Mekong 'hydro diplomacy' falling short

Experts at a conference in Chiang Rai held out hope that future transborder water conflicts such as the one over Laos' Xayaburi dam will be dealt with in a more inclusive and sustainable manner, but the concept is still in its infancy in the region

In a conference room in Chiang Rai recently, more than 100 water experts from around the world put their heads together to try to find new approaches to dealing with transborder water issues more effectively. Jargon flew about the room, especially the term "hydro diplomacy". Not surprisingly, a topic on everyone's lips was the Xayaburi dam project in in Laos, where last Wednesday, despite strong protests from locals and environmentalists and unsettled points of contention among Mekong River Commission (MRC) member states, Laos suddenly proceeded with a ground-breaking ceremony at the construction site to mark the official start of the project.

At the conference, Dr Robert Mather, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said the Xayaburi dam project has shown that a shared vision on water resources does not exist in the Mekong region. Each country still looks out only for its own interests and not at sharing benefits in development opportunities.

"If we apply the concept of hydro diplomacy to the Mekong situation, we may have more choices other than negotiations on ambitions to build a dam ...'' said Mr Mather. He defined hydro diplomacy as a negotiation among riparian countries to achieve shared benefits. The dialogue needs to be inclusive, embracing all concerned stakeholders and all sectors to achieve a sustainable goal. In hydro diplomacy, a negotiation platform, generally a river basin organisation, has a crucial role in bringing about a consensus among the stakeholders. In the Mekong region, the MRC acts as the negotiation platform. However, said Dr Mather, something is apparently missing from the current mechanism of the MRC.

As water issues, especially those with  transborder elements, grow more complex, conventional solutions are proving insufficient. Aban Marker Kabraji, IUCN Asia's regional director, reiterated this point during her talk at the conference, saying that it is clear that a traditional approach is not robust enough to address transboundary water use issues.

She said new concepts are needed as is greater scientific knowledge.

"Hydro diplomacy calls on scientific and technical experts to work hand-in-hand with national and local politicians, decision makers and stakeholders to reach negotiated agreements for solutions that can be implemented and which will endure," said Mrs Kabraji.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former governor of India's West Bengal state, said that in water disputes there are too many stakeholders, with each lobbying for their own vested interests. Therefore the process of creating a dialogue on transborder water issues requires, along with technological expertise, "socio-psychological sensitivity'', as well as counter-lobbying skills and political courage. Even with all this, the proper dialogue can only be achieved after what he called the "right diplomatic initiative''.

Hans Guttman, chief executive officer of the MRC, said the organisation has been implementing hydro diplomacy in its processes, under which the member countries are brought together to discuss important issues with the MRC acting as the facilitator and providing technical support. "When there are competing demands and different opinions about impacts, technical support may be able to move the discussion forward,'' said Mr Guttman on the sidelines of the conference.

"I think there are a lot of discussions among the governments about the Xayaburi dam, and there are a lot of diplomatic discussions. The Lao government is trying to address concerns. At the end a political decision will be made,'' added Mr Guttman.

However, Mr Mather again voiced reservations on whether the current mechanism is able to deal with the rising challenges in the region. He said that although the MRC has successfully facilitated a process to implement hydro diplomacy, it is not yet sufficient to pave the way for a true consensus on holistic water management. International water management forums elsewhere have developed international agreements which can be enforced on parties, and in some cases water conflicts are even put before the courts, said Mr  Mather, adding that nothing like this is happening in the Mekong region.

Mr Mather suggested it may be time for the region to try other options in dealing with transborder water issues. As Asean countries are integrating, with stronger enforcement mechanisms for joint resolutions, it is possible the MRC could be upgraded and made a part of Asean to strengthen its mandate.

"The challenge is that our current mechanism is limited. So, [the question is] whether or not we should have a new mechanism and what it should be,'' he said. "The current mechanism focuses mainly on the water aspect and fails to integrate other factors such as economy, which can also have impacts on water management. Without integration and holistic methods, water management will never work,'' he said.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang
Position: Reporter