Six years of progress leaves Mekong governments better equipped to cope with climate change

October 4, 2023
Participants at a regional workshop on groundwater modeling in April 2023, organized by SIP in partnership with the Mekong River Commission. Credit: Pact

Countries in the Lower Mekong region are among the most vulnerable in the world to climate change. In Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, many people live in low-lying and coastal areas and at risk from sea-level rise, floods and storms. Extreme weather affects agricultural yields. Drought and low water levels in the Mekong have already had some impacts on hydropower production and the river’s navigability.

Many local communities rely directly on natural resources and are already experiencing the impacts of drought, water scarcity and declines in inland fisheries. Countries and government agencies at all levels will need to make wise infrastructure choices, including decisions about building and maintenance of dams, reservoirs and barrages. To adequately plan for the future, and to cope with the changes occurring in the present, governments in the region need to be equipped to monitor, evaluate and manage water resources and related data.

For the past six years, the Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership (SIP) has been supporting the governments of Lower Mekong countries to face these challenges. A Pact-led capacity-building program, SIP is supported by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Mekong-U.S. Partnership (MUSP), a cooperation arrangement between the U.S. government and the governments of Lower Mekong countries. The program, which recently closed, leaves behind a cohort of professional and technical staff whose work will benefit people and the environment for many years to come.

Critical training for future preparedness
Since 2018, SIP has worked with partners from universities and think tanks in the U.S. and the Mekong region to offer professional and technical training to professional and technical staff from government agencies from the five Lower Mekong countries. These have covered groundwater management, risk assessment, the use of tools for hydrologic and hydraulic decision support, and stakeholder engagement.

SIP leaves behind a cohort of professional and technical staff whose work will benefit the Mekong's people and environment for years to come.

A participant poses a question at the Mekong Research Symposium 2023 in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Credit: Pact

“This has meant that countries can conduct better flood and drought forecasting, manage groundwater more sustainably and consider how development planning should take into account the cumulative impacts of environmental change,” said Megan Sullivan, Mekong Programs Manager at Pact Thailand. “Feedback from participants has been very positive.”

A particular highlight, she noted, has been the partnership between water-related government agencies from the U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK), which offered 111 trainees from 19 government agencies in Lower Mekong countries the chance to gain hands-on experience in the use of specialized computer programs and earth observation data for water management. The project, ‘Improved Hydrological and Hydraulic Decision Support for the Mekong Basin,’ delivered 4,000 training hours. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NASA and K-water, the ROK’s water resource development agency, collaborated to deliver the workshops, coordinated by the Mekong River Commission secretariat and the SIP team at Pact Thailand. Participants noted that an important outcome of the training was the enabling of more accurate flood forecasting, by taking into account the impacts of rainfall, not only river flows. This enables adequate flood warnings.

Bringing science to policy
SIP has partnered with local and international researchers and policy analysts to provide knowledge to meet the needs of policy makers. Since 2020, the SIP program has supported research by Mae Fah Luang University in Thailand and the Stimson Center in the U.S. One example of SIP’s policy-relevant work has been to estimate in detail the costs of solar energy and other renewable energy technologies in the region. This work showed that replacing existing hydropower projects with investments in solar and wind energy makes sense economically as well as environmentally.

Participants at the Mekong Research Symposium 2023 visit a local conservation project. Credit: Pact

Monitoring the Mekong drought
In 2020, a long-running drought in the Mekong region provided the SIP program with an opportunity for immediate application of data tools and monitoring. Through a partnership with Eyes on Earth, a U.S.-based consultancy, the SIP program provided near real-time monitoring of climate conditions in the Mekong region to the public. Temperature and dryness maps were posted each week to the SIP Facebook page with commentary. The drought monitoring showed that for the second year running, conditions were the worst they had been in 26 years. The maps were widely shared on social media, reaching thousands of people as the region marked the critical start of the rice-planting season.

Moving from data to action
Besides training and research, the SIP program has supported partner dialogues on several infrastructure and water data-related topics. The largest such events have been the Mekong Research Symposia, which in recent years have become platforms for governments, international donors and civil society from across the Mekong region to discuss shared concerns for water and infrastructure management. During the global pandemic, events took place online and continued to draw large numbers of participants.

The final Mekong Research Symposium took place in March 2023 in Chiang Rai, Thailand, on the theme of ‘Data into Action for a Resilient Mekong.’ The symposium convened over 200 participants and more than 30 speakers from Mekong countries and beyond. Participants and speakers discussed how research data, including ‘big data’ from earth observation, can be used in natural resource management. While annual symposia have been organized since 2018, MRS 2023 was the first occasion to include participants from grassroot organizations. Interpreters supported the discussions in English, Burmese, Khmer, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese.

Speakers showcased practical applications of data to answer some of the Mekong region’s most urgent environmental challenges, including the needs to generate early warning of disasters, restore wetlands and protect giant fish species of the Mekong.

On the final day of the 2023 symposium, a panel of eminent speakers made recommendations for further work. They called for trust building between civil society and policy makers, supporting regional research networks, placing a higher priority on science communication, undertaking further projects for climate resilience and integrated water resource management, and helping local communities to access and use reliable data.