A Handbook on Water Security

Water security has received increasing attention in the scientific and policy community in recent years. This handbook covers the wide range of perspectives required to understand water security as a concept guiding water governance and management at different levels and in different regions. It reflects on past, present and future challenges to water security and strategies to overcome them. An invaluable resource for scientific scholars, the report will also appeal to policymakers and practitioners interested in developing a deeper understanding of this important concept.


As a contributing author Dr. Patrick Huntjens from The Hague Institute for Global Justice provided a section on key governance issues for climate adaptation and water security in the Mekong Basin. In particular, his contribution related to transboundary water management and water resources development, e.g. dams, diversions, irrigation intensification etc.

The Mekong Basin is located in South-East Asia and includes six countries: China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. The basin is densely populated, with approximately 65 million inhabitants dependent on the Mekong to sustain their livelihood. At the same time the Mekong region provides a staple diet, consisting mainly of rice, for around 300 million people. The Mekong region is one of the most vulnerable in the world to the long term impacts of climate change. This is caused by a relatively high proportion of people living on low incomes and the government’s limited capacity to address severe floods, prolonged drought and a rising sea level associated with climate change.

In the Mekong Basin multiple stakeholders are engaged in complex planning processes to devise measures and strategies for adapting to the impacts of climate change. At the same time, the basin is characterized by geo-political tensions due to the interaction between large-scale hydropower interventions and food security. Hydropower interventions, such as the construction of large-scale dams, might incur severe consequences for the entire water system (hydrological regime) of the basin. As a result, it poses a threat to the food production systems of some of the world’s largest rice producing nations (i.e. Thailand and Vietnam) as well as the sustainability of a variety of valuable ecosystems.

“The Mekong region is one of the most vulnerable in the world to the long term impacts of climate change.”

Multi-lateral stakeholder dialogues for policymaking, strategy development and on-the-ground management are often complicated. This is exacerbated by the uncertainties and competing interests of multiple stakeholders. For example, different climate change scenarios complicate decisions on how to address the impacts of climate change on the flow regime of the basin. In many situations, policy and institutional adjustments are required. These are based on commitments to dealing with uncertainties, deliberating alternatives and reframing problems and solutions.

water security handbookIn the handbook, Dr. Huntjens zooms in on three specific governance challenges: collective choice arrangements, robust and flexible (decision-making) processes, and fostering learning processes.

Collective choice arrangements
The backbone of collective action is often formed by multi-stakeholders dialogues in which different stakeholders openly engage in facilitated and informed deliberations. The purposes (and values) of these dialogues are to:

  1. reduce conflicts and explore synergies;
  2. explore alternatives; and
  3. shape and inform negotiations and decisions.

During these dialogues it is important to produce outcomes that are directly relevant for planning and decision making. Stakeholders should therefore be involved in analyzing and synthesizing project and process outcomes as well as identifying best practices for governance and implementation. Despite this potential there are many impediments, in the Mekong region and elsewhere, to participation and local collective management.

Frequently, water user associations may be consulted over basin plans, but they rarely have any power to participate in decision making. In many cases the legal and institutional provisions do not empower collective management institutions, although the Doi Moi policy reform in Vietnam is a good example of a transition towards more grass-roots empowerment and involvement.

On the international level the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is currently the leading collective choice arrangement for implementing the Mekong Agreement from 1995, and signed by Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam. A new and promising development, initiated by China, is the Lancang-Mekong River cooperation mechanism which includes China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam as members.

Robust and flexible processes
During negotiations leading to the Mekong Agreement participants generated flexible agreements that would allow them to modify commitments as their interests shifted over time. In the Mekong Agreement, parties anticipated the need for ongoing negotiations and created a process that enabled parties to draft proposals about how to handle changing conditions, including rules regarding the use of water in cases of drought, flooding, or water surpluses. For climate change adaptation in the water sector it is important to develop and empower institutions and encourage policy processes that continue to work satisfactorily when confronted with social and physical challenges but which at the same time are capable of changing, as illustrated by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The MRC’s Procedure for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement is an important instrument being used to resolve (potential) conflicts between member countries.

Fostering learning and participatory planning processes
Improving participatory planning approaches that integrate public and stakeholder input in decision-making, and with support from advanced information management, provides the backbone of any climate adaptation process. Participation appears to be effective in improving outcomes because it increases stakeholder ownership and because stakeholders often have (access to) information and can devise solutions better than, or complementary to, those delivered from the top down. Perhaps the most important aspect of participation is that it can align government objectives with those of local people.

This gives local stakeholders incentives to manage the water resources well, and can empower them by giving them influence over outcomes during the implementation process. The challenge of climate adaptation is increased by the local specificity of water resources, as each area has its own physical, geographical and socioeconomic characteristics.

An important conclusion is that governance of climate adaptation has to be adapted to the context and to capacity, and must be tailored to the size and nature of the problem as well as to the objectives targeted. This can only be achieved by equitable and inclusive governance of climate action and water resources development.

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