Conclusions and recommendations

The following sets out the main conclusions that can be drawn from the assessments made in this report in terms of the management and development challenges and opportunities for MRC to achieve its aims.

Note: The selected findings presented here should be interpreted considering the assumptions, methodologies and data sources of the SOBR 2018. For complete assessments, consult the SOBR 2018 report.

Summary of key conclusions on the State of the Basin

The main conclusions that can be drawn from the findings of the SOBR have been structured around the agreed strategic indicators and the associated key questions (one for each indicator) intended to articulate the underlying issues that each strategic indicator is intended to address. These overall conclusions are summarised in the interactive grid below.

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The key messages for each of the five dimensions covered by this report are:

Environmental conditions: Reservoir developments in the basin have caused a significant change in the flow regime of the Mekong and are contributing to the observed substantial decrease in sediment concentrations. The long-term consequences of these changes need to be managed to minimise environmental harm whilst leveraging the benefits of more secure dry season flows. The loss of wetlands and riverine habitats continues alongside increasing pressures on capture fisheries and urgent actions are needed to protect remaining assets before they are lost.

Social conditions: Living conditions within the basin are improving, but much better information is needed to identify specific water sector impacts and to determine where vulnerabilities lie.

Economic conditions: Substantial economic benefits are being derived in water-related sectors, but a comprehensive assessment of equity between countries and trade-offs between sectors is not yet possible with the available data. A pro-active and cooperative approach to basin planning is needed to achieve optimal and sustainable development of the basin in line with MRC’s aims.

Climate change: Both temperature and sea level are rising, but other predicted aspects of climate change are yet to be evident. Member Countries are all engaged in managing climate change and this should be reinforced through MRC’s supra-national basin planning efforts.

Cooperation: New challenges arising from flow regime changes, sediment reductions and growing pressures on environmental assets and fisheries reinforce the need to build upon the existing cooperation through regional planning and joint projects, investments and monitoring.

Progress towards achieving relevant SDGs in the Mekong-Lancang Basin

In the report, the MRC’s aims overlap with many of the UN’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Whilst SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation) is seen as the strongest connection, it has been recognised that MRC’s policies, strategies, and activities have relevance also to Goal 2: Zero hunger; Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy; Goal 13: Climate action; Goal 14: Life below water; and Goal 15: Life on land.

Each of the six Goals has associated with it a set of targets and indicators determined by the United Nations. Not all of these targets and indicators are directly relevant to MRC. The key points arising from this review are summarised below.

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Recommendations for updating the Basin Development Strategy

In accordance with MRC’s strategic 5-year planning cycle, the State of the Basin Report seeks to inform and help shape the update of the Basin Development Strategy (BDS). The following six recommendations are made for consideration.

Recommendation (A): Continue and enhance monitoring of flow conditions and water quality

With increasing development in the basin and the onset of climate change impacts, the need for hydro-meteorological, flow, water quality and sediment monitoring is of increasing importance. Changes in flow regime may lead to undesirable impacts on both environmental assets and riverine communities as well as to opening the potential for increased irrigation abstractions, and need to be observed carefully. These monitoring programmes are designated as core functions of the MRC, and it is recommended that they should remain so with sufficient budgets and resources allocated as needed.

Recommendation (B): Develop and implement a MRC Data Acquisition and Generation Action Plan

Comprehensive programmes to monitor environmental assets (including fisheries), water use, agriculture, land use, socio-economic and macro-economic aspects, and some aspects of development infrastructure, including hydropower and flood control projects, are needed to fill these gaps.

Given that the costs of implementing the required monitoring programmes need to be kept to a reasonable minimum as the MRC moves towards self-financing, smart ways of basin monitoring need to be considered for which some studies and surveys may be needed to employ new methodologies. As above, the MRC data acquisition and generation action plan and data storage and management must be seen as a priority core river basin management function across all MRCS Divisions, with responsibilities at regional and national levels set out and appropriate investment included in MRC annual budget plans.

Recommendation (C): Address the problem of reduced sediment concentrations

Sediment concentrations in the mainstream are observed to be much reduced largely as a consequence of reservoir sediment trapping. The consequences in the short, medium and long term of diminished sediment concentrations on the river’s morphology, bank stability, flood plain productivity, delta building processes, and the productivity of coastal waters need to be fully understood in order that agreement can be reached on a sediment management plan.

Recommendation (D): Address the need to take urgent action to preserve and protect remaining environmental assets

Whilst there are clearly many environmental issues to deal with, this report highlights two key transboundary issues that are believed to be central to future plans for the LMB. These are:

  • Wetlands and key river habitats: The study highlights the enormous historic loss of wetlands in the Mekong Basin, which is continuing unabated today, jeopardising the long-term health of the basin’s eco-system. A shared appreciation of the pressures on wetlands and river habitats from alternative land uses, changing flow regimes, and climate change is needed as a first step towards identifying and prioritizing areas that may be brought under protection and the necessary trade-offs that this may involve. Thereafter, the MRC should facilitate agreement on basin-wide objectives, joint strategies and action plans for protecting and sustainably managing the remaining environmental assets.
  • Fisheries productivity: Whilst overall production of capture fisheries appears not to be falling, the report highlights the growing pressures arising not only from human-induced changes to the river systems, but also from changes in fisheries practices. A comprehensive understanding is needed of how fisheries may change in the future with and without further habitat changes, with and without regulation of capture fisheries practices, and with future changes in consumption patterns in the light of socio-economic development. Building such an understanding is critical to jointly implement the currently approved strategies (Basin-wide Fisheries Management Strategy, BFMS) with Member Countries and relevant stakeholders to support and maintain the sector in the future.

Recommendation (E): Adopt a more proactive approach to basin planning and the management of trade-offs between sectors and countries

Such an approach would allow the MRC, working as it does with all Member Countries and significant stakeholders, to create platforms to discuss benefit sharing and trade-offs between national development plans. This would help identify how to develop the basin given the current circumstances and the legitimate aims and concerns of each Member Country. The results of this new approach would enable the “Development Opportunities” section of the BDS to proactively provide strategic guidance to national planning for the basin across all water-related sectors in line with the aims of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. Therefore, it is recommended that platforms for enhancing the discussion and negotiation of basin planning and the management of trade-offs be created.

Recommendation (F): Maintain and strengthen cooperation with Dialogue Partners and other stakeholders

The MRC has long-recognised the importance of maintaining active dialogue with its upstream riparian neighbours. As with managing the interplay of competing demands and development impacts within the LMB, so too must the MRC appreciate the development aspirations and challenges of its upstream neighbours in order to arrive at good outcomes that satisfy both upstream and downstream needs. Given the range of short- and long-term issues, it is recommended that cooperation with the Dialogue Partners need to be not only maintained, but also further to be strengthened through the exchange of data, technical ideas, and resources.