COM 03/2016

Crisis? What Crisis? Mekong Water Resources Management in 2016 and Beyond

Dr. Philipp Magiera, Programme Director Mekong River Commission-GIZ Cooperation Programme, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)


Since 2015, the Lower Mekong region is going through an extreme drought period, with high temperatures, less than average rainfall and reduced flow in rivers. Such extreme situations are litmus tests for the functioning and the resilience of water resources management strategies and water governance as such. In particular, they show whether agreed upon regional water governance arrangements work – or not. One just needs to open a newspaper these days in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand or Vietnam to see that the tests fail in the Lower Mekong region. The un- mitigated impacts of the drought – reduced flow and therefore insufficient usable water as well as sea water intrusion into the Mekong delta – have repercussions in all Mekong countries. The drought is a risk to social coherence, food security, ecology, and economic activities beyond agriculture such as navigation. Even though there is scientific proof that in a strong El Niño year, droughts are to be expected in Southeast Asia, the 2015/16 drought seems to be catching the governments of the Mekong basin by surprise.

Actual responses illustrate that long-term, coordinated and joint management of the transboundary Mekong water resources, as necessary as it is in such a crisis situation, is still work in progress. While Vietnam prepares its Mekong delta communities for emergency response to the increasing salinization of its groundwater, canals and rivers, Cambodia had to start distributing emergency drinking water to some drought-stricken communities. Both countries expects severe losses in their rice production this year. And both countries are at the receiving end of the Mekong basin. This is especially relevant in a year like 2015/16 that saw too little rainfall to e.g. fill the Tonle Sap Lake and enable it to play its role as gigantic water buffer for the dry season needs. Laos seems to be torn between grappling with domestic drought impacts, showing responsibility by help- ing out Cambodia and Vietnam by releasing water from its Nam Ngum 1 Dam and others, and working with Thailand on a bilateral cross-border (and thus cross-Mekong) diversion of Nam Ngum water into Thailand’s dry Northeast, a project that yields little tangible benefits for Laos, apart from diplomatic credit by Thailand. Thailand itself has lately shown little consideration of transboundary accountability, trying to quickly put into place massive diversion schemes for Mekong waters. Although such dry sea- son diversions need to be notified under the Mekong Agreement of 1995, that Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam are signatories to, Thailand has so far avoided this step.

The signing of the Mekong Agreement in 1995 created the Mekong River  Commission  (MRC), an intergovernmental organisation which provides a unique platform for its four member countries to tackle challenges connected to water resources management in a joint manner. The mandate of MRC is to “promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being”. It has a regional flood centre that pro- vides monitoring and forecasting services, but has only recently started to work on drought management.

Typical to crisis situations are attempts to divert attention from own shortcomings. Several nation- al media outlets in the Mekong region have clearly linked the 2015/16 drought to water use and above all hydropower development upstream. In particular, Chinese dam building on the Upper Mekong has been linked to the current drought impacts. Hydro- power development certainly has impacts on environmental quality, biodiversity and depending on the type of dam, also flow quantity, if international sustainability criteria aren’t followed in the planning and implementation. Although China has already built six Mekong dams, and is building or planning at least five more, the total water storage needed to actually cause a drought as massive as the current one in the Lower Mekong basin, has not been built so far. China contributes a long-term average of only 17% to the total annual flow of the Mekong River. The operational regime of the Chinese dams (release water for power production in the dry season, store water in the wet season) is in line with the water needs of the Lower Mekong countries, which are higher in the dry season than in the wet season. The Chinese developments have led and will further lead to a pronounced shift of flow that would naturally occur during the wet season into the dry season, thereby levelling the historic hydrograph of the Lower Mekong.

Given the fact that some water storage is available in the Chinese reservoirs prompted Lower Mekong governments, particularly Vietnam, to ask for a re- lease of stored water to ease the sea water intrusion in the Mekong delta. The Chinese government announced a temporary water release from its Jing- hong dam from mid-March to mid-April. Accompanied by a lot of publicity and words of thanks by regional leaders, such a release to free storage space in the reservoirs before the start of the seasonal rains would have happened sooner or later anyway, as a look at the discharge data collected by MRC reveals[1]. It’s a gesture of goodwill, not less, not more. But this move was a welcome backdrop for the Chinese efforts to be seen as a cooperative Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) partner by the MRC member countries, culminating in the LMC’s Sanya Declaration on 23 March 2016 that made explicit reference to future cooperation on flood and drought management. Water resources management of the Mekong has thus reached the realm of regional geo- politics. Little is known outside foreign ministries on the actual content of the LMC concept note and the so called “early harvest” investment projects. The LMC still needs to show whether it will have a lasting positive impact on a more coordinated management of the Mekong’s water resources between the MRC member countries and China and to some extent Myanmar[2]. While it is a diplomatic effort, past Chinese cooperation with other neighbours e.g. in Central Asia make it unlikely that China has an interest to enter into a new binding agreement to co- ordinate the Mekong water use. The likelihood of entering the existing Mekong Agreement and thus becoming an MRC member country seems to be unrealistic so far. Proposed infrastructure investment projects in the region, possibly financed by the Chinese-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, might even lead to further challenges for the Mekong’s water resources. The MRC proactively pointed out their readiness to work with China in the LMC framework on ensuring regional cooperation in water resources management.

The MRC is certainly well placed to play a constructive role in regional water management, also involving coordination with China and Myanmar which had previously expressed interest  to  enter the Mekong Agreement. The MRC could foster this interest. MRC has adopted five procedures that are regulating how the Mekong waters can be sustain- ably managed, focusing e.g. on flow maintenance, water quality and consultation on big infrastructure projects with impacts on the Mekong’s resources, such as hydropower dams or water diversion. Critics of the MRC, who would like to see the organisation active in preventing harm to the Mekong by e.g. stopping dam building on the mainstream, are overlooking that the MRC doesn’t have an implementation mandate, but depends on how its member countries interpret and implement its procedures. The four member countries are the actual owners of MRC. MRC actions and plans are always the result of partly very extensive consultation and negotiation processes among the four member countries. The Secretariat of MRC is thus the wrong addressee for criticism, which rather should address those member countries that are responsible for developments the MRC critics don’t agree to. The current crisis situation exemplifies the fact that some MRC member countries choose to rate their national agenda over a joint regional approach, if they see it necessary because of domestic challenges or political imperatives. What is actually needed is decisive action on both the regional and the national level, in order to cope with the impacts of the drought, and for sustainable water resource management in general.

On the regional level, MRC provides the established coordination, consultation and negotiation framework. MRC can first of all provide a joint understanding of the nature of droughts, their possible impacts and the possibilities to mitigate these impacts. Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam clearly need to coordinate their responses to droughts (as well as other extremes such as floods). This surely can be triggered by the MRC Secretariat, which can call for meetings on issues of urgent mutual concern, such as the current drought crisis. Some of these possibilities will be transboundary in nature, like water releases or the use of ecosystem-based adaptation and/or mitigation measures. MRC member countries need to be transparent about the availability and use of the water resources and they need to enter into negotiations on water-related benefit sharing mechanisms. Joint water resource management can first of all identify the national and regional benefits, and then define approaches to ensure equal shares of these benefits for all member countries. In the mid- term, the countries can also develop joint (non-infrastructure or infrastructure) projects that will help them to cope with future drought situations and other extremes that climate change is likely to bring to the region. All of these options are embedded in the Me- kong Agreement. They need action by MRC member countries to be effective; hence MRC-led action planning in regard to the current drought would be a first step. The future Mekong Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan that is currently being developed by MRC is a very good starting point for further, mid- to long term responses and actions.

On the national level, policy decisions, whether permanent or restricted to drought years, need to be taken to manage water efficiently, specifically in sectors with a high degree of consumptive use. Sustainable solutions to drought management would inevitably have impacts on water and land use by economic activities such as irrigated agriculture. Should droughts occur more often due to climate change, decision makers will need to raise the question if e.g. Northeast Thailand can really afford to grow paddy rice, or whether it will have to shift to other crops and thus water management regimes? Or whether the pumping of groundwater for whichever economic activity in Vietnam’s Mekong delta can still be sustainable, or needs to be restricted to combat sea water intrusion and secure access to potable water?

Crisis times provoke crisis management. The MRC member countries have an organisation and the instruments at hand to move from crisis to sustainable and long-term management of the common water resources of the Mekong. Crises like the current one can be avoided by making use of the MRC and its instruments in a cooperative manner. Only joint action, agreed upon in a transparent way, based on the scientific expertise of the MRC Secretariat, will lead to sustainable solutions. It needs the political will of all four MRC member countries to realise them.


[2] The Sanya Declaration intends to „ Enhance cooperation among LMC countries in sustainable water resources management and utilization […].”