The Mekong River is seen with low water levels near the Thailand-Laos border in 2019. Photo: AFP
An Pich Hatda and Anoulak Kittikhoun
An Pich Hatda and Anoulak Kittikhoun

Asean’s focus on Mekong issues is crucial for region’s water security

  • Last month’s first-ever Water Security Dialogue showed the importance of involving young people and focusing on water resources development
  • As a historic show of unity between Asean and the Mekong River Commission, it will serve to enhance the ability of regional governments to tackle risks
For much of Southeast Asia, water security and climate resilience has become the defining issue of our time. Unpredictable rainfall and severe droughts and floods are already a reality across the region. With much of our population living just one metre above sea level, rising seas will have a devastating impact on all our economies, reversing decades of growth and stalling efforts to lift more people out of poverty.
This is one major reason that closer cooperation is crucial between Asean’s 10 member states and the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental organisation established in 1995 whose members are Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
Last month, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the MRC came together for their first-ever Water Security Dialogue. This historic show of unity was aimed at charting a course not just for the future of around 70 million lives that depend on Southeast Asia’s longest river, but for the economies of the region and beyond.
People travel along the Mekong River by boat in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: EPA

The dialogue resulted in two key takeaways. First was the importance of involving the region’s youth in water security issues. There are currently around 213 million young people aged between 15 and 34 living in Asean member states and a peak population of just over 220 million is expected by 2038, according to the Asean Youth Development Index. Cultivating youth-led initiatives in the community and supporting studies on the health of the river basin and good water management are just some ways we can empower young people to become effective water managers of our water resources.

Second, the dialogue highlighted the value that the MRC’s long-standing focus on water resources development can bring to Asean as a whole. Not only from a technical perspective, but from how the MRC has worked together, in spite of differences, by staying committed to objective science and robust planning. We have seen early examples of how our experience can benefit Asean member states. Malaysia, which experiences annual flooding during the monsoon season, has sent its engineers to visit the MRC Secretariat to learn from our expertise in basin planning, climate change and integrated water resources management.

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Now, our focus is on how this partnership can produce actionable outcomes in preparation for the next Water Security Dialogue in 2023.

In the meantime, the MRC also has much to learn from other Asean members. Growing urbanisation in the Lower Mekong Basin is increasing pressure on the quality of the river’s waters. As we write, the Mekong Delta is suffering from degrading water quality. We can learn from Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, in areas such as managing pollution as it relates to water quality. Likewise, Singapore’s expertise in harvesting rainwater, improving water quality and driving water efficiency would be of benefit to the Mekong countries.

The Mekong River is a lifeline not just for communities living along it but for the wider region and the world. Take for example its rich flora and fauna, which includes 20,000 species of plants and 1,148 of fish. The river is the source of some of the world’s largest freshwater fisheries, yielding an estimated 4.4 million tonnes per year with a total value of US$17 billion, much of it exported to neighbouring Asean members.

As the beating heart of Southeast Asia, the Mekong River also supports some of the world’s largest rice producing areas. Last year the countries of the Lower Mekong Basin accounted for around 25 per cent of global rice exports, worth almost US$6 billion according to research website World’s Top Exports. Maritime Southeast Asian nations also import a large percentage of this Mekong rice.


Have China’s dams been drying up the Mekong River or is low rainfall to blame?

Have China’s dams been drying up the Mekong River or is low rainfall to blame?
Inland water trade along the Mekong continues to grow with an estimated 450,000 tonnes of cargo transported annually between China and Thailand. The Mekong is one of the world’s most active regions for hydropower development. This also supports inter-Asean trade and cooperation through cross border energy sales.

These reasons explain why the Mekong and more broadly, Southeast Asia, have been at the centre of a geopolitical contest for influence among larger powers. Yet, the region has enjoyed peace for more than half a century because regional countries and their organisations such as Asean and the MRC have worked hard to maintain stability. Before the Water Security Dialogue, Mekong-related issues had not been discussed widely by Asean at the regional level. A strengthened partnership between the MRC and Asean will enhance the ability of regional governments to tackle risks in a coordinated manner. It also sends a clear message that the Asean is acting as a community with common goals and in solidarity with all its member states, and in partnership with all relevant stakeholders.

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We expect the Asean-MRC dialogue to become the pre-eminent, collective voice for a water-secured region and it is important that we capitalise on the momentum generated by our first dialogue. Set against an increasingly precarious geopolitical backdrop, we remain mindful of the fact that the Asean community cannot be safe and prosperous until every Asean member is water secure. By putting Mekong issues in a wider Asean context, it binds us to a common future full of hope, one that has the potential to ensure the Mekong River can continue to support economies and livelihoods, and remain a beacon of peace and prosperity in the region and beyond.

Dr An Pich Hatda is Chief Executive Officer and Dr Anoulak Kittikhoun is Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat