Along the Mekong, making sense of disparate development strategies

SEI-Asia and the Danish Institute for International Studies co-host a seminar on new development financiers, civil society and climate change in the Mekong.

The Mekong is one of the longest rivers in the world, flowing for more than 4,000 km from the Tibetan Plateau, through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea. Its basins are home to tens of millions of people, who depend on it for food, livelihoods and transport.

Managing such a vast river poses major challenges. On June 6, SEI’s Asia Centre, in its capacity as the Secretariat of Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET), hosted a seminar in its Bangkok office to explore those challenges.

The Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) co-hosted the event, titled ‘New Development Financiers, Civil Society and Climate Change in the Mekong’.

The seminar focused on the role of civil society and financiers of mainstream hydropower projects in the Mekong Region, with particular emphasis on the Xayabury dam controversy in Laos.

DIIS is doing research on this topic as part of a larger project on water governance commissioned by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Danida) that compares drivers of development in transboundary basins in India, Denmark, and the Mekong.

SEI-Asia Deputy Director Chayanis Krittasudthacheewa chaired and facilitated the seminar, which included a presentation by Kurt Morck Jensen and Rane Baadsgaard Lange of DIIS.

Analyzing development drivers
River basin management is challenged by political realities, including the diverse economic and political interests of national governments, civil society, and private sector stakeholders. The DIIS study seeks to shed light on these issues by analyzing three drivers of development related to water governance: new development financiers, civil society actors, and climate change.

Questions addressed in the seminar included: How do controversies over mainstream dams highlight disparate development strategies of riparian countries? How are private financiers and developers influencing decision-makers and development in the Lower Mekong? And how much of an impact does climate change have on transboundary governance and negotiations in the region?

After the presentation, there were comments from Albert Salamanca, an SEI-Asia research fellow and co-leader of SEI’s Transforming Governance theme; Carl Middleton of Chulalongkorn University; Dorothy-Grace M. Guerrero, of Focus on the Global South, and Bryan Switzer, regional environment officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

Key messages raised in the discussion included the need to connect energy and water development in the region, the importance of getting beyond the ‘water box’ and considering political factors influencing water governance, and the value of civil society in contributing to the discourse on transboundary planning.

In a broader sense, the seminar highlighted the need to explore alternative water and energy development models that are environmentally and socially sustainable.

The seminar is part of SUMERNET’s effort, under its transboundary issues and energy and climate change themes, to facilitate knowledge-sharing and support discourse on sustainable development in the Mekong Region.