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[ASEAN ISSUE #16] Water Diplomacy and Cooperation for Managing the Mekong Water Conflicts

Water Diplomacy and Cooperation for Managing the Mekong Water Conflicts: A Case Study on Yali Falls Hydropower Project




ASEAN is working to become a ‘cohesive and responsive’ community through solidification of its integration efforts and enhancement of its resilience as envisioned by Viet Nam’s ASEAN chairmanship this year. The regional unity and solidarity are sought to be further strengthened in order to collectively grasp opportunities and cope with common challenges in the midst of the current pandemic and the dynamic political and economic changes across the world.


These efforts are supported by the sub-regional cooperation networks, namely the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA), Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT) and Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). Among these sub-regional organizations, the Mekong region comprising Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam is critically important in terms of promoting inclusive growth, integrated market and infrastructure linkages of ASEAN as a whole. At the same time, it is presented as a new growth center and a strategic frontier of the Indo-Pacific region as it houses a number of cooperation mechanisms with external partners, including the Republic of Korea, US, China, Japan and India. The holding of the 1st Mekong-ROK summit back-to-back with the 2019 ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit on 25-26 November 2019 in Busan, Korea is one manifestation of the rising strategic value of the Mekong region.


ROK’s engagement with the Mekong region started in 2011 when the two sides adopted the ‘Han-River Declaration of Establishing the Mekong-ROK Comprehensive Partnership for Mutual Prosperity’. The priority cooperation agenda at the time was placed on reducing the development gap in ASEAN and facilitating economic cooperation between the ROK and the region through promotion of connectivity, sustainable development and people-oriented development. Subsequently, the Mekong-Korea Plan of Action (2014-17) prioritized six cooperation areas: infrastructure, information technology, green growth, water resources development, agriculture and rural development, and human resources development. The goals and projects pertinent to these areas are currently being carried out under the three visions of enhancing connectivity, sustainable development and people-centered development as specified by the second Plan of Action (2017-2020).


Most recently in 2019, as an outcome of the 1st Mekong-ROK summit, the two sides adopted the ‘Mekong-Han River Declaration for Establishing Partnership for People, Prosperity and Peace’. The Declaration provides a guiding framework for future direction of the Mekong-ROK cooperation on the basis of three pillars of People, Prosperity and Peace on par with the ROK’s New Southern Policy.


One of the priority cooperation agenda set out by the Declaration is related to sustainable development, especially regarding water resource management. Particularly, the two sides agreed to coalesce joint efforts to establish the Mekong-ROK Biodiversity Center and Mekong-ROK Water Resources Joint Research Center. In implementing these goals and projects, understanding issues surrounding the transboundary Mekong River basin is important.


The Mekong River is in fact presented as one of the well-managed transboundary rivers across the globe, and water resource management among the Mekong countries are supported by a number of multilateral institutions, including the GMS, Mekong River Commission (MRC), Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), the Mekong Institute (MI), and a host of multilateral frameworks among the Mekong countries and external partners such as Korea, China and Japan and the US.


Among these institutions, the MRC is one of the older intergovernmental cooperation mechanisms in the region. The following article is an analysis of how Mekong water conflicts are resolved through close dialogue and cooperation among the riparian countries, focusing particularly on the role of the MRC in the conflict management process.




1. Introduction


Water is a foundational resource that is vital for human well-being, and its uses are widely varying to the extent to include consumption, irrigation, agricultural and marine production, hydropower generation, recreation and tourism. Given the paramount importance of water resources, water security has been the priority agenda for the riparian countries across the world. In this context, water conflicts or to a lesser extent water tensions/disputes arise when the transboundary rivers affect different economies, ecosystems, jurisdiction and sovereignty of the riparian countries that share resources from the same river. The conflicts are often driven by water scarcity, inequitable distribution, water sharing, over-utilization, and misuse or abuse of the transboundary river basin (Kliot, Shmueli and Shamir, 2000).


In addressing water conflicts surrounding the transboundary rivers, cooperative actions in forms of rules-based treaties and agreements among the riparian countries are of utmost importance (Wolf, Stahl and Macomber, 2003). Moreover, it is claimed that pre-adjustment among different stakeholders through establishment of institutional capacity can help reduce the likelihood of water conflicts. The institutional foundation is considered an effective tool in resolving water issues in a sense that it provides a channel of communication through which different interests of concerned stakeholders are shared and gathered. In this respect, the concept of water diplomacy should be closely examined. While the concept is more or less differently defined by various academics and organizations, the literature commonly highlights the importance of gathering interests of the multiple dimensions and stakeholders throughout the process of conflict management (Pohl et al., 2014).


The Mekong river, the largest river in Southeast Asia and the 12th longest in the world, features unique characteristics. Geographically, water flows along approximately 4,800 km of a natural stream from its source in the Tibetan Plateau through the basin’s five riparian countries, such as China, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam (Kittikhoun and Staubli, 2018). Its geographical feature naturally makes it a transboundary river that encompasses immense natural resources, providing rich hydropower and bioresources to its six basin countries. In effect, the river that flows across the borders, carrying huge resource potential alongside, has historically received attention from not only the riparian states but also the global powers, which has often raised geopolitical tensions and disputes induced by conflicting interests of stakeholders.


Against this backdrop, this study aims to discuss how water diplomacy serves as an effective framework for managing water disputes using a case on a hydropower development project in the lower Mekong basin. To this end, it is organized as follows. Section 2 introduces the contextual background on the Mekong river basin, mainly focusing on the major transboundary issues. Section 3 examines the Mekong water diplomacy framework and illustrates how it can serve as an effective tool to address important transboundary conflicts. Section 4 applies the water diplomacy framework in the context of the lower Mekong basin employing the Yali Falls dam construction project as a case.



2. Contextual Background on Mekong River Basin: Transboundary Issues


2.1 Geographical Feature of the Mekong River

The Mekong basin is the largest river in Southeast Asia and the 12th longest in the world. Along approximately 4,800 km of a natural stream, the water flows from its sources in the Tibetan Plateau through the six riparian countries, such as China, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam as shown in figure 1. The catchment coverage area equals about 795,000 km2, which is home to over 65 million people (Kittikhoun and Staubli, 2018). The area of each riparian country in the basin differs widely in size. China is geo-strategically located around the upper basin with its area coverage of 21 percent of the total river size. Myanmar is also located on the upper basin, but its coverage of land area is merely 3 percent. In the lower basin, Lao PDR is located almost entirely within the river, and its area coverage is approximated to 25 percent, which is the largest among the six riparian states. Following the water stream, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam are located further to the South with the land coverage of 23, 20 and 8 percent of the total area, respectively (Table 1).


Figure 1. Geographical Illustration of the Mekong River Basin

Source: Mekong River Commission (2020)


Table 1. Country Areas in the Mekong River Basin

Total Area (km2)CountryArea of a country in Basin (km2)% share of land coverage of total river% share of total area of the country
Lao PDR202,0002585
Viet Nam65,000820

Source: FAO (2011)


2.2 Geopolitical and Transboundary Tensions in the Mekong River


As briefly mentioned above, the major causes of water conflicts are related to water quantity, infrastructure development, water quality among others (Earle, 2017). The water conflicts and causes thereof can be deeply rooted in the power balance among the riparian states. In the case of Mekong river, geographical location of the riparian countries has fundamentally affected the balance of geopolitical power surrounding the transboundary water issues. China has been the main beneficiary as its provinces are located on the uppermost Mekong river basin, giving the country a considerable geographical power control of the water way. Contrastingly, Myanmar’s role in the governance of the Mekong river basin is limited due to its minimal coverage of land area. In the lower basin, Lao PDR is geo-strategically located almost entirely within the basin, positioning the country at the center of river governance ramparted by its land-linked location and hydropower potential (Backer, 2007). Following the river, the terrain by which Thailand and Viet Nam are located is flatter than that of the upper basin, which in turn caps their hydropower capacity (Lee, 2013). Lastly, Cambodia is located at the end of the river basin where bountiful agricultural and marine resources are available. For the riparian states located around the lower basin, securing a large enough amount of water quantity has become their primary agenda.


In this regard, the transboundary water conflicts and tensions in the Mekong river can be mainly attributed to the inequitable competition for freshwater. For example, concerns regarding a lowering level of water capacity in the lower Mekong basin were raised when China started its first hydroelectric dam construction named Manwan in 1986 (Kittikhoun and Staubli, 2018). At the time, the Chinese government expected that hydropower generation in the upper Mekong would promote energy security and economic development. Albeit economic gains benefiting China, the dam construction is being suspected to have caused a decrease in water quantity and unusual water events, the impact of which was largely cascaded to the lower basin. The construction project was implemented without consensus or enough dialogue among the riparian states, which in effect incurred some tensions. Particularly, in 2008, the environmental organizations and local communities of Thailand and Lao PDR claimed that Chinese dams were partially responsible for heavy floods. More recently, Thai and Lao riverside communities speculated that the Chinese dams had caused an acute water peak in 2013 and fluctuations of water level in 2014 (Kittikhoun and Staubli, 2018). In summary, it can be assessed that the water tensions in the Mekong river are largely associated with water quantity and quality, which to a certain degree can be altered due to changing flow and sediment regime on the Mekong’s ecosystems and livelihoods as a result of water-related infrastructure projects.



3. Mekong Water Diplomacy Framework in Theory


3.1 Conceptual Understanding of Water Diplomacy

Water is increasingly becoming scarce due to population growth, rapid urbanization in developed and developing countries alike, and increasing water demand for domestic and industrial uses. The United Nations (2007) estimates that 1.8 billion people will live in communities with absolute water scarcity in 2025. The scarcity of water resources differently affects different stakeholders, which in turn empowers influence of multiple groups of traditional and non-traditional actors in the decision-making over the access to freshwater. During the course of decision-making, tensions can be escalated grounded upon the inequitable availability of water supplies, as well as diverging political and societal interests. Thus, water issues are complex to manage, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to come to a shared understanding or vision among different stakeholders.


In preventing water conflicts and resolving future possible tensions, water diplomacy plays an important role. While the concept of water diplomacy is more or less differently defined by various academics and organizations, the literature commonly highlights the importance of gathering interests of the multiple dimensions and stakeholders in the process of conflict management (Pohl et al., 2014). The prevention and resolution of water conflicts are largely associated with the process of “research and fact finding, negotiation, mediation and conciliation that are rooted in an in-depth understanding of social/ cultural/ economic/ and environmental conditions and the political context” (Huntjent et al., 2016). In this regard, water diplomacy includes actions and measures undertaken by multiple stakeholders (both state and non-state actors) to prevent or resolve water tensions/conflicts and foster cooperation for the matters related to water availability, allocation and use.


3.2 Water Diplomacy Framework for Mekong River Basin

In the case of Mekong river, water diplomacy is largely based on technical cooperation among the riparian countries, which is built on “data and information collection, management and sharing, monitoring and forecasting, state of the basin reporting, studies and assessment, and technical guidelines that serve as a basis to understand the tackle issues from a scientific viewpoint” (Kittikhoun and Staubli, 2018). Also, the Mekong water diplomacy framework facilitates cooperation among multiple stakeholders to better address complex water challenges through linkage of legal, institutional and strategic mechanisms as shown in figure 2. In this sense, water diplomacy can be distinguished from conventional diplomacy as the three mechanisms are largely based on sound technical knowledge; that is, water diplomacy in Mekong river is fundamentally rooted in facilitating negotiations via legal, institutional and strategic mechanisms through robust use of scientific data, assessment and knowledge.


Figure 2. Water Diplomacy Framework for Mekong Basin

Source: Author illustrated based on Kittikhoun and Staubli (2018)


For the legal mechanism, four lower-basin countries, namely Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam adopted the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which laid out solid comprehensive rules and legal foundations for monitoring the maintenance of water flows, water quality and water use, as well as data and information sharing (Mekong River Commission, 1995). Following the introduction of the 1995 agreement, the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) was subsequently adopted in 2003 (Mekong River Commission, 2016a). The PNCPA can be considered as an exemplary mechanism to support regional cooperation on water use, especially for occasions when any water-use projects are proposed.


The institutions legitimized by the 1995 Mekong Agreement and the PNPCA are mainly the state actors, Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat (operational body), Joint Committee (management body) and Council (policy-making body). These institutions are consultative and dialogue bodies that discuss about the possible transboundary impacts of the proposed Mekong development projects on neighboring countries. Particularly, the member countries must notify the Joint Committee should they wish to propose development projects. The Joint Committee then undertakes technical reviews to assess any possible impact on environment and livelihoods, and it suggests measures to address any concerns arisen. The prior consultation by the Joint Committee aims to mitigate any potential adverse impact and to find a better way to share the benefits. When the Joint Committee comes to an agreement through in-depth consultation, the project can be proceeded. If the agreement cannot be reached by the Joint Committee, the Council consisting of ministers of member governments take up the case to find resolution. If the Council is unable to resolve the issue, the case will then be referred to the concerned governments so that it can be resolved through diplomatic channels (Mekong River Commission, 2016a).


Figure 3. Governance Structure of MRC

Source: Kittikhoun and Staubli (2018)


The institutions also play a critical role in endorsing and preparing basin-wide strategies designed to address the riparian countries’ shared needs, challenges and opportunities, which in turn supports the implementation of legal foundations, rounding out the water diplomacy framework. The major common strategy of the Mekong river is the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) first approved in 2011, and updated and agreed again in 2016. The IWRM specifies shared developed opportunities, possible risks, and priorities for development and management. It is currently being implemented through region-wide MRC Strategic Plan and by each member country’s National Indicative Plans 2016-2020 (Mekong River Commission, 2016b).



4. Water Conflict Management in Mekong River Basin: A Case on Yali Falls dam

The 720-Megawatt Yali Falls dam is one of the earliest water-related infrastructure projects constructed in the lower Mekong basin. It is also the first hydropower plant constructed in the Se San River, which is a major tributary of the lower Mekong. The dam is located just downstream of the confluence between the Krong Poko and Dal Bal Rivers in central Viet Nam, approximately 70 km upstream of the Cambodian border.


Throughout much of the 1990s, Viet Nam had experienced chronic power shortages, which was assessed to be holding back the economic growth. Thus, promoting power generation capacity had become one of the country’s highest priority development agenda. In recognition of hydropower potential of the Mekong basin, the Ministry of Energy of Viet Nam concluded a feasibility study for the Yali Falls in 1990. After an initial assessment by the Interim Mekong Committee, the Swiss Electrowatt Engineering Services Ltd. conducted the “Environmental and Financing Studies on the Yali Falls Hydropower Project” in 1991-1992 (Electrowatt Engineering Services Ltd., 1993). After such assessment on the environmental considerations, construction of a 65 m-high earth dam began by the Viet Nam Electricity in November 1993 on a tributary of the Se San River, creating a 64.5 km2 reservoir at full supply level.


In mid-1996, the first unusual flooding event occurred, which led to the loss of property, livestock and crops owned by the riverbank communities along the Se San. The event was claimed to have been resulted from the dam construction, particularly from the failure of a diversion dam built to facilitate Yali’s construction. Since then, unusually severe and unpredictable flooding events took place, catching unwary riverbank communities by surprise. Moreover, in 2000, the first turbine trial unexpectedly resulted in an incident, detrimentally impacting the environment with several loss of life, livestock and property. These unfolding events brought international attention and scrutiny on the Yali Falls.


To address these impacts stemming from the dam construction, the Cambodia National Mekong Committee approached the MRC to submit rising concerns to the Viet Nam National Mekong Committee. Upon this action, the MRC sent a fact-finding mission to the affected Ratanakiri province in Cambodia to monitor and evaluate the damages. The results of assessment were discussed at the 11th MRC Joint Committee Meeting in March 2000, during which Joint Committee members of Cambodia and Viet Nam held an informal meeting and decided to visit the project site together. In the following month, the Joint Committee members met at the Yali Falls site and negotiated on terms of possible mechanisms for information exchange with a view to minimize possible adverse impacts. During this course, the MRC not only functioned as an effective facilitator, but it also established five agreed measures for the Management of the Se San River as shown in Table 2.


Table 2. Five Agreed Measures for the Management of the Se San River

Measure 1Information on the reservoir operation, particularly water releases from the Vietnamese dam under normal and extreme conditions, should be exchanged in advance of planned releases. Information on the river situation in Cambodia should be shared in the same manner.
Measure 2Water releases from the Yali reservoir should be gradual, so that riverbank communities along the Se San River can take advance notice of water level changes and take precautions accordingly.
Measure 3Under normal circumstances, 15 days advance notice of water releases should be given through National Mekong Committee, relevant provincial authorities and the MRC.
Measure 4Under emergencies and extreme flood situations, advance warning should be immediately disseminated to relevant levels.
Measure 5Further environmental mitigation studies, if needed, would be discussed later with the presence of the MRC.

Source: Author compiled based on Kittikhoun and Staubli (2018)


In implementing these measures, the Joint Committee members of Cambodia and Viet Nam held annual meetings from 2001 to 2003 to create a water release notification system, perform water quality analysis, and draft Terms of Reference for hydrodynamic modelling and an environmental impact assessment of the Se San River. The results of these studies were then shared among the Committee members in 2008.


Despite these efforts, the MRC had been criticized by some NGOs and other stakeholders for its insufficient response, claiming that the water release notification system did not function properly due to a lack of communication infrastructure of the affected communities. Moreover, Wyatt and Baird (2007) note that the MRC’s capacity and mandate to resolve a transboundary conflict at the time was largely limited given that construction of the Yali Falls Dam began well before the 1995 Agreement came into force, no prior notification and consultation took place and no transboundary environmental impact assessment was carried out.


In retrospect, the role of MRC at the time should be understood as a facilitator that created an enabling environment for negotiations and discussion among the local and international actors in the region. The MRC’s engagement with tributary areas, especially through implementation of a range of water management measures identified above, provided the foundation for strengthened transboundary cooperation and stakeholder engagement in the Se San basin among local, provincial, national, regional and international stakeholders.



5. Conclusion

The riparian states of the Mekong Basin have well managed conflicts related to water resources over the past 30 years. As a case on Yali Falls dam shows, transboundary tensions and challenges can arise when unexpected environmental damages occur due to water-related infrastructure projects. Cambodia and Viet Nam, however, well managed these impacts, which could have been heightened to active opposition and confrontation, by resolving issues through a water diplomacy framework. In this context, this paper argues that a water diplomacy framework driven by an intergovernmental river basin organization can be an effective tool to manage water conflicts, as it can facilitate and support negotiated solutions through established legal, institutional and strategic mechanisms grounded largely upon scientific basis.




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