Mekong basin cooperation: Current development and institutional arrangements
In terms of institutionalization, the MRC of 1995 has not retained even a minimum of the diversiﬁed organization that was the Mekong Committee. And in terms of scope, the MRC clearly does not reﬂect the large work programme of the Mekong Committee. As opposed to the former Mekong Committee and its successors, the MRC is concerned with Integrated Water Resources Management, a concept that combines economic development and environmental protection. This can be seen, for instance, in the notion of Mya Than and George Abonyi that the Nam Ngum Dam in Laos ‘is the only signiﬁcant hydroelectric project of the MRC today’ (Than and Abonyi 2001: 132). Especially hydropower development met considerable cautiousness on the side of the MRC as opposed to the actual member states, who in general see hydropower as a promising development strategy. The MRC Hydropower Development Strategy of 2001 takes a relatively wary approach to hydropower, distancing itself explicitly from the strong emphasis on hydropower of the predecessor institutions (Mekong River Commission 2001: passim). But things seem to change, diluting the mandate of the MRC and refocus-
ing it on economic development. Olivier Cogels, CEO of the MRC Secretariat from 9 August 2004 to 9 August 2007, has put a lot of emphasis on turning away from the environmental protection aspects of his predecessors, particularly Joern Kristensen (more below), and instead has concentrated on using the MRC as a motor for economic cooperation. His praise of dams is one important element in this, as is his initiative to create what he called a ‘Mekong Programme’, which is (not accidentally) reminiscent of the 1957 Mekong Committee. This development also seems to please China. He emphasized these points in his farewell address from the MRC on 9 August 2007:
During my mandate, we have taken the ﬁrst steps towards a new orientation of the organisation and I am proud to have played my part in refocusing the MRC to put economic growth for poverty alleviation much higher on the agenda. [ … ] in less developed countries the priorities of a
river basin organisation may be quite diﬀerent to those in more developed nations. [ … ] the organisation must be in a position to deliver more concrete, tangible and visible results for the direct beneﬁt of the people and of the economies of the member countries. [ … ] The water resources in this region are huge but almost undeveloped as compared to other regions in the world. For example, the US is able to store behind their dams 6000 m³ water per person. In the Mekong basin, we are only able to store less than 300 m³ per person, which is 20 times less. [ … ] I am very pleased to see that the change in the MRC’s orientation has also brought with it a major improvement in our relationship with China. Yesterday I received a letter from the representative of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Aﬀairs acknowledging the improvements of the relations between China and the MRC during my term. We should not lose this momentum as it will be very important to cooperate with China for developing appropriate operating rules of the cascade dams which are now under construction on the Lancang. If operated properly, these dams can be seen as an opportunity to signiﬁcantly increase the level and ﬂow of the river during the dry season. I have good reasons to believe that China is open for a constructive cooperation on this matter.