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3 insights to improve the Mekong State of the Basin Report

The recently published report is the most comprehensive and up-to-date account of the environmental condition of the Mekong Basin. But the next iteration needs to serve decision-makers better. Here are three ways it could do so.

Leonie Pearson, Karthikeyan Matheswaran / Published on 12 December 2019
Small boat pier in Mekong river

Photo: Small boat pier in Mekong river; Khanh Ngo Photography / Getty

The State of the Basin Report 2018 (SOBR), published in October this year, is the document that takes stock of the Mekong Basin. The report examines a range of questions, like:

  • How much water is there?
  • How many people live in the Basin?
  • What is the situation in terms of socio-economic development?
  • What are the Upper and Lower Mekong Basins and how many dams are in operation?

It is published every five years by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – the only intergovernmental organization that works with national governments in the Lower Mekong Basin to jointly manage the shared waters.

The main aims of the SOBR 2018 are to establish the key issues that the next Basin Development Strategy should address, and measure the effectiveness of implementing the current Basin Development Strategy (2016–2020).

The report is bipartisan, meaning it should provide insight and guidance to all water managers in the Mekong Basin, not just a single body.

Importantly, unlike the previous reports published in 2003 and 2010, this one is focused around the MRC Indicator Framework. The MRC Indicator Framework has five dimensions – environmental, social, economic, climate change, and cooperation – within which there are 15 strategic indicators. These are all agreed by the four MRC Member Countries, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam. The purpose of the framework is to provide decision-makers with concise information on the development and management conditions within the basin.

In many ways the report is successful: its initial framework, which identifies long term basin development indicators, is a great start, and it includes real metrics – on water access, jobs, GDP and poverty – on which national decision-makers can actually base decisions. But the understanding of the Mekong Basin system is not well developed, hence many indicators are not sensitive to or tied to changes in water management.

Water levels at Chiang Saen, Luang Prabang, and Chiang Khan in 2014-2017 and at Khong Chiam 2014-2016 compared to range of water levels of 1960-1990

Water levels at Chiang Saen, Luang Prabang, and Chiang Khan in 2014-2017 and at Khong Chiam 2014-2016 compared to the range of water levels of 1960-1990.

Three insights that could help the report to deliver better

1. Recognize groundwater

Groundwater, the largest continuous water source in the Mekong Basin, is totally ignored. Groundwater as a transboundary resource is only mentioned fleetingly four times in the report.

Previous work has identified the local significance and importance of groundwater to livelihoods, water resources and development. A 2012 study estimates that there are one million groundwater wells in the Mekong Delta alone.

The same study suggests that over-exploitation of groundwater in the Mekong Delta exposes more than 20 million people to risks from arsenic contamination, saline intrusion, land subsidence, sea level rise, increase in annual flooding and potential damage to infrastructure.

There is a clear incentive to acknowledge the importance and interconnectedness of surface and groundwater in the Mekong Basin so that it can be sustainably managed as part of larger water resource system.

2. Clarify the message

Readers look to the SOBR to provide clarity, not contradictory or competing information. While water management is not easy, and there are very few “solutions” that are win-win, recommendations still need to be clear, transparent, salient and credible. Currently the mismatch of information and findings can leave readers confused about decisions and implications.

For example, there is confusion over the messaging about flows in the Mekong. Here are some excerpts from the report summary:

“Reservoir developments in the basin have caused a significant change in the flow regime of the Mekong and are contributing to the observed substantial decrease in sediment concentrations.”

Clear evidence for changes in precipitation patterns have also not been found so far.”

dry season and wet season flows over the last five years are generally in conformity with PMFM thresholds”.

predicted aspects of climate change are yet to be evident. Member Countries are all engaged in managing climate change”.

Several crucial questions remain unaddressed: is there a change in Mekong River flows? If so, is it a large amount and should decision makers worry about it? Is the change due to upstream dams and if so, to what extent? Are there climate change impacts? Exactly how does the information presented in the report support decision-making on water, infrastructure and development?

3. Clarify the aim, clarify the indicators

First, clarify the aim: is the SOBR only for the four MRC member countries, or for the six countries across the whole Mekong Basin, including the Upper Mekong in China and Myanmar? Specifically, a whole-basin approach would identify as a key risk the growing tensions between alternate political water management schemes. Currently the SOBR states that it is relevant for the entire basin, yet it focuses only on cooperation in the lower basin.

Second, the framework comprises a hierarchy of water-related strategic and assessment indicators supported by monitoring parameters. But the list is a mixture of assets (e.g. water quantity) and variable changes (e.g. GDP), some of which can never be directly influenced by basin management. If the framework is intended to guide future decisions, then it needs to focus on points that are at the right scale of interest for decision-makers, and where there is potential for meaningful interventions. For example, while it is encouraging that economic and social dimensions are included, it is essential to identify future SOBR indicators that are closely tied to water management interventions and socio-economic outcomes. It would help to focus on clearer links between management decisions and industries that rely on water, such as fishing, tourism, power generation, and transport.

Finally, understanding contextual risk – e.g. from geo-political influences and climate change – is essential for successful water management in the future. However, these do not originate in the Mekong Basin, and should be considered for what they are, contextual risks; not as indicators for measuring effective water management. Frameworks should provide flexibility, to reflect new risks as they emerge and report contextually critical information when it’s known.

A way forward for the Mekong Basin

We need to critically reflect on how to improve the knowledge provided to Mekong decision-makers. Otherwise, the basin will continue to be managed as a siloed resource for certain sectors of development rather than as a transboundary ecosystem upon which depend millions of lives and livelihoods. A siloed approach is likely to lead to continuing ecological crises, with little understanding of how or why these occur or how to solve them.

Let’s improve the SOBR so it can be used as the basis for a better understanding of the basin system in all its dimensions. Partial knowledge of the system is one reason behind the Mekong Basin’s current state of ecological degradation, and no one wants to see this situation continue.

Leonie Pearson

SEI Affiliated Researcher

SEI Asia

Topics and subtopics
Water : Adaptation, Planning and modelling

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