1. Key water-related development challenges in the Mekong River Basin – Brief overview

Countries in the Mekong River Basin (MRB) have recorded impressive economic growth, mainly due to the opportunities provided by the Mekong River. The river serves as a lifeline to millions who dwell in the MRB, providing irrigation (for agriculture), work and revenue in fisheries and sediment extraction, water supply, hydropower, and opportunities for tourism.

Any large-scale development of the river must consider that riparian communities may have different priorities for river use such as hydropower (Lao People’s Democratic Republic, hereafter “Lao PDR”); water in agriculture (Thailand and Viet Nam); and fisheries (Cambodia). In addition, the People’s Republic of China (hereafter “China”), Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam use the navigable course of the river as a trade route (WWF-Greater Mekong, 2016[1]).

Furthermore, climate modelling based on the downscaled climate change data sets (AR5 - 2014 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – IPCC) applied by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) under its Climate Change Adaptation Initiative (CCAI) showed that the MRB is among the river basins most vulnerable to climate change (Oeurng et al., 2019[2]). Adaptation to climate change for riparian communities in transboundary river basins calls for increased co-operation in terms of regional security and economic development.

To bolster co-operation, the Asian Development Bank and six countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) launched the GMS Economic Cooperation Program to enhance economic relations in 1992; the MRC was established in 1995; the Ayeyawady–Chao Phraya–Mekong Economic Co-operation Strategy engaged Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam to promote development in the sub-region in 2003; in 2015, China launched the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), which identified five areas of necessary policy action: agriculture and rural development, cross-border economic co-operation, production capacity, connectivity, and water resources. These initiatives provide a strong foundation for further transboundary co-operation on MRB issues.

The Mekong River originates approximately 5 200 metres above sea level at the Tibetan Plateau and discharges into the South China Sea after travelling 4 350 kilometres. The river drains a 795 000 km2 catchment area, and has the eighth-largest annual discharge volume (475 km3) in the world (MRC, 2010[3]). The Mekong Delta is characterised by a wide riverbed and numerous estuaries. The characteristics of the river and the delta make their influence on socio-economic development large, particularly, in Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam. The MRB is host to some of the richest biodiversity in the world, and species of animals and plants continue to be discovered. The Mekong holds three times more fish species per unit area than the Amazon River (WWF, n.d.[4]). 115 species of plants and animals were discovered in MRB countries in 2016 and an even greater number were discovered the following year. (WWF, 2017[5]). The MRB wetlands are also important biodiversity hotspots that play an important role in the economy, society and culture of the region (WWF-Greater Mekong, 2016[1]).

This chapter discusses the following key socio-economic and environmental challenges facing the Mekong River:

  • irrigation, sanitation and water supply quality

  • water transportation infrastructure

  • hydropower development

  • climate change response

  • tourism.

Irrigation is the major beneficiary of the Mekong River, using 70% of its water resources. The total irrigated area in the basin is approximately four million hectares, and irrigated areas are expanding steadily in many countries. Sixty per cent of the MRB population is engaged in agriculture. However, the majority are smallholder farmers who cultivate less than two hectares, and depend mostly on household members for labour (MRC, 2018[6]), thus limiting the GDP contribution of the sector to about 14% (MRC, 2018[7]). The relatively fertile flood plain, riverine and deltaic areas have higher population densities. These areas host most of the major urban population centres in the basin, including Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Udon Thani and Ubon Ratchaathani and Can Tho. North-eastern Thailand and Viet Nam’s Mekong Delta account for most of the irrigation (by area) in the Mekong region (Table ‎1.1). Expansion of agriculture in the basin is limited by water availability in the dry season.

Reservoir dams upstream may be able to support the storage of water during the dry season, providing a boost to the agricultural sector. In the next 20 years, there are plans to increase dry season irrigated area by 50% (from 1.2 to 1.8 million hectares). Lao PDR is planning to expand irrigated area from less than 100 000 hectares to more than 300 000 hectares (MRC, 2018[7]). Cambodia is also considering a major expansion of its irrigated area (Lacombe and McCartney, 2016[9]). The construction of reservoirs and dams along the Mekong River and its tributaries has altered the migration pattern of fish in some areas. Sanitation and water supply quality need improvement.

The pressure exerted by population growth and socio-economic development has posed considerable challenges for communities to access safe water. Between 2018 and 2060, the basin’s population is projected to rise from about 65 million to about 83 million. Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation lead to reduced land for agriculture, increased demand for clean water and more wastewater. These demands place an enormous burden on the Mekong’s water resources (MRC, 2016[10]).

Throughout the Mekong River region, research on water quality has focused on large bodies of water such as the main river canals. Pollutants and contaminants are often diluted in those areas due to the enormous volumes of water. However, other studies show that local communities primarily use large river sources for irrigation or navigation while using smaller tributaries and canals near their homes for daily water supply, hygiene and sanitation needs. Unfortunately, these smaller water sources have much higher concentrations of pollutants and contaminants (Sebesvari and Renaud, 2017[11]). Research on how to preserve the quality of these vital drinking water supplies is currently lacking.

Cambodia and Lao PDR are the MRB countries with the least access to proper sanitation and piped or connected water supply services. Studies suggest that untreated sewage makes up a major portion of water pollution in canals and smaller tributaries of the Mekong River, especially those in densely populated areas (Chea, Grenouillet and Lek, 2016[12]). Limited availability of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, as well as inadequate behaviour, are major contributors to the high rate of waterborne and foodborne diseases in MRB countries (Smajgl and Ward, 2013[13]).

The Mekong River is the river course for inland and transboundary (international) water transport. The upstream section of the river is suitable for inland navigation from river ports in Yunnan, China, running to Lao PDR and then reaching Kompong Channang in Cambodia. The downstream section of the river is navigable by both inland and maritime transport (MRC, 2018[7]). Trade along the river generates economic benefits, but increased traffic can pose environmental risks to the river and safety risks to its users. The MRC’s Navigation Programme is designed to address these concerns by establishing legal principles with respect to navigation and increasing international trade opportunities for MRC member countries, while ensuring safe and effective river transportation (MRC, 2012[14]).

Unlike the Mekong River, the Mekong Delta can accommodate larger vessels in greater numbers. It handles 78% of the annual cargo volume, and 89% of the passenger traffic on the Mekong. The upper stretch of the river between China and Cambodia is only navigable by smaller vessels carrying less than 250 tonnes. The middle stretches from Thailand to Cambodia via Lao PDR can accommodate larger vessels carrying more than 300 tonnes (UNECE, 2019[15]).

Although the delta has more than 30 000 kilometres of rivers and canals, port infrastructure usually operates below capacity. The lack of connectivity between the inland waterways, ports and road networks severely limits efficiency. There are 7 seaports, 31 harbours and 57 inland ports in the Mekong Delta. In spite of this, around 80% of goods are still transported by land to seaports in the region (Dezan Shira and Associates, 2018[16]). Development of connectivity may further enhance the region’s economic potential.

The development of inland waterways transport (IWT) in the upper reaches of the Mekong (above the Khone Falls) is constrained by narrow and turbulent sections of the river and large seasonal variations in water levels. The Mekong River does provide an important link in the transit route between Kunming, China and Bangkok, Thailand. An estimated 800 000 tonnes of IWT cargo are shipped annually among China, Thailand, Myanmar and Lao PDR (MRC, 2018[7]).

IWT trade in the Lower Mekong River has grown in recent years, with a steady increase in container traffic at Phnom Penh Port and in general cargo through Can Tho Port. IWT trade received a significant boost with the opening of a new deep-water port at Cai Mep in Viet Nam, where terminals accommodate some of the largest container ships in the world. Cargo can therefore be shipped internationally to and from Phnom Penh with a single trans-shipment at Cai Mep (MRC, 2009[17]).

Recent estimates suggested that IWT cargo volumes increased from approximately 15 million tonnes in 2007 to 23 million tonnes in 2014, an average annual growth rate of 6.4% (MRC, 2017[18]). The annual net economic value of cargo transportation in 2007 was estimated at USD 6.8 billion. Viet Nam had the largest share at USD 5.1 billion, followed by Cambodia (USD 1.1 billion), Lao PDR (USD 0.4 billion) and Thailand (USD 0.2 billion) (MRC, 2017[18]). Viet Nam’s waterways carry a much higher proportion of the national freight (almost 19% in terms of tonne-kilometres) compared to the other leading IWT regions (for instance, China, the United States and the European Union carry 5-8% each). Globally, the volume of freight carried by waterways increased from 73 million tonnes in 2014 to 80 million tonnes in 2015, an increase of 8.8% year-on-year.

The number of passengers travelling on IWT transport (i.e. speed boats and cruise vessels) in the Mekong River is significant. An estimated 63 000 passengers, including tourists, are transported annually in Cambodia and Viet Nam (MRC, 2017[18]). To continue spurring growth in both of these areas, MRB countries need to invest in increasing the port capacity and expanding the network to increase connectivity and efficiency (MRC, 2017[18]).

MRB hydropower sources are important for all MRB countries, supplying 10% of electricity demand. Lao PDR derives nearly all of its supply from MRB hydropower, while Cambodia obtains more than one-third of its electricity supply from hydropower plants in the basin. Thailand has the lowest share of MRB hydropower in its supply mix, including significant hydropower imports from Lao PDR. Viet Nam covers around 9% of its demand from plants in the central highlands (MRC, 2018[7]). The MRC believes hydropower would create great economic and energy gains. However, it also raises concerns about the potential impacts of infrastructure and operation on the environment, fisheries and the livelihoods of people in the MRB.

The river structure and flow make it highly suitable for hydropower generation, especially near the border between China and Lao PDR where elevation of the river drops by 400 metres in a short distance (MRC, 2018[19]). Countries seeking to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels are transitioning to more renewable energy sources. Hydropower is the only clean energy source that can fuel rapid economic growth in MRB countries. Hundreds of hydropower projects and dams (regulating, storage, etc.) along the Mekong are at various stages of development from planning to completion (Figure ‎1.1). The above figure excludes projects in the Mekong tributaries. It is estimated that large-scale hydropower dams could generate 30 000 megawatts of electricity for the region. To fulfil this potential, regional governments are taking into account the construction of 88 additional dams in the Lower Mekong River basin by 2030 (Sassoon, 2017[20]).

Furthermore, more than 120 dams are planned for Mekong tributaries and 11 large-scale hydropower dams are slated for the Mekong mainstream, which could produce more than 13 000 megawatts (MW) of hydropower. While Thailand and Viet Nam have already developed most of their tributary sites, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar possess the greatest potential for hydropower resource development (Open Development Mekong, 2017[23]). By 2030, these three countries are expected to generate 96% of their power through hydroelectricity (ICEM, 2010[24]).

Excess hydropower can also be exported to neighbouring countries. Only about 10% of the hydroelectricity generated in Cambodia and Lao PDR will remain in-country, while the rest is intended for export (Open Development Mekong, 2017[23]). Lao PDR, which aims to be the “Battery of Asia”, intends to export electricity to its neighbours and other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). National banks and multinational companies from China, Thailand and Viet Nam have formed private-public partnerships with host governments of the MRB to build hydroelectric dams in the region.

Hydropower could contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, yet as climate change alters water availability, changing rainfall patterns could reduce or alter the flow of rivers, threatening the potential of hydropower. For example, between 2014 and 2017, an unprecedented drought reduced water pressure in hydroelectric plants in Brazil, resulting in increased water consumption tariffs (UNFCCC, 2018[25]). Most climate scenarios predict more extreme dry periods, thus calling for alternative sources of power such as solar to be explored (MRC, 2018[26]).

Development of hydropower projects along the Lancang-Mekong necessitates the regular assessment of hydropower’s impact on sedimentation, river flow and level fluctuations and fishery needs. MRB countries still have large rural populations that are predominantly employed in agriculture and fisheries. Proper fishery management is therefore essential to ensure the survival of fishing-related industries. In Lao PDR, the value of the fisheries is equivalent to nearly 13% of the country’s GDP. Although proportionally less significant to the national economy, the Mekong fisheries in Thailand and Viet Nam add well over USD 5.5 billion to their GDP annually (MRC, 2015[27]).

Mekong countries have made efforts to protect fishery resources. In 2010, Cambodia and Lao PDR signed a memorandum of understanding on fishery management and strategies for transboundary fishing. In 2015, China and Lao PDR signed a co-operation agreement to protect fishery resources. The agreement delineates 40 kilometres of the river from the Chinese and Lao PDR border as a common protected area. It creates a framework for co-operation that clearly defines responsibilities and obligations, including joint enforcement and releasing of fish stocks (MRC, 2017[28]). In August 2017, the Cambodian government announced that the provincial departments of agriculture would be given more powers to crack down on fishing offences. A ban was expected to be imposed on 3-centimetre fishing nets and fishing devices longer than 300 metres to reduce the catch of immature fish. Fishers would also be required to apply for a licence to use fishing machinery (Vannak, 2017[29]).

Several emerging issues affect water security in the Mekong River Basin and its inhabitants’ ability to adapt to climate change. The hydrological cycle of the Mekong is driven mainly by the regional monsoon climate, resulting in a regular annual flood pulse. The flood pulse provides a timely supply of water and nutrient-rich sediments for agriculture and inland fisheries, as well as extensive instream and wetland ecosystems. As such, it represents an essential driving force for life, livelihoods and major ecosystems in the MRB (Arias et al., 2013[30]). The livelihoods of a growing number of people living in the basin (approximately 65 million currently) are intertwined with the health of the river (MRC, 2018[7]), however, the future of the hydrological cycle of the Mekong is in question as a result of climate uncertainties. Climate modelling shows that the MRB will experience changes in flow and alteration in its annual flood cycle. The river’s original structure and hydrological cycle may be altered as a result of increasing use and demand for raw water, food and energy in the region. Land use and other human activities further compound the effects of climate change.

Weather pattern changes affect the agriculture production cycle and fish breeding. Changes in water level and flow affect navigation routes and operation of hydropower plants and reservoirs. Sediment flow is also altered due to changes in flood pulse. Large water storage structures and extraction for irrigation further compound alterations to sediment flow. A 2009 Mekong River Delta Climate Change Forum Report showed that saline intrusion has reached further inland affecting large areas of the Delta region. Saline intrusion is a typically-occurring phenomenon owing to seasonal discharge fluctuations, however it has been exacerbated recently by rising sea levels, and abnormally low water volumes. If the intrusion expands into the agricultural area of the Delta, it will cause further decline in agricultural productivity of the region (CGIAR Research Program on CCAFS SEA, 2016[31]). Furthermore, increased vulnerability to floods and drought in the basin will affect livelihoods and undermine agricultural productivity. The wet season is also projected to shorten slightly and the corresponding extension of the dry season suggests greater likelihood of drought periods when combined with warmer temperatures. Studies about future climate impacts in the Mekong Basin broadly share a set of common themes: increased temperature and annual precipitation, increased flood intensities in the Mekong Delta and Cambodian floodplain, variability in runoff, prolonged droughts in the south and east of the basin, and sea-level rise and salinity intrusion in the Mekong Delta (Evers and Pathirana, 2018[32]). The Mekong River Basin is vulnerable to several climate change impacts that include a predicted mean temperature rise of approximately 0.8°C by 2030. A regional increase in annual precipitation of 200 millimetres is also anticipated (MRC, 2018[7]).

The dry season brings unpredictable fairway conditions to the upper and middle portions of the Mekong River, rendering navigation difficult and unsafe. Extended periods of drought exacerbate this problem. Moreover, navigability of the river in the MRB is further threatened by sand mining. Few larger river ports are available on the upper stretch and most of the trans-shipment is done directly via the natural riverbank (Mekong Institute, 2016[33]).

MRC basin-wide assessments of climate impact on flood behaviour suggest that flooded areas might increase by 2060. At Chiang Saen, annual sediment flows have decreased from about 85 megatonnes (Mt) to 10.8 Mt. This indicates a reduction in sediments from China to the Mekong mainstream from 55% to about 16%. A similar trend is seen downstream at Pakse, where average annual loads decreased from 147 Mt to 66 Mt between 1994 and 2013. Changes in sediment concentrations, brought about by the construction of storage reservoirs, signal a substantial and seemingly permanent change in the river’s morphology (MRC, 2018[7]).

Even at present, floods continue to damage the economies of MRC member countries. Data for the five years between 2010-14 show the annual cost of flood damage varied between USD 20 million in 2012 and USD 500 million in 2011. The average cost was USD 200 million per year (MRC, 2018[34]). The rising of the sea level is threatening the region’s coastal communities, adding stress to coastal ecosystems such as mangroves. These have already suffered due to large-scale conversion for rice cultivation and aquaculture of shrimp and fish. By the end of the century, higher sea levels in the Mekong Delta, where nearly half of Viet Nam’s rice is grown, may inundate half of the delta’s agricultural lands (approximately 1.4 million hectares) and displace millions of people (WWF, 2009[35]).

The rapidly-growing aquaculture sector (2.1 Mt in 2012, compared with 0.7 Mt in 2002) compensates for the decline in capture fisheries, but creates pollution and destroys wetlands due to unsustainable management and operational practices (MRC, 2018[7]). Fishing effort has increased to cope with growing demand, and smaller fish currently make up an increasing proportion of the total catch. However, the growth is necessary to cover the shortage brought on by increased urbanisation, changing consumption patterns and growing export markets. Thus, aquaculture is increasingly important to the basin’s economy and food security. Viet Nam is the leader in this area, accounting for 86% of Mekong countries’ aquaculture production.

The Mekong River serves other vital functions in its riparian ecosystems, such as sediment transport. Sediments serve as a major carrier and storage agent for nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium. Sediment carriage by the river is the main contributor to the immense productivity of the Tonle Sap River and the Mekong Delta (WWF-Greater Mekong, 2016[1]). The deposited sediment preserves the shape of riverbeds and deltas, contributes to crop and fishery productivity, provides construction and land reclamation material, and creates habitable and cultivable landscapes (WWF-Greater Mekong, 2016[1]). The lake retains about 80% of the sediment and nutrients carried into it by the flow reversal. This has been the main factor underpinning the success of wet rice cultivation and fisheries in Cambodia. Many Mekong River fish species are migratory, crossing national boundaries during their lifecycle driven by hydrological pulses (Neiland and Béné, 2008[36]). Fishing and related activities are the primary economic activity for nearly 80% of the labour force in Cambodia and the fishery depends directly on seasonal flooding of the lake (Seng, 2019[37]).

Studies found that more than 55 million tonnes of sediment were extracted from the Mekong main stem in Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam in 2011. This is a conservative estimate as it covers neither the tributaries nor the upper Mekong (WWF-Greater Mekong, 2018[38]). Dam reservoirs trap part of the suspended load of sediment (silt, clay and fine sand) and most of the bed load (sand and gravel), reducing the sediment load in the river downstream. Dams are thought to have already reduced the volume of sediment from 160 Mt before 1994 to 75 Mt in 2014. One study modelled a future reduction of sediment flow in the delta of 51%, based on 38 existing and planned dams (WWF-Greater Mekong, 2018[38]). Sediment extraction is a problem in Cambodia (60% of extraction volume in 2011-12), Viet Nam, Thailand and Lao PDR. In 2009, Cambodia banned the export of sand following concerns over the volumes exported to Singapore for land reclamation and Viet Nam followed suit the same year. However, local sand consumption remains high in these two countries due to economic growth that fuels construction (WWF-Greater Mekong, 2018[38]), even though studies have shown that natural sediment supplies from the upper reaches of the Mekong are insufficient to compensate for the loss of extracted bed aggregates. This shows the non-sustainable nature of local sand mining (Jordan et al., 2019[39]).

Water is an important tourism resource, which could significantly influence the attractiveness of a destination. Water-based tourism can take several forms depending on the characteristics of the body of water upon which it is reliant. As such, a broad distinction can be made between maritime tourism, on one hand, and river and lake tourism on the other. It is further possible to differentiate between cultural (e.g. heritage sites, landscapes) and leisure and well-being activities (e.g. sailing, diving, balneotherapy).

The MRB region is one of the leading tourist arrival regions in the world, with about 60 million international arrivals in 2017 (Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office). In 2017, the Mekong Delta received over 22.4 million tourists, generating USD 495 million in revenue. In 2016, Can Tho and Kien Giang were the two most-visited places in the delta. Tourism income for the two destinations reached USD 127.6 million and USD 201.4 million, respectively (Dezan Shira and Associates, 2018[16]). Delta tourism potential lies in areas such as ecotourism, resorts and exploration tourism. The tourism industry could create an additional 300 000 jobs in the delta by 2025, leading to a sustainable and diversified regional economy (Dezan Shira and Associates, 2018[16]). Furthermore, Viet Nam’s delta region is the most heavily cruised segment of the Mekong. Its main attractions include floating markets and villages, its maze of canals, cultural and historical sites, community-based tourism and distinct natural environment. The delta’s popularity is also due to its proximity to, and ease of access from, Ho Chi Minh City – an international air hub and first-tier destination (UNWTO, 2016[40]).

In Cambodia, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor is a well-recognised attraction in the region. It is not located on the Mekong River, but linked by a 100-kilometre channel and the Tonle Sap Lake (UNWTO, 2016[40]). River tourism is growing steadily in Cambodia, although many opportunities exist for further development. Phnom Penh plays a pivotal role, as it is the geographical hub for cruises to and from the Mekong Delta, Tonle Sap Lake, Siem Reap and the Mekong Discovery Trail running to the Lao PDR border. However, the Trail is under-used due to lack of promotion and poor cross-border connectivity (UNWTO, 2016[40]).

The Mekong River Valley characterises the landscape of the western boundary of Lao PDR and the Mekong flows through areas of Lao PDR otherwise inaccessible. The sights and adventures of river travel in this area are unique and a tourism resource of significant potential for the country (UNWTO, 2016[40]). More of the Mekong River lies in Lao PDR than in all other MRB countries combined, yet its river-based tourism potential remains relatively untapped. The well-established Luang Prabang to HoueiXay route and cruise activities in southern Champassak province reflect the potential of Mekong tourism. Currently, Lao PDR and Thai government officials are focusing on the possible development of a Luang Prabang–Chiang Saen route (UNWTO, 2016[40]).

The Mekong dominates Thailand’s lengthy northern and north-eastern borders. However, cruise tourism and river-based activities play a minor role compared to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has had limited success in promoting river destinations in the northeast of the country (UNWTO, 2016[40]). Boat landings tend to be well developed at locations most frequented by overland tourists and cargo vessels such as Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh and Chiang Saen, Thailand. Construction of modern piers, such as the ones in My Tho in Viet Nam, and Chiang Khan in Thailand, have driven river-based tourism. Other key Mekong destinations, including Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Lao PDR, could benefit from major improvements to boating infrastructure. Various opportunities to develop new types of river-based tourism products (e.g. adventure tourism) along the Mekong River and its tributaries are relatively unexplored due to a general lack of awareness of river-based tourism development (UNWTO, 2016[40]).

Due to the transboundary nature of the river and socio-economic impact of climate change, MRB countries need to strengthen co-operation to implement basin-wide climate adaptation measures (Table 1.2). MRB countries must come together to establish mutual understanding of the impact of climate change on the Mekong River and its ability to support socio-economic growth. Subsequently, they should implement basin-wide climate adaptation programmes and measures. The absence of such measures could erode the substantial economic gains of MRB countries by affecting the livelihoods and lives of their citizens.

Co-operation enables joint development of more cost-effective solutions, which potentially offer benefits to riparian parties. For example, exchanging information and combining impact assessments and model results throughout the basin can increase the reliability of modelling results. Transboundary co-operation in adaptation also helps deploy such measures as flood protection infrastructure where they can have the optimal effect. Costs and benefits of adaptation are shared and increase the overall efficiency and effectiveness of adaptation in the basin (UNECE and INBO, 2015[41]).

Water is the main theme for transboundary co-operation in the Mekong. Following recognition of the need for transboundary and shared governance of the river basin early in the 1950s, the United Nations helped establish the Mekong River Committee, which became the Mekong River Commission in 1995. Four of the six Mekong countries are full-time members of the Commission, while China and Myanmar hold observer status. Table 1.2 on the following page presents a summary of examples of transboundary water governance initiatives since 1992.

Australian Aid, the International Water Management Institute, the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement and Chiang Mai University collaborated to analyse transboundary water governance in the Lower Mekong region. The study highlighted the diversity of actors and the role of decision tools in water resource allocation (Dore, Lebel and Molle, 2012[42]). Co-operation has been established in the MRB since the middle of the 20th century to foster increased regional connectivity through different goals, targets and priority areas (Xu, Bao and Zhou, 2006[43]). These initiatives are described in the following sub-sections.

Economic and energy-related development and security factors across the Mekong region have resulted in a trend of “regional bilateralism”. In this approach, key decisions and investment deals regarding transboundary water resource developments are largely made outside of international frameworks. Instead, they remain cross-border measures between the strongest economies in the region (Thailand and Viet Nam) or among the less industrialised, but resource-rich countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar) (Open Development Mekong, 2017[23]).

In the context of a transboundary climate change adaptation strategy, the MRC has drafted the Mekong Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan (MASAP). This considers MRC’s 2016-2020 Integrated Water Resources Management-based Basin Development Strategy, the 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, and the 2009-2025 Climate Change and Adaptation Initiative Framework Document. The MASAP focuses on seven priority areas: the mainstreaming of climate change adaptation into national policies; co-operation and partnership; a transboundary and gender-sensitive adaptation framework; adaptation finance; monitoring, data collection and sharing; capacity building; and communication and outreach (MRC, 2018[44]).

MRC also engages external partners such as ASEAN, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, donors, international financial institutions and other climate change stakeholders. The presence of regional policies and a vision to adopt technological solutions for climate change adaptation provide a strong foundation for regional climate-resilience building processes (Sembiring, 2018[45]).

In 2009, the MRC’s Navigation Programme facilitated the Agreement on Waterway Transport between Cambodia and Viet Nam. Through the programme, the MRC and China expressed a commitment to improve navigation safety on the Lancang-Mekong River. Myanmar is also included to improve navigation on the Upper and Lower Mekong River (MRC, 2012[14]).

Navigation programmes have helped increase trade in the region. Trade volume between Southwest China's Yunnan Province and the five countries along the Mekong River grew by 13.4% year-on-year in the provincial capital of Kunming, reaching USD 12 billion in 2017, according to data provided by the customs authorities. Customs authorities in Kunming and Mekong River countries co-operated by exchanging information, fighting cross-border crime and working together on customs clearing (XinhuaNet, 2019[46]).

China, Myanmar, Lao PDR and Thailand conducted 73 joint patrols on some areas along the Lancang-Mekong River from December 2011 to late August 2018, especially in the dangerous Golden Triangle area. These aimed to crack down on transnational crimes; protect the security of the ships, goods and people on the river; and ensure that this vital waterway is safe and flourishing (XinhuaNet, 2018[47]).

China has implemented programmes for dredging and provided navigation aids for the first 331 kilometres along the river from Yunnan to Lao PDR. This is expected to allow navigational passage for 100-150 deadweight tonnage vessels for at least 95% of the year, enhancing cross-border water transport, trade facilitation and safety, which also helps growth in the tourism sector (Mekong Institute, 2016[33]). The Joint Committee on Coordination of Commercial Navigation was established in 2002 by China, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand to improve safe navigation on the Mekong (and Lancang) River. Member countries need to review their agreement on commercial navigation on the Lancang-Mekong River. The agreement must be updated to reflect the imminent threat from climate change and recent developments in the Mekong, which have bearing on the safe navigation of the river.

Full co-operation appears more difficult than bilateral and multilateral co-operation when it comes to economic conditions in the river basin. Each partner has adopted different preferences for co-operation targets. Co-operation with more defined objectives was easier to establish than with broader and more complex objectives (Feng et al., 2019[48]).

Water resources co-operation is one of the five priority areas of the LMC and is also the flagship field that members seem to value the most. Through the Sanya Declaration, leaders agreed to enhance co-operation among LMC countries in sustainable management and use of water resources. They also pledged more co-operation through technical exchanges, capacity building, drought and flood mitigation, data and information sharing, as well as joint research and analysis related to resources of the Lancang-Mekong River Basin (Embassy of the P.R. China in Thailand, 2019[49]). The LMC’s Joint Working Group on Water Resources recently established the following thematic areas for action on water resources:

  • sustainable hydropower development and energy security

  • integrated water resources management and climate change adaptation

  • transboundary river co-operation and information sharing

  • water resources and green development

  • rural areas water conservancy and livelihood improvement

  • water sector production capacity co-operation.

The LMC secretariat and its members should monitor and evaluate the impact of these with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals. Ultimately, the region’s development path should not perpetuate environmental and physical degradation of the Mekong River and its tributaries, while mainstreaming climate change adaptation in every area of co-operation.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) established the GMS Economic Cooperation Program with two provinces of China (Yunnan and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Viet Nam. In 2002, the programme’s first ten-year strategy was launched. In 2006, due to mounting environmental and climate change concerns, the programme shifted from small projects related to environmental protection to the GMS Core Environment Program (CEP). The first flagship project of GMS-CEP was the Biodiversity Conservation Corridors Initiative. CEP initiatives include: 1) efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in road freight; 2) solutions to build the climate resilience of rural communities; 3) environmental impact assessments; 4) land use modelling; and 5) other tools and approaches for environmentally sustainable economic development. ADB has built partnerships and alliances with MRC to ensure that funds and resources are allocated strategically to avoid duplication of efforts in the region (ADB, 2018[50]).

MRB countries, either through their governments, transboundary co-operation or donor support, have implemented pockets of projects and programmes on their own. These target “climate-smart” agriculture, green freight, food security, sustainable fishery and alternative sources of green energy. However, the benefits of co-operation mechanisms in climate adaptation are not widely realised due to competing economic interests and emphasis on using the Mekong River as a water resource.

The Mekong River plays a significant role in the MRB economies. Socio-economic development in Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam is heavily influenced by the river. It provides irrigation for agriculture, together with opportunities for water transportation and tourism and is a source of hydropower. However, the role and potential of the river cannot be fully maximised, unless the remaining challenges are addressed. Sanitation and water supply quality would need further improvement while climate change and environmental challenges present other concerns. Adaptation to climate change for riparian communities in transboundary river basins calls for increased regional co-operation. A number of initiatives have been implemented among the countries in the region, providing a strong foundation for further transboundary co-operation on MRB-related issues.


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