The 4,909 km long Mekong river starts from China and runs through Myanmar, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Thailand and Cambodia. The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental organisation, initiated by the governments of Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, handles the river basin developments in the Mekong. The MRC is governed by the 1995 Mekong Agreement. The agreement, signed by four member countries, establishes the goals, objectives and underlying principles of cooperation among the four member countries. It specifies five procedures: Procedures for Data and Information Exchange and Sharing (2001); Procedure for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (2003); Procedure for Water Use and Monitoring (2003); Procedure for the Maintenance of Flows on the Mainstream (2006); and Procedures for Water Quality (2011).

These five key procedures help member countries work together in terms of sharing information, and monitoring water quality and water use in the Mekong river basins. One of the key procedures on hydropower development is the Procedure for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement for Sustainable Hydropower Development on the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB). The MRC is also a platform for water diplomacy and a regional knowledge hub, and co-operates with related regional organisations, initiatives and programmes such as Lancang-Mekong Co-operation (LMC), GMS, ASEAN, etc.

The MRC has three principal organs: the MRC Council (which comprises members at the ministerial level), the Joint Committee (heads of department level), and the Secretariat (impartial staff and experts led by the chief executive officer), which tries to help the technical and ministerial teams. Apart from this three-layer structure, each member country has established a National Mekong Committee (NMC) comprising representatives of relevant major line/implementing agencies, including foreign affairs, planning and investment, water/natural resources and environment, agriculture, fisheries and forestry, and energy. The NMC is supported by a secretariat. The funding is mostly from donor groups and development partners to support river management. China and Myanmar serve as dialogue partners.

Role of MRC in sustainable hydropower development

The six core functions of the MRC in sustainable hydropower development are working on data acquisition, exchange and monitoring; analysis, modelling and assessment; basin planning; forecasting, warning, and emergency; implementing MRC procedures; and dialogue and cooperation. The MRC tries to facilitate cooperation in the hydropower sector as guided by the Articles of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, and tries to develop tools, guidelines and guidance to support sustainable hydropower planning and management in LMB. It also works with all stakeholders to ensure understanding of basin needs, and the opportunities, and challenges in optimal and sustainable development. Further, it ensures hydropower developers properly consider cross-sectoral benefits/impacts, reduce trans-boundary impacts and enhance water, food and energy security in basins.

The MRC focuses on formulating basin development plans and making community impact assessments to provide developers with an understanding of trans-boundary benefits and the consequences of their developments. It works as a facilitator and engages with developers as much as possible in the early stages to assist them and meet the expectations of member countries. Mutual sharing of information, guidelines and technical knowhow are also important for all stakeholders. If a country wants to develop a hydropower project on a mainstream dam, it submits the project design document to the MRC Secretariat, followed by consultation among member countries. The countries review all the design documents and come up with a joint statement. Notably, no one country can build a hydropower project without notifying other countries, even though it is in the territory.

Hydropower development so far

In the Upper Mekong River Basin (UMB), extensive hydropower development has occurred as part of China’s development strategy. Most of them are storage dams and regulate water flow into the LMB. Over the last decade, hydropower development has expanded in the LMB. Most hydropower projects are in Lao PDR since it has potential for hydropower projects. During the decade of the 1950s and 1960s, navigation was developed and drainage in the delta was improved in the Mekong River. During 1960-70, irrigation, barrages and weirs in Thailand were developed. During 1990-2000, hydropower projects in Vietnam, Thailand and China were developed. In 2010-20, most of the hydropower project development was in Lao PDR. As of 2020, round 9,562 MW capacity of hydropower projects has been commissioned.

The MRC Council recently approved the Sustainable Hydropower Development Strategy 2021 for the LMB, one of the key deliverables of the previous Basin Development Strategy and the MRC Strategic Plan 2016- 2020, to address the sustainability of hydropower developments. The strategy represents a significant step forward in moving the basin towards optimal, safe and responsible outcomes that address interdependencies between environmental protection and water, food and hydropower production. To minimise and mitigate adverse trans-boundary impacts, the strategy prioritises integration of sustainable hydropower considerations into project-level planning, preparation, design, implementation and operation activities. The strategy prioritises enhancement of cooperation on processes for operational co-ordination and management of hydropower cascades, especially in mainstream hydropower projects in the LMB, with China’s cooperation.

Challenges

The development of hydropower projects comes with pros and cons. Some of the needs of the basin include support for the economic development of member riparian countries; protection of their ecosystem; enhancement of water, food and livelihood security; ensuring the continued energy security of riparian countries; and increased resilience against climate change including drought and flood management. Hence, there is a need for trans-boundary cooperation, and the adoption of a more proactive approach to basin planning and joint action.

The countries also need to address some of the issues under climate change adaptation. Broadly, the energy demand for the LMB is projected to grow at 6-7 per cent annually, and riparian countries are capitalising on hydropower potential, especially for Lao PDR. However, there is the risk of generation capacity running ahead of demand.

The way ahead

By 2040, the installed hydropower capacity in the LMB is expected to exceed 30,000 MW. Besides the commissioned capacity, 5,611 MW is committed capacity (which already has power purchase agreements), and 15,171 MW is candidate capacity (planned), which will account for around 50 per cent of the total hydropower projects in the LMB. In the future, some hydropower projects are expected to develop in Cambodia and Lao PDR. To make the hydro power development more sustainable, there is a need to adopt a more proactive approach to basin planning and joint action among member countries. Hydropower development always comes with a trade-off between benefits and impacts; so, joint efforts by member countries in line with the spirit of One Mekong, One spirit is important. The Mekong Basin has a long way to go in terms of development and management. „