River management lessons from the US: a reflection on stakeholder engagement

In 2019, Socheata SIM and seven colleagues from around the Mekong region participated in an International Visitor Leadership Program touring major river basins to learn about river management in the US. This is her reflection on this experience, and kickstarts a short series featuring voices from emerging experts in Cambodia on the water-energy-food nexus and resource management in the Mekong region.

IVLP visitors and the leaders of the New Mexico Acequia Association by the Rio-Grande River. Photo courtesy of Socheata SIM and the International Visitor Leadership Program team.

We traveled for over 21 days, held more than 30 meetings with key stakeholders active in the river management, and reviewed the current situation in three river systems across five states in the US.  This is a one-sentence summary of my experience participating in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) that the U.S. State Department organized to host visitors from five Mekong countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In meeting the overall purpose of the program to examine current water monitoring agreements and gain insight into the technology that contributes to water data management models in the United States, the eight Mekong delegates met, interacted with one another, went on field visits, and discussed cooperation framework that govern the management of the Rio Grande, the Mississippi, and the Columbia rivers.

The selected participants from Mekong countries were comprised of a mix of key officials working on state agency ranking from National Mekong Committees, government departments, universities, research institutes, and international and national NGOs and networks. This composition of ‘visitors’ reflects the true diverse nature of the key actors who are necessary for the governance and constructive dialogue on the regional need to enhance transboundary water management in the Mekong. Currently, the Mekong River Commission acts as the regional, rule-based institution formed to govern Mekong water management and cooperation.

This has been a challenge in recent decades as the increasing scale of water infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams for electricity generation, water diversions, and blasting of river rapids for regional navigation and transportation have prompted serious controversial debates between trade and economic development agenda versus the social, environmental and ecology viability of the Mekong River system. This important question of ‘now’ and the ‘future’ development versus sustainability are key questions that prompt numerous times in the public discourse set an uneasy position that water resources practitioners and water governance decision makers often run into in regional dialogue and consultation.

How does that question link to the IVLP program? It closely relates because our eight IVLP participants had extensive dialogues to learn from key stakeholders ranging from water resource program manager, university academic staff/researchers, diverse community representatives including native American, local and international NGOs working on issue of river management and governance. The three key features we repeatedly heard from the discussions forms a blueprint of water management in the United States.

Firstly, countries which are members of the treaty that governs transboundary river systems adhere to their obligations set in the treaty regarding water management. In the United States, the Treaty, Compact and Water Law/Act are cooperation framework. In the Rio Grande River, which is shared between the upstream country of the US and downstream country of Mexico, the treaty came into effect since the early 20th century and spells out clear obligations to which the US and Mexico shall comply.  The Convention signed in 1906 provides for the distribution of the waters of the Rio Grande, specifying that in a normal year, “the United States shall deliver to Mexico a total of 60,000 acre-feet (74,008,800 cubic metre) of water annually in the bed of Rio Grande…[1]” mainly for Mexico’s domestic use.

IVLP visitors met with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Socheata SIM and the International Visitor Leadership Program team.

Various stakeholders in the states of New Mexico and Texas encountered during the IVLP program emphasized the US’s international obligation to Mexico, with emphasis that in the event of extreme weather condition, such as drought, the allocation will be proportional to the availability of water flow into the river system. This treaty ensures that downstream country receives equitable sharing of the water resources. While delivering water to Mexico is the top priority under the international treaty, the United States has made full delivery of the water only twice since the treaty came in effect. This could be attributed to the fact that the period in which the treaty was agreed upon was considerably more wet than the present day, as climate change and other factors affect the amount of water available.

Secondly, there are four key factors that contribute to effective water cooperation between countries and states. They were summarized well during our meeting with the International Boundary and Water Commission in El Paso, Texas. The commissioner noted that i) having the legal framework that sets the clear rule and cooperation framework on how each member country will comply; ii) Sharing of the water data on regular basis; iii) A strong relationship; and iv) An effective and functioning mechanism to river management (address the water needs, flow, allocation) allow for effective water cooperation on the whole.  To me, this is critical lesson learnt.

Thirdly, although there were numerous hydropower dams constructed on the three river systems we looked at, many of the counterparts we met reminded us to learn lessons of what not to repeat from what the US has done since the early-mid 20th century in dam building. This was discussed in detail at our last day of the program when we looked at the Columbia River, the Bonneville hydropower dam, and impacts of fishery such as the salmon that are of importance for food security, cultural and identity of the Native American living in downstream from the dam.  At our meeting with colleagues at the Stimson Center earlier in the program, we talked about the importance of considering impacts that a building a hydropower project on the river will have on many variables and weighing this against the economic factors. The decision-makers should weigh that comparison and ask if impacts can be mitigated or alternative options could be considered, such as solar energy.

IVLP visitors and Mekong Program team of Stimson Center in Washington DC. Photo courtesy of Socheata SIM and the International Visitor Leadership Program team.

Joining this visitor program provided me and my colleagues from the Mekong with opportunities to network with counterparts that have long experience working in the water resources sector in the States. About half of the stakeholders we met have direct experiences at some point working on/with the Mekong river and its development, while others have heard of and acknowledge the vital roles that the river has for the more than 60 million people who rely on the river for their livelihoods. As a citizen in the region, growing up on the river, and working on water governance, the complexity of the Mekong River system and its rich and irreplaceable resources and ecosystem are vital for food security. The current development agenda on the Mekong River exacerbates these issues despite growing evidence of the impacts on the river system. This needs to slow down and regional dialogue is needed more than ever to consider the impacts; who benefits and who bears the brunt of social and environmental cost of the development; and what other options could be employed to meet regional energy needs. As Brian Eyler concludes in his recently published book, “Unless we began today to see the river and its landscapes around it as a connected system and act jointly for its conservation, the Mighty Mekong’s last days are here and now.”[2]

Ms Socheata Sim serves as Program Manager for Oxfam’s Mekong Water Governance Program. She oversees staff and manages portfolio of civil society, river network, youth networks and partners projects in the lower Mekong Basin. Oxfam’s Mekong Water Governance Program’s goal is that communities and society are inclusive in the decision making processes regarding the River resources.

[1] Convention between the United States and Mexico: Equitable Distribution of the Waters of the Rio Grande, May 21, 1906.

[2] Eyler, Brian (2019). Last Days of the Mighty Mekong.

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