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Transboundary water governance in the Mekong: waterscapes in transition: can the Mekong River Commission improve its institutional capacity to mitigate, mediate and resolve transboundary water-related conflict within a rapidly developing Mekong River Basin?
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posted on 04.06.2020by Thomson, Mark Robert Fraser
This research thesis will explore the relationship between integrated water resource management (IWRM), water conflict and cooperation within the Mekong River Basin and the capacity of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to influence water governance in a rapidly evolving region. The paper will also analyse the historical evolution of the MRC and its role and influence on regional water governance within a highly complex geopolitical landscape. Based on a comparative analysis of the MRC's response to two large-scale water related infrastructure investments the paper will also assess its institutional capacity to mitigate and mediate transboundary conflict. The paper will then explore ways by which the MRC could become more relevant and effective in its role of mitigating and mediating transboundary water related conflict within the changing Mekong waterscape.
The Mekong River starts in Tibet and journeys 4,000 kilometres through Southeast Asia until it reaches the South China Sea in Vietnam. It is of vital importance for national economic development of Upper and Lower Mekong countries whilst also being integral for the subsistence livelihoods of millions of rural poor reliant on the river for existence (Osborne, 2000). The current rate of rapid economic growth in Southeast Asia and China is placing increased pressure on natural resources and the environment. The impact of competing national development objectives between the Mekong riparian states (and also within sovereign borders) has, and will continue to result in sporadic localised tension (Jacobs, 2002). Examples of localised conflict on the Lower Mekong Basin catalysed (or escalated) by competing water resource developments includes disputes over the Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project, the proposed Thailand Water Grid Project and the Sesan, Sre Pok and Sekong (3S) hydropower projects on the Vietnam - Cambodia tributaries of the Mekong River. This third example (which will be explored in greater detail in Chapter 5) demonstrates the reality of water-related transboundary conflict.
As an internationally supported river basin organisation, the MRC will be an important stakeholder in regional water governance especially as the drivers for water-related conflict increase within the Mekong Basin. However, the current institutional capacity of the MRC to mitigate and resolve conflict between riparian countries is weak (Backer, 2007). In a period of increasing economic growth and regional integration among Mekong riparian nations the increasing threat of water-related transboundary conflict has the potential to impede economic growth and compromise geopolitical stability.
This thesis analyses water governance mechanisms in the Mekong however it is impossible to decouple water governance from the water, energy and food security nexus. This nexus reflects the interdependencies between water, energy and food by which energy production can influence water demand and access for food production. At the same time, water use can affect food security as well as energy requirements. The choices people make about what food they consume (which are closely linked with demographic and lifestyle changes and economic growth), influence both water and energy demands. For transboundary water governance to be effective it must acknowledge the links between water, energy and food security and the impacts on or relations to environment, climate, people's livelihoods and the economy.