Leaders from the six Mekong River countries have pledged to strengthen cooperation amid growing concern over unsustainable exploitation of the resource-rich waterway.
Speaking at the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) leaders' summit in Phnom Penh yesterday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stressed that the countries aimed to resolve issues on an equal basis. Lancang is the Chinese name for the upper reaches of the Mekong River.
"If there is a problem, everybody discusses it together, taking into account one another's comfort levels," he said.
Mr Li added that the LMC forum would complement Asean as well as other regional cooperation frameworks.
Earlier yesterday, the leaders of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos endorsed a declaration that would, among other things, promote wide-ranging collaboration on economic development and people-to-people exchanges.
Analysts say that at the heart of the Mekong issue is the threat the growing number of hydroelectric dams erected upstream pose to the livelihoods and living environments of millions of farmers and fishermen downstream. Not only do the dams affect the water available for irrigation, they disrupt the migration of fish and block the flow of silt downstream that sustains riverine environments.
The Mekong originates on the Tibetan plateau and flows over 4,000km through southern China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
If any project has a regional dimension to it, some kind of impact on all six countries, all six countries need to have a say.
MR POU SOTHIRAK, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
Countries the river flows through are already part of various coordinating frameworks, the most established being the Mekong River Commission which involves Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Yet, there is no agreement that gives downstream countries the right to review upstream developments that could affect them.
According to United States-based environmental group International Rivers, China has already built eight dams upstream in Lancang and is planning 20 more in Yunnan, Qinghai and Tibet. In landlocked Laos, which is eyeing revenue from exporting hydroelectric power, the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams are under construction.
"If any project has a regional dimension to it, some kind of impact on all six countries, all six countries need to have a say," Mr Pou Sothirak, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, told The Straits Times.
Already pulling regional economies into its orbit with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, China pledged preferential loans of up to 10 billion yuan (S$2 billion) and credit lines of up to US$10 billion (S$13.6 billion) for projects in the region during the first LMC leaders' summit in 2016. Since then, a water resources cooperation centre has been established.
Mr Pou Sothirak said the speed at which initial projects had been implemented had given hope for regional cooperation. "This is just the beginning. We have to see if the projects are implemented faithfully, based on mutual respect… so that overall, the people in the region are the ultimate beneficiaries."