A shared Mekong: towards better cooperation

The boom in hydropower development in the Mekong basin could affect food security – something IUCN is working to counter by facilitating dialogue in the region, writes Raphaël Glémet, Senior Water and Wetlands Programme Officer at IUCN Asia.

The Mekong is the river that supports the largest number of people through rice production, fisheries and water resources. The large number of existing and planned hydroelectric dams on the Mekong and its tributaries are thought to affect fisheries, water quality and availability, causing tensions regionally, with downstream countries fearing adverse effects.

Concerns are heightened by the fact that most fish species caught in the Mekong are migratory, and there is insufficient information on how dams affect large catfish and other species. Dams could also block the sediment flow to the Mekong delta in Viet Nam, leading to saline intrusion and a sinking of the delta itself, resulting in potential important losses in terms of rice production for the rice bowl of Asia.

Rice cultivation in the Mekong basin

Rice cultivation in the Mekong basin

Through its Building River Dialogue and Governance (BRIDGE) programme, whose regional coordinators met in Bonn recently with global coordinators from the Global Water Programme and the Environmental Law Centre, IUCN aims to improve regional cooperation so as to enable better planning for the management of 14 transboundary river basins around the world, including the Mekong.

While IUCN acknowledges the potential benefits of hydropower, it works to foster regional coordination on planning for hydropower development and other water-related investments that would minimise impacts on water and food security while improving governance of shared water-related ecosystems to maximise benefits to humans and nature.

In the Mekong Region, BRIDGE supports transboundary dialogue and promotes cooperation frameworks and tools at various levels. As an example, following requests from key stakeholders in the basin, including governments and NGOs, BRIDGE now provides comprehensive information on the UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC) to the countries concerned through workshops, training and studies.

The UNWC, which Viet Nam ratified in 2014, could provide the clear rules needed for a more effective and shared use of water resources. By providing a framework and step-by-step processes on cooperation principles, including conflict resolution, the UNWC could help overcome the tensions that are threatening good relationships and the ‘Mekong spirit’ of cooperation in the region.

A recently published BRIDGE legal analysis document outlines how the UNWC complements the existing Mekong Agreement, to which Viet Nam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are signatories. Wider regional ratification of the UN Watercourses Convention would strengthen the Mekong Agreement by fillings gaps, rather than aiming to replace it in any way. It also provides an extraordinary opportunity for the countries concerned to better define their rules and protocols around water cooperation in the region.

As a complementary approach to supporting high level transboundary dialogues, BRIDGE also engages with local stakeholders in a Mekong sub-basin known as the ‘3S basins’ comprised of the basins of the Sekong, Sesan and Sre Pok rivers, trans-boundary tributaries of the Mekong.The 3S Rivers, as they are collectively known, support the livelihoods of 3.5 million people living in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam. This sub-basin acts as a demonstration basin for BRIDGE where the concepts of cooperation in shared river basins are put into practice. By bringing together governments, NGOs and the private sector to develop joint studies, technical recommendations and reach a common vision for the sustainable management of the 3S basins BRIDGE takes the concepts of cooperation to a very local level.

The multi-level and multi-stakeholder approach to water cooperation is key as it guarantees sustainable cooperation and makes its benefits more understandable at all levels.

It is a long road, but as BRIDGE moves forward in various basins and on various continents, patterns for the development of sustainable cooperation emerge. These are valuable lessons that IUCN then takes back to the global policy level through the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2016, the World Water Forum and other fora, and that can influence our approach to enhancing transboundary cooperation way beyond the water world.

Through its phase 3, BRIDGE will continue to boost cooperation in the target basins and will also focus on upscaling the lessons learned and tools developed so that they can be institutionalised regionally.

For more information on BRIDGE project work in the Mekong basin, see here.