On June 4, at an international conference in Ben Tre, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh spoke strongly about the risks of growing competition over water and the need for greater international cooperation to avoid conflict. He urged countries to "develop new ways of thinking", to deliver "tangible cooperation on efficient and sustainable water management" and above all "to translate words and commitments into concrete actions."
Over the last few years there have been numerous meetings between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam but no agreement supported by all four countries on how to decide whether or not to build dams that could have major irreversible impacts on human and economic security.
In 2013, the Cambodian government published a study showing that if all the dams on the Mekong were built, freshwater fish availability per person would be cut by 50% by 2030 in a country where fish provide 70% of the national protein intake. And since dams trap sediment, the Mekong Delta, which produces 90% and 70% of Vietnam's rice and aquaculture exports respectively, will start to sink, a process exacerbated by global sea level rise.
One reason why so much talk has resulted in so little action is that there is no firm legal framework on which to base negotiations. The Mekong Agreement, which established the Mekong River Commission, was signed in 1995. By design, the agreement gave the four member countries considerable discretion over their use of the Mekong's waters. At the time that was seen as desirable but now limits its value in responding to new challenges, including regional cooperation on hydropower development.
The Mekong Agreement suffers several weaknesses. One is geographic coverage. Because the agreement only covers the Mekong River itself it cannot be used to address dams on the river's tributaries. A 2012 study by Princeton University concluded that: "the completion of 78 dams on tributaries would have catastrophic impacts on fish productivity and biodiversity. Our results argue for reassessment of several dams planned, and call for a new regional agreement on tributary development of the Mekong River Basin". The Lower Sesan 2 dam alone, currently under construction in Cambodia, would result in a 9.3% drop in fish biomass basin-wide.
The lack of a binding dispute resolution mechanism is another weakness. The Mekong Agreement includes a dispute resolution mechanism but it is long and complicated and, crucially, is non-binding. This means countries do not have the power to veto, or even request delay beyond an initial six month period, of a project that they believe threatens their vital interests. For Vietnam and Cambodia, the two downstream countries, this is source of growing concern.
This is one reason why Vietnam ratified the UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC) in May 2014 and being the 35th country to do so brought the convention into force in August 2014. The convention was overwhelmingly approved (only three countries voted against) by the UN General Assembly in 1997 but it took 17 years to come into force, due in part to the fact that it has no secretariat.
The UNWC defines best practice in international water law and provides a comprehensive yet flexible legal framework that has been used as the basis for many agreements on international rivers in Europe and Asia. Unlike the Mekong Agreement, it includes a binding dispute resolution mechanism that ultimately refers disputes to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The UNWC therefore provides legal clarity and, through the dispute resolution mechanism, enhances regional security and confidence.
Hydropower is an essential part of any regional power scenario. The UNWC is not anti-dam: it refers to "no significant harm" not "no harm". The issue therefore is not dams vs. no dams but about building dams that maximize power generation while minimizing the impacts on fish production and food security. The data and information needed to support such analyses are increasingly available but there is currently no legal or institutional framework in place to allow these decisions to made for the benefit of all the riparian countries.
The UNWC is based on the premise that cooperation over water brings mutual benefits and can unlock cooperation in other domains. As the region's economies become increasingly connected, cooperation over water is not only important for its own sake but as the basis for broader regional development.
At a training course in April delivered by IUCN's Environmental Law Centre (ELC) to the Cambodia National Mekong Committee as part of Building River Dialogue and Governance (BRIDGE), it was striking how attitudes shifted. At first, participants expressed scepticism over the UNWC; some though it undermined the Mekong Agreement. But as they started to understand the principles and procedures of the UNWC, they became convinced that it does not conflict with, and in fact provides a valuable supplement to the agreement, and that Cambodia should ratify it.
IUCN is willing to support Cambodia in its deliberations on whether or not to ratify the UNWC. We will also try and engage Thailand and Myanmar in a similar process in order to help the region move, as the Deputy Prime Minister Minh urged, from words to action.