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Mekong model

Officials planning the future of the Mekong basin will have a comprehensive package of information to support their decisions. Judith Cruickshank reports from the Mekong River Commission in Phnom Penh.

Of all the world's major river systems, the Mekong arguably boasts the greatest unexploited potential.

Rising in China, high in the Tibet plateau, the Mekong flows 4,500km through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia to the great Mekong delta in Vietnam from where it runs into the South China Sea.

It would be easy enough for a national government to exploit the potential of the Mekong by, for instance, building a series of dams to produce cheap power, without regard to the effects on its downstream neighbours.

Happily a history of co-operation between the countries of the Lower Mekong Basin has instituted a process of joint basin development planning. This brings the four member countries - Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam - together to identify and agree on mutually beneficial projects and to manage their water and related resources co-operatively.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) was established in 1995 as the successor to the Committee for the Coordination of Investigations of the Lower Mekong, set up in 1957. Directed by a council with a representative from each of the four countries, the MRC's mission is 'to promote and co-ordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries' mutual benefit and the people's well-being by implementing strategic programmes and activities and providing scientific information and policy advice'.

The secretariat is based in Phnom Penh and is currently working on three core programmes: the Basin Development Plan, the Environment Programme. and most recently the Water Utilisation Programme which has a number of inter-linked components.

This provides for information to be shared between the member countries on a huge range of topics from flow measurement to tourism. To facilitate this, a computerised information system is being set up by a team from UK consultant Halcrow.

As Halcrow team leader Malcolm Wallace explains, the member countries must retain their sovereignty, but the Decision Support Framework (DSF) will allow them to see how their actions will affect each other.

The DSF has three main elements. A Knowledge Base incorporates all relevant physical data both current and historical as well as analytical results, while the Basin Simulation Modelling Package contains the primary simulation models (hydrology, basin simulation, hydraulic and delta salinity) as well as secondary capabilities (water quality, sediment and groundwater). Finally, the Impact Analysis Tools allow the results of the model runs to be translated into impacts on selected environmental or socio-economic parameters.

In short, it allows the users to ask a huge number and variety of 'what if' questions about the practicability and impact of actions or procedures which affect the river basin. Its design is modular, so that information and the system itself can both be updated on a regular basis.

But the interfaces are seamless so the user has the impression of dealing with a completely integrated package.

As well as allowing member countries to explore development possibilities, the DSF will be vital to the development of a set of rules for water sharing among the four signatories.

Some of the DSF uses existing software, parts have been specially written as have the interfaces. Wallace heads a team of three full time regional staff and some 14 specialists - modellers, environmentalists, socio-economists - who fly in for short periods as needed. There is also input from Halcrow's software design team in Swindon. The MRC secretariat provides support staff and there are two specialists from each member country who will run the system.

The DSF is not unique, Wallace insists, but allows that nothing on this scale has been attempted before. 'It's the consolidation of a lot of things which have been going on over the past five to 10 years.' And he adds that he has 'never before seen the subject so comprehensively addressed'.

The two year programme is on schedule for completion in September and Wallace says 'it's now a management challenge to get all the bits in place'.

His primary concern now is that the DSF will be used to its fullest extent. His team are working to ensure that the officials and politicians who will shape the future of the Mekong Basin call on the fund of information to make sound decisions for the future of the river and the people whose lives depend on it.

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