong potential. With the 1970 IBP, the Mekong River has since been known as a “river of promise” of Southeast Asia (Kieth, 1995).

Mutual Understanding

The first regional project sponsored by the Mekong Committee in 1957 was the establishment of a basin-wide network of hydro-meteorologic stations for regular collection of data. The network started with only few stations in 1957 and had grown to some 400 stations by 1975. Efforts were also made to reconstitute the record to the beginning of this century. Collection of data continued and gained momentum in the early 1960s, with major field investigations on hydrography (for navigation and water resource development of the mainstream); socioeconomic surveys for planning to establish benchmarks for development and to determine the most important areas for improvement; and investigations of other resources. This program continued to be carried out almost continously throughout the history of cooperation, even during various difficult periods, and the information was disseminated to all the member countries in the Lower Mekong Basin. The dissemination of information was further strengthened with the implementation of annual flood forecasting operations since 1970. The free flow of information has thus ensured equality in access to information and contributed to strengthening mutual understanding among the riparian countries.

Mutual Trust

In order to lay the foundation for the mobilization of technical and financial support for Mekong development, the committee identified four important tributary projects in the four countries: Prek Thnot in Cambodia, Nam Ngum in Laos, Nam Pong in Thailand, and Yali Falls in Viet Nam. Among the initial projects, the construction and completion of the Nam Ngum hydropower project marked an important step in the direction of cooperation. It was a dam built with contributions from the riparian countries and donors in one country, Laos, to supply nearly 80 percent of its energy to its neighbor, Thailand. Since its completion in 1971, the Lao Nam Ngum project has supplied electricity to the Thai power market without interruption, even during several critical periods in the relationship between the two countries. The experiences of this joint undertaking provided an important foundation and vivid lesson on how various important and difficult steps could be taken in water resources development for international cooperation. This exemplary achievement solidified mutual trust among the countries, and provided the committee with a good showpiece for further mobilization of financial support and investment. There are also other joint studies and undertakings of the Mekong Committee that have been instrumental in strengthening mutual trust among the riparian countries, such as the Friendship Bridge, Mekong Irrigation Program, Mekong Ferry Crossing, and Inland Navigation Program.

Common Goal: The River of Prosperity

In the words of the chair of the MRC Council for 1995–6, the Mekong cooperation process has reached a stage of maturity for integrated development to turn the Mekong River Basin into an area of prosperity.

Looking back to the past thirty-eight years of Mekong cooperation, the assistance and support provided by the donor community has contributed not only to improvement of social and economic conditions of the many millions of the Mekong inhabitants, but also to strengthening of the Mekong cooperation and mutual understanding and trust among the riparian countries. The foundation of a river of cooperation has now been firmly established, let us look forward to turning the river of promise into a river of prosperity: an important goal of the Mekong River Commission. (Kieth, 1995)

As part of the common efforts, a new concept of basin development planning was adopted in the new Mekong Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin (signed in 1995) to lead to subregional interdependent economic growth and sustainable development. As stipulated in the 1995 agreement, BDP is “the general planning tool and process that the Joint Committee would use as a blueprint to identify, categorize, and prioritize the projects and programs to seek assistance for and to implement the plan at the basin level” (Definition of Terms of the MRC 1995 Agreement.) It was therefore expected that with a new BDP, the MRC could play a leading role in ensuring sustainable development of the Mekong River Basin and contribute to prosperity of the Mekong peoples.

It should be noted that the Mekong Committee has been recognized as a successful example of efforts to adopt a “comprehensive approach” which evolved over time, as remarked in an assessment of the donor community recently: “If the MRC had not been in existence, then we would have to create it” (Kristensen and Lien Nguyen Duc, 2000). In addition, the report “River Basins: Institutional Framework and Management Options” from the World Commission on Dams (Millington, 2000, p. 43), has made the following observation: “It is fair to say that, after a slow start, the MRC is now emerging as a good model for developing countries to follow in International River Basin Management (IRBM). Perhaps it should be used as a case study in any guidelines prepared by WCD.” During its existence of over four and a half decades, MRC has been recognized internationally through the receipt of several international awards, including the Magsaysay Award for regional cooperation and development in 1967, and the Thiess Services International River prize for Outstanding Achievements in River Management in 2001.


The foundation of the Mekong spirit (discussed above) has continued to figure strongly throughout the past four decades of Mekong cooperation, including the many occasions of negotiation and mediation. On these occasions, the two fundamental principles discussed in Section 5.2 were further refined with the aim of ensuring mutual benefits among the riparian countries, creating opportunities for development, mobilizing international assistance, and promoting stability of peace in the subregion to suit the new socioeconomic conditions prevailing at the time of negotiation. Of interest is the transformation of these two principles into different clauses in the 1995 agreement, particularly Article 5 (on reasonable and equitable utilization of water), Article 6 (on maintenance of flows on the mainstream), and Article 26 (on rules for water utlization and inter-basin diversions), which could be seen from different perspectives. From the point of view of Mekong cooperation, the related clauses in the 1995 agreement demonstrated two important aspects of the above-mentioned foundation: mutual accommodation and a common determination to further the Mekong spirit through strengthening mutual trust so as to work out a practical and dynamic process of water utilization, specific to the Mekong River Basin, based on the internationally accepted principles of water sharing.


For decades the Mekong River has been a natural symbol of regional cooperation among its riparian countries. The Mekong River Commission (and its predecessors) is one of only very few regional institutions to survive the difficult period of cold war and ideological confrontation. It has provided the necessary foundation for preventing potential conflict among member countries. However, in spite of a very promising outlook, the Mekong River Commission as an organization has many daunting tasks ahead of it. In particular, it remains to be seen if its member countries can demonstrate a higher level of political commitment and support to make the laudable objectives enshrined in the 1995 Agreement a reality in the post-cold-war era.

One of its daunting tasks is to ensure that the two upper-stream countries – China and Myanmar – become more actively involved in international cooperation for an environmentally sound and sustainable development and management of the transboundary river basin. The strong desire of the four Lower Mekong countries to have China and Myanmar as MRC member countries has been clearly expressed beyond any doubt. The MRC member countries see that the lack of full participation of all Mekong riparian countries in the MRC is still a significant problem for a regional organization seeking to promote sustainable development of the transboundary river basin. The completion of two major dams on the Chinese part of the Lancang-Mekong mainstream, and the prospect of six or seven more hydropower dams in that area, coupled with the recent improvement in navigability along the Mekong from Jinghong, Yunnan province of China (by blasting the rapids and rocks) underline the urgent need to build an appropriate legal framework and to formulate technical guidelines conducive to turning these potential conflicts into opportunities for sharing benefits. This requires the full participation of all Mekong riparian countries. In fact, both upstream countries have been official dialogue partners of the MRC since 1996. In coming years, greater efforts must be made to raise this low level of technical cooperation to a more substantial level with China and Myanmar.

Furthermore, with the recent increase of interest in integrated water resources management, particularly for international river basins in general, and with good progress made on the development of the basin development plan and the flood management program, a window of opportunity is open for more investment in the region. One important pillar in the new approach of the MRC is to open up and embrace participatory planning – within which several recent planning exercises of the MRC were carried out – through broad, participatory processes. While costly and timeconsuming, this has proved invaluable in creating the necessary agreement on priorities and ownership of the programs at all levels of national governments, to build consensus and prevent conflicts. In this connection, it is noteworthy that partnership agreements have recently been established with major international organizations and NGOs.


See also

External Resources

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