Coordinating flows in the Mekong: Pilot design in the Nam Ngum Basin (Lao PDR)

In the Greater Mekong Basin, there has been acceleration of hydropower and other reservoir development over the last 10 years, which is projected to continue. Total installed capacity (in MW) in the Greater Mekong Basin has risen from below 5,000 MW in the year 2000 to close to 35,000MW in 2020. This rapid growth in hydropower has brought a range of positive and negative impacts which the Mekong Basin governments are seeking to manage sustainably. At a sub-basin level this use and demand on water has the potential to disrupt natural flows for the environment, impact irrigation access for agriculture, and influence drought and flooding impact on communities if there is no coordination of when and how much flows are released.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is a regional cooperation body for the Mekong Basin countries that develops procedures, technical guidelines, strategies and plans to be used by Mekong countries to optimise national planning for basin wide benefits while avoiding, minimising and mitigating regional costs. The MRC have developed Procedures for the Maintenance of Flows on the Mainstream (PMFM) Technical Guidelines which set out a framework on how to maintain minimum or maximum levels of river flow in the Mekong mainstream and reverse flow of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap River, which connects the mainstream and the Tonle Sap Lake.

Recognising the benefits of integrating MRC guidance into their planning and management processes, the Lao National Mekong Committee Secretariat (LNMCS) of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE), Lao PDR has requested Australian technical expertise to support the uptake of guidance and information from the MRC at the national level.

A priority area to demonstrate uptake is in the coordination of flows in the Lao PDR portion of the Mekong, which includes the collection and operational use of flood and drought forecasting information. The Nam Ngum River Basin has been selected  to pilot the application of technical guidelines to coordinate flows. This basin has a large number of reservoirs and hydro power plants and will be an important, and potentially more complex, basin to achieve improved management of water.

Supported by the Australian Mekong Water Facility through Australian Water Partnership (AWP), an Australian-Lao team is assisting LNMCS in the development of technical guidelines and to develop a pilot program for their implementation.

Alluvium International is leading the team that includes a range of experts in Lao basin management, GEDSI and Australian reservoir coordination operations. This team includes Simon Krohn, Voradeth Phonekeo, Garry Smith and Melita Grant from the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney.

On 15 June 2022, this activity was launched with LNMCS and representatives of DFAT, AWP, Ministry of Energy and Mines and the activity team. The team has commenced scoping activities to better understand the competing demands on water resources in the basin and the relationships between various government departments and operators in the basin. Building relationships and forming a mandate for flow management will be an essential outcome to be achieved with LNMCS.

Alluvium International and their partner LNMCS are also coordinating with the South Korean development agency (KOICA) that is planning work in the same basin to improve water governance and develop a water resource management system including installation of equipment that will monitor flows. These parties have had several meetings to discuss the scope of each project and how best to complement and integrate the work with LNMCS.

The intention of this activity is to maximise the economic benefits arising from coordination of flows through cascades whilst limiting social and environmental impacts of unusual releases, while also connecting forecasts with water infrastructure operation. This type of support will improve the coordination of flows not only at the national level but will also be beneficial for the Mekong Basin and can be used as a demonstration project by LNMCS and MRC within and between Member Countries.

Feature image: Activity launch meeting in Vientiane with representatives from the Lao National Mekong Committee Secretariat, Ministry of Nature Resources and Environment, Ministry of Energy and Mines, Mekong River Commission, DFAT and AWP. Pictured is Mr. Peto Mouakhampao (DMH), Mrs. Keodorkmai Phuipaseuth (DWR) , Mr. Thilaphone Phouma (LNMCS), Mr. Khamsone Philavong (LNMCS), Mr. Vannaphone Phetpaseuth (LNMCS), Mr, Oudomsack Philavong (LNMCS), Ms. Rhonda Mann (DFAT); Dr. Emily Barbour (AWP), Ms. Katharine Cross (AWP); Mrs Luckdavong Valangkoun (LNMCS), Mr Sophearin Chea (MRCS). Online: Mr. Lamphone Dimanovong (DEPP-MEM), Mr. Sivannakone Malivarn (LNMCS); Lucie Bright, Simon Tilleard, Dave Winfield (Alluvium); Garry Smith (DG Consulting), Simon Krohn (Simon Krohn Consulting), Hyeju Kim and Irene Park (KOICA).
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