Cambodian canal tests Mekong unity
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Cambodian canal tests Mekong unity

Cambodia has every right to develop infrastructure to promote economic development in its part of the Mekong Basin, but the way Cambodia's government is conducting diplomacy around the 180-km Funan Techo Canal threatens to undo three decades of Mekong collaboration.

Vietnam's government and other interested parties have raised concerns about the canal's obvious environmental impacts on the Mekong Delta since August of last year when Cambodia notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) of its intent to build the canal. At the end of April, former Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that Cambodia will not negotiate with Vietnam, and while this defiant response is rallying domestic support for his son's new administration, his discourse also runs contrary to Cambodia's track record of championing Mekong River conservation.

The shouting match between Cambodia and Vietnam over this project is driving a wedge between two countries that typically enjoy strong relations. The 1995 Mekong Agreement, to which Cambodia and Vietnam are both signatories, is designed to help member countries navigate their differences over Mekong River projects like the Funan Techo Canal. And while local and global media outlets are covering the unfolding controversy, journalists are preferring a focus on political bluster over the pedantry of the international law that can guide a pathway forward. The MRC, which implements the Mekong Agreement, has been sidelined because Cambodia has inaccurately designated the canal as a tributary project. If the canal were correctly designated as a mainstream project, then the MRC could conduct regional consultation activities and an expert-led technical review, which would allow specific concerns to be addressed and common ground identified. Importantly, all six times the MRC has conducted regional consultation activities and technical reviews for Mekong mainstream dams in Laos, the environmental and social impacts of those projects were reduced. Below, I detail three conditions in Article 5 of the Mekong Agreement that qualify the Funan Techo Canal for an MRC-led regional consultation.

First, regional consultation is required for any project that connects to the Mekong mainstream and alters mainstream flow. Maps and canal blueprints submitted by the Cambodian government to the MRC clearly show that the canal connects to both mainstream channels: the Mekong and the Bassac. The Cambodian government's claim that the Bassac is a Mekong tributary is simply wrong. The Bassac branches off from the Mekong at Phnom Penh, and its water is composed of mainstream flow. By definition, a tributary's water cannot be composed of mainstream flow.

Second, regional consultation is required for all inter-basin transfers of water. The canal's outlet to the Gulf of Thailand in Kep province is outside the Mekong Basin. Even with navigation locks, the canal will unquestionably transfer water from the Mekong Basin to another basin, which is, by definition, an inter-basin transfer.

Third, regional consultation is required for dry season irrigation use of Mekong flow. Although irrigation is not listed as a benefit in the canal's official documentation, Cambodia's most powerful leaders have recently lauded the canal's potential to "facilitate agricultural activities by providing water for crop cultivation". It is logical to assume this water will be used during the dry season since natural flooding delivers ample water during the wet season. The only way for the canal to deliver irrigation water during the dry season is to take water from the two Mekong mainstream channels. The Mekong Agreement requires not only regional consultation for dry season irrigation use of Mekong flow but also an agreement between all signatory countries, a diplomatic exercise never before executed by the MRC.

It's not too late for other MRC member countries and concerned parties to persuade Cambodia to request a regional consultation in accordance with the Mekong Agreement. The opportunity for an adjustment should also not be lost on the Cambodian government, which in the past has been the most active diplomatically in righting wrongs when the Lao government was not following MRC guidelines, particularly in the cases of the Don Sahong and Sekong A Dams.

The Funan Techo Canal presents a critical test case of the Mekong Agreement that will either strengthen or undermine regional cooperation. Why the outcome matters to Vietnam is obvious, but this issue also matters to Thailand since next year, a Thai CEO will be better positioned to take the helm of a strengthened MRC rather than a weakened one. The outcome also matters to Cambodia because missteps could pave the way for long-discussed but never-implemented diversion projects far upstream that could have profound negative impacts on Cambodia. It also matters greatly to the international community, which has invested heavily in regional cooperation, peace, and stability.

Brian Eyler directs the Stimson Center's Southeast Asia Program and Jake Brunner is the IUCN Head of Lower Mekong Sub-region.

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