Conclusions and recommendations

This page contains conclusions from the Council Study, recommendations for the way forward and ongoing implementation of the results. It also provides an introduction to highlighted basin-wide strategies and guidelines of the MRC to optimize national planning and mitigate transboundary impacts.


What can be concluded from the Council Study?

➜ Current national development plans combine a group of highly beneficial and a group of non-beneficial hydropower and agricultural expansion projects as these plans are not optimal and sustainable from a basin-wide perspective.*

Excessive investment in hydropower and labour intensive agriculture may reduce GDP growth due to external costs and effects on other sectors.

Current national development plans are likely to trigger a decline in resilience and increase vulnerability in the Mekong impact corridor as food and income security may not improve proportionately unless benefits from these developments are distributed appropriately. Changes in poverty levels across the scenarios are predicted to be modest, but nevertheless increase overall.

➜ Under current national development plans, maintaining food security for the entire population of the LMB requires effective, willing distribution networks and cooperation amongst the LMB countries to avoid significant increases in undernourishment in parts of the Mekong impact corridor.

➜ The trade-offs between hydropower development and fisheries are substantial. The impacts on fish species composition and biomass cannot be totally eliminated even with advanced mitigation measures.

➜ In the absence of cross-sector benefit sharing, the sustainability index of the LMB countries would drop substantially if current national development plans were implemented.

With no additional investments in the navigation sector, inland waterway transport growth in the LMB would be very low. Some stretches of the Mekong River would see no growth or decline due to competition with faster, but more expensive and polluting road transport.

Climate change is likely to amplify negative impacts, particularly under the drier climate scenario, and poses a significant risk to both food security and GDP growth in the LMB, particularly for Cambodia. These include impacts from sea level rise, such as more salinity intrusion, variability in mean annual flows of the Mekong River, and extreme flood and drought conditions.

* Some national plans derive from previous Mekong Committee hydropower master plans.

How can we stimulate strong economic growth without compromising environmental sustainability and leaving anyone behind?

We can make smart or even joint investment decisions based on sound scientific assessments that consider trade-offs and synergies among sectors and the full costs and benefits to the sustainable management of the environment and society; including developing bold governance approaches to meet basin-wide needs and considering new technologies.

Comprehensive integrated energy and water planning on a basin scale, and adjustments in planned investments in hydropower and agriculture are needed to reduce or avoid substantial ecosystem and sustainability losses.

➜ Only low impact and high return hydropower and agricultural projects should proceed to implementation. As current development scenarios combine both highly positive and negative hydropower and agriculture projects, project-by-project assessments are needed that adequately consider cumulative impacts. Substantial economic benefits can be gained from closer regional integration of power planning and investment. National hydropower development plans that are sub-optimal from a basin point of view need to be adapted accordingly.

➜ To minimize and monitor environmental risks and impacts, performing transboundary and cumulative environmental impact assessments, and joint environmental monitoring and adaptive management is a must for all planned water resource development projects.

➜ Investments in emerging energy generation technologies should continue to be explored. Considering the irreversible effects and path dependency of hydropower development, current and future energy planning should consider replacing potentially high adverse impact hydropower projects by more sustainable forms of power generation; i.e. other renewable power generation technologies, such as solar and wind power where appropriate, possibly in combination with hydropower plants.

Mitigation measures can reduce fishery losses. Mitigation measures should be seriously considered during the design phase and operation of dams to reduce impacts. MRC dam design guidelines can be applied to both mainstream and tributary dams.

➜ Managing trade-offs between hydropower and fisheries is achieved by more efficiently sharing benefits across sectors rather than compensating losses between countries. A possible solution is to reallocate benefits by implementing a levy on hydropower. These funds could then be applied to active monitoring, management and conservation of fisheries and ecosystem resources; e.g. via the implementation of the MRC Basin-wide Fisheries Management Development Strategy, MRC Strategy for Basin-wide Environmental Management, and the MRC Joint Environmental Monitoring for all major dams.

➜ Effective national mitigation could also involve sustainable intensification of aquaculture (less labour requirement) and diversification away from river-based livelihoods, including investments in manufacturing and services, to reduce vulnerabilities. To ensure the sustainability of fish farming, the development of agreed aquaculture production standards, monitoring protocols and graduated enforcement processes represent an opportunity for transboundary cooperation.

Small and more focused intensification of agricultural extension combined with productivity improvements for existing areas would lead to more sustainable outcomes. This is in line with the 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF) on Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) theme of developing entrepreneurship and new enterprises to shape the future of production and the future of food security. Modern farming technologies, such as agricultural machinery and precision farming, and climate-smart agriculture practices; e.g. adapted crops or crop calendars, seed varieties and improved soil management, can help to mitigate food security risks and reduce labour demand in the agricultural sector. Agro-ecotourism, agro-forestry and organic farming has the potential to access the growing demand for ‘clean’ food and increased farming incomes.

Sustainable irrigation should be supported through a programme aimed at reducing water delivery losses and promoting efficient water use through enlarging water storage capacity, rehabilitating old irrigation facilities such as dams, headworks, and canals, and improving the operation and maintenance of existing facilities. Transboundary cooperation is necessary to plan irrigation and mitigate reduced flows that facilitate salinity intrusion; for example, for a joint examination of water balance and use, including irrigation return flows between Cambodia and Viet Nam, and future risks.

➜ Investing in food processing instead of food production and stimulating additional growth in manufacturing and services, such as navigation and education, is recommended, especially in Thailand and Viet Nam. More production of rice and cash crops; e.g. maize and cassava in Cambodia and Lao PDR would support food security for their growing populations and enhance exports. To avoid conflicting labour demands and underutilized infrastructure in the agricultural and secondary sector, the development of a dynamic modelling approach capable of including key influencing factors, such as labour migration patterns within and outside the corridor and price variations, is recommended as a central feature of transboundary planning.

Investments for the MRC navigation Master Plan could be obtained from several funding sources: National budgets, private sector funds, and regional/international loans and grants. The plan can be down-scaled depending on the development of mainstream dams.

➜ A better understanding of the impact of reduced sediment on bed, bank and coastal erosion and river morphology would assist the development of a sediment management plan with measures for erosion protection in the LMB. Such a plan should look at sediments from hydropower reservoir trapping, navigation dredging, sand mining and the need for building materials and land raising.

➜ To invest in carefully chosen sustainable flood defences and bank protection, and in the management and protection of floodplains, strategies for floodplains and flood protection measures are essential. This requires consideration of floodplains in land-use planning and development control, as well as mapping and prioritization of areas where flood risks need to be reduced. The positive impacts of inundation of the floodplain must be incorporated into cost-benefit assessments of flood defences and bank protection development as well as flood damage calculations.

Environmentally-sound technologies to treat urban and industrial wastewater are available and should be adopted, incorporated into urban planning instruments, and enforced.


What should be done following the Council Study? – Making better investments


Ongoing implementation of the Council Study results

At the regional level, the MRC has worked to incorporate and build on the information and findings of the Council Study in its various works, including the State of the Basin Report and the updating of the Sustainable Hydropower Development Strategy, and various tools, thematic strategies and guidelines.

MRC is also working with partners to help further understand the data and results of the Council Study and their application such as using a shared vision planning tool – a collaborative approach to formulating water management solutions that integrates traditional planning processes with structured public participation and collaborative computer modelling.

Finally, the MRC is supporting its Member Countries to consider the Council Study findings, data and tools in national planning and implementation. To implement these activities, additional financial support and technical collaboration with development partners and international and regional partners is required.

MRC strategies and guidelines

Better basin-wide and integrated planning, mitigation measures and monitoring, and management and governance mechanisms are needed. In addition to the implementation of the MRC Procedures, including the Prior Consultation process for proposed mainstream dams, the MRC is working on a number of basin-wide strategies and guidelines to optimize national planning and mitigate transboundary impacts.

The updated Mekong Sustainable Hydropower Development Strategy (SHDS) considers regional energy needs and integration, national development goals, emerging forms of renewable energy, climate change, transboundary social and environmental issues, cost and benefit sharing and joint projects. The SHDS and other basin strategies would help inform the updating of the Basin Development Strategy for the next period.

The updated Preliminary Design Guidance for Proposed Mainstream Dams in the LMB provides performance targets and principles for the design and operation of mainstream (and tributary) dams, to mitigate transboundary impacts. The Technical Guidelines for Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessments (TbEIA Guidelines) should be used to ensure transboundary environmental impacts are identified, and measures planned for their avoidance and minimization. The MRC Joint Environmental Monitoring of mainstream hydropower projects would ensure data sharing among MRC countries and developers, transparent monitoring and adaptive management of dams.

The Master Plan for Regional Waterborne Transport in the Mekong River Basin (Volume 1) (Volume 2) aims to increase waterborne transport and make navigation safer and more sustainable. The plan also considers intermodal terminals serving regions connected by rail and/or road transport. The Mekong Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan (MASAP) sets out the strategic priorities and actions at basin level through which the MRC can contribute to addressing climate change risks and strengthen basin-wide resilience. The Mekong Basin-Wide Fisheries Management and Development Strategy aims to manage and develop fisheries resources.

Further basin-wide strategies under development or update include: The Drought Management Strategy, Flood Management and Mitigation Strategy, and the Strategy for Basin-wide Environmental Management for Prioritised Environmental Assets. Regarding irrigation, the MRC is developing guidelines for the design and operation of irrigation systems and for fish-friendly irrigation.