Repairing the water damage

Bangkok Post 10 October 2011

By Piyaporn Wongruang

Contrary to popular perceptions, the Mekong and other river basins have plenty of water, but governance of distribution and use is the main stumbling block to universal access, a new study shows.

Not enough water to go around? That has become a common observation regarding the Mekong River, but the availability of water is actually not a serious issue

However, like 10 other major river basins covered in a new global study, the Mekong is increasingly facing a threat from the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of its water, and this is predominantly a political and institutional issue.

"Overall, the Mekong does not face water scarcity. It is a wet basin with plenty of water in the wet season," said Mac Kirby, co-author of the report "The Mekong: A Diverse Basin Facing the Tensions of Development", recently published in the International Water Journal and released at the XIV World Water Congress.

The report is the product of five years of research by scientists in 30 countries. It looks at 10 major river basins worldwide representing a full scale of water challenges. They include the Andes and Sao Francisco basins in South America; the Limpopo, Niger, Nile and Volta basins in Africa; and the Ganges, Indus, Karkheh, Yellow and Mekong basins in Asia.

Together they cover 13.5 million square kilometres and are home to 1.5 billion people, of whom 470 million are among the world's poorest.

The Mekong basin itself is home to some 60 million people, most of whom are rural poor with livelihoods highly dependent on water availability, especially in terms of agricultural production.

The report shows the Mekong's water flow increases nearly tenfold in the rainy season. At Chiang Saen in northern Thailand, where the flow enters the lower part, the water can peak at 10-20 cubic kilometres a month compared with only 2.5 cubic km in the dry season.

So while some areas of the basin, especially in northeastern Thailand, are sometimes short of water in the dry season, the basin itself has enough for use, said Dr Kirby, who is with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation for Land and Water.

The report found that several sectors ranging from human consumption to agricultural use consume a small fraction of the overall flow in the basin. Although not yet critical, inefficiencies in usage can be seen, plus access to the water is not evenly distributed.

"Poor rural people may depend on access to fishing for their livelihoods, whereas urban dwellers, even the poor, generally do not. However, the rural poor are often more likely to find access restricted by developments such as dams or changes to fishing rights, and this is often inequitable," said Dr Kirby.

He said water governance is a big issue for the Mekong. Governance is often seen as slanted towards national governments and national priorities with an emphasis on hydropower dams and economic development. This may be good for a country overall, but these same national policies may leave behind particular groups, and the rural poor are often among them.

Meanwhile, the main institution tasked with facilitating sustainable water development, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), has been largely ineffective in terms of information dissemination, decision-making and benefit sharing. As noted in the report, some actions are being taken to ensure good governance for the basin but not quickly enough. The MRC remains dominated by national interests, and tensions appear to be increasing.

"These are the very people for whom water access is the most important. Pro-poor advocates usually argue for altered forms of water governance in which local voices and the poor have real influence," said Dr Kirby.

Pianporn Deetes, a campaigner with International Rivers, an organisation that promotes sustainable development for major river basins worldwide, said the report reflects the reality of what is happening in the basin, especially inequitable water distribution.

This has become increasingly evident ever since China began building dams on the Upper Mekong about a decade ago. Now the gap is wider, with more development projects on the Lower Mekong including the Xayaburi dam.

It is obvious that inequitable distribution of both this resource and wealth not only still exists, but is intensifying.

Those sitting in government offices are joining hands with major investors, leaving local communities and their right to access the resource behind.

Ms Pianporn said it is time for a review of current water governance practices in the basin, which can no longer cope with the increasing challenges of water use and development.

International standards for practices have been introduced that acknowledge communities' right to access the water, but they are often pushed to the wayside by developers and governments, she said, referring to World Dam Commission principles that promote public acceptance and benefit sharing in hydropower developments projects.

"What is happening clearly shows the problems concerning governance of the basin. The question is how to balance the rights to the water after such a lengthy period of imbalance," said Mrs Pianporn.

Alain Vidal, director of the Challenge Program on Water and Food of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, said the findings show the overriding problem is a failure to ensure efficient and fair use of the water.

"This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern," he said.