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LEAD International Workshop on Sustainable Development

 

LEAD International Workshop on Sustainable Development

14 – 21 September 2003

 

Concept Note

 

Trans-boundary Resource Flow:

A Case Study of Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS)

 

Objective

The overall goal of the program is to enhance the knowledge and skills of decision-makers to develop national and international policies that emphasize the environmentally sustainable and socially equitable use of resources.

The specific objective of this workshop is to provide first hand experience of issues related to trans-boundary resource flow in regional development through the case study of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS). The workshop will seek to:

  • explore multiple dimensions of trans-boundary resource flow in regional development through the case study of Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS)
  • promote the understanding of regional issues associated with common resource like Mekong River
  • understand the impact of international development projects at the regional level
  • strengthen Associates’ capabilities in cross-cultural communication, problem-solving and decision-making and effective analytical and presentation skills through a final reporting process on the session them.

Background

Mekong River, the 12th largest river in the world (4,400 kilometers in length), flows through China and forms common border of Myanmar-Laos, Thailand-Laos, through Cambodia and Vietnam before draining into South China Sea. The river forms a basin that is spread over an area of 795,000 square kilometers, stretching from China’s Tibetan Plateau in the north; Myanmar, Laos and Thailand in the middle; and Cambodia and Vietnam in the south, which is also one of the richest in bio-diversity and natural resources in the world. About 65 million people live in the Mekong River Basin. This figure is expected to reach 75 – 90 million by 2010. The six countries, namely China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, through which the Mekong River traverses collectively form a region called Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS). The total population of this GMS is around 240 million.

Based on its geographic location the Mekong Basin is divided into two parts - Upper Mekong (portion of the basin in China and Myanmar) and Lower Mekong (flood plains in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam). There are over 1,700 distinct species of fish in the Mekong River and its tributaries, making it second in the world only to the Amazon in fish diversity. Several areas in the basin were declared as Ramsar sites where rare bird species migrate and nest, conservation areas, protected areas, etc., to conserve the rich flora and fauna of the basin.

Economic development and livelihood of people in the basin area is primarily dependent upon the natural resources derived from the Mekong River. Rice cultivation and fisheries are the main sources of food and income for the population living in the basin. On a larger scale, hydropower and tourism potential offered by the Mekong River contributes significantly to the economic generating opportunities in the region. Border trade across the boundaries is a significant and dynamic economic activity in the border regions of these GMS countries and is very much evident around the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. There are over 100 different ethnic groups making it one of the most culturally diverse regions of the world.

The development in GMS has been supported by various institutional initiatives at different levels such as the Mekong River Commission as an Inter-Governmental body of four GMS countries, Asian Development Banks’ Programs, and Greater Mekong Sub-region Academic and Research Network (GMSARN) as an academic think tank.

Issues in Regional Development

Trans-Boundary Resource Flow is the major aspect in regional development for its socio- economic and cultural significance and building self reliance for the people. However, the promises of efficient resource flow also bring with them potential negative impacts that pose a great challenge to the sustainable development of the region. Some of these issues relate to:

  • Social problems unique to border areas such as smuggling of artifacts, gemstones, wildlife and commodities; narcotics production and trafficking, human trafficking for unskilled labor and sex industry; money laundering; insurgency; border disputes created by local conflict of interests
  • Economic disparities and unequal distribution of benefits from activities like infrastructure development and economic corridors, dam constructions, fish production etc.
  • Environmental impacts that cross the geographical barriers and influence neighboring countries like watershed degradation, soil erosion, inundation fisheries and the impacts of dams, waterborne diseases
  • Institutional mechanism for governance of common natural resources like bio-diversity etc and to deal with disputes and conflicts

Future Challenge

The GMS countries have been working to further strengthen their cooperation to realize potential of the sub-region through various initiatives and interventions from international development. Through these substantial investments are being planned and implemented especially on transportation linkages that will facilitate cross-border trade, investment, tourism, and other forms of economic cooperation. Human resources and skills development programs are in the pipeline to cope with the rapid development and changes.

The challenge is to foster cooperation not only for economic development but for overall welfare of the people and the sustainable development of the region.

An understanding of the challenges faced by GMS will provide the Associates an insight into resolving conflicts for sustainable regional development that may be applicable to many such regions worldwide.

 

ANNEX

Supporting information for the Concept Note

 1. Introduction

The Greater Mekong River Basin, covering a land area of 795,000 square kilometers, stretching from China’s Tibetan Plateau in the north; Myanmar, Laos and Thailand in the middle; and Cambodia and Vietnam in the south, is one of the richest in bio-diversity and natural resources in the world. Lower Mekong River Basin (LMRB) is typically defined as the area starting from the common border of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand (Golden Triangle) and extends down south to Cambodia and Vietnam at the lower reach of the river (Source: Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Development; http://www.mrcmekong.org ).

The Mekong River, 4,800 kilometers in length, flows through China and forms common border of Myanmar-Laos, Thailand-Laos, through Cambodia and Vietnam before draining into South China Sea (Source: China to Offer Hydrological Data to Mekong River Commission; www.china.org.cn).

About 65 million people live in the MRB. This figure is expected to reach 75 – 90 million by 2010. Despite competing for the same source of water, conflicts among riparian countries are astonishingly low. Peaceful and accommodating environment along with richness in natural resources attracted cross border trades, tourism, investment, development collaborations as well as external support from development banks and overseas development agencies (Source: People, Livelihoods and Water, Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Development; http://www.mrcmekong.org).

Rapid development in the upper part of LMRB during the last decade called for better communication systems and utilities such as electricity and water for agriculture and domestic consumptions. Roads and railway networks were planned and constructed. Several dams were constructed in the main tributaries under sovereignty of the owner country but more are being constructed or planned in the river itself. To facilitate communication and transportation of goods among countries along the river, obstructions in the riverbed were removed and navigation facilities were developed.

With all kinds of development been taken place or planned, both locally by individual country and as a regional plan, the basin area covering lower part of China, Myanmar and northern Thailand and Laos becomes an interesting region to study on:

    • How peaceful environment and collaboration among riparian countries helped in social and economic development in the region
    • How the interest of each country on water has shifted to trade and tourism
    • How each country planned and developed to take advantages of development supported by development banks and overseas development agencies; which countries will get the most benefits, which countries will be at disadvantages
    • What would be the resource flow among countries in the basin
    • What would be the social, economic and environmental impacts to the region and how each country handles or planned to cope with the impacts.

Brief descriptions on various aspects of the MRB development in the following pages serve as background information for further discussions during the workshop.

2. Sub-region Setting

2.1 Characteristic of the river basin

Mekong River is the longest river in Southeast Asia. It drains mostly rainfall from catchments area of 795,000 km2, 76% of which is in the lower part of the basin comprising almost all land area of Laos and Cambodia, one third of Thailand, and one fifth of Vietnam.

From its sources on the Tibetan Plateau at an elevation of 5,000 meters, the river flows southerly through southern China, touches Myanmar over a short stretch, then enters the Lower Mekong Basin where it first forms the boundary between Myanmar and Laos, Laos and Thailand, before flowing into the delta where Cambodia and Vietnam share its waters. From its headwaters thousands of meters high on the Tibetan Plateau, it flows through six distinct geographical regions, each with characteristic features of elevation, topography and land cover (Source: The Land and its Resources; Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Development, http://www.mrcmekong.org/about_mekong/land_resource.htm).

2.2 Climatic conditions

The Lower Mekong Basin is situated in the tropical zone of the Northern Hemisphere where its climate is influenced by the Southwest and Northeast monsoons. By mid-October in the North, and by late October in the South, the drier and cooler North-easterly wind starts to dominate the weather of the area and the dry season begins and lasts from early November to mid-March. When the inter-tropical convergence zone moves northward in mid-May the Southwest monsoon initiates the rainy season. By June a steady south-westerly airflow is established with regular, occasionally torrential local showers caused by convection or orographic lifting.

In August and September tropical cyclones from the North Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea enter the area and produce long lasting heavy rainfall by interacting with the monsoon. During this period, flash floods in mountainous areas and inundation of fertile low land by bank overflow frequently occur in the delta.

2.3 Water resources

Mean annual rainfall in the basin ranges from about 1,000 mm. in parts of North-east Thailand to more than 3,000 mm. in the mountainous border areas between Southern Laos and Vietnam. The average runoff is about 475,000 million m3 per year or equivalent to 600 mm depth of water over the entire basin. Increases and decreases of the Mekong river runoff are strongly correlated with the annual rainfall pattern in the lower Mekong basin, because although the upper Mekong basin has 26 percent of the area, it contributes less than 20 per cent of the annual runoff and 15,000 cubic meters of water passes by every second.

Water level in the river starts to rise around the beginning of May and reaches its peak in mid-August or early September in the upper part and in mid September or early October in the delta region. Flow in the middle reach of the river is substantially increased by discharges from tributaries in Laos and Thailand. During the period rising of water level may overspill the banks, leads to back up effects and causes long and deep inundation in the lower part of the river (Source: Environmental Problems of Water Resources Development
in the Lower Mekong Basin; Expert Systems for Environmental Screening;
Fedra, K., Winkelbauer, L. and Pantulu.V.R.1991).

2.4 Agriculture

Paddy is the main crop which contributes to economic development and livelihood of people in the basin. Because of its highly susceptible to deep inundation, only floating rice variety which responses well to rapidly rising water level is possible in the deltas areas of Cambodia and Vietnam. In the hilly uplands, slash and burn cultivation practiced by hill tribes has contributed to considerable loss of natural forest cover and soil erosion. The practice has created significant negative impacts to natural water courses as well as water resource development in the plains. Its heavy sediment load affects potential for hydroelectric power development.

    1. Biodiversity

There are over 1,300 distinct species of fish in the Mekong River and its tributaries, making it second in the world only to the Amazon in fish diversity. Some of the last surviving populations of globally endangered species such as the Irrawaddy dolphin and Siamese crocodile have the river as the habitat. The basin is also rich in freshwater turtles, mussels, and snails, many of which form part of the staple diet of riparian families along the river. Several areas in the basin were declared as Ramsar sites where rare bird species migrate and nest, conservation areas, protected areas, etc., to conserve the rich flora and fauna of the basin (Source: Freshwater; www.wwfindochina.org).

    1. People and Communities

Area within the Lower Mekong River Basin boundary (Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam) is home to approximately 60 million people. There are over 100 different ethnic groups making it one of the most culturally diverse regions of the world. Most basin inhabitants are rural farmer/fishers who are resource rich but money poor and often lacking access to basic government services. What makes life tolerable for these people are the aquatic and forest resources provided by the basin's rivers, forests and wetlands (Mekong River Commission for Sustainable development; http://www.mrcmekong.org/about_mekong/people_water.htm).

3. External Supports for Development

3.1 The Mekong River Commission

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is an inter-governmental agency of the four countries of the lower Mekong basin: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam. It was established to holistically manage policy, technical and administrative matters of river basin management guided by three core programs approach (Source: Mekong River Commission for Sustainable development; http://www.mrcmekong.org/about_mekong/people_water.htm):

  • Water Utilization Program develops an appropriate decision-support framework for sustainable development, rules for water utilization and a system for monitoring and management.
  • Basin Development Plan identifies trans-boundary development opportunities that are sustainable and environmentally sound.
  • Environment Program provides the environmental information to decide upon priorities and appropriate levels and areas for development.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is at a turning point as it attempts to negotiate a series of trans-boundary water allocation rules to achieve a reasonable and equitable utilization of the Mekong River waters, as envisioned in the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

3.2 ADB’s GMS Programs

ADB formulated a strategic framework involved an extensive consultative and review process with stakeholders. These included the GMS governments, the private sector, the donor community, and civil society. All stakeholders agree that more can and should be done collaboratively to protect the environment and the economic base of rural people. This view also applies to human resource development and labor market facilitation. Other interests and concerns (e.g., drug control, HIV/AIDS, agriculture) would further expand the GMS Program. The strategic framework offers a renewed approach for the GMS Program for the next ten years to ensure that limited technical and financial resource are used effectively in meeting priority needs.

3.3 Greater Mekong Sub-region Academic and Research Network (GMSARN)

GMSARN composed of eleven of the region's top-ranking academic and research institutions. GMSARN carries out activities in the following areas: human resources development, joint research, and dissemination of information and intellectual assets generated in the GMS. GMSARN seeks to ensure that the holistic intellectual knowledge and assets generated, developed and maintained are shared by organizations within the region. Primary emphasis is placed on complementary linkages between technological and socio-economic development issues. 

4. Individual Country’s Development

4.1 Upper Mekong

China’s Yunnan Electric Power Bureau has plans ready for eight dam construction projects on the Upper Mekong River with a total installed capacity of 14,810 MW. Five of these are expected to be finalized within 2015. Surplus power from these projects will be exported to Thailand and Myanmar. China’s policy for managing the Upper Mekong water resources is remarkably arbitrary, and the plans for dams on Mekong have not been discussed with affected countries downstream (Source: http://greennature.com/article850.html).

4.2 Vietnam

Vietnam has plans for two dams, Yali Fall and Pleikrong, on the Mekong tributary Se San. The dams are designed to provide electricity for central and southern parts of the country. The main dam will be 65 meters high, and its reservoir will submerge approximately 6,500 hectares.

4.3 Laos PDR

The Laotian government is very much in need of revenues from hydropower export and has made plans for the 9 hydroelectric dams (Nam Tha, Nam Khan, Nam Ou, Nam Ngum, Nam Ngiep, Nam Theun/Theun Hinboun, Nam Song, Nam Mang and the Bolovens) intended to produce power for export to Thailand. The total hydropower potential in Laos has been estimated at 18,000 MW. Nam Song, Nam Mang 3 and Theun Hinboun are the projects given highest priority by the Laotian government.

4.4 Cambodia

Political stability is a prerequisite for hydropower developments in Cambodia. However, several projects are presently under consideration and making initial planning. One example is the Prek Thnot dam on Thnot River. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) is involved in the plan for a hydropower project in Battambang.

4.5 Thailand

Thailand has already exhausted most of its easily accessible hydropower potential sites and the remaining is problematic or controversial to develop. The Thai government wished to build the Low Pa Mong dam on the Mekong River. This dam would submerge areas in both Thailand and Laos, forcing the displacement of local populations in both countries. Thailand also studied the feasibilities for diverting water from the Mekong to central areas of the country.

4.6 Myanmar

Several plans exist for new dams in Myanmar, most of them along the Thai-Myanmar border. The Thai government, in collaboration with Myanmar Government, is planning a series of joint-venture projects for major water resources development and management intended to generate electricity and increase supply of water for both countries. The sites for dam projects are in Salween River Basin which is not a tributary of Mekong River.

5. Trans-Boundary Resource Flow

5.1 Border trade

Increase in cross-border trades would enhance economies of countries in the GMS and consequently help reduce dependency on foreign aids. It could also maximize the use of local resources for regional needs. The countries will also benefit from improved communication and transportation links (river, road, and rail). The River could be developed into a leading transportation route and an economically viable alternative to road or rail transport. Likewise, border trade helps decentralize economic development, provide relative freedom from foreign exchange fluctuation, foster friendship and facilitates communication among neighboring countries because of familiarities in their languages and cultures (Source: Searching for Trans-boundary water allocation rule; International Food Policy Research Institute).

5.2 Social Problems

Certain social problems are unique to the border areas or are found in significant concentration. These include smuggling of artifacts, gemstones, wildlife and commodities; narcotics production and trafficking, human trafficking for unskilled labour and sex industry; money laundering; insurgency; border disputes created by local conflict of interests; recurrence of diseases resulting from poor health care and inadequate sanitation of people from poorer countries who seek help from another country; foreign influences that dissipate local cultures and dialects of the ethnic groups; and uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources resulting from lacking of state control and ineffective law enforcement, etc.

5.3 Environmental Impacts

a) Watershed degradation

The degradation of the Mekong watershed has become one of the main concerns in recent years. Millions of hectares of valuable forests have been destroyed or degraded to inferior scrub, grasslands or savannah, and have been encroached for subsistence agriculture. It was estimated that between 1970 and 1985 alone some 13 million hectares of virgin forest disappeared in the lower Mekong basin through logging (both legal and illegal), shifting cultivation and agricultural development projects. More forest land will be disappeared as more dams, roads are constructed and new settlement expanded.

b) Soil Erosion

The main concern in relation to deforestation is soil erosion from hilly areas mainly in Laos. By 1972, more than 10 million hectare of rich forest was reported to have been destroyed. The annual rate of deforestation for shifting cultivation and through forest fires in the country alone was estimated at 300,000 hectare. Generally, excessive deforestation is attributed to the enormous increase in population densities in the basin from 16.3 persons per km? some 70 years ago to 66 persons per km? in 1988.

c) Inundation fisheries and the impacts of dams

The natural system of extended flood period with high inundation depth in the Mekong delta created high production potential for fisheries. With efficient harvest makes the Mekong floodwater fishery, like those of the other great river-flood inundation zones, one of high catch and value. Seasonal fallowing and drying that follow annual inundation is the key to nutrient release from inundated land for aquatic production. These events accelerate the breakdown of organic materials, such as plant residues, for rapid transfer via food chains into fishes and other aquatic crops during the next flood.

Numerous storage dams in upstream tributaries and on the Mekong River will certainly affect this natural phenomena and ecosystem in the delta. With dams retaining large volume of water upstream the starting of inundation will be delayed, the duration shortened and the depth will be decreased. During dry season sea water will intrude further upstream and the once fertile fresh water farming areas will be affected.

g) Waterborne diseases

Experiences in different parts of the world have shown that water resource development projects such as those implemented or contemplated in the lower Mekong basin, may result in serious, adverse health consequences. Especially in tropical and subtropical areas, where water vector borne diseases such as malaria, schistosomiasis (blood fluke disease) and filariasis affect the lives of millions of people. Ecological changes induced by water resource projects may directly contribute to the spreading, propagation or introduction of such diseases by creating favorable habitats for vectors and intermediate hosts.

h) Rural potable water supply in problem areas

In the lower Mekong basin, domestic water supply from central water treatment plants is available only in cities. Villages and individual households in rural areas are not connected to piped water facilities. More than 80 per cent of the population depends directly on surface water bodies for domestic uses including drinking and preparation of food

6. Future Challenge

Under the new strategy, the GMS countries will further strengthen their cooperation to realize potential of the sub-region. Governments of all riparian countries responded positively and enthusiastically to initiatives proposed by ADB, Mekong River Commission (MRC) and overseas development agencies. Through these initiatives substantial investments were planned and implemented especially on transportation linkages that will facilitate cross-border trade, investment, tourism, and other forms of economic cooperation. Human resources and skills development programs are in the pipeline to cope with the rapid development and changes.

The projects identified under the action plan are North-South Economic Corridor, East-West Economic Corridor, Southern Economic Corridor, Telecommunications Backbone, Regional Power Interconnection and Trading Arrangement, Facilitating Cross-Border Trade and Investment, Enhancing Private Sector Participation and Competitiveness, Developing Human Resources and Skills Competencies, Strategic Environment Framework, and Flood Control and Water Resources Management, etc.

 

References

  • WWF in Indochina: The Mekong River: An Unknown and Threatened Kingdom

(Source: www.panda.org).

  • China to Offer Hydrological Data to Mekong River Commission

(Source: www.china.org.cn).

  • Information for Sustainable Development in Light of Climate Change in Mekong River Basin (Source: Southeast Asia START Regional Center Old SWU Pathumwan 5 Building, 5th Floor, Chulalongkorn University Henri Dunant Rd., Bangkok 10330 )
  • Early Warning System For The Mekong River (Source: Mekong River Commission, Phnom Penh, Cambodia E-mail: Thanongdeth@mrcmekong.org)