Earlier this month, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) announced a new 10-year strategy and 5-year action plan to ensure an acceptable balance between basin development and management.

Thuong Nguyen, Taiwan Center for Security Studies

Image Source: wwf.sg

The MRC Strategic Plan 2021-2025 is a unified corporate plan, fully integrated with the Integrated Water Resources Management-based Basin Development Strategy (IWRM-BDS) 2021-2030. The strategy guides the MRC Secretariat’s actions in supporting the Mekong countries, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam, to address emerging challenges and achieve improvements in the Mekong River Basin.

Accordingly, the strategy sets out five priorities in the following order: Environment—to conserve and regenerate the Mekong River Basin ecological system; Social—to enable inclusive access and utilization of the basin’s water and related resources, Economic—to enhance sustainable development of water and related sectors, Climate change—to strengthen resilience against climate risks, extreme floods and droughts, and Cooperation—to strengthen the joint actions among all basin countries and related parties. The MRC will deploy its strategic priorities in accordance with this five-year Strategic Plan. This strategy also sets out recommended measures that all national and regional stakeholders can take to fulfil these priorities, including implementing individual initiatives and programs for each side. Throughout the five-year action plan, the MRC is expected to invest more than $60 million, of which about 40% of this amount will come from MRC member states.

Cooperative audit on water management in Mekong River basin kicks off -  VNExplorer
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According to MRC, this success can only be achieved when all stakeholders work together towards economic prosperity, social equity, a healthy environment, and good resilience to climate change. Unlike previous strategic plans, this BDS 2021–2030 is prepared and agreed for ten years under the Mekong River Commission (MRC) cooperation framework and focuses on the entire Mekong River Basin. The BDS 2021–2030 allows all relevant actors involved in Mekong water-related issues towards achieving improvements in the environmental, social, and economic status of the Mekong River Basin, which is periodically recorded in the State of Basin Report. This change is assumed due to the extent of water resources development, the environmental and water security issues. Therefore, this BDS 2021–2030 will encompass the transboundary coordination of dams and other water infrastructure operations. Additionally, this new strategy can be understood as an attempt to prevent the significant impacts of unusual operations of Chinese hydroelectric dams, which have changed the flow regime, affected sediment delivery, and increased riverbank erosion. These effects lead to a decrease in fish populations, degradation of environmental assets and floodplains, and a decrease in the Mekong Delta’s additional sediment. Furthermore, the new strategy is based on recent assessments of potential challenges as China is preparing to launch a new mega hydroelectric dam (Baihetan) in July, straddling Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.

There has been an instantaneous drop in water levels since the beginning of January, and it is because China closed the Jinghong dam. There is a profound impact in about 60 million people living conditions along the lower Mekong from Beijing’s move during the annual dry season. The fluctuating river flow has even fallen to worrying levels without any improvement by mid-February. Since there has been the occurrence of abnormal changes in the water level, the Mekong River authorities and residents are pushed to a high level of readiness to respond to possible impacts. Stimson reported, from March 29 to April 4, five Chinese dams released water, threatening aquatic species, wildlife, and aquatic plants while they are in the breeding season. Clearly, this abnormal fluctuation of water level affects not only human livelihood but also the entire ecosystem. More importantly, the adjustment of the lower Mekong river countries’ approach adds to the uncertainty of China’s BRI commitments. Hence, the new strategic plan is crucial to deepening cooperation on transboundary water governance between the Mekong countries and China. Even though water resources development will still be needed, a more proactive regional planning approach is crucial to supporting socio-economic development, building climate resilience, and managing flood and drought risks.