TOPIC: EU Involvement in the Mekong River Basin

The Mekong River Basin is one of the world’s greatest river systems, with a system of biodiversity second only to the richness of the Amazon. The Mekong River flows through six countries: from the Tibetan Plateau, through the Yunnan Province of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Sustainable development and climate change mitigation initiatives are overriding concerns. The natural potential of the Mekong ecosystem is enormous, holding important implications for the prolonged progress of water, food, and energy security. And, evidently, the water, energy, and food sectors are invariably connected to the health and appropriate management of the Mekong ecosystem. Climate change is not a mere threat in the Mekong Basin: changes in temperature, rainfall, river flow, and flooding affect agriculture and fisheries, and thus food scarcity. 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong Basin rely on the river’s natural resources for their livelihoods; the impact of unmitigated climate change would be devastating, and in most cases irreversible.

The European Union

Initially, European involvement in the region was mostly based on poverty alleviation, support for uprooted people, and developmental aid. However, and especially with the rise of Thailand - the only somewhat functional democracy in the region - in wealth and regional prepotency in mainland Southeast Asia,  the last decade of EU involvement has been centered on climate change, environmental action, and sustainable development. Of course, this does not discount the substantial developmental aid from EuropeAID Development Coordination Instrument; Laos and Cambodia remain very poor countries, where social turmoil and scarcity have hindered economic and political development. But it is the natural wealth of the Mekong River Basin that has particularly driven EU strategic concerns in the region.

Sustainable development is the cornerstone of the Europa 2020 Strategy, Europe’s own roadmap for growth. In regards to external action, the green factor remains equally central. In the wake of an increasingly multi-polar world where the West does not play King, the European Union has capitalized on climate change and sought to make herself leader in the green movement. The greening of the EU has seeped deep into all the institutions that crown Schuman Place in Brussels, and have fundamentally changed the perspectives and priorities of Europe in the world. In light of this, mainland Southeast Asia presents a platform on which to test the potential of sustainable development for economic and political growth. European action in the Mekong River Basin follows the appropriation of a ‘new’ culture towards external affairs; the EU Green Diplomacy Network initiative seeks to foster integration of environmental objectives at a local and regional level, and as such promote an effective and sustainable approach to emerging issues.

The Regimes of the Mekong River Basin

To best present a complete picture of the different organizational approaches to the regional management of the Mekong Basin, I will look at three regimes: the Mekong River Commission (MRC), ASEAN, and the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Environment Operations Center.

Mekong River Commission was established in the 1995 Mekong Agreement between Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The MRC’s vision for the River Basin is “an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound Mekong River Basin.” Their mission is to “promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being.”   To achieve these goals, the MRC has developed several large-scale projects for sustainable development and management of natural resources. 

The priorities of the MRC are parallel to those discussed in the analysis of the EU’s objectives in the region. This is clearly demonstrated in the two new strategies endorsed by the MRC in 2011: the 2011-2015 Strategic Plan, and the Integrated Water and Related Resources Management (IWRM-Basin Development Strategy). The Strategic Plan outlines three key objectives: efficiency (defined as an attempt to maximize the economic and social welfare derived from water resources and investments in water service provision), equity (allocation of water resources and services across different economic and social groups), and sustainability (of the water resource based and associated ecosystems). The IWRM establishes clear procedures for basin management in light of these three strategic objectives. Opportunities for hydropower development and expansion of irrigated agricultural production to increase food security (discussed with careful consideration for Delta saline intrusion and cooperation with other MRC countries in the operation of existing and planned storage dams) are assessed for associated environmental risks. Water resources are to be managed at a national and basin level, with rigorous basin-wide environmental and social objectives and baseline indicators defined. The strategy outlines a clear roadmap, setting out priority actions and timeframes for implementation. Paramount amongst the numbered priorities is the acquiring of essential knowledge on changes in biodiversity (such as the migration and adaptation of fish, as well as the trapping and transport of sediment and nutrients), and social and livelihood impacts. The roadmap is to be implemented at both levels: with a regional action plan and four complementary national indicative plans.

ASEAN is the most globally cohesive of the regimes in the Mekong Basin. The ten member nations - Brunei Darussalam, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – adhere to a legally binding charter, which establishes a community based on three pillars: security, the economy and socio-cultural issues. ASEAN is primarily a trade driven body, but subregional development initiatives focus on climate change, energy security, and environmental issues.

GMS Program was initiated in 1992 in order to facilitate planning and promotion of subregional economic development. In comparison with the MRC, the GMS Program lacks a formal organization or institution; rather it is guided by a general set of guidelines and principles. What is of interest in the structural organization of the GMS Program, and why it represents a divergence from the other regimes active in the Mekong Basin, is the manner in which the GMS approaches problems. The GMS employs activity-based  initiatives to secure reforms, contrasting with the rules-based approach of many regional institutions (think ASEAN and the projects of the WTO). As an example, the GMS Environment Operation Center provides a platform for engagement on key environmental issues at all levels: multi-country and multi-sector. The aim of a greener Greater Mekong Subregion - to reconcile “rapid development pressures with the need to protect the valuable biodiversity and ecosystems of the subregion” – is met through planned programs and activies; strategic environmental and environmental performance assessments conducted by partner learning institutions and employed scientists, as well as biodiversity conservation initiatives. The development and testing of spatial decision and capacity building support tools in program activities serves to foster a growing awareness for the usefulness and contribution of technological progress to the area. A particularly successful initiative in this regard has been the integration of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the area.

Funding and Aid

Concrete funding from the European Union in the region is delivered in two ways: on a bilateral basis by individual European member states, and through the European Commission. Note that taken together, the EU provides 55% of the world’s development assistance. The EU has close ties with ASEAN, but is not counted amongst the development partners and partner organizations of the MRC. Of the European member states, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Sweden provide the MRC with technical and financial collaboration through their bilateral and multilateral development and financial institutions.

In accordance with EU interests in the Mekong Basin, the large majority (a tabulated 84% as presented by EuroStat) of on-going projects in the region fall under the umbrella of environment policy and know-how cooperation. Collaboration from Japan and the UN similarly centers on intelligence based development of the Mekong natural resources. In fact, it is a network of Japanese universities that provides the technical support for the water quality management of the Mekong River under the MRC.

As was mentioned before, collaboration with ASEAN is fundamentally centered around economic development and trade concerns. The 2007 Nuremberg Declaration on an EU-ASEAN Enhanced Partnership, which establishes a roadmap for collaboration priorities amongst the two powers, utilized the Trans Regional EU-ASEAN Trade Initiative (TREATI) to foster economic cooperation in regards to negotiation and implantation of FTA and in particular the realization of an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. The strategic objectives of the Nuremberg Declaration, however, highlight the need for both sides to work together to address environmental issues, notable among them water and energy security, as well as climate change mitigation.

Global Significance

The actions taken in the Mekong River Basin have global significance. Climate change and water management are critical issues of the 21st century; the initiatives undertaken can serve as templates for subsequent planning and promotion of subregional development. Furthermore, the regional commitment displayed by the MRC member nations – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – indicates the resolve and willingness of developing nations to set principles and implement a system of accountability and compliance.

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