Sharing benefits across borders: Messages from Mekong2Rio

25 May 2012 | Article

Innovative collaborative actions that foster positive results are instrumental in encouraging further cooperation between sovereign countries, was the message from IUCN to the participants of Mekong2Rio, an international conference organized by the Mekong River Commission in Phuket, Thailand on 1-3 May 2012.

The conference, which attracted over 300 participants from various water use sectors, addressed trans-boundary dimensions of water resources management to ensure food, energy and water security. This nexus approach, which was introduced at the 2011 Bonn Conference, is especially relevant for the Mekong Basin, a fast growing region and a hotspot for hydropower development.

Mark Smith, Director of IUCN’s Global Water Programme, urged the audience to reconsider traditional investments. “Ecosystems are natural infrastructures that provide a host of invaluable services, such as storing, moving, cleaning and buffering flows of water, making drought and flood less severe and food and energy production more reliable. In trans-boundary river basins, natural infrastructure has to be factored in basin development plans and investment frameworks – it’s time we rethink investments, as investing in natural infrastructure not only produces economic returns, but also social equity and resilience.”

The stakeholder dialogue approach, adopted by IUCN in the Ecosystems for Life: A Bangladesh-India Initiative and the Mekong Water Dialogues, can also be effective in driving water resources management at the basin scale. “Stakeholders have an intimate understanding of their river basin, and are thus an important resource for decision-makers.” says Bushra Nishat, the Bangladesh Project Manager for Ecosystems for Life. “Regional policies and strategies impact local stakeholders, therefore it is in their interest to interact with each other, across borders, to create a shared objective and vision for equitable and sustainable water sharing.”

The outcomes of Mekong2Rio are captured in nine messages to the Rio+20 Conference. These messages include:

  1. Water, food and energy are key strategic resources for the individual riparian countries that adopt policies and make decisions at the national level. This may on the one hand create barriers to cooperation, but on the other hand a nexus approach can contribute to regional stability if countries can agree to cooperate.
  2. In addressing the nexus it is recognized that water management needs to respect the basin and aquifer as the basic unit, from the smallest catchment to the major transboundary basins. Hence the opportunities and trade-offs of the nexus need to be addressed at the basin level, and transboundary river basin and aquifer management entities should be empowered to play their role in influencing national decisions.
  3. Solutions to food, water and energy security issues are being found by the three sectors working together, as shown in many transboundary basins throughout the world.
  4. The predominant paradigm in many countries on economic development needs to change towards a more balanced nexus approach which recognizes the importance of investment in and protection of natural capital and the need to maintain ecosystems functions and livelihoods, and move towards greener economies.
  5. >Operationalizing the nexus in a transboundary setting calls for sharing of data and information between countries, not only on water, but also on food and energy production.
  6. Nexus thinking needs to be based on scientific evidence of the gains to be made, and hence an added focus on research and development, including in decision support systems, along with the dissemination of results through a stronger transboundary science-policy dialogue.
  7. A multi-purpose approach for dams may increasingly be used to provide solutions to food security issues by increased irrigation, and at the same time provide water supply, energy, flood protection, jobs and economic development illustrating the water, food and energy linkages. However, sustainability challenges still remain, as do the challenge to implement benefit sharing.
  8. The rural poor in many countries depend on water-related food production such as rice and fish, and they are very vulnerable to any changes in access to water for their basic livelihoods. Infrastructure development for large-scale energy and food production in transboundary basins need to address this nexus issue through thorough analysis and stakeholder dialogue, including mitigation considerations.
  9. In anticipating the influence of climate change on nexus considerations, there needs to be policy coherence between regional basin-wide analysis and national adaptation strategies.