Regional cooperation over the Mekong River goes back more than 60 years, making it one of the first transboundary rivers governed by an international river body and according to the principles of equitable use.
In 1957, the Committee for Coordination of Investigations on the Lower Mekong River Basin – often referred to as the Mekong Committee – was set up under auspices of the United Nations, with membership of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam.
Opening of Mekong Committee Office in Bangkok by Dag Hammarskjold(left), Secretary-General of the United Nations, 1959
At the time, it was the largest single development project the United Nations had undertaken. No international river body had ever attempted to take on such encompassing responsibilities for financing, management and maintenance of water resources. The Mekong was considered one of the world’s greatest untamed rivers and riparian countries were keen to explore the potential for hydropower, irrigation and flood control development in order to capitalise on the river’s economic potential.
In 1977, Cambodia left the organisation because of the unstable political climate in the country, resulting in the establishment in 1978 of the Interim Mekong Committee, comprising Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam.
On 5 April 1995, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam signed the Agreement on Cooperation for Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin (the 1995 Mekong Agreement), in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
The Mekong Agreement, which established the Mekong River Commission (MRC), was a coming-of-age for the river basin agency. No longer under the umbrella of other organisations, the Commission has since then been in the hands of its four Member Countries.
Research and knowledge gathering has formed an important part of the organisation’s work from the very beginning. In the 1950s, teams of scientists and researchers travelled across the basin by boat, jeep and even on elephant back in order to record, measure and catalogue the wealth of natural resources along the river and its tributaries.
These early surveys and studies formed the basis of a comprehensive data archive, which the MRC built upon to enhance a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities in the basin. To date, no other organisation within the region or beyond has more comprehensive or detailed data about the Mekong River Basin than the MRC.
As a platform for regional cooperation, the MRC has made progress towards implementation of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. The process of basin development planning that started in 1997 took into account the needs of all people in the basin, particularly the poor and those who relied on water resources for food and income.
The MRC also developed a consultative process allowing the riparian countries to contribute to the elaboration of different development scenarios, for example in the domain of hydropower and climate change. The activities of the MRC were defined through an Integrated Water Resources Management strategy that shaped a common transboundary understanding of the evolution of long-term planning.
The MRC Member Countries has cooperated under a set of five water-related procedures for exchanging and sharing data and information; monitoring water use; notifying and consulting with other members about diversions and uses of Mekong waters; maintaining flows along the Mekong mainstream; and water-quality rules. The procedures determined how Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam should develop, use, conserve and manage the resources of the Mekong River as the economies of the region has become more integrated in the 21st century.
Timeline: highlights of Mekong cooperation
The Mekong Committee was set up under a statute endorsed by the United Nations.
Mekong Committee released the Indicative Basin Plan.
Thailand, Lao PDR and Viet Nam signed Interim Mekong Committee Statute.
Interim Mekong Committee revised the Indicative Basin Plan.
1995 Mekong Agreement
MRC Member Countries: Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam signed Agreement on Cooperation for Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin.
China and Myanmar became MRC's Dialogue Partners.
MRC Secretariat relocated from Bangkok to Phnom Penh.
- MRC Council adopted Procedures for Data and Information Exchange and Sharing (PDIES).
- MRC Council adopted MRC Strategic Plan 2001-2005.
- MRC Technical Paper series launched.
- MRC won Thiess International Services Riverprize for excellence in river management.
MRC established the Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre.
China signed agreement to extend provision of hydrological data during flood season.
- First MRC Summit and Hua Hin Declaration issued.
- MRC held prior consultation on the Xayaburi hydropower project.
- MRC Council adopted Procedures for Water Quality (PWQ).
- MRC Council adopted first the IWRM-based Mekong Basin Development Strategy for 2011-2015.
- China agreed to extend provision of hydrological data.
- Lao PDR notified MRC of the Don Sahong hydropower project.
- Second MRC Summit and Ho Chi Minh Declaration issued.
- MRC held prior consultation on the Don Sahong hydropower project.
- MRC Council adopted the Roadmap for Reform and Decentralization.
20th anniversary of the signing of the 1995 Mekong Agreement held.
- MRC Member Countries decided on one Headquarters of the MRC Secretariat in Vientiane and the Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre in Phnom Penh.
- MRC held prior consultation on the Pak Beng hydropower project.
- MRC Council adopted the Mekong Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan.
- MRC Council adopted the Mekong Basin-wide Fisheries Management and Development Strategy.
- The MRC Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre upgraded to the MRC Regional Flood and Drought Management Center.
- Third MRC Summit and Siem Reap Declaration issued.
- MRC held prior consultation on the Pak Lay hydropower project.
- MRC published the Council Study on Sustainable Management and Development of the Mekong River including Impacts of Mainstream Hydropower Projects.
- 25th anniversary of the signing of the 1995 Mekong Agreement held.
- MRC Joint Environment Monitoring of mainstream dams began.
- MRC held prior consultation on the Sanakham hydropower project.