Mekong River Commission

A Brief Guide

Institutional Arrangement and Management Issues

The institutional framework of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) includes the Council, the Joint Committee and the Secretariat (MRCS). The 1995 Mekong Agreement provides for the composition and functions/powers/duties of these bodies. The MRC has several sub-committees working on different issues such as Basin Development Planning and Water Quantity Rules as envisioned under Article 26 of the Agreement.

The MRC has no supranational authority.

The MRCS has seven categories of staff members: general service staff, local and international; riparian support staff; internationally recruited staff; consultants; riparian experts; and international staff on secondment by donors.

Each contracting party toe the Mekong Agreement has a National Mekong Committee (NMC), but these are established under national laws of each party, not by the Agreement (see separate heading for NMCs, below).

The headquarters of the MRCS is meant to rotate among the four member countries. While this has certain advantages, it poses some financial and logistical problems.

The MRC is responsible for the mainstream. The tributaries are managed by each riparian country. Each country is utilizing the tributaries with the objective of its own development.

The MRC is involved in data collection. Donors fund data collection in Laos and Cambodia through the MRC; data collection in Thailand and Vietnam is funded by national governments.

The MRC has maintained a dialogue with the two riparians who are not parties to the 1995 Agreement, China and Myanmar, over matters concerning tourism, water use, power development, data exchange, etc. These countries are "dialogue partners" with the four lower Mekong Basin countries that are parties to the Agreement.

The MRCS is headed by a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who is not a national of the member countries. This is a good principle since it provides a neutral basis for the day-to-day management of MRC activities.

Projects

Criteria for projects: Must be economically viable; socially just; environmentally sound; and of mutual basin-wide benefit.

The MRC’s policy is to involve stakeholders in project formulation and implementation. The MRC has already commissioned a consultant to study how stakeholders could effectively participate in the formulation of the Basin Development Plan.

The MRC has developed a project manual (covers conceptualization, appraisal, formulation, implementation, etc.).

Countries may propose projects. The MRC is to consult with member countries on projects.

The formulation of projects is jointly carried out by the MRCS and staff from the individual countries through the National Mekong Committees. This underlines the need for strong NMCs.

The main role of the Secretariat is not to implement projects but to plan them and leave the individual countries to implement them at the national level, with MRC oversight. However, the MRCS could have an implementation role for regional projects when these are planned and executed.

Donor funding is collectively sought.

Private sector and member countries may also implement projects identified by the MRC.

Project obstacles include political instability, limited/restricted flexibility in project management due to increased donor conditionalities, limited national expertise, lack of adequate funds, etc.

The MRC is currently running forty projects worth about US$ 10 million. These projects include a joint fisheries project, a water sharing programme, an irrigation project, a joint ferry project, etc. Participating countries make in-kind contributions to projects, e.g., office space.

National Mekong Committees

Each party to the 1995 Agreement has a National Mekong Committee (NMC), but these are not provided for in the Agreement. NMCs are established by each of the parties under its national law, which provides for their composition and functions. NMCs do not report to the MRC. They sometimes coordinate and implement Mekong-related projects.

NMCs are funded by their respective governments. Lack of sufficient financial resources has adversely affected their effectiveness, especially in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In view of this situation the MRCS has made modest budgetary contributions of ca. $20,000-30,000 annually to the NMCs of these three riparians.

NMCs are structured differently in each country, but are generally inter-ministerial. For example, while the Thai NMC is composed of officials from different line ministries and other relevant government departments and chaired by the Prime Minister, the Cambodian NMC is a standing national institution with a fully-fledged secretariat headed by a full-time Secretary. Like the Thai NMC, it is composed of officials from line ministries and other relevant government departments and institutions. The situation in Laos and Vietnam is reportedly similar to that in Cambodia.

 

Functions of NMCs include the following:

  • NMCs assist with the formulation of national Mekong policies and provide coordination services for national Mekong activities.

  • NMCs act as national focal points for the MRC and national line agencies dealing with the MRC.

  • NMCs review annual work programs of the MRC prepared by the MRCS before they are submitted to the Joint Committee and the Council for approval. This helps to ensure that national priorities are reflected in the programs.

  • NMCs are responsible for recruitment of nationals for positions allocated to the country in question in the MRCS.

  • NMCs also liaise with donors.


The NMCs play very prominent roles in the implementation of MRC activities and yet are not included in the legal and institutional arrangements provided for in the Agreement. In view of the key role they play, the NMCs should have a legal basis in the Agreement for their existence -- at the least, the Agreement should require that member countries establish NMCs to deal with the implementation of Basin issues at the national level.

There is no clear and defined relationship between the MRC and the NMCs.

Financial Arrangements

There is heavy donor involvement in the Mekong. The list of donors participating is quite impressive. While this has short-term advantages, it may have negative consequences in the long term if funding by member countries is not addressed early enough. Individual countries may need to focus on projects that would lay a good financial base for future operations.

Member countries contribute in the region of US$ 185,000 per year towards MRCS. Member country contributions support the MRCS but do not finance projects. Additional funding for the MRCS comes from donors and the Mekong Trust (organized by UNDP).

The highly fragmented financing system, with not less than thirty donors, might end up in chaotic management system of financing.

One of the visions of the MRC (Secretariat) is to become a world class, financially secure, international river basin organization serving the Mekong countries. However, there are serious doubts as to whether the MRC can become financially secure, since currently almost all MRC activities are funded by donors.