Mekong water security sets off alarm bells in the region

Chheang Vannarith / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
A man holds fish to make prahok at the Mekong riverbank on the outskirts Phnom Penh. The Mekong River, running across six countries, provides critical resources sustaining the livelihood and food security of millions of Chinese, Burmese, Laotian, Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese. Reuters

Questions relating to international hydro-politics and the geopolitics of the Mekong River are becoming more imminent as riparian countries compete to get access to water resources, writes Chheang Vannarith.

Water resource security – which involves the sustainable use and protection of water systems, the mitigation against floods and droughts, and the sustainable development of water resources – is one of the emerging key regional issues in Southeast Asia.

The Mekong River, running across six countries, provides critical resources sustaining the livelihood and food security of millions of Chinese, Burmese, Laotian, Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese. However, mismanaging this trans-boundary water resource and other related resources has been a source of tensions between the riparian countries.

Conflict over the use of water resources is getting more complex in the Mekong region as upstream and downstream countries are not legally bound to cooperate and manage the resources in a fair and sustainable manner.

Water insecurity has been exacerbated by the collapse of the Xe-pian Xe-Namnoy dam in Laos last month, which inflicted tragedies for Laos with some impacts on Cambodia. The disaster forces regional stakeholders, especially political leaders and investors, to review their plans to construct hydropower dams.

Questions relating to international hydro-politics and the geopolitics of the Mekong River are becoming more imminent as riparian countries compete to get access to water resources, as its economic and strategic value keep rising.

The demand for water resources is driven by multiple factors, including population growth, urbanization, industrialization, intensive agriculture development, energy demand and climate change. And resource nationalism and populist politics will further complicate and intensify tensions over the management and usage of trans-boundary water resources.

Early policy interventions are critical at this stage. The riparian governments must exercise preventive diplomacy with the aim to form consensual diplomatic and political actions in order to prevent conflicts either from arising or escalating, or to minimize the impact of existing conflicts. And voluntary briefings on the development of water resources and its usage should be further encouraged. An early warning system based on existing mechanisms needs to be developed to prevent the occurrence and escalation of conflicts.

Regional cooperation mechanisms such as the Mekong River Commission (MRC), Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), and Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) have been established with the objective to sustainably manage this trans-boundary water resource. However, these regional mechanisms lack synergy and coordination. Hence there is room for improvement and gaps need to be addressed – such as an institutional gap, knowledge gap, and implementation gap.

Asean is directly affected by geopolitical competition in the Mekong region. Efforts to narrow the development gap will be hindered if there is no effective mechanism to manage the differences arising from usage of the resource.

In 2010, Asean and the Mekong River Commission signed a cooperation agreement to facilitate dialogues and build the capacity of CLMV countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam) in environmental governance, especially in dealing with water-related disasters. However, Asean does not have much resources to flesh out the agreed joint projects.

Multi-stakeholder dialogue and partnerships are believed to help reconcile different interests between the riparian countries. A multi-stakeholder approach is a process of trust building and collaboration between the actors. The process needs to ensure that the views of the actors are heard and to integrate solutions that benefit everyone.

The statement of the MRC’s development partners at the 3rd MRC Summit in April stresses that, “transboundary cooperation and coordination among riparian countries and the open and meaningful involvement of all stakeholders are essential to minimize the negative impacts and optimize the benefits of water infrastructure and other economic development projects”.

In order to prevent water conflicts along the Mekong River, it is necessary to strengthen the existing regional institution, particularly MRC, and promote multi-stakeholder dialogues with more openness and transparency. China and Myanmar, and importantly MRC observers, need to be a part of that process.

The riparian governments need to enhance their working relationship and partnership with the development partners, private sector, and civil society organizations in order to develop a holistic solution to the whole issue of water security. Collaboration and partnership among these different stakeholders are vital to sustainably manage these crucial life-saving water resources.

Chheang Vannarith is vice-chairman at the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS).

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