The inaugural ASEAN-MRC Water Security Dialogue held last week has tabled three thematic solutions related to policy, technology, and partnership that can help countries in the Mekong and broader ASEAN address existential water security challenges that confront the region.
“In the midst of changing weather and hydrological regimes globally, there is a growing urgency for sustainable pathways to ensure a water-secure region,” said Phonepaseuth Phouliphanh, Acting Chairperson of the MRC Joint Committee for 2021. “It requires leadership, innovation, and strategic collaboration among regional countries and their partners.”
At the policy level, senior officials and experts urged all parties and actors to promote greater transparency and deeper engagement to boost sustainable management of water and related resources throughout the ASEAN region.
Progressive policy and institutional reforms which promote integrated water resources management (IWRM) are needed, the two-day dialogue that concluded last Friday said. Calls for closer regional and local integration were also tabled, specifically in the areas of water resource planning, pollution management, early forecasting and warning, and awareness-raising.
But technology also has a vital role to play. Digitalization and advanced modeling tools, such as artificial intelligence and digital twins, currently represent some of the most impactful solutions to manage regional water resource databases. Together these tools enhance local expertise to manage water-related risks that include flood and drought while improving the quality and quantity of reservoir water.
Delegates also suggested pursuing engagement with a broad range of institutions and the greater use of public-private partnerships. Deeper engagement with the private sector can support ASEAN governments to access new technologies while stronger regional cooperation will facilitate a mutual exchange of IWRM expertise and encourage sustainable investments.
“The protection of the region’s water resources has historically been an integral part of ASEAN’s work over the years,” said Kung Phoak, Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN for ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. Mr. Kung highlighted the value of promoting regional cooperation and strengthening linkages among ASEAN countries to tackle emerging water issues that include equitable access to safe and affordable water supply, sufficient water to ensure food security to support the region’s economies, and sustained solutions that mitigate water-related hazards.
More than 70 million people depend partly or entirely on the Mekong River as a source of income and as a source of life. But pressing transboundary issues have reached a critical juncture in many parts of the wider ASEAN region that requires deeper and stronger regional unity to close development gaps.
Recent modeling by the MRC on the impact of regional development revealed environmental degradation has worsened over the more than 25 years since the MRC was founded.
Several recommendations debated during the dialogue could form the basis for a regional mechanism that intensifies dialogue and coordination. Tackling the impact of human interventions and inequities between countries necessitates a greater exchange of information as well as technical and financial assistance among ASEAN countries and development partners.
The First ASEAN-MRC Water Security Dialogue was built on the cooperation framework between ASEAN and the MRC signed in 2018. The MRC Secretariat and Lower Mekong countries, in conjunction with ASEAN Member States, are committed to achieving the objectives of the 1995 Mekong Agreement and the ASEAN’s vision for water security by 2025 through strengthened cooperation and coordination.
While the first dialogue focused on technical exchanges and solutions among ASEAN policymakers and experts, the second ASEAN-MRC Water Security Dialogue scheduled for 2023 may focus on policy discussions that include a broader range of stakeholders.
ASEAN and the MRC will hold discussions on how to translate the dialogue’s key recommendations into policy actions.