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The Conference on Sustainable Use of Mekong Water Resources (March 2016)

(Can Tho City, March 2016)



I.      Rationale and context of the issue

Vital Water Graphics, a report published by The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2008, highlighted one of the most stressing concerns of the human population in the 21st century:


“for the next few decades, given the volume of available water, and under the present circumstances, will it be possible to provide enough water to a population forecast to be at least 9 billion by 2050 (according to
the medium hypothesis proposed by the United Nations) using a volume which will be roughly the same as it is now?”[1]


The ongoing international race for energy and water resources is not a recent issue, with a number of cases leading to friction and dispute among states. As an illustration, just from 2010 to 2013, incidents involving violence of different scales related to access to water emerged in Yemen, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Indian, Kashmir, Brazil, Egypt, Nigeria, Uzbekistan, South Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Tanzania, Syria, Libya, and Indonesia and Sino-Indian relations[2]. Another exemplary case is the tension between Singapore and Malaysia. Not only do rivers and sources of freshwater play a key role in human basic living (providing drinking water), they also have significant impacts on the livelihood of riparian communities (thus the social security and economic prospect of the area and the country) and on the environment. 

Asian nations are particularly vulnerable to tensions over water resources due to the combination of two primary factors: (1) the region is heavily populated and (2) it is facing increasingly serious water scarcity. The pressure is even liable to mount and lead to escalating friction in the future[3]. In such a context, the main challenge – according to Vital Water Graphics – will be to find alternative, creative solutions in water resources management without deteriorating already existing disputes and conflicts.

The Mekong River, a trans-boundary river in Southeast Asia, the world's 12th longest river and the 7th longest in Asia[4], is calling for proper attention and action scheme towards an appropriate regime for its sustainable use and management. This is especially important in view of the ASEAN Economic Community 2015, whereby ASEAN member states – Mekong riparians included – must adopt enhanced cooperation and coordination not only in trade and economic relations, but also in their use of common resources.

The Conference on Sustainable Use of Mekong Water Resources aims to contribute to the pool of international efforts acting on the case to address one of the most challenging issues in
South East Asia.


II.    A concise background on the Mekong River

a. The Mekong: some facts and figures:

Statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations show that the Mekong river basin has a total area of 795,000 km2, distributed among six nations: China, Myanmar, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam. In Viet Nam specifically, the Mekong river basin accounts for a fifth of the total area of this country.


b. The Mekong River Commission (MRC)

With its geographical spread and international impact, the Mekong river received official regional recognition in the early 1950s. However. it was not until 1995 when the Mekong River Commission (MRC) was established (by the Mekong Agreement) with four members: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Viet Nam. One year after that (1996), China and Myanmar became Dialogue Partners of the MRC.

Since its establishment in 1995, the MRC has strived to develop work programmes and strategies that best serve its mission to provide effective support for sustainable management and development of water and related resources. Over the years, with a vision to bring about an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound Mekong River Basin, we have placed regional cooperation and basin-wide planning at the heart of our operation.

Just one year after the signing of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, the MRC began to forge its successful alliance and working relationship with its Dialogue Partners, namely the People’s Republic of China (China) and the Union of Myanmar (Myanmar). […] Enhanced cooperation with China and Myanmar is crucial for the sustainable management of the LancangMekong Basin where flow conditions and sediment delivery downstream have already been modified by hydropower and climate change. Building on the Dialogue Partner arrangement, future cooperation may include institutionalising a more extensive information sharing system on river flows and reservoir operations as well as joint technical studies and capacity-building in flood and drought management.[6]


c. The Mekong and its crucial roles

As a key resource in fisheries and agriculture, energy/power generation, and also tourism, the Mekong River plays a vital economic role in all the countries it goes through. As stated in Vital Water Graphics:

More than a third of the population of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam - some 60 million people - live in the Lower Mekong Basin, using the river for drinking water, food, irrigation, hydropower, transportation and commerce. Millions more in China, Burma (Myanmar) and beyond the boundaries of the basin benefit from the river. In the plains the river basin accounts for half the arable land in Thailand. Further downstream in Cambodia, the Tonle Sap Lake, one of the world’s largest freshwater fisheries, is replenished by the Mekong. Nearly half of Cambodia’s people benefit directly or indirectly from the lake’s resources. As the river approaches the sea, the Mekong Delta, home to 17 million Vietnamese, yields more than half of Vietnam’s rice production and a third of its GDP. Beyond these human connections the river also powerfully demonstrates the scope for shared interest and " >competition.[7]

Therefore, the impacts of the Mekong River on various aspects: livelihood of riparian communities, environment and biodiversity, and so on make this river a focal issue of national and regional interest.


d. The Mekong: challenges in sustainable use and management

Current rules, mechanisms, and frameworks bear a number of limitations, which need to be addressed.

Government and industry certainly have leading roles to play, but stakeholders involvement is key to real success in sustainability.

Climate change is causing serious threats to both the quality of the water resources (salt intrusion from rising sea level, drought, etc.) and the life of the Mekong riparian communities (floods and other extreme conditions).

There needs to be a comprehensive interest analysis among different groups of stakeholders/riparians: lower basin versus upper basin, farmers versus fishermen, ethnic minorities welfare versus hydroelectricity demand.

Hydroelectric dams in upstream areas are raising more and more concerns over its serious and complex impacts on downstream areas.

Lessons from success stories from other regions (the US with its cross-state rivers, US-Canada, Europe, etc.) should be taken into account.


III.  The Conference on Sustainable Use of Mekong Water Resources (Can Tho City, March 2016)

Coorganized by Can Tho University, Ho Chi Minh City Peace and Development Foundation (HPDF) and Tri Viet Center for Social and Educational Studies, the conference aims at providing a multi-dimensional, multi perspective, and multi-stakeholder discussion with an open regional approach.

-     Location: Can Tho City

-     Time: March 2016

-     Duration: one day and a half

-     Tentative participation apart from local (Vietnamese) speakers and participants:

 + At least one participant from each of the five other Mekong riparian nations (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China, Myanmar)

A representative of the Mekong River Commission

A representative of the ASEAN secretariat

1 speaker/panelist from North America

1 speaker/panelist from Europe

The organizers will seek financial support for participants from outside the region. The conference hopes to receive support from, inter alia, the EU delegation in Viet Nam, the Asia Foundation, and the Greater Mekong Subregion (a project of ADB).


Comments and suggestions are welcome at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

[2] Christopher, Mark. 2013. Water wars: The Brahmaputra River and Sino-Indian relations. Case study. Newport, RI: US Naval War College, Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups.

[3] Strategic Currents: Emerging Trends in Southeast Asia, edited by Yang Razali Kassim, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009

[4] More information on the Mekong River can be found in Section II of this concept note.

[5] FAO. 2015. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on 24 Oct 2015.

[6] Official site of Mekong River Commission:

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