With rapid economic development, exponential population growth, urbanisation, industrialisation, and increased agricultural production in the region, the demand for water and river-based resources has dramatically increased, which gives rise to environmental degradation, resource scarcity, and struggles among diverse groups of resource users including local people, development agencies, conservation organisations, and private sectors, and between upstream and downstream nations.
The situation is exacerbated by the effects of climate change including drought, flood, and sea level rise. Starting with drought, both 2019 and 2020, water level in the Mekong River experienced severe drought at records low. According to the Mekong River Commission’s Situation Report 2020, the first seven months of 2020, rainfall level was at 334 mm, which is twice lower than the average level at 731mm between 2008-2017.
In recent decades, there have been growing number of regional cooperation frameworks in the Mekong region ranging from 1995 Lower Mekong Basin Agreement, Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) Between the MRC Secretariat and the ASEAN Secretariat, Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy, Mekong-Lancang Cooperation, Mekong Greater Subregion, Mekong-Ganga, Mekong-United States Partnership, Mekong-Japan Cooperation, and Mekong-Republic of Korea Cooperation. While an increased number of diverse actors involved in the development and governance of the Mekong River is a good sign, uncoordinated efforts can also lead to intense conflicts and struggles in the region.
To address these emerging challenges, urgent interventions are required. The followings are some of the possible solutions. First, there is a need to double down the efforts for climate and water diplomacy in the Mekong River. Continuous consultation and dialogues based on mutual understanding, mutual respect, and mutual interests should be maintained and strengthened in order to resolve differences and find practical solutions that provide win-win end results and serve interests of the riparian countries and their people. Water sharing between upstream and downstream nations during the recent drought is a good example for future regional climate and water diplomacy. This practice should be upheld.