Basin issues, risks and challenges

Basin issues

Strategy is updated herein considering major changes in the basin over recent years as described in the 2018 State of Basin Report and Mid-Term Review of the previous MRC Strategic Plan.

Rapid development and poverty reduction. The Mekong River Basin is a highly dynamic region with a vast endowment of natural resources, a young and increasingly well-connected population with multiple avenues of growth and opportunity ahead. Over recent decades, rapid economic gains with steep reductions in fertility rates and increasing urbanisation have contributed to higher incomes, reduced poverty, improved food security and greater access to improved water sources, sanitation, and electricity. Nevertheless, the gains have not been equally distributed and substantial challenges to the sustainable development of Mekong River Basin remain.

The hydrology of the Mekong is changing. In the upper part of the basin, dry season flows are increasing and flood season flows decreasing because of increasing storage for hydro-electricity generation throughout the year. Rapid river level fluctuations, including due to climatic variability, are becoming the norm. Construction and uncoordinated operation of hydropower facilities, now including the first two Lower Mekong River Basin mainstream dams, are contributing to lower flow environments in sections of the river with implications for water quality and suitable habitat for aquatic organisms. Sediment transport has dropped precipitously since the construction of the Upper Mekong hydropower cascade and other industrial activities such as sand mining, with attendant risks to wetland and floodplain productivity, riverbank erosion and delta forming processes.

Pressure on the environment is increasing also in other ways. There are classic signs of heavy fishing pressure and fish populations are also under threat from habitat destruction and in-stream barriers limiting migration, leading to decreased fish yield. Fisheries of the future, both in terms of species mix and population abundance, are likely to be quite different to those of the past. Wetlands have also declined in area and those that remain are increasingly degraded. The ecosystem services they provide including habitat, floodwater storage, and protection against coastal erosion, are under threat. Watersheds and floodplains face pressures from land use changes driven by population and economic growth.

Projected change in annual flow hydrograph at Chiang Saen, which is already evident. The same change is evident to a greater or lesser extent at different places along the mainstream down to the delta.

The challenges facing the Mekong Delta are particularly acute. Reduced replenishment of sediment from upstream, subsidence due to groundwater extraction, sediment extraction which deepens channels and exacerbates the impacts of tides on erosion, and increased salinity intrusion are some of the significant issues requiring urgent attention. On top of this is the increasing risk of major floods and droughts due to climate change and reduced floodwater storage capacity in the Mekong Delta.

There are significant inequalities between different groups in society. Rural populations lag their urban counterparts on almost all indicators of community wellbeing. Despite significant reductions in national poverty rates, large numbers of poor, natural resource dependent communities are likely to persist for some time, along with improving but still present gender inequalities in paid and unpaid work. Substantial data and information gaps exist for people in vulnerable situations – where they live and how they are impacted by water-related development and operations.

Economic growth is strong across all water-related sectors. Agriculture, fisheries and forestry are a declining share of the overall economy of basin countries, but still employ large numbers of people. Rising global demand for food and large inflows of foreign direct investment in these sectors are supporting strong growth in the value of agricultural products. Capture fisheries and aquaculture, hydropower production and navigation have all shown strong growth in recent years. Based on current national plans, hydropower, irrigated agriculture, navigation, and aquaculture sectors are likely to continue growing strongly but will need integrated basin-scale thinking to ensure long-term sustainability and inclusive growth, particularly in the face of climate change.

The basin’s climate is changing. Average basin-wide temperatures and precipitation are increasing and sea-level around the delta is rising. However, there is no evidence to-date of more intense rainfall events or tropical storm activity. There may have been a slight increase in flood peaks and flooded areas and a decrease in drought conditions over recent decades, but further monitoring over longer time periods is necessary. Future scenarios point to much higher temperatures and the potential for more extreme floods and droughts.

A sense of urgency is growing among stakeholders on the need to move basin development towards more “optimal” and sustainable opportunities that address long-term needs, including water, food, and energy security. Experience from other regions suggests that joint management and development, with cost and benefit sharing agreements will be necessary if the people of the Mekong region are to transition to middle/high income status in a manner that is in long-term balance with the basin’s ecosystems. The significant investment in data and knowledge under the Mekong cooperation of the past sixty years means the Mekong River Basin is in a better position than most basins that have already reached such agreements.

Summary of basin conditions, trends and outlook for key issues identified in the 2018 State of Basin Report and recent MRC scenario assessment work

Regional platforms for water cooperation In Mekong water resources development and management, the four Lower Mekong riparian states have been cooperating through the Mekong River Commission, based on the 1995 Mekong Agreement, for 25 years, building on a long history of cooperation since 1957 with the Mekong Committee. The Upper Mekong states of China and Myanmar have been dialogue partners of the MRC since 1996, cooperating in data and information sharing, technical exchanges, joint studies, and policy dialogue.

The MRC remains the only treaty-based intergovernmental river basin organisation with a clear mandate and core functions, focusing on principles of integrated water resources management, common procedures, strategies, guidelines and tools to support the sustainable and equitable use of water and related resources, and joint actions to address transboundary issues. As a regional knowledge hub and water diplomacy platform, its core functions have been defined to include: data acquisition, exchange and monitoring; analysis, modelling and assessment; basin planning support; forecasting, warning and emergency response; implementation of the five MRC procedures for basin management; and dialogue and facilitation.

The MLC, recently established through the Sanya Declaration in 2016, has a broader scope with water resource management being one of five priority areas. MLC water cooperation does not solely focus on the Mekong River Basin but on regional, national and local water issues in the six countries (Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam).

Cooperation between the Mekong countries is accelerating Cooperation between countries throughout the Mekong and wider region is becoming deeper and more comprehensive, especially through ASEAN, the primary regional cooperation body for Southeast Asian countries, including all Lower Mekong River Basin states. In 2015 the ASEAN Economic Community was established, eliminating tariffs between Member Countries in a market of USD 2.6 trillion and a region of 622 million people. China is ASEAN’s number one trading partner, and trade and foreign direct investment between all countries is growing strongly.

Compared to the pace and scope of this increased integration across the broader regional economy, cooperation in water resources planning and development has been relatively modest. National water-related sector plans are prepared and implemented largely independently from those of the other basin countries. Regional water cooperation focuses primarily on data and information sharing and knowledge acquisition, while joint investment projects by two or more countries have been developed only for hydropower, driven by energy sector planning.

Other Mekong water-related cooperation mechanisms Beyond the principle water resources cooperation platforms of the MRC and MLC Water, other key cooperation mechanisms involved in Mekong water resources related issues in the region include ASEAN, the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) initiative, the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), the Ayeyarwady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) and the Mekong Initiatives of Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK).

The ASEAN community is becoming more and more prominent in reflecting regional socio-economic development and trends in joint visions that intersect with basin water resource management issues such as gender- and child-centred disaster risk reduction, and strengthened social protection to reduce vulnerabilities.

Click to the graphics to learn more on water-related focus areas of other key cooperation mechanisms in the Mekong River Basin


Strategic risks

The overarching risk that could diminish the effectiveness of the implementation of this Strategy is related to cooperation between the countries and their regional water cooperation platforms, the MRC and MLC. The higher level of practical cooperation that is required may not be achieved in the near term because sufficient trust and confidence may yet not materialize among all parties to move towards basin-wide proactive planning and transboundary cooperation on basin operations.

There is no easy remedy for insufficient trust. In other international river basins, common understanding and trust come with increasing regional integration. While this is never easy to achieve, taking steps along this pathway will provide positive feedback that creates new opportunities, including through ASEAN community building. Much depends on the political commitment of the basin countries and the technical and diplomatic skills of the leadership within the MRC and MLC to drive a practical process towards achieving this Strategy’s aims. Important will be also a systematic multi-stakeholder engagement (which includes non-government actors) that builds towards consensus and agreements on water resources development and management in the basin, as well as more openness from countries and developers, and addressing unbalanced and incorrect journalism and advocacy (which can feed mistrust and affect regional relations) by providing factual and even-handed information and advice.

If the level of regional water cooperation is not stepped up, opportunities will be missed to increase regional benefits and reduce costs by coordinated national planning and joint investments in water resources development and management. Furthermore, the following economic, environmental and social risks may become reality:

  • Loss of lives and infrastructure in urban and industrial areas of the Mekong Delta due to lack of coordinated investment in flood protection leading to higher overall costs to everyone (needs coordinated floodwater management);
  • Insufficient increase in inter-seasonal water storage to keep up with increasing water uses in a future climate with dryer dry seasons (planning for inter-dependent development of storage and further consumptive uses in the basin, and the sharing of the resulting dry season flows);
  • Loss of livelihoods and food security in poor resource-dependent communities before economic development gradually lifts them out of poverty and accommodates change in livelihoods (needs planning for postponing or relocation of projects with large negative impacts as often such projects are also economically unattractive);

  • Stranded hydropower projects because electricity supply runs ahead of demand, or lower than anticipated dry season flows, or expansion of new technology, leading to unreliable, loss making hydropower projects with higher electricity costs for consumers (needs harmonization between water and energy sector planning and the development of hydropower in storage-backed cascades);
  • Critical loss of remaining wetland and floodplain habitat reducing ecosystem services, such as flood absorption and fish habitat (needs regional planning and a whole-of-landscape approach, which is urgent in a rapidly changing basin due to developments within and outside the water sector);
  • Higher future cost of water security projects due to ongoing and planned (water) infrastructure developments in areas and locations that may be needed in future for (joint) projects to build climate resilience and manage flood and drought risks (needs planning to identify these areas as well as the scope of such future projects, followed by spatial planning reservation);
  • Higher cost of riverbank and coastal protection and other costly measures to address the impact of sediment starvation (requires regional agreement on the implementation of a basin-wide sediment management strategy);
  • Larger impacts of water-related accidents and operations due to accidental spills of toxic substances, dam breaks, uncoordinated hydropower operations, and uncoordinated river training works and navigation operations (requires coordination of basin management operations, communication and data sharing protocols, and gender- and vulnerability-responsive action plans for prevention and response).

Main challenges

Institutionalising mechanisms for all six basin countries to cooperate effectively. Establishment of joint basin expert groups is an important and practical mechanism to guide and oversee pro-active regional planning, coordinated basin management operations, and the consolidation and upgrading of the basin’s monitoring and information systems. The challenge will be to extend MRC’s current expert groups consisting of LMB representatives of key line/implementing agencies to joint basin expert groups (one for planning, one for monitoring/information systems, and one for coordination of basin operations) with technical leaders from all six basin countries through cooperation with MLC Water.

Levelling the implementation capacity between Member Countries. Different capacity among basin countries provides an opportunity for greater use of country-to-country knowledge sharing and capacity building. Each significant activity and project related to the BDS should have a capacity building component which uses a mix of mechanisms such as (i) targeted training and workshops for immediate use and timed to the operations of the joint expert groups (see above), (ii) on-the-job learning by national experts, coached by other riparian experts on the actual implementation of the regional planning and information management activities (which could be contracted out), (iii) secondments and temporary transfers of experts, (iv) exchange visits, once ideas and proposals are developed for the Mekong, to see first-hand how pro-active regional planning and operational basin management is practised in other large river basins.

Addressing inequities associated with gender and vulnerability. All basin countries have made significant progress in social development and gender equality during the last decade. Nevertheless, there are still substantial gaps and inequities as well as externalities that require focused action. The latter is a challenge since gender disaggregated data is scarce and existing data are often not linked effectively and timely with decision-making processes and budget allocations. The BDS also calls for specific measures that directly aim at the reduction of inequity and vulnerability as well as externalities.

Enhancing the capacity to manage floods and droughts effectively. The current capacity to manage floods and droughts effectively is limited in the Mekong River Basin. Storage on floodplains has been reducing due to development and inter-seasonal storage behind dams is less than 15% of mean annual runoff. This Strategy promotes coordinated floodwater management and the creation of additional storage in wetlands and behind dams to build climate resilience and manage flood and drought risks. This is a challenge as suitable storage areas have been disappearing due to wetland reclamation, population growth in potential reservoir areas, and the construction of dams and other infrastructure that are now in the way of more optimal infrastructure. The remaining options for increasing natural and constructed water storage (using GIS/EO technology) need to be identified and assessed through the proposed regional proactive planning before they are gone. Additional flow thresholds may be needed to protect the flow reversal to the Tonle Sap Lake and other benefits of the Mekong’s high inter-seasonal variability will be preserved.

Demonstrating regional plans and discussions on trade-offs as opportunities for win-win outcomes rather than as a threat to national sovereignty. A regional planning and management approach should add value to national plans by presenting opportunities to increase the overall benefits and decrease the overall costs (i.e. make the pie bigger). Demonstrating this value in a rigorous and transparent way while supporting discussions around cost and benefit sharing between countries and/or sectors can be challenging, particularly where there are uncertainties in the science and models underpinning the analysis, and where there is a lack of trust between parties. Finding new ways to present information and receive input, avoiding ‘black box’ models and tools, being open about assumptions and uncertainties, using trusted third parties, and involving key personnel throughout the process in a truly collaborative way are just some of the tactics that will be important to overcome this challenge.

Coordinating multiple actors at several levels and across different sectors. Coordination needs to be strengthened, informed by a strong understanding of existing institutional and governance systems throughout each basin country, the strengths, weaknesses and priorities of different parties, and the political context and drivers of change.

Strengthening national implementation. The effectiveness of national implementation depends on an alignment of interests and priorities, human and technical capacity, available resources, good governance, strong institutions and a sound regulatory environment, compliance assurance and enforcement, and international, national and local politics. Often engaging in these areas is beyond the scope of water resources management and development and so requires the strong support of development partners and countries working closely together to strengthen national systems and institutions more broadly.

The global economic impact of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) will be severe and even if resolved quickly, likely to have ripple effects at least throughout the initial BDS implementation period. These effects may have implications for the viability of planned investments in water resources development and the relative value of different energy generation and food production options. Policy measures aimed at a rapid return to growth have the potential to exacerbate inequalities and environmental degradation, but the situation also offers scope for new thinking and the reinvigoration of a more integrated and sustainable water resources management – basin-scale and multi-sectoral. The water sector has an important role to play in the recovery from COVID-19 and for suppression and prevention of similar diseases through the provision of safe water, sanitation, and hygienic conditions (WASH) and measures that strengthen water security, environmental protection and the livelihood opportunities of people in vulnerable situations.