The Mekong touches thousands of communities. Millions of people depend on it. And,  major decisions concerning the future of the mainstream river and its many tributaries are now being taken.

“Many legitimate stakeholders, with much to offer in the way of knowledge and ideas, have no opportunity to input to the policies and projects that affect them,” said Somrudee Nicro, Director of the Urbanization and Environment Program at the Thailand Environment Institute in Bangkok

If development is to be sustainable, it must also be representative. So the IUCN embarked on a long-term program to foster greater participation and transparency in the water-related decision-making processes in the region. This has involved many negotiations at different scales.  Last year, the program culminated in the Mekong Region Waters Dialogue, a meeting of 160 officials, experts and civil society together on the banks of the river in Vientiane to discuss the major issues facing the rivers of the region, and the challenges facing the people of the six Mekong riparian countries. 

“We are trying to create a space where the expertise of the region can discuss the pros and cons of different major development options,” said John Dore, a former IUCN regional coordinator who helped organize the Dialogue and now works with the Mekong Program on Water Environment and Resilience (M-POWER water governance network) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. “There are many people in these countries with the interest and competence to enable decision making to be much better informed than it sometimes appears to be. They can be found in government, local communities, academe, NGOs and business.  Those joining in our various Dialogue processes accept that deliberation in the public sphere is possible”.

These are critical times for the Mekong and the other rivers of the region. China, Laos, Myanmar and  and Vietnam all have major hydropower development programs.. Thailand and Cambodia are considering further major irrigation projects that would require much more water diversion. The water needs of cities and villages are also rapidly increasing.

Convening the Dialogues such as these ,represents a substantial change for the IUCN, demonstrating a shift in emphasis from advocating only conservationist approaches, to now playing a new role as a constructive agent in sustainable development via the skilled facilitation of deliberation in the public sphere, respectful of a wide range of development perspectives.

The program began in November 2004, when during its World Conservation Congress, the IUCN held a half-day roundtable entitled Using Water, Caring for Environment: Challenges for the Mekong Region. Attended by almost 50 donors and senior government officials from the Mekong region, that meeting served as a departure point for many subsequent large and small scale knowledge exchanges, including the relatively high profile regional Dialogue in Vientiane in 2006.

For many, the public face of the Dialogue was like many such meetings, an opportunity to network and discuss important issues such as fisheries, hydropower development and valuing local knowledge. “The importance of getting everyone together to express and understand all the various views, can not be overstated” said Sourasay Phoumavong, Deputy Director General of the Lao National Mekong Committee in Vientiane. 

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to learn about others and tell others about who we are,” said Olivier Cogels, the Mekong River Commission’s chief executive. “All actors need to learn about each other and share their views. That’s very important.”.  The Dialogue gave civil society groups a rare opportunity to meet face to face with key executives of groups such as MRC, and development agencies such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank Some challenged conventional wisdom on the impact of contemporary development projects. relation to the mainstream of the Mekong River.  A preliminary agreement has been made to establish a joint inter-provincial basin management committee. 

The Huong River basin was chosen as a pilot project for Vietnam largely because, while its problems were complex, its politics were relatively simple: the entire river flows through only one province. Vietnamese officials now say they are convinced the e-flows concept will eventually help unite rival interests on other rivers. Although the notion of opening policy making to public consultation is still touchy in the one-party state, officials say that is bound to change, too. “Public participation is a process. It will take time, but it won’t come at once,” said Thien. “But be assured that we at the provincial government are creating an opportunity for the public to be included in the decision-making process, and the environmental flows process is one way to do this”
Written by Wayne Arnold