The Mekong River is among the largest and most biodiverse rivers in the world. Flowing almost 5,000 km from China to Viet Nam, the River is a transboundary resource of significant socio-economic, environmental and cultural value. It provides a vital lifeline for millions of people living in the basin, supports irrigation, generates energy and helps conserve ecosystems.

As all nations in the region race to industrialise for a rapid economic development, the Mekong’s water resources have been experiencing intense and sustained pressure demand from a range of infrastructure development activities such as intensive irrigation for agriculture and hydropower. Whilst such developments can spur the basins’ economic growth and reduce poverty for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), they also have implications on the environment and can cause transboundary impacts and conflicts. As such, governing the Mekong waters is an economic, social and political issue that requires coordinated management approaches, dialogue and cooperation not only between sectors but also between countries to achieve a well-balanced development of the basin.

The Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) process is considered worldwide as a means to reduce transboundary consequences and social conflicts from competing water needs as well as to facilitate effective and sustainable development of water resources. It takes a multi-sectoral approach to coordinate conflicting demands for resources instead of a single sectoral approach that considers the needs of only one sector.

The integrated planning concept is extremely relevant for governing large and complex rivers such as the Mekong River Basin where water, fish, sediment, and other valuable resources all travel from one country to the next, and the river’s ecosystems are highly connected.

Effective implementation of IWRM, however, requires appropriate policy, regulations, and institutional frameworks which can facilitate cross-sectoral dialogue and cooperation among water users at both national and cross border levels. IWRM has been adopted by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to manage water resources through the 1995 Mekong Agreement. The Agreement provides the foundation for the MRC to support basin-wide planning processes, based on principles of IWRM, through:

  • Institutionalisation of the IWRM principles across the MRC’s supporting programmes and sectors to meet multiple objectives, including sustaining fisheries, fostering sustainable hydropower, identifying opportunities for irrigated agriculture, maintaining the freedom of navigation, improving flood and drought management, and preserving important ecosystems.
  • IWRM-based basin development strategies that examines long-term needs for the development of water resources. The strategies focus on achieving the sustainable development of the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMB), adapting national plans to address longer-term needs and providing a comprehensive response to climate change and other challenges. 
  • Basin development plans that support and promote the integration of basin perspectives into national water-related policies and plans. 
  • Capacity building programmes that promote the use of MRC modelling and assessment tools and process, and integration of planning across sectors and areas.

Putting IWRM Principles into Practice

In response to the need to coordinate basin planning at the transboundary and cross sector levels, the MRC in 2000 launched the Water Utilization Project (WUP) which enabled the four Member Countries to draft and agree on five procedures for dealing with information exchange, water use and quality monitoring, and flow maintenance for the Mekong River. The Procedures, developed under WUP to support the implementation of the 1995 Mekong Agreement on water cooperation, include:

These rules lay the foundation for technical cooperation between the Member Countries on the joint use of the Mekong waters, and enable consultation and agreement on projects affecting the Mekong River and its tributaries. Funded by the Global Environment Fund (GEF) through the World Bank (WB), the 8-year WUP also established a ‘Decision Support Framework’ to enable governments of the four countries to make decisions informed by accurate scientific and socio-economic data. The Decision Support Framework is a suite of modelling tools capable of describing changes in river flow and assessing impacts, land cover change, infrastructure development and climatic variations within the basin.

Mekong IWRM Project

Building on the success, the MRC in 2009 formulated the Mekong IWRM Project (M-IWRMP) to finalise the pending procedures for water utilisation and technical guidelines, and facilitate the implementation of the procedures and guidelines. It also promoted IWRM practices of coordinated planning and management with the application of the MRC’s Procedures and technical tools on water use planning, data sharing and flow monitoring.

The M-IWRMP assisted the Member Countries through a three-tiered approach, combining regional (basin-wide), transboundary, and national levels. The regional component, funded the Australian government, advanced the application of the MRC Procedures and their technical guidelines and developed a package of modeling tools for basin-scale water utilisation.

The transboundary components focused on bi-and multilateral cooperation between the MRC Member Countries and cross-country projects that were facilitated through the MRC Secretariat.

Five joint bilateral projects were developed under this component to address transboundary issues in the management of water and related resources for sustainable development through the IWRM approaches (see below).

The national component supported each Member Country to improve governance mechanisms and build technical capacity to carry out coordinated planning and utilisation of water within the national boundaries. The World Bank financed both the transboundary and national components.

Joint Bilateral Projects

Launched in 2013-2014 and completed in 2019, the five bilateral projects were designed to create a better institutional framework to build knowledge, disseminate existing expertise, and improve decision making. The principles of integrated water resources management were central to all five projects. This required all four countries to work together through a multi-sectoral approach to coordinate responses to transboundary water issues, such as infrastructural development, pressures from urbanization, and climate change impacts.

The five projects are summerised as follows:

  • Sesan and Srepok River Basins Water Resources Management Project (2014-2019): Building on existing government mechanisms, the project assisted Cambodia and Vietnam to institutionalize bilateral mechanisms to address major issues putting pressure on the sub-basins. These issues included hydropower and irrigation developments that cause social and environmental impacts such as soil erosion, deterioration of watersheds, increased flash floods, and degradation of water quality.
  • Mekong and Sekong Rivers Fisheries Management Project (2014-2019): This project helped improve fisheries management in the bordering provinces of Stung Treng and Kratie in Cambodia and Champasak and Attapeu in Lao PDR, areas which are connected by the Mekong and Sekong Rivers. The project supported the two countries to establish a joint fisheries monitoring system and a fisheries management action plan to be implemented by a joint fisheries management body. These mechanisms addressed a decline in migratory whitefish species due to exploitative fishing, deterioration of watersheds, and impacts from hydropower projects.
  • Mekong Delta Water Resources Management Project (2014-2019): The project supported Cambodia and Vietnam to analyse issues that threatened the basin’s sustainability, such as flooding, drought, acid sulphate soils, and saltwater intrusion. The project promoted cooperation on the development of data and information sharing mechanisms and basin monitoring strategies for harmonised water resources management and future investment in the Mekong Delta. 
  • Xe Bang Hieng and Nam Kam River Basins Wetland Management Project (2013-2018): This project strengthened bilateral dialogue for knowledge sharing to improve wetland management in Lao PDR’s Xe Bang Hieng and Thailand’s Nam Kam river basins. The project also promoted peer-to-peer learning at national and community levels through meetings and exchange visits, and enhanced IWRM-based management practices to support river basin planning, flood management, and sustainable irrigation development.
  • Tonle Sap and Songkhla Lake Basins Communication Outreach Project (2013-2018): The project promoted good governance of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap and Thailand’s Songkhla Lakes for sustainable livelihoods through community outreach activities and knowledge exchange. It bridged the sister-lake communities through a forum where people were able to communicate and share good practices for addressing common challenges, including unsustainable fishing practices, lack of income generation opportunities, and unpredictable climate patterns.

Throughout the past six years, the Mekong IWRM Project had established examples of how to implement integrated water resources management in practice. National and regional stakeholders jointly formulated, designed, and established mechanisms and framework for improved cooperation now and in the future.

Data and information sharing, modelling, mapping, and forecasting efforts were strengthened, and governance structures and legislation were updated. Capacity building for government officials and communities improved the conditions for responding to the pressing challenges facing the basin. In addition, improved communication and learning across borders created unique insights on how to better manage water resources in the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMB).

Institutionalising the principles of integrated water resources management across the Member Countries helped to promote sustainable and equitable development at national, transboundary, and regional levels. It improved the application of the MRC’s water related procedures in support of the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

Finally, the M-IWRMP also supported the MRC’s strategic directions for 2016 to 2020, which assists the Member Countries with implementing IWRM approaches in national water resources management and related sectors to support sustainable and equitable regional development. In addition, it fed into the IWRM Basin Development Strategy 2016-2020 to help the MRC institutionalise IWRM principles in a coordinated way that proactively involves all programmes as well as relevant national authorities.

Joint Transboundary Projects

Building on the success, the MRC and its Member Countries have collectively identified a new set of five joint projects to further help the LMB countries facilitate sustainable development of the Mekong Basin in through their national plans.

An assessment of the cumulative impacts and risks of existing national water resources development plans of the Member Countries demonstrates that national plans are still sub-optimal from a basin-wide perspective. National plans have yet to address long-term water security and environmental needs and miss opportunities to increase regional benefits and reduce costs.

Therefore, the proposed joint projects will further improve national water resources development plans to (i) ensure long-term water and environmental security, and (ii) achieve optimal and sustainable development as envisioned in the 1995 Mekong Agreement. The implementation of joint projects would also increase transboundary cooperation and regional integration, benefiting many sectors, such as food, energy, navigation, tourism, and flood protection. The five proposed projects are:

  • Lao-Thai safety regulations for navigation (Thailand, Lao PDR): The project will establish and support the implementation of joint rules on anti-pollution, inspection of vessels, port safety, and emergency response, which will improve waterway, navigation and environmental activities. 
  • Cross-border water resources development and management, including environmental impact monitoring of the Don Sahong hydropower project (Lao PDR, Cambodia): The Project aims to inform mitigation and adaptive management measures at the Don Sahong hydropower plant, develop a longer-term vision for the Khone Falls and Cambodia’s upper Mekong areas, and prepare and implement projects and activities that generate benefits in both countries.
  • Transboundary cooperation for flood and drought management in the Thai-Cambodian border area – a part of the 9C-9T sub-area (Thailand, Cambodia): The Project aims to increase the capacity for transboundary integrated water resources planning and the forecasting of floods and droughts and associated information services. It also aims to provide water security, including measures mitigating floods and droughts, to support economic and social development in the project areas.
  • Sustainable water resources development and management in the Sekong, Sesan and Srepok river basins (3S Basin) (Viet Nam, Cambodia, Lao PDR): The Project aims to enhance coordinated national investments and possibly joint investments in further improvement of hydro-meteorological systems, flood and drought forecasting and associated services, transboundary operational water management, and water resources development infrastructure. 
  • Integrated flood management in the border area of Cambodia and Viet Nam in the Mekong Delta for water security and sustainable development (Viet Nam, Cambodia): The Project aims to prepare and implement investments and supporting measures in the border areas of Viet Nam and Cambodia for flood diversion and agricultural improvement, and develop an integrated flood management strategy for the Mekong Delta.

Three of the above projects, namely the Lao-Thai on navigation, the Cambodian-Lao on water resources management, and the Cambodian-Thai on flood and drought management, are being implemented currently.

Implementation arrangements

While the MRC leads transboundary coordination during the planning stage of joint projects, implementation of project activities is the responsibility of line agencies in the countries involved. The transboundary coordination will build on existing mechanisms. A transboundary steering committee may be established to support the implementation along with the provision of service providers, such as consulting firms and international organisations.

During project preparation, the MRC helps review TORs and project preparation documents. In addition, the MRC supports the appraisal of prepared structural projects through implementation of the MRC Procedures, particularly the PNPCA.

The duration of the planning component for joint projects varies between 2-3.5 years. The estimated costs of the planning are given in the table below. The cost for further project preparation and implementation of structural and non-structural projects will be determined during implementation of the planning component.

Implementing Countries Title of Joint Projects Sectors Estimated cost (US$)
Lao PDR and Thailand Lao-Thai safety regulations for navigation Navigation 1,000,000
Cambodia and Lao PDR Cross border water resources development and management, including environmental impact monitoring of Don Sahong hydropower project Hydropower
100,000/year (impact monitoring)
Cambodia and Thailand Transboundary cooperation for flood and drought management in Thai-Cambodian border area – a part of 9C-9T Sub-area Flood/drought management 1,200,000
Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Viet Nam Sustainable water resources development and management in the Sekong, Sesan and Srepok river basins (3S Basin) Hydropower, environment, flood and drought 2,610,000
Cambodia and Viet Nam Integrated flood management in the border area of Cambodia and Viet Nam in the Mekong Delta for water security and sustainable development Flood protection, agriculture 2,730,000
2,000,000 (border canals, floodways)


Funding for planning of the joint projects is sought from development partners with relevant experience. Subsequent implementation of the structural and non-structural projects will be funded from the national budgets.

Click here for more information on the five joint projects.