A Cambodian Perspective on Mekong River Water Security


By Chheang Vannarith, Executive Director

Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP)


Water scarcity is getting more serious in the region, as it is driven by population growth, urbanization, industrialization, energy demand and climate change. It is noted that as the economic and strategic value of water is increasing so does competition to get access to this scarce resource.

In our Mekong region, competition to get access to and, in theory, optimize the use of the common river is accelerating. Four of the six countries sharing the Mekong River-Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam-have created the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) to manage this transboundary water resource in a sustainable and fair manner. However, national sovereignty remains a challenge for this inter-governmental organization to agree on any binding policy or principle to guide the management of the river.


Hydropower Dams and Human Security

Recently there have been ongoing dialogues and discussions on the impacts of hydropower dams on human security in the region. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on this.

It is crystal clear that any hydropower dam along the mainstream of the Mekong River will have serious negative impact on fishery sector, sediment flows, and environment in general.

When we talk about the linkages between hydropower dams and human security, it is no longer a technical issue but a political one. The reasons are simple: there is clear scientific evidence agreed by most experts that the impacts of hydropower dams along the main stream are huge that we must find the political will to either postpone or stop them.

The Cambodian Prime Minister, Samdech Techo Hun Sen, once said the management of the Mekong River is a matter of life and death. This can be regarded as a strong statement with a long-term vision.

Political leadership is required to drive the course of Mekong River development. Long-termism should dominate over short-termism. Regional and national interests should be carefully and responsibly balanced.

Mekong River development has to be inclusive, meaning equitably taking into consideration the voices of the majority of the key stakeholders, especially the people who continue to rely on the river and its tributary system for their food security and livelihoods. Mekong River development needs harmonization among the environment-development-people nexus.


Risks Posed by Laos’ Planned Xayaburi Dam

The Lao PDR’s planned construction of Xayaburi hydropower dam will seriously cause negative impacts on the lower Mekong basin countries. Specifically, the dam will not only involve the resettlement of about 2,100 people; the means of subsistence, income and food security of 202,000 people living around Xayaburi dam will be affected due to the reduction of farmland and decimation of fisheries.

As the downstream country, the impact on Cambodia will be even greater.  When the dam is constructed on the main stream of Mekong river, the food source of 80% of the population will be affected. The Tonle Sap lake area will face most serious problems due to the impact on its wild fish resources, which currently constitute the primary source of food and livelihoods for 1.6 million people and approximately 10% of current national GDP. The reduction of alluvium caused by the stagnancy of water in the dam’s reservoir will also negatively affect Cambodia food security.

Thailand will likewise experience serious environmental impact on fisheries, alluvium and aquatic products, as well as social issues such as the destruction of subsistence-based livelihoods for people living along Mekong River and increased migration to urban areas, both internal and transboundary.

Located in the lowest part of Mekong basin, Vietnam will suffer the most from the negative impacts of dam on main stream of Mekong river. The Xayaburi dam and other proposed main stream dams on the Lower Mekong would add significantly to the projected impact of China’s massive dams in Yunnan on the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, where 18 million people are living as well as to regional and even international food security.  Vietnam is the world’s second largest rice exporter and the Mekong Delta-already one of the areas most vulnerable to sea level rise–produces nearly half of its rice crop.

In December 2011 the government of the Lao PDR agreed under pressure from Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand to postpone the Xayaburi dam construction project until further studies could be carried out on sustainably developing the Mekong’s water resources.  Ultimately, the final decision needs to take the principles of human security into consideration with the development philosophy of long-termism, inclusiveness, harmonization, people- orientation, and regional cooperation and friendship.

If we allow Xayaburi dam to be constructed, it means we allow the other proposed 10 dams along the mainstream Mekong River to be constructed as well. Such scenario is very dangerous. We need to do something to prevent that from happening.

The Cambodian government has clear and firm position that the Xayaburi dam needs to be suspended and further scientific study and assessment need to be conducted.  Civil society organizations in Cambodia are mobilizing their voices to fight against the dam construction along the mainstream of the Mekong River.


How to manage the Mekong River for All

Managing the river for the benefit of those who depend on it for their livelihoods and human security must be done with four principles in mind:

1)      Openness and Transparency

Transparency is one of the most important principles and measures to build trust and confidence among the countries sharing the Mekong River. Data sharing especially in the dry season is crucial for equitable water resources management and disaster prevention and management.  Recently, our region has been faced with disastrous flooding.  The lesson from such experiences is that an early warning system needs to be effectively implemented based on information and data gathering regarding rainfall in the mountainous areas and water flow patterns of the upper half of the Mekong River.

Exchanges of experts and engineers among the countries sharing the Mekong River needs to be improved and further promoted, particularly visits to the hydropower dams construction sites. Scientific data sharing needs to be promoted based on the full sharing of data and information. Upper and Lower Mekong countries need to create an open channel of information sharing. The institutionalization of data sharing can be a tool promoting transparency.


2) Preventive diplomacy

Since its adoption at the 8th ASEAN Regional Forum in 2001 the principle of ‘Preventive Diplomacy’ (PD) has been officially accepted to be one of the cornerstones of regional relations and security cooperation. PD aims at consensual diplomatic and political actions to prevent conflicts either from arising or from escalating, or to minimize the impact of existing conflicts. In order to prevent water conflict along the Mekong River, it is necessary to strengthen the existing dialogues and negotiation with more openness, transparency, and participation from relevant stakeholders. China, an important ASEAN Dialogue Partner and MRC observer, needs to be a part of that process, as does Myanmar, which is now negotiating membership in the MRC.  Voluntary briefings on water resources development and 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.


3)    Strengthening  regional institutions 

The four-country MRC and the ten-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are the two main regional institutions in managing differences in the region. However, these two institutions are good at facilitating consultation but cannot effectively cope with the conflicts when it arises due to the strict principle of non-interference. We need to establish an effective conflict resolution mechanism in the region with these institutions. Good office should be created to response to emerging water conflict and other human security issues such as natural disaster and climate change.  ASEAN-MRC partnership needs to be strengthened.

4). Stakeholder collaboration and partnership

Collaboration and partnership among different stakeholders (public, private, and civil society organizations) are critically important to sustainable water resources management. Cooperation and negotiation among these different stakeholders for the sustainable use of water resources and leadership are desperately needed.  An effective cooperation strategy framework is needed for guaranteeing water resources security. Several frameworks are available and the Mekong region needs to find a suitable one that encourages participation of all actors and helps achieve agreements that are sustainable, equitable to all users and based on long term commitments.

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