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From data to knowledge: How Pact is working with Mekong partners to solve water policy problemsDelia Paul · April 13, 2020
The Mekong River turned blue in the December-January dry season of 2019 and 2020. This postcard-pretty hue was not good news, however. The color change, from its regular muddy brown to a clear aquamarine, was the result of unusually low flows coupled with a lack of sediment in the water. The change occurred as the river at many points sank to lowest-ever recorded levels, threatening riverbank agriculture, irrigation for rice paddies and fishery yields.
The Mekong’s ebb and flow – high in the Northern Hemisphere winter, when snow and glacial melt joins with precipitation to swell the river, and low in the summer, as the waters recede from the banks – creates a hydrological “flood-pulse” that is the heartbeat of this river system. High water levels each year trigger huge migrations of freshwater fish to spawn. Mangroves along the Mekong’s tributaries are nurseries where the juveniles feed and grow, before moving on to be harvested in a multitude of local fishing and processing operations. The Mekong is one of the world’s largest and most productive freshwater fisheries, and the flood-pulse is its driver.
Many observers have linked these unwelcome changes to the presence of large hydropower dams on the Mekong mainstream – and the search for solutions is on.
Using technical tools to support Mekong cooperation
In 2019, the Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership (SIP), which Pact manages, invited climatologist Alan Basist to show how historic data on Mekong river levels can illuminate the search for solutions. Basist and his team at Eyes on Earth, a consulting service that monitors food security and water resources around the world, applied proprietary software to predict the quantity of water that should have arrived in the Mekong downstream that year – but did not.
The Eyes on Earth report, Monitoring the Quantity of Water Flowing Through the Upper Mekong Through Natural (Unimpeded) Conditions, published this week by Pact, shows that deviations from normal flow patterns began to occur with the operation of the first large hydropower dam on the Upper Mekong mainstream in 2012. Using satellite data on the Upper Mekong from 1992 to 2019, matched against daily measurements of river height downstream at Chiang Saen, Thailand, the research shows unusual fluctuations in recent years. The report concludes that cooperation between China and the Lower Mekong countries to simulate the natural flow cycle of the Mekong could potentially improve low-flow conditions and benefit all communities in the Mekong River Basin.
Creating joint solutions
Pact works with partners and local communities in the Mekong region to come together around shared issues through SIP, a program in support of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), a coalition of governments and development partners. Through convening stakeholders and increasing the capacity of decision makers, SIP’s objective is to improve the overall management of the Mekong River basin and the health of the people who depend on the river’s resources. Sharing of water data through the program’s Mekong Water Data Initiative (MWDI) platform is a key part of the capacity-building process.
In 2019, a Bangkok dialogue convened by SIP brought together hydropower operators, state agencies, development partners and civil society to discuss international experiences of managing hydropower cascades. Participants decided to meet again to develop joint guidelines for cooperation on managing the Mekong cascade. Later that year, SIP also convened a consortium of experts on socio-economic data, moving beyond statistics on river flows, hydrometeorology and rainfall, to generate and share data about how various population groups use water, and the impacts of large-scale infrastructure on people’s health, income, livelihoods and wellbeing. The year of activities culminated in the 2019 Mekong Research Symposium in Hanoi, an LMI-SIP event co-hosted by the U.S. Department of State and the University of Virginia, which brought together more than 200 Mekong stakeholders to share and learn how to use data tools for decision making in water and river basin management.
“From the events we have convened and the training that we have offered, we see that partners will use the knowledge that they gain in different ways,” said Suparerk Janprasart, SIP’s program director. “We have learned that issues of trust and data quality are often barriers to collaboration. These are issues that the Mekong Water Data Initiative aims to address.”
More than just a ‘parking place’ for data, mekongwater.org provides access to MekongHydroshare, a MWDI platform enables users to set their own terms for exchanging data with others, and is free to use. It also provides a portal or virtual clearing house where users can click through to access freely available satellite data from US and international agencies as well as a collection of available data tools and modeling applications from international partner institutions.
“The Eyes on Earth report shows the value of modern data tools to address shared, transboundary problems,” said Janprasart. “The SIP program is about putting those tools in the hands of decision makers and stakeholders, and building the capacity that is needed – not only technical know-how, but also creating the platforms for cooperation and sharing.”