Hydropower development

There is potential for further development of hydropower to promote energy security and cross-border trade and contribute to flood and drought management and a low-carbon economy. There are also opportunities for operational improvements to existing hydropower facilities to moderate downstream risks due to flood peaks, water level fluctuations and sediment trapping.

This Strategy promotes the concentration of hydropower development in storage-backed cascades to: (i) increase dry season flows and power generation, (ii) provide reliable flows to downstream run-of-river hydropower facilities and improve their performance, (iii) reduce downstream flood and drought risks and enhance dry season navigation, and (iv) create opportunities to forego hydropower development in still undeveloped watersheds with high ecological value. Going beyond the national plans, regional proactive planning will identify storage-backed and joint investment projects, with multiple purposes including hydropower, flood and drought management, navigation, and tourism.

Further utilising this opportunity requires a focus on sustainability and addressing risks and uncertainties both at project and transboundary levels. Potential transboundary impacts will need to be identified and mitigated collaboratively through national regulatory frameworks and guidelines, as well as applicable regional procedures and guidelines. To enhance sustainable development, any new power generation plans should consider the full range of viable generation sources, including complementary use of wind and solar, and ensure that supply does not run too far ahead of demand.

Irrigated and climate smart agriculture development

There is an opportunity for increased dry season flows resulting from hydropower developments to be used to expand irrigation without affecting the historical baseline flow. A possible diversion from the mainstream into Northeast Thailand is one option that has been identified. Modernising and expanding irrigated areas, changing cropping patterns, and moving towards climate-smart agriculture to improve efficiency, increase agricultural production and improve value chains, will help achieve drought protection and improve household food and water security needs. There may be opportunities also for expansion of groundwater-based irrigation powered by the expanding electricity grid or local solar generation.

To further capitalize on this opportunity and mitigate the risks to flow and sediment regimes requires proactive regional planning for inter-dependent development of storage and further consumptive uses in the basin, and the sharing of the resulting dry season flows, without affecting minimum flows agreed under the PMFM. Determining how to share any additional dry season flows, including in relation to expanding irrigated agriculture or mitigating the effects of increased salinity intrusion on existing agriculture, should be informed by analysis of the potential impacts of climate change in different parts of the basin and the overall regional costs and benefits from different uses.

Navigation development

There is considerable potential throughout the mainstream for the further development of inland water transport (IWT) as an integrated, effective, safe and environmentally friendly way to move people and goods. This opportunity can be realised by taking advantage of greater water depth in the dry season and continuing to implement the existing IWT plans for the upper, middle and lower parts of the river. Elevated water levels due to hydropower dams may assist development of navigation in Lao PDR and Cambodia, but only if dams are sited to also suit IWT.

The investment opportunities for the navigation sector occur in many areas, ranging from waterway improvements (e.g. dredging, river works) to navigation aids and port development. Capitalizing on the opportunities requires the implementation of a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the IWT plans, which steers environmental and social impact assessments for specific port and terminal constructions and waterway improvement projects. Major risks need to be fully addressed while basin countries consider and address jointly the transboundary impacts through national regulatory frameworks and guidelines, as well as applicable regional procedures and guidelines.

Leveraging the value from regionally significant environmental assets

There are opportunities to rehabilitate and improve the management of forested areas in watersheds to enhance the lifetime of storage reservoirs, protect biodiversity and contribute to reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There are also opportunities for preservation, restoration and leveraging of the remaining wetlands and other riverine habitats for ecological (biodiversity), economic (nature-based tourism, fisheries), social (ecosystem services, social wellbeing), and climate change adaptation (flood and drought mitigation) purposes.

This Strategy supports the identification, selection and preparation of investment opportunities in these environmental assets through proactive regional planning as informed by asset and ecosystem services valuation and the determination of the limits of acceptable change to ecological conditions. There are also opportunities for joint transboundary projects including to support biodiversity corridors and to regulate dry season flows and groundwater recharge. This Strategy also supports regional cooperation to improve the capacity of countries to take advantage of innovative financing arrangements, such as attracting foreign carbon offsetting funds for reforestation of watersheds.

Flood and drought mitigation There is a need for further flood risk reduction of urbanized and industrialized areas through national and joint investment projects related to a combination of upstream storage reservoirs (in combination with hydropower development), designating certain critical floodplain areas for conveyance of floods, and infrastructure such as embankments and flood ways. The increase in upstream storage will also contribute to mitigating droughts in a future climate with dryer dry seasons. Joint investment projects will likely be needed to mitigate flood and drought risks to acceptable levels in various parts of the basin.

Early planning is required as solutions will become much more difficult and costly with time due to ongoing developments in areas that might be needed in future for projects to build climate resilience and manage flood and drought risks. This Strategy supports a basin-wide, integrated approach to flood and drought management through proactive regional planning and flood risk management activities in the Mekong Delta. Such an approach requires detailed modelling and analysis of the movement of water across the floodplain and the assessment and prioritization of options and measures for flood protection, considering climate change (including sea level rise), the ecological benefits of floods, socio-economic development plans, and the rising cost of flood damage in expanding urban and industrial centres.

Sustainable livelihoods

Water resources development impacts some poor, resource dependent communities more than others. Some groups within communities, particularly women, are also often in more vulnerable situations. There is therefore an opportunity to reduce inequities and achieve greater social inclusion by facilitating the transition of these people to situations where they are less directly dependent on natural resources for their income and sustenance. The investment in sectors with high potential to decrease gender inequality will be important to reduce vulnerabilities and inequity. Many of these opportunities will exist outside water-related sectors. Targeted investment in key areas will be needed to ensure the people most affected by water resource development will benefit from gains in employment and economic growth resulting from the above development opportunities and the broader transition to an industry and service-led economy. The identification, selection and preparation of investment opportunities in conjunction with joint investment projects and national projects of basin-wide significance will have a multiplier effect on the benefits of water resources development.

Fisheries and aquatic resources

Capture fisheries in the basin are under threat and new investment opportunities in fisheries and other aquatic resources will need to be explored along with associated measures to minimise the potential adverse impacts of changed basin conditions on food security. In addition to the habitat protection and rehabilitation opportunities mentioned above, enhanced fish stocking of reservoirs, and the expansion of aquaculture, particularly small-scale aquaculture accessible to vulnerable people in conjunction with support for sustainable livelihoods, are options that may need to be considered. Utilising this opportunity requires substantial investment in infrastructure, know-how and regulatory measures to ensure successful captive breeding programmes and sustainability concerns related to water quality, disease, pests, and invasive species can be successfully managed. Other policy measures may also be required to facilitate access to markets and growth in demand for different species of fish and other aquatic animals.

Other opportunities

Other water-related opportunities, such as public and industrial water supply, more sustainable sediment extraction, timber floating, recreation and tourism, as well as opportunities beyond the water sector (e.g. alternative power generation options), also have considerable potential.