POLICY BRIEF: Shaping the Future of Mekong Regional Architecture: Reinforcing Transboundary Water Governance Through Reciprocity

Transboundary-water-policy-brief_Final-25.6.19pg1-1.jpg

Publication date:
June 2019

Publication: 
Shaping the Future of Mekong Regional Architecture: Reinforcing Transboundary Water Governance Through Reciprocity

Download the policy brief here.

This policy brief is produced for track 1.5 Mekong Policy Dialogue on evolving sub-regional architecture and the role of Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), co-organized by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - Australia (DFAT), The Asia Foundation (TAF), and Center for Social Development Studies (CSDS) . For more information more resources from the dialogue, please visit this link here.

Authors: 
Carl Middleton, David J. Devlaeminck, and Anisa Widyasari

Key Findings

  • There is deepening cooperation between the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and Lancang Mekong Cooperation (LMC). The joint activities to date can be understood as examples of specific reciprocity, namely specific exchanges of more-or-less equal value with clearly defined obligations, and have helped build trust.

  • To further collaboration, regional governments will need to gradually move from specific reciprocity to diffuse reciprocity. Here, cooperation is not between specific actors alone (i.e. the MRC and LMC), but reflects a broader cooperation between wider groups of actors and beyond river-based considerations.

  • To date, the MRC has directed more attention to the benefits to the river, including wild capture fisheries and other ecosystem services, whilst the LMC has emphasized more regional economic planning and projects. By working together, the river might be better protected, whilst simultaneously yielding sustainable generation of economic benefits.

  • Some potential directions for furthering collaboration include: a joint, systematic baseline assessment of the current ecological and socio-economic status of the Lancang-Mekong River and key drivers of change; a joint study on the existing legal rules, customary principles, and pledges maintained by each organization to identify points of commonality and difference; and a collaborative analysis to define reciprocity as a concept, and how it can be operationalized through relevant rules and regulations working towards a rulesbased approach.

  • The concept of reciprocity encompasses not just inter-state cooperation but also the interests and activities of non-state stakeholders, such as riverside communities. The MRC and LMC could consider co-organizing multi-stakeholder dialogues to generate a more complete picture of the Lancang-Mekong River and its diverse economic, social and cultural values.

OPINION: Mekong Drought Reveals Need for Regional Rules-based Water Cooperation

by Carl Middleton

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

The severe drought currently faced by farmers and fishers in the Mekong basin is a disaster that reveals many things. It reveals the extent to which large dams now increasingly control river water levels. It reveals too the limits to cooperation between the countries sharing precious water in times of scarcity. And, it reveals the likelihood of an increasingly uncertain future under the conditions of climate change. What must be done in the short and long term?

It is – in theory – now almost the middle of the rainy season. Usually at this time the Mekong River is beginning to swell with the rain waters of the Southwest monsoon. Yet, this year water levels are as if it were a drought in the dry season. This has seriously affected farmers, with their planted rice and other crops withering in parched soil. It has also impacted fishers dependent on the river’s ecology.

In mid-July, the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) stated that the river’s water levels are among the lowest on record for June and July. They explain that there has been a shortage of rainfall across the basin since January. The MRC also highlight that dam operation on the upper Mekong River in China, where it is known as the Lancang River, could have an impact. China sent a notification to the MRC indicating that between 5 to 19 July the water released from the lower of its eleven large dams, called Jinghong, would “fluctuate” due to “grid maintenance.”

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

This has had a two-fold impact. First, it withheld water at a time when downstream countries would have most benefited from more water being released. Second, sending unnatural pulses of water down the river harms river ecology and livelihoods dependent upon it, including riverbank gardens, river weed collection, and fishing, although this has in fact occurred since the late 1990s.

Alongside China’s dams, civil society groups have questioned the role of the Xayaburi dam in Northern Laos, which is scheduled to be commissioned in October this year. Since mid-July, the project had been testing its turbines, causing river fluctuations downstream. The company has denied that they have played a role in the drought, and ironically have even lamented that they were also affected by the withholding of water by China. However, Thailand’s Office of National Water Resources sent a letter to the Government of Laos requesting the testing be temporarily halted.

Less attention has been paid to the possible role of tributary hydropower dams, in particular in Laos that is progressively fulfilling its government’s vision to become the ‘battery of Southeast Asia.’ Over sixty medium and large-scale dams have been built to date. The question here is whether these tributary projects have also been withholding water to replenish their reservoirs to sell electricity. As with all of the hydropower dams in the Lancang-Mekong basin, little real-time data is in the public domain about reservoir water levels.

What are the lessons learned and what is to be done? Most immediately, support needs to be provided to rural communities both to distribute water to the extent that it is available and provide other means of support including, where necessary, financial support. Once the rains do arrive, as is anticipated any day now, hydropower project operators should resist the temptation to immediately begin replenishing their reservoirs for power generation. Rather, the priority should be with distributing water to farmers and recovering the river’s ecology for fishers and wildlife.

In the longer term, if it is true that there is little water in hydropower dam reservoirs, this also reveals the fallacy of depending too much on such infrastructure-led solutions towards managing drought. Rather, it indicates that other forms of preparedness will be necessary including better predictive capacity for droughts before they occur, and well-resourced plans once they do occur at the local, national and transboundary level. It should also include rethinking water storage to consider more groundwater and small-scale solutions, rather than focusing only on large dams.

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

Given that the Mekong River is shared between six countries, it is clear that even deeper inter-governmental cooperation is needed. Since the last severe drought in 2016, much has been said about the new regional cooperation under the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) between China and downstream countries, including how it should cooperate with the MRC. In March 2016, shortly before the region’s leaders committed to the LMC, China released water from the Lancang dams as a show of goodwill in an effort to alleviate the severe drought at that time, although unfortunately the water releases caught some downstream communities unaware.

Building on the collaboration between the MRC and LMC, rather than depend upon informal arrangements for sharing water between China and downstream countries, it would be better to move towards a clearer rules-based approach. The scope of cooperation, some of which has already started, should include: more comprehensive data sharing between governments and with the public; collaborative research; clear rules and procedures on emergency water release; hydropower cascade operation that mimics, to the extent possible, the natural river flow; and improved procedures for genuine public participation, especially for riverside communities.

In the face of worsening climate change, and recognizing that it is often the most vulnerable who face the greatest risk during times of drought, these short and long-term solutions are needed now more than ever.

For the article published in Thai, please visit this link.

Carl Middleton is Director of the Center of Excellence in Resource Politics for Social Development at the Center for Social Development Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. He can be contacted at Carl.Chulalongkorn@gmail.com.

OPINION: What does Chinese ‘reciprocity’ mean for Mekong’s dams?

by Carl Middleton

The Lancang Mekong supports 70 million people living in the basin(Photo: He Daming)

The Lancang Mekong supports 70 million people living in the basin(Photo: He Daming)

It is now two and a half years since the first Lancang Mekong Cooperation (LMC) leaders’ summit was held in Sanya city on Hainan Island, China. The aim of the LMC – a China led multilateral body involving all six Mekong countries – is to deepen economic, cultural and political ties between China and mainland Southeast Asia. Leaders have repeatedly declared the importance of the Lancang-Mekong River to this cooperation. Reflecting this, on 1-2 November, the LMC will host the “1st Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Forum” in Kunming, China.

The LMC’s second leaders’ summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in January 2018 revealed the swift pace of the initiative. This is reflected in the numerous senior-level meetings between governments, the initiation of almost 200 China-funded projects, and the LMC’s deepening institutionalisation through various LMC secretariats and working groups. Yet, while China has hosted people-to-people exchange programs and university scholarships, the LMC’s state-centric approach has afforded little opportunity for public deliberation about its overall policy principles and direction.

Through the LMC, some government officials and scholars from China have proposed that downstream and upstream countries have both rights and responsibilities towards each other. This concept of ‘reciprocity’ is not yet official LMC policy, but suggests a shift in government position compared to China’s earlier unilateral construction of dams on the Lancang River. Overall, the LMC and its proposition of ‘reciprocity’ appears to be an invitation to negotiate basin-wide water cooperation on the Lancang-Mekong River.

Much, however, remains uncertain. For example, how will the LMC build upon the existing inter-governmental Mekong River Commission, established in 1995 by the four lower basin countries? How will the LMC address concerns of riverside communities and civil society and ensure their meaningful inclusion? And how will countries ensure the river’s ecological health given the strong push for economic growth and associated water infrastructure projects? This article asks whether the LMC and the concept of ‘reciprocity’ is a promising approach to meet these challenges.

For the full article, please click here.

REPORT: Charting New Pathways Towards Inclusive and Sustainable Development of the Nu River Valley

REPORT: Charting New Pathways Towards Inclusive and Sustainable Development of the Nu River Valley

Development comes at a cost, but what that cost is and who bears that cost is not set in stone. China’s rapid economic ascent has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but it has also precipitated severe ecological crises. In many cases, a “pollute first, clean up later” mentality towards industrialization has led to inequitable and unjust outcomes for both people and the environment. The Chinese government’s efforts on maintaining high economic growth rates in an effort to modernize the economy and society has in many cases obscured the scale of damage done to the environment, though the Chinese government and other institutional actors are actively taking steps to mitigate and alleviate issues of environmental degradation. The story of the Nu River, also known as the Salween or the Thanlwin, illustrates how hydropower development on the river was actively contested and resisted by diverse stakeholders, opening up possibilities for other kinds of water resource management and development.

Read More

POLICY BRIEF: Thinking Beyond Relocated Villages: Have We Overlooked the Impacts of the Dams on Downstream Communities?

Myanmar is a developing country trying to follow in the footsteps of its neighboring countries, which are rather more developed than itself. The Myanmar Government wants to harness its natural resources and sees the rivers of the country as a national asset in acquiring regular revenue for the government. The decision to build many mega dams on the major rivers of the country such as the Irrawaddy, Salween and Sittaung rivers is considered a natural resource development. With their high energy needs, Myanmar’s two neighboring countries, China and Thailand, want cheap energy by importing hydropower from Myanmar.

Read More

REPORT: Water Governance and Access to Water in Hakha Town, Chin State, Myanmar

REPORT: Water Governance and Access to Water in Hakha Town, Chin State, Myanmar

By Carl Middleton, Naruemon Thabchumpon, Van Bawi Lian and Orapan Pratomlek

 

Hakha town is the capital of Chin State, Myanmar, located in the mountainous Northwest of the country. In recent years, the town’s population has faced growing water insecurity, which has created great hardship for the local population. Meanwhile, a major landslide in the town in July 2015 compounded these challenges, resulting in the resettlement of over 4000 people.

The purpose of the research presented in this report is to understand the underlying factors and dynamics that have produced water insecurity in Hakha town to generate policy recommendations towards attaining sustainable access to water for all.  

Read More

POLICY BRIEF: The Differences in Women’s Development and Employment of Xiao Shaba Village

Gender-related issues figure high on global research and policy agendas, especially economic issues such as employment and development inequity between men and women. This research has identified gaps in employment opportunities between men and women and has also identified the related causes of gender inequity in terms of their employment opportunities. The results of this research culminate to contribute to raising awareness of the affected people in the reservoir resettlement area, particularly focusing on the role of women. The research emphasizes the changes in employment circumstances and prospects after resettlement, and compares the income of people before and after the transition.

Read More

POLICY BRIEF: Natural Resource Use and Access and Local Livelihoods Along the Thanlwin River Basin

Watershed resources in the Shan state of Myanmar provide the base for livelihood security among rural populations, providing food, shelter, and medicine to regions where markets, clinics, and schools are scarce. Taungya, or shifting cultivation, utilizes the landscape as an agricultural mosaic of forest and upland fields.


The Thanlwin River, also known as the Salween, provides fish, crustaceans, and riverbank vegetables as food for village members; gold for currency; water for drinking and household needs; and power for micro-hydro generators.

Read More

POLICY BRIEF: Gender and Hydropower: Women’s Rights in the Development Discourse

This policy brief provides recommendations for hydropower developments, focusing particularly on the nexus of gender and hydropower development. In recent years, Myanmar has been moving towards market economy development with a tendency to extract natural resources in order to fuel economic growth. Hydropower is an example of how the government is meeting the demands of economic growth through electricity that benefits some at the expense of others. Gender is just one aspect among many that has been undermined in this process. It is recognized in Myanmar that women are important bearers of culture in society, often with a close relationship with the environment, but they have little recognition in society and have little decision making power when it comes to natural resource management

Read More

POLICY BRIEF: From Hydropower to Sustainable Ecotourism: The Future of Development in the Nu River Valley, Yunnan, China

Following concerns raised by a coalition of Chinese environmental groups, scientists and policy makers including the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), the 13 proposed mainstream dams on the Nu/Salween River have been under suspension since 2004. It is now very likely that the dam project will be cancelled given the plan’s lack of inclusion in China’s 13th five-year development plan and the announcement of a project to build national parks in the area in 2016. This is a positive development for those concerned about sustainable development in the Mekong Region, as well as an opportunity for concerned citizens, environmentalists and the Chinese authorities to work closer together to build a sustainable future for the Nu River in China as well as its residents upstream and downstream.

Read More

POLICY BRIEF: “Rights and Rites:” Approaching the Issue of Justice for the Salween River

The Salween River is valuable for the livelihoods and culture of millions of ethnic people living along it. Hatgyi Dam is one of the five dams that is planned to be built in Karen State, Myanmar. Situated in an armed conflict area, the dam is not only challenging the livelihoods and culture of the local people but is also being seriously affected by decades of violent conflict resulting in human rights violations and mass displacement of civilians. There are questions of community involvement in the decision-making processes regarding the dam project, and therefore a constructive response is needed for justice in water governance on the Salween River. Drawing from recent research on the Hatgyi Dam, this policy brief applies the concepts of "Rights" and "Rites" to examine community expectations and decision-making processes towards the project. The “Rights-Based Approach” is a formalized and legalistic approach normally recognized by the state, while the “Rites-Based Approach” is a locally defined natural resource management approach which is centered around cultural norms and local knowledge. The objective is to show how both approaches of “Rights and Rites" could help contribute towards inclusive decision-making and address concerns about injustice. The issue of justice is not yet fully considered in the current development policy agenda for water governance in Myanmar, and decision-making over the Salween dams to date has been highly centralized without community participation. Within the opportunities provided by Myanmar’s current political context, "Rights" and "Rites" approaches towards water governance policy in Myanmar could contribute positively towards inclusive decision-making in order to address the issue of justice in water governance for the Salween River.

Read More