Strengthening the coordination of flows in the Mekong

Improving regional and national communication and information sharing in Lao PDR

On 2 May 2023, the Lao National Mekong Committee Secretariat (LNMCS) and Alluvium presented the Draft Guidelines for Flow Coordination in Lao PDR at the 4th Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit hosted in Vientiane, Laos.

The MRC Summit is the highest-level political event in the MRC calendar. It gathers the heads of governments of the four Member Countries and political leaders from Dialogue Partners and development partners to review Mekong cooperation and provide strategic directions.

The presentation provided an opportunity to share progress on the development of the guidelines, and details of the planned pilot in the Nam Ngum Basin, with key local stakeholders and a broader international audience.

Why is improved flow coordination needed?

Lao PDR experiences water management issues such as flooding and drought, in line with its seasonal, tropical climate and impacts from climate change. These flow management issues have been exacerbated by the development of hydropower across the country, due to the operational requirements of electricity generation – requiring storage and discharge of river flow that can disrupt a natural flow regime and impact people’s access to water.

Draft guidelines for coordination are being developed to better balance the use of water between larger industries, such as hydropower generation, with the needs for river health, biodiversity, communities, agriculture, tourism, cultural flows, ecosystem services, fisheries and catchment management. The guidelines draw on the Procedures for the Maintenance of Flows on the Mainstream developed by the MRC and highlight the importance of diverse stakeholder consultation to better understand how people use water and are impacted by the operation of dams and hydropower schemes.

The LNMCS is responsible for coordinating and implementing activities related to the management of the Mekong River. It serves as the focal point for the Lao government’s engagement in matters related to the Mekong River and its sustainable development. The LNMCS has played a key role in developing the draft guidelines and testing their application in the pilot. This includes coordinating the involvement of stakeholders across the public sector involved in water policy, strategy and technical analysis, as well as diverse public and private stakeholders (e.g., dam operators, community groups, farmers etc.) to assess flow coordination in the Nam Ngum Basin.

An Australian-Lao team is assisting LNMCS in the development of guidelines for flow coordination with the support of the Australian Mekong Water Facility. Alluvium is leading the team that includes a range of experts in Lao basin management (Simon Krohn Consulting, Voradeth Phonekeo), GEDSI (UTS-ISF) and Australian reservoir coordination (DG Consulting).

What are the objectives and intended outcomes?

The guidelines aim to develop technical and institutional governance mechanisms to improve the sharing of information amongst water infrastructure operators, wider stakeholders, and riparian communities.

The primary objective is to maximise the economic benefits arising from coordination of flows through cascades while limiting social and environmental impacts of releases, particularly those operating in a cascade.

Adequate consideration of gender equality, disability and social inclusion (GEDSI) in the coordination of flows is also a key objective of the guidelines.

How are the draft guidelines being tested?

A pilot program is underway to test the draft guidelines in the Nam Ngum Basin. This basin was selected as it has substantial water infrastructure already built and a number of flow coordination challenges (e.g. flooding and drought).

The aim of the pilot is to test out concepts from the draft guidelines – to determine how practical they are and what changes need to be made to the Guidelines before finalising and commencing use in other basins.

The pilot includes field visits to key stakeholder groups, including village authorities, farmer networks, organic farmers, and groups or individuals representing ethnic young mothers’ group, ethnic communities, the disabled and elderly.

A stakeholder workshop is scheduled for May where community stakeholders will meet with dam operators and government officials to identify key river reaches and further test the application of the guidelines.

What are the lessons learned and future opportunities?

Australian experience in the management of water basins with complex natural, social and economic challenges can provide valuable insights for the management of flows in the Mekong River and its tributaries. Tailoring of the Australian experience to the local context through close partnering with Laos PDR government agencies and local water resource experts has been key to supporting successful knowledge transfer and capacity development. For example, recent Australian experience places a growing emphasis on community involvement and even decision making in the planning and management of water resources.  This experience informed the development of the flow coordination guidelines, and the pilot tested its application in Nam Ngum Basin where local community stakeholders included farmers, women’s groups, disabled people’s groups and village representatives.

Responding to the challenges of modern river basin management is complex, it is an iterative process that requires a long-term commitment to continuous improvement. Data availability, data sharing, quality control and quality assurance create barriers to the application of modelling software for river basin management. Continued investment in the management and use of data, modelling capacity and guidance on managing uncertainty in water management decision making is required to overcome these barriers.

The pilot project is ongoing, and lessons learned will be used to update the draft guidelines to support improved flow coordination in other basins across Laos PDR. The pilot project and draft guidelines also provide an opportunity for learning and knowledge exchange with other riparian Mekong countries involved in the coordination of flows.

Featured image: Vannaphone Phetpaseuth of the Lao National Mekong Committee Secretariat, Lao PDR presenting at the MRC Summit 2023
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