Cooperation key on Mekong issues

Cooperation key on Mekong issues

An aerial shot of the Mekong River taken in 2019 in Nong Khai's Sungkom district shows the dried-up riverbed caused by 'low-flow'. AFP
An aerial shot of the Mekong River taken in 2019 in Nong Khai's Sungkom district shows the dried-up riverbed caused by 'low-flow'. AFP

In the coming months, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) will host a unique competition for university students from our four member countries: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

The objective is to see which team can develop the most effective, cost-efficient and sustainable technology to monitor water levels across Southeast Asia's greatest waterway, which has experienced worryingly low-flow for four straight years. The victorious students will win a grant to turn their vision into the reality and construct their cutting-edge tools.

While the competition may sound like a terrific way to inspire and reward innovation among our best and brightest youth, I want to highlight its broader symbolism: While we welcome and are grateful for international partnerships, we denizens of the Mekong River Basin have entered a new era where we must strive to solve our own Mekong River challenges.

I say this as the first Lao CEO of the MRC, and just its third riparian CEO since the founding roots of our organisation, in 1957. Cultivating homegrown, high-tech solutions also combines three of my main priorities, since I was appointed this January: knowledge, innovation, cooperation.

First, I aim to further build the MRC into the region's pre-eminent knowledge hub, as the go-to source for the fastest, most useful and most reliable information. This would arm our member countries, their societies and other stakeholders with the information they need to craft the best possible decisions and actions, which affect the livelihoods of so many millions of people.

Second, amid this digital revolution, I'm committed to making full use of modern technology to bring data and science directly to the people. For example, we're now developing a new app that will serve as a gateway to provide convenient access to all MRC data, dating back decades. We expect this app to go live early next year. It will showcase our new Core River Monitoring Network, a system that reports data on river level, flow, sediment, fish, and ecological health.

Armed with better, state-of-the-art knowledge, my third priority is to ensure the MRC continues to strengthen its role as a cooperative platform and broker of water diplomacy. Not only for our core four member countries, but with our two pivotal, upriver neighbours: China and Myanmar.

Tomorrow is Mekong Day, which marks the birth to the MRC. To mark the event, I will deliver a "State of the Mekong Address" to highlight the challenges we face, as well as opportunities to work together for a responsible, prosperous and equitable Mekong River Basin. Communication, dialogue and cooperation are essential, to avoid a smaller problem evolving into a larger tension or conflict. This holds true with everything from sharing water-monitoring information to any proposed new water-infrastructure projects.

I myself learned some of these valuable principles while working in New York, from 2002 to 2012: first for my own government, next for an academic institute, then for the United Nations Headquarters. From New York, I returned to Southeast Asia to spend the past decade working within the MRC itself. My greatest lesson-learned from these two decades is that bilateral and multilateral relations will always feature divergent positions, interests and concerns of various stakeholders.

A neutral, intergovernmental organisation like the MRC cannot square contrasting positions, as we are not judge and jury. However, reconciling those interests is what we shall aim to do -- honestly and passionately.

Faced with any seemingly impossible challenge, we have two choices. One is to sit still and hope it's somehow resolved, by someone else. The other choice is to roll up our sleeves, talk to people, build relationships, and identify ways -- large and small -- to move cooperation forward.

That's the water diplomacy principle we advocate. It's about marrying the best science and diplomatic tools to manage conflict and achieve sustainable outcomes. A number of leading experts have documented this approach in River Basin Organizations in Water Diplomacy, which I co-edited.

The mighty Mekong is at a critical juncture. Four consecutive years of low-flow is so rare, it hasn't happened in 60 years. It dramatically affects millions of our Mekong citizens. Particularly, those who rely on fishing and fisheries, or who harvest crops: low flow reduces the amount of sediment that nurtures their crops. Not to mention how it erodes river habitats and affects wildlife.

I want us working together for actions that promote responsible development; improve livelihood and living standards; ensure adequate access to water and food production; and safeguard the river and its ecosystem. I hope you join me in this journey, regardless of where you stand.

Anoulak Kittikhoun is the Chief Executive Officer of the Mekong River Commission. He is the co-author of two books: 'River Basin Organizations in Water Diplomacy' and 'Small Countries, Big Diplomacy'.

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