Listen to the full interview between Dan Southerland and Pham Tuan Phan
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), created four decades ago to promote sustainable development in four of the six countries it traverses, has long been an object of criticism. Operating in the shadow of China, which is not a member, it’s been accused of having “no teeth” at a time when upstream dams have an enormous impact on the lives and livelihoods of people downstream. Reports abound regarding decreasing staff and finances.
Pham Tuan Phan was appointed CEO of the MRC seven months ago. Coming from the private sector, he is the first person from one of the four Mekong region member countries—Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—to hold the position.
He has had extensive managerial experience, running offices for international organizations including the United Nations.
Phan was born in Vietnam but is not a Vietnamese government official. As head of the MRC, he says that his task is to remain neutral in terms of not favoring one government or another.
Following a working visit to the Mississippi River Commission in the United States, Phan gave a 40-minute interview to Dan Southerland, Radio Free Asia’s executive editor.
Phan is tasked with implementing an ambitious reorganization launched five years ago by the member countries with a goal of self-sufficiency by 2030. By then, all expert staff members must be local.
The commission employs 66 persons today, down from 200 last year. In the meantime, its five-year budget was cut nearly in half from $120 million to $65 million for the period 2016 to 2020.
But Phan is quick to say that “it’s exaggerated” to say that the MRC has “no teeth.”
“Yes, we have no authority to dictate to the countries. But this deal, signed 40 years ago, was the best deal we could have and it is still good today,” he says.
"The MRC is a forum for cooperation. You don’t have that for the South China Sea."
“The MRC is a forum for cooperation,” he says. “You don’t have that for the South China Sea.”
On the issue of China, Phan chooses to stress that the country has been a dialogue partner since 1996 and has shared an increasing amount of data since 2002.
“Of course we would like to have better collaboration, but that’s what they can do right now,” he says, noting that China considers water information to be an issue of national security.
He says that China has agreed to share more data regarding the release of waters from its cascading dams for the benefit of downstream Southeast Asian countries.
“They have promised to look at it,” he says.
Fishermen and farmers have been considerably frustrated by unexpected and devastating water releases affecting their fisheries and rice paddies. At other times, lower water levels prove to be a problem.
Phan was asked if the MRC would be listening more to the ordinary people who are affected by the upstream dams.
He said that the MRC is setting up observation outposts along the river. “We are learning as we go,” he admits.
He is more skeptical that the reported depletion of fish stocks downstream would be due to the six dams already built in China, near the very top of the river flow.
He points to large investments allocated — at the request of local communities — to the Xayaburi dam project in Laos to allow fish migration. The Xayaburi dam is due to come into operation in 2016.
Before concluding with a commitment to listen to stakeholders, he also warns about “group thinking.” “People are confused,” he says.
"We want to listen to all the people, all the bodies, all the institutions."
But he concludes, “We want to listen to all the people, all the bodies, all the institutions.”
At a forum at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 23, Phan said that the MRC supports an organization convened by China with five other countries called the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) organization that would use Chinese loans to build railways, ports, and waterways in the region.
But he said that while the MRC has “volunteered to take care of all the water issues if possible,” it would not move its current headquarters from Vientiane to China.
Asked if he thought that the China-based LMC might supersede the MRC, Phan said, “I don’t see it that way.”
“The LMC has a much larger area of cooperation,” he said. “The other thing is that the MRC is the only organization that’s treaty based. We have been in the business for 21 years."