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June 24, 2017

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Mekong effort fails despite lavish foreign funding

BANGKOK--When Western governments began pouring money into the Mekong River Commission, they hoped it would help four Southeast Asian countries cooperate in responsibly managing one of the world's great rivers.

Two decades later, they have a surfeit of disregarded reports to show for the US$320 million they spent, and a cascade of hydro power developments that benefit the narrow interests of dam builders but are ravaging the river basin, a crucial source of rice, fish and livelihoods for 60 million people.

Critics say the commission, formed when Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand signed the Mekong River Agreement in 1995, has been sidelined by those governments. The four countries are more at odds than ever over use of the 4,800-kilometer-long (3,000-mile-long) river that begins in Tibet and snakes through their territories.

Consultations for the contentious Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams by Laos on the Mekong's mainstream severely damaged the commission's credibility. The other countries opposed the Lao plans, fearing damage to fisheries and the Mekong's rice bowl delta, and the commission failed to broker an agreement.

On each occasion Laos was already working on the dams while it went through the motions of consultation. Before that, the commission's reputation was already hanging by a thread; it paid several million dollars for a scientific study that recommended a 10-year moratorium on dam building but it was not adopted as an official document because of disagreement among the member countries.

Donor funding has shriveled and the commission's staff has been slashed from about 160 to 66.

The largest donor, Denmark, provided US$86 million of Danish taxpayer money to the commission since 1995 before ending its funding last year, said Kurt Morck Jensen, chief technical adviser to Denmark's development agency during that period.

The funding slump coincides with cuts by Western governments of foreign aid programs they view as the least deserving. The commission needs US$65 million for 2016-2020 and has secured US$43 million so far. It received more than US$100 million in the previous five-year period.

"There is a risk that a Mekong River Commission without donor support could further lose influence," said Jensen. "On the other hand, donors cannot and should not be babysitting the MRC forever."

Denmark used a critical review of the commission it conducted in 2013 to press for a faster withdrawal by foreign donors. Originally, the organization was supposed to be totally funded by its Southeast Asian member countries by 2030. Denmark recommended that be brought forward to 2020.

The Danish report:

— Criticized gaps in the commission's knowledge that meant Vietnam and Thailand, which also fund the commission, had to conduct their own research to collect fundamental data about the river;

— Cast doubts the commission could accurately predict the effects of mainstream dams on fisheries and agriculture or know the threshold at which the river's development would reach a damaging point of no return;

— Questioned whether it had sufficient knowhow to advise member states how to mitigate the impact of dams;

— Queried an "unusual" amount of time and money spent on travel, meetings and workshops.

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