Sumernet

Reducing water insecurity: Questions of power, politics and equity in the Mekong region

By Pin Pravalprukskul

As uncertainty and extremes in water availability become the norm in the Mekong region, SUMERNET researchers are joining with policymakers to explore ways to deal with water insecurity, especially for the most vulnerable people.

More than 50 researchers, policy makers and local and regional partners gathered at the 2017 SUMERNET policy forum to focus on challenges related to water scarcity, flooding, and transboundary water sharing.

Who makes the decisions?

A key issue raised at the policy forum was the highly political nature of water governance in the region, which has led to inequitable practices and impacts. A SUMERNET assessment of policy responses to water scarcity in the Mekong countries found that decision making is concentrated in the hands of the politically and financially powerful few, who determine how water gets allocated. Often, these decisions prioritize the demands of cities, industries and larger-scale irrigated agriculture. A similar review on the region’s flood managemeSUMERNET Policy Forum on 9 Nov. in Bangkok, Thailand.nt highlighted the “status quo” of politicians framing floods as “natural problems” to dodge blame for the impacts caused when dams or reservoirs release water into farms or settlements. Dr. Kanokwan Monorom, Director of Mekong Sub-region Social Research Center at Ubon Ratchathani University noted that: “Political incentives often are the key factor in compelling decision makers to flood certain areas rather than others.”

The policy forum also heard perspectives about the tendency of policymakers to choose short-term, engineering-heavy solutions that overlooks social and environmental sustainability. Mr. Saravuth Cheevaprasert from Thailand’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) expressed concern that the country’s current water infrastructure cannot keep up with the rising demands for water, and fails to address the irregular droughts and floods induced by climate uncertainties. Another example is the Mekong Delta dykes, which have been found to re-distribute rather than reduce flood risks in Vietnam.

Who loses out?

Water insecurity has disproportionate impacts on certain groups of people. During the dry season, water management institutions often decide to prioritize urban water needs over farmers’ rice crops. Moreover, when large-scale water projects are built, women and the rural poor are often the last to benefit.

Both Dr. Bernadette Resurreción of SEI and Dr. Louis Lebel of Chiang Mai University commented on the lack of attention to gender issues in the region’s water management institutions. A major reason for this is that most water professionals are men, and have been trained on the technical aspects of water management, but not the social. When women do participate in management, it is often restricted to the community level, which is not where the big decisions are made.

Freshwater ecosystems are often left out entirely from water management plans, even though their health is essential to the productive fisheries of the Mekong region, which feed millions of people.

There is also inequality in water management research among the Mekong countries, with Thailand and Vietnam dominating research agendas on floods and water scarcity.

Dealing with water insecurity

The need for the meaningful participation of groups of people with the least decision-making power and the most to lose was emphasized throughout the forum. Some of the speakers also emphasized the need for research and policies that focus on building resilience and adapting to climate change in the long term over short-term technical solutions.

In addition, there is a clear need to develop processes to navigate increasingly complex transboundary issues, as the Mekong nations become more reliant on each other in fulfilling their citizen’s water needs and dealing with the effects of climate change.

The SUMERNET policy form on water insecurity was held in Bangkok on 9 November 2017.

As water insecurity becomes a growing challenge in the Mekong region, the next phase of SUMERNET, SUMERNET 4 All (2018-2022), aims to improve policy and practices to reduce water insecurity for all people in the Mekong Region, particularly poor, marginalized and socially vulnerable groups of women and men.