Marc Goichot interview: the role of the Mekong River in the economy

An interview with Marc Goichot, who has worked for the past 13 years with the WWF Greater Mekong programme on integrated river basin management. The interview discusses the role of the Mekong River Commission and Lancang-Mekong Cooperation in the water governance of the region; as well as the links between economic development and ecosystem functions of the basin.

Marc has spent the past 19 years working in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and the Lao PDR, as a technical and policy adviser. He studied geography, integrated river basin management, and geomorphology.

His first worked advising the Thua Thien Hue Provincial People’s Committee and the IUCN on the Huong River Basin Management Plan and the management of the coastal lagoon system of Thua Thien Hue Province. Then we worked as an aide with the International Federation of Red Cross on flood mitigation and preparedness in the Mekong delta. He has been in his current position with WWF for the past 13 years, working on the Greater Mekong Program on integrated river basin management.

Marc is a member of the WWF Global Reference Group on Water Security, promoting responsible water infrastructure and securing sustainable flows to safeguard hydrological regimes that freshwater flora and fauna rely on while meeting water demands for basic needs, social and economic development.

Interview topics

  • About the WWF’s work in the Greater Mekong basin
  • About the management and governance context of the Mekong region
  • Major risks and opportunities in the Mekong region
  • Raising awareness. Making governments and the private sector aware of the links between the Mekong ecosystem function and economic development
  • Contributions WWF can make to support better governance for people, natural environment and business
  • A welcome and advice for water practitioners and others who would like to work in the Mekong region

Tell us about the Mekong Basin and the work you and WWF are doing there

My name is Marc Goichot and I lead the work of the WWF Greater Mekong program, in the Mekong region.

The greater Mekong comprises five large rivers: the Red River, the Mekong River, the Chao Phraya, the Salween and the Ayeyarwady. We work mainly on the Mekong but also on the Ayeyarwady. The Mekong River is shared by six countries and the river is increasingly being developed and used for large hydropower projects and for sand extraction for construction, and more intensively fished.

WWF is a conservation organisation and our mandate here is to conserve river biodiversity and the use of the river by people, through the natural resources that the river provides. Unfortunately, the Mekong now is under a lot of stress as a result of the changes in recent years. It is no longer a pristine large tropical river. It is important to acknowledge that stress and the way the river is responding to the level of change. There are already fewer options to conserve what is left of this river, and we need to lift our game and find solutions very quickly.

This river is special in the sense that it has very high fish biodiversity and general aquatic biodiversity. It ranks second or third in the world in terms of the total biodiversity for fish, behind the Amazon and Congo basins. Per unit area per length of river, the Mekong has possibly the world’s highest fish diversity and the Mekong also has the most productive inland fisheries in the world. Fisheries is a very important industry because it provides the people living in river communities with affordable and high-quality protein. In short, the Mekong is a very important river worldwide and a fascinating place to work. I’ve been working in this region for 20 years and I am still learning every day. We do have a real opportunity to manage the river properly.

Is the Mekong managed well by its six countries, with successful governance?

Having six countries along the river makes management difficult. Most of the planning happens within each of the six countries. When the river’s resources were plentiful that was ok, but now there’s now an urgent need for a basin-wide approach, to maximise opportunities and also to avoid risks that will have consequences beyond each country’s borders.

Whole-of-basin planning has been solely in the hands of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which has given value and brought benefits but also has some limitations. On the positive side, the MRC has accumulated a wealth of knowledge of the river, although that knowledge is underutilised. It needs to be ‘decoded’ and used widely. However, what the MRC can achieve is somewhat limited.

The first limitation is that the MRC involves only four of the six countries, and they disagree on or have different interpretations of, the MRC’s role. Another important limitation is that the MRC as an organisation has a mandate only for water resources, not water security. Water security is crucial to economic development and too important a matter to be solely in the hands of water resources people, but the MRC has not connected well with the countries’ economic sectors: their economic planners and their Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and the private sector. That means that economic planning and water planning are disconnected. The economic planners have not understood the MRC’s good work on water resources: for instance, the language has been too technical, and there has been too much focus on small areas of disagreement and very little focus on the substantial areas of agreement on water resources matters.

A further limitation is that governance within the MRC countries is compartmentalised. There are technical ministries, natural resources planning, economic planners, commercial planners, financial planning and industry planning, all happening separately, and the region’s CSOs are fragmented between the sectors of each country. This is an issue in all the Mekong countries.

Time pressure is another issue causing differences. It is a fact that the Mekong countries need to develop rapidly to catch up with the ‘developed’ world, so some of the economic planning uses short-term horizons, without thinking through to the long-term consequences — which are therefore not understood. There is also competition between sectors, and optimising one sector is often done at the expense of another sector. We lack the instruments to look beyond this, but we need to solve those three limitations, perhaps via a transformative platform.

Recently, however, there has been a new initiative – the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. It is different from the MRC.

  • The Cooperation has been signed by the heads of states of all six countries along the Mekong including its headwaters (Lancang), rather than the four signatories to the Mekong River Commission.
  • The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation integrates economic development but also has a specific objective for water and energy security. That’s a great opportunity.
  • The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation is also involved in moves to implement China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative which has a lot of political momentum. And China, on paper, has a vision for an ‘ecological civilisation’, which I think makes a lot of sense.

We’ll see how it’s implemented, but the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation has the momentum and breadth of mandate, that the MRC was lacking. It appears to open an opportunity to address the challenges that the Mekong is now facing.

What major risks and opportunities do you see in the Mekong region?

Twenty years ago, when I started work in this region, the Mekong was one of the last free-flowing large tropical rivers with a wealth of biodiversity and very productive inland fisheries. Communities were living in harmony with their rivers and benefiting from them. Since then, following the many changes or developments, numerous problems have appeared. Inland fisheries are rapidly declining in the number of catches and size of catches. Water quality used to be a non-issue but is now falling markedly. We are getting more droughts, and more floods and these are a challenge for the people and for the economy. We are also seeing very serious erosion, causing the river to lose elevation; riverbank erosion is happening at alarming rates; and it is very likely that the Mekong Delta is sinking and shrinking, with potential salt intrusion. These problems are all costs to the region’s economy.

On top of that, people in the river communities are moving from rural areas to the cities, increasing the challenges for sustainable city management. Those communities have seen the changes in the river. They are more aware than anybody else that the water quality is dropping, and that their fish-catch per unit effort is reducing. They can see the riverbanks in front of their houses collapsing. Sometimes their houses or their orchards are being swept away.

River regulation by developing dams leads to a loss of flow in most rivers. However, flow restriction by the dams being built on the Mekong is not a big issue because this river has very abundant flow in the wet season. However, regulation on the Mekong is causing fragmentation of the river, we have an academic paper in press to define what fragmentation is.

One effect of such fragmentation is the loss of free movement of fish up and down a river. The Mekong has 160 species of fish that need to migrate long distances along the river. These species are very important in this region, providing up to one-third of the total world catches for fisheries and a very significant contributor to the region’s economy and livelihoods. Fragmentation of the river by damming is also restricting the flows of nutrients which are important for agricultural development and in fisheries development. Nutrients in river water are the first level of the food chain and therefore vital for the entire freshwater ecosystem of the Mekong. Fragmentation is also affecting the movement of sediment along the river. Sediment is a key factor maintaining the stability of the river form (shape of the bed and banks) and also the stability of the delta. Sediment is also a resource because the construction sector is dependent on the sand.

Such impacts were not foreseen in a lot of the planning. The Mekong River Commission’s planning tools were based on how much water is enough water for development. The nutrients, fish and sediment would have been more difficult to measure.

What can be done? Opportunities to do things

On the benefit side, there are opportunities because now there is political realisation.

The Prime Minister of Vietnam has just initiated a Resolution 120, which acknowledges the level of stress to the Mekong Delta and that change is happening fast and having an impact on the economy and the people. The Prime Minister is quoted as saying that the natural environment is more important than growth. That statement came about because of a large spill that killed millions of fish and affected two to three provinces. This is a step forward — the realisation in Vietnam, and by other governments, that the environment is valuable and that it’s linked to the economy.

Now that China has spoken about ‘ecological civilisation’ and how it’s influencing its neighbouring countries, we have an opportunity to build on that realisation. Everything that has happened was predicted by us, the water resources people, 15 years ago. Then we were seen as alarmist, but the changes are happening to a greater extent and faster than we predicted. Now we are seen as visionary! Another opportunity is coming from China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

So now that these risks are being acknowledged, we need to act.

An opportunity for action lies with the private sector. The private sector is planning ahead for the year 2050 and they’re looking at limitations. For instance, Coca-Cola in Cambodia knows they sell less Coca-Cola in years when the fisheries are not productive. The textile industry is making commitments to their buyers. When the manufacturers look into their supply chains they see high risks to their reputations: not just regulatory risks but also physical risks to the quality of water they use. That’s a very important opportunity.

How can the government and the private sector support national and economic development while still respecting ecosystem function in the Mekong Basin?

As I mentioned earlier the damage that has already been done has reduced our opportunities. There is more exposure to droughts and floods, and that is costly. One example has been the large floods in Thailand, partly in the Mekong but even more in the Chao Phraya, that have affected businesses there. Similarly, the serious one-in-a-hundred-year drought in the Mekong Delta has been costly to Vietnam’s economy. Businesses and governments both understand this, and there is a realisation that coordination is needed.

Resolution 120 in Vietnam is about ensuring better coordination between the different agencies and with the private sector. So the realisation is there, and also understanding that a functioning environment is crucial to growth and that there are practical ways of assessing risks.

WWF has produced a practical tool called the Water Risk Filter which is an online free tool that allows companies and governments, but mainly companies, to measure the risks to their supply chain, their ‘exposure’ to water. We’re working on improving the resolution of this tool so it works for the Mekong and will be even more useful. And there’s a wealth of other tools available to help users understand the risks they face and limit their exposure. And also there’s realisation among the most responsible players in these countries’ industries that they need to work differently.

Often those companies have made good progress in being more responsible in their use of water in their own properties, and in reducing their discharge of pollution into the water. Now they need to work together. By collective action with other companies, they can improve even further. A company may be doing good work on its own water efficiency and water pollution, but if its next-door neighbour is not doing the same then both companies’ reputations are at risk. So there’s a need for businesses to work together and that is something that WWF is promoting. It is happening.

But even after you and your neighbour have worked together and are complying with the law and being responsible players, there may still be limits to river improvement because of what’s happening in the next country and because of limitations in the law itself. That is why we need more involvement of the private sector in governance. In the Mekong River Commission, it was rare to see a private sector player at the table, other than a few prior companies) such as from the textile industry or the tourism industry or the chamber of commerce. It’s time to fix this.

There is a good opportunity to get the economic planners and the corporates more engaged in water governance. All these parties need to come together and collaborate as one. They need to stand together because there are opportunities for more sustainable development, but it has to be done jointly. Otherwise, if it’s done sector by sector, country by country, there will be again optimisation of one sector at the expense of another. Take the example of a hydropower project in Lao, which might make sense and be defendable to Lao, but if you look at its impact on other sectors — like the construction sector’s access to sand, the textile sector’s need for water of particular quality, the nutrient costs to agriculture and fisheries in other countries in the longer term — it doesn’t make sense anymore. We need to reconcile all this to not miss opportunities and to maybe find compensation mechanisms.

There’s a role for the financial sector here through multiple financial institutions investing across different sectors where they have portfolios. Investment in one sector can boost the chances of another sector being able to pay back their loans. So WWF is engaging with the financial sector. The financial sector are champions at risk management. At the same time, they have the capacity to assess risks and look at solutions to manage those risks. This has the potential to bring all the relevant players to a better, more transparent, inclusive water governance, and to engage earlier in the planning.

When I say more inclusive governance I mean also more engagement and outreach to the countries’ communities and civil society as well as to the private sector, as well to government agencies, state agencies that are not water resources agencies but are dependent on the river’s resources, the equally important community CSOs, the private sector … all sectors and also all government agencies.

What can WWF contribute to improve governance along the Mekong, and help support people, the natural environment and business?

We believe we have three key things to contribute. One is the understanding of ecosystems.

WWF thinks in terms of ecosystems. We don’t think of countries. We don’t think of sectors. Our objective is to conserve the health of the rivers. The health of the rivers is key to the health of communities. Healthy rivers mean healthy communities because there is a high level of dependency of communities on rivers, especially the people that are the most marginalised. Such dependency is even higher for the Mekong than for many other rivers. So river health must be central to any agenda. Similarly, healthy ecosystems mean healthy business, and that is more and more evident. This is how we see ecosystems and biodiversity and fundamental natural processes and natural resources — they are very important for development. So that’s the first thing we can bring in.

Second, we can translate this ecosystem-understanding into risks, and that knowledge is very useful. It is complementary to the knowledge of other players: not better; not worse; complementary. The more understanding we share with other people’s perspectives, the better everyone is armed to take on the challenge of finding sustainable solutions that work for all. That’s transformative.

We do not see the private sector as having negative impacts. While that sector is using a lot of water and polluting the water, they are also using other resources. Yes, they need electricity, but they’re also impacted by other sectors. In these situations, I think WWF adds value in helping measure risk and also in finding solutions that are win-win, for all.

We do that by being a convener. The WWF is a non-government organisation (NGO). We are part of civil society, and we have worked with other civil society players, and we know civil society from the inside because we are part of it and because we are also working with communities and with CSOs who work with communities. So I think we have a good understanding of communities. And often communities like to have NGOs helping them to be represented and helping them to understand risks, and I think that helps them to be ‘heard’.

WWF also works with governments. Sometimes government agencies see WWF as a partner and a valued partner. We have worked with development partners: wider development partners such as ODA (official development assistance), and multilateral banks for instance. and we have shared agendas, and shared understanding and are seen as an actual partner. Some examples include Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and SDCs (standard development committees) and also banks such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the World Bank, and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. So now we are seen as one of those partners, and also as a partner that is engaging with and talking with the private sector.

Our third key contribution is our reputation — and the fact that the WWF logo is very well known and adds value to many players. For example, buyers of big brands of textiles value our logo. People probably trust the WWF logo more than they trust some brands.

In other words, we are a solution-oriented player — and solutions are what we try to find — but we are also a watchdog.

Whatever relation we have with whichever players, including our private sector partners — businesses, corporates — we always reserve the right to challenge if there’s an issue. This characteristic has given us a good reputation among the wider public. When WWF says something, we have a level of credibility that many other players do not have, to a wide range of players. Not all players but to a wide range of players. That’s our third contribution.

However, our key contribution is as a convener. We can reach across apparent barriers because more transparent and more inclusive water governance is the main solution and the main way forward. We have a relatively good level of engagement with the main players among groups that need better involvement in governance. So, WWF is often seen as a natural convener, and that is probably the most important role we can have.

WWF is seen that way because of the way we work closely with government agencies, and with the private sector and with local communities. They use our logo. All the parties involved — the development partners, the local communities, the civil societies, the regulators, the national assemblies, the granting bodies, the executive government itself — they work with us. That brings WWF good insights from these groups, and we share those insights with them. That means there is more realisation that we’re all ‘in the same boat’. Healthy rivers equal health communities, equal healthy businesses.

Even so, WWF does not expect businesses to work for conservation the way we work for conservation. They are driven by profit and we’re not going to change that, but they will have better stability in their business and better return on investments if the river is more healthy, so that’s a joint agenda.

If the river is healthy, the government will be better able to give stability, and security, and ensure that their economy develops and their population is happy because they will be less exposed to natural disasters. If their earnings grow, that’s also linked to the health of the river.

So we have a joint agenda. We don’t have all the solutions but we have good relations with players in all those sectors, and some understanding of the natural ecosystems and how their condition translates into risk – and that is valued by all those players.

Have you any advice for water practitioners hoping to work in the Mekong region, especially about the cultures and how to work with governments and local communities?

First, I welcome any water practitioners who want to work in this region, because there’s a real need there and we need to have more people helping. You can make a difference here, so all are welcome. It is a complex region because of the many countries in the basin, and because of the limitations of governance, and because the impacts are happening very fast. However, the governments are realising the limitations in their capacity and are welcoming more help.

The most important thing to know is that you must coordinate. Yes, there is a big need for help, but at present, there is a lack of coordination and a lack of governance. Therefore if you come in as a cooperative partner you need to show that you will and can communicate with a wide range of players and build on what has been done. There is no need to start from scratch. There’s a lot of understanding in the region now, and many people making good contributions. The governments are doing good work, making progress on their mandates, though they are realising their limitations. So incoming helpers must be cooperative and build on the progress already achieved.

The opportunities are diverse. NGOs and CSO communities are fragmented and need our support. They need more technical understanding. They need to be shown examples of outcomes elsewhere in the world, and they need to improve their local governance in a way that suits their culture. It is not appropriate to simply replicate a system of governance that is in use elsewhere. Governance in the Mekong Basin must take into consideration the cultural differences and the many languages in this region. For instance, around half of the population of Lao PDR belong to ethnic communities that are not ethnic Lao. They need to be integrated better.

In short, working here is challenging and a big undertaking, and while we can use plenty of helpers there must be good coordination between us. Only by coordinating can we ensure that our good intentions and work are helping. Without coordination, our good intentions can run counter to the desired outcomes and we don’t achieve what we want to achieve because we are not in collaboration with what is already happening in the region.

When you come here, know that you are not alone, but rather that you are very much needed and that we welcome you. Be ready to coordinate with those here already. Let us know that you want to make contact and are open to others’ advice.

The key message is that there’s a huge opportunity for water practitioners but you need to also respect the culture and not to start from scratch but also build upon what is currently existing in place in the Mekong region.

You could really make a difference because the changes to the river are happening very fast. I don’t think I know of any other river that is going through this degree of stress and changes to its health in such a short time. The Mekong Delta, which is one of the largest deltas on the planet, was very stable 20 years ago but now it’s under great stress. We need practical solutions very quickly — but we must acknowledge the institutional setting and the cultures and build on progress made. If not, we could be counterproductive despite all our best intentions.

This is a fascinating river with fascinating people. A lot of partners and countries including Australia have already sunk high investment in the region. Australia has been a natural ally here, and the Australian Government has funded and supported a very large amount of work that has been implemented by Australians. Australia has a good reputation here that can be built on. WWF is very keen to improve and develop our collaboration with the Australian Water Partnership and to continue to build on the good already invested in this region.

This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN.

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