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Mekong: We must coordinate national climate policies and seek synergies – Interview with Sabine Blumstein

On the Mekong Delta, the massive river system in Southeast Asia, we see a prime example of how import water and water management are for sustainable development and climate change. This has to do, for one, with the human right to access to clean drinking water, as well as with agriculture, which now accounts for around 70 percent of global water consumption. In India, this share is as high as 90 percent. Water management along large rivers, especially in light of climate change, is an urgent challenge that developing countries must confront. 

FAIReconomics discussed water management and climate diplomacy in the Mekong Delta with Sabine Blumstein, a Project Manager at adelphi, an independent think tank and leading advisory body for climate, environment, and development issues.

Ms. Blumstein, could you explain why access to water is so important?

Water is the foundation of our life. We need it to drink, to produce our food (for which, seen globally, most water is consumed), for energy production, for transporting people and goods, and of course for sustaining our eco-systems. The Earth’s water resources remain constant via the water cycle – that means that the overall amount of water doesn’t increase or decrease. Through increases in the global population and changes in regional availability, however, shortages are increasing in some parts of the world.

What does the term water management cover?

Water management means the control and utilisation of water resources for various human uses, including supplying water to households, for energy production, agricultural irrigation etc. It has become increasingly common to speak of and act in line with the idea of “sustainable water management”. Its goal is to organise use of our limited water resources in such a way that all people and future generations have access to a sufficient quantity and quality of water. In the past, it was often overlooked that sustainable water management should include environmental needs, such as ecosystems. Water management is also distinct from water governance, a term that is being used quite a lot these days. Water governance describes the policy and regulatory frameworks (laws, ordinances, etc.) for all water-related activities. This also includes societal control and regulatory processes outside of state structures, such as, for example, private companies. Water governance thus sets the concrete frameworks for water management activities.

Water management plays a large role in the Mekong Delta. Around 60 million people live in the lower Mekong Basin alone, where they rely on the system as an important part of their livelihoods: More than two-thirds of the people live directly from agriculture and fisheries, and are thus completely dependent on the Mekong’s water resources. The river is of enormous economic importance, especially for those living directly along the river, as it in many cases secures the basis of their diets. How can this river be protected from the challenges of climate change?

Of course, the impacts of climate change in the Mekong Delta vary greatly from region to region and thus require different responses. Most of the Mekong countries are perfectly aware of the effects of climate change. All the countries of the lower Mekong thus also have, for example, national adaptation plans and policies. However, these have investigated neither the impacts of the countries’ own activities on neighbours, nor possible synergies. Cambodia, for example, is especially concerned about the impacts of climate change on Southeast Asia’s largest lake, the Tonle Sap, which is very import for agriculture and fisheries. However, if China and Laos were to build further dams to counteract the effects of climate change at the national level, this very sensitive ecosystem would be burdened further. Despite this obvious threat, the Cambodian National Adaptation Programme for Climate Change does not take account of such potential developments, nor does it elucidate how the interests of neighbouring countries could be coordinated with their own. To name just a few examples. We must, therefore, coordinate the various national climate policies and activities within the river basin region and look for possible synergies.

What is the task of the Mekong River Commission?

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) was founded in 1995 as an intergovernmental organisation. It pursues the goal of sustainably managing the resources of the Mekong in the interests of the member states in an integrated way, thus promoting socio-economic development and simultaneously protecting the environment of the river basin as much as possible. As a result, the MRC is an important political platform that gives the four countries of the lower Mekong the opportunity to meet regularly to reach agreement on national and joint plans and activities.

Since China has built six dams on the headwater of the Mekong, the situation has changed dramatically as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have suffered severe droughts, probably also due to the late start of El Nino in recent years. How can a balance be established between the interests of China and the neighbouring countries, and how could a German contribution look?

The numerous dams in their planning and implantation stages in China, as well as – and this is important to emphasise – in other neighbouring countries, such as Laos and Cambodia, will inevitably exacerbate the problems. Among other things, impacts on water drainage, sediment loads and fish populations are to be expected. All these factors are closely linked to the livelihoods and economies of the countries. If dams on the upper reaches of the river threaten the livelihoods of humans at the lower reaches, conflicts arise. And such conflicts are already there. The construction of the Don Sahong dam near the Lao-Cambodian border is causing great concern in Cambodia and Vietnam, as the dam will, among other things, block an important migratory route for fish.

These conflicts can be counteracted by closer cooperation. For example, stronger regulation of the river and the storage of water at the top can also serve to increase protection against floodwaters in downstream areas. Maritime shipping could also be improved by stronger regulation. Such common benefits should be concentrated upon. This requires, of course, precise agreements and joint management. And that is precisely the task of the MRC.

Although China is not a member of the MRC – and it is also unlikely, and not necessarily sensible for China to join the MRC in the near future - but the country has an observer status and cooperates, e.g. on ​​data exchange with the MRC and the other Mekong neighbour countries. Here, Germany could work to ensure that dialogue is pursued and strengthened, as it is only through involvement in dialogue that it becomes possible to find out what concrete measures China is planning, as well as their possible.

How would you define climate diplomacy?

Diplomacy is primarily about inter-state relations and the representation of state interests abroad or on an international level. And since the effects of climate change affect all states in one form or another, climate change has become a central focus of diplomatic activities in recent years. Global negotiations are at the centre of climate diplomacy. The aim is to agree on agreements and measures at international level in order to, for example, limit global warming, as is the case for the Paris agreement.

In a broader sense, you can also count all societal activities that aim to curb the causes and effects of climate change, thus strengthening peace and security, as a part of climate diplomacy.

[This interview originally apperared in German on FAIReconomics.]