To Sustain Freshwater Resources, Transboundary Cooperation is Key

Today is World Water Day, a U.N. observance dedicated to spreading awareness about the importance of protecting Earth’s precious supply of fresh water. Today on Human Nature, CI’s Tracy Farrell reflects on this year’s theme: water cooperation.
Last year I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, to provide technical direction to CI’s Greater Mekong program. This was an exciting and challenging shift from my work leading CI’s global freshwater and ecosystem services work in CI’s headquarters outside Washington, D.C. — a chance to work directly in the field with the people making choices about how fresh water, a vital natural asset, will be managed in the Mekong region.
For a freshwater specialist, working in Cambodia is equivalent to a football player competing in the Super Bowl. The Mekong is one of the most renowned and dynamic freshwater systems in the world. The region contains Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and arguably the world’s most productive freshwater fishery. The lake connects to the Mekong River — the 12th longest river in the world — which runs through six countries and supports tens of millions of livelihoods.
Over 65 million people in the Greater Mekong region depend on the continued supply of fresh water to support their health, food security, livelihoods and industry vital to their nations’ economies. This fresh water also supports a complex and highly biodiverse ecosystem. Rainwater is collected high in the lush, mountainous jungles before trickling down into hundreds of tributaries. These streams funnel into larger rivers, eventually feeding the Mekong and sustaining a vast array of species along the way.
Because this vital resource is used by everyone, it can be impacted by the activities — positive or negative — of many stakeholders, from household water users to corporations to national governments. Everyone must make decisions, and sometimes compromises, about how they will treat this shared resource. Cooperation is essential to manage a resource that knows no boundaries.
CI’s freshwater work in the Lower Mekong is focused on two major issues:
1. Dams
Last year, Laos launched construction of the controversial Xayaburi dam, the first dam to be built on the lower Mekong River’s main stem. Just five weeks later, Cambodia announced its plans to build a dam on one of the river’s most important tributaries — a move which would potentially collapse the Tonle Sap fishery downstream where CI has been working with government and communities to sustain the livelihoods of some 3 million people.
This development came as no surprise to environmentalists; if one country dams the main stem of the river, others will also likely decide to capitalize on this resource. This dam-building fervor is the negative result of a lack of cooperation and consideration. If the Cambodian dam is built, it could lead to a national decline in fisheries that may reduce human nutrition and health standards, pushing many Cambodians further into poverty.
CI has contributed to some of the most recent research on the 42 dams proposed for the Mekong Basin. We have also facilitated the collaboration of various experts to study the Tonle Sap food web and the possible impacts of dams on this fragile system. Over the next three years, we will work with partners to focus our research on the basin of the newly proposed dam linked to the Tonle Sap.
2. Climate Change
Around the Tonle Sap, climate change is predicted to cause longer dry seasons, warmer temperatures and changes in the river flow patterns — critical for the productivity of the lake and its fisheries. These impacts will be disastrous for the people that depend on these resources for their livelihoods.
Climate change is also expected to accelerate the damage from other ecosystem threats such as overfishing, forest clearing, and upstream development.
Although combating climate change is a global issue requiring global action, cooperation on a local level will help to reduce such effects and help people adapt to inevitable changes. As a result, CI is focused on building ecosystem and social resilience and adaptation for local communities on the Tonle Sap.
For the past three years, we have been working with these communities to help to break the cycle of degradation associated with climate change. We’re also partnering with the Cambodian government and various stakeholders to provide key recommendations for effective land-use planning in the Tonle Sap, and enhance the role of community fisheries committees in the management of natural resources.
The Greater Mekong is one of our planet’s greatest natural assets. Countries with direct influence in the region must work together from the community level upward to ensure its sustainable use, conservation and continued environmental and economic productivity.
I am honored to be a part of such an important landmark era in freshwater management for Southeast Asia, and hope that regional cooperation will bring us closer toward our shared vision to conserve these essential resources for the millions who rely on them.
Tracy Farrell is the senior technical director of CI-Greater Mekong.