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Anoulak Kittikhoun: “Diplomatic tools and skills are needed in addition to water engineering and science”

Interview with Anoulak Kittikhoun, Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat and new IFGR member




What is the hydrological situation in the Mekong basin right now? The region has gone through two years of severe drought. What is at stake?

For the second consecutive year, the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMB) has endured record low flows. As reported in our January-July Situation Report, there are multiple factors that contribute to the drought, including abnormal low rainfall affected by the El Nino weather phenomenon, prolonged low flow conditions carried over from 2019, and lower water flow contributions from the Mekong tributaries. The low flows have caused the Tonle Sap Lake (the largest and most productive inland lake in Southeast Asia) to experience “extremely dry conditions”, with reverse flows at their lowest on record since 1997. The low flow conditions could impact fisheries and irrigation productivity.

The Mekong basin in brief

  • 4,350 km long of which half is in China where its source lies in the Himalayas
  • 6 countries crossed: China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam
  • A catchment area covering 795,000 km2
  • 250 million people depend on the river for their food, transport and energy
  • A zone very rich in biodiversity: 20,000 species of plants, 430 species of mammals, 1,200 species of birds, 800 species of reptiles and amphibians and 850 species of fish
  • Key issues: urbanisation, demographic pressure, hydroelectric development schemes, the impacts of climate change cloud the future of the river and its delta

What did the Mekong River Commission to overcome this situation and what strategy do you plan to implement to deal with climate change?

The MRC has regularly monitored the river conditions and forecasted flows and water levels and proactively provided information, analysis and recommendations to member countries. In addition, at a strategic level, the MRC has adopted the Regional Drought Management Strategy which seeks to support countries better prepared for and respond to drought. We have an ongoing Mekong Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan that is being implemented. In the new Basin Development Strategy (BDS) 2021-2030 just released, the countries agreed to assess new opportunities for storage, infrastructure and natural measures, to be able to effectively manage floods and droughts, as well as coordinate management of water infrastructures.


Has the MRC already evaluated the transboundary environmental impacts from the mainstream dams upstream on the Lower Mekong River?

The MRC has done a number of major studies on the potential impacts (positive and negative) of the dams on the mainstream and tributaries. The LMB could see large economic gains from hydropower development, which would also bring synergies with other water related sectors as well, including expanding irrigation that is key to food security, provides access to electricity that is key to poverty reduction, contributes to navigation that enhances regional trade, and provides flood management and drought relief that is an important part of adapting to climate change. However, we also project major losses in fisheries, sediment transport, and environmental connectivity. These trade-offs will be addressed in the new BDS that points to more proactive regional planning that would propose new joint and national projects that increase national and regional benefits and reduce regional costs while addressing water security.

In October 2020, China and the Commission of the Mekong signed an agreement to share hydrological data and better monitor extreme climatic events. Does this agreement represent a milestone for cooperation with China?

The agreement for year-round data sharing is a historic milestone for cooperation between the MRC and China, building on uninterrupted data sharing during the flood season for the past 18 years. This will contribute to better river monitoring and flood and drought forecasting in the Mekong countries.


The MRC provides a cooperative procedural framework for managing the basin. Water diplomacy is a key-point in the Mekong Basin to avoid conflicts between riparian states. You’ve just released a book “the River Basin Organizations in Water Diplomacy”. Can you explain to us what water diplomacy is and how does the Mekong context compare to other regions in Asia and the world?


When we engage in discussions and negotiations over how water resources that cross more than one country should be developed and managed together and not separately then we are engaging in water diplomacy. Diplomatic tools and skills are needed in addition to water engineering and science. In our new book The River Basin Organizations in Water Diplomacy,we examine how river basin organizations or the like in various settings such as Columbia, Great Lakes, Colorado, Senegal, Niger, Nile, Congo, Jordan, Helmand, Aral Sea, Mekong Danube and Rhine, deal with tensions and disputes. Despite its challenges, we found that the Mekong is among the lucky ones to have the MRC acting as a reasonably effective water diplomacy platform for the countries that were historically warring nations – of course with the interventions of superpowers. The MRC has been able to perform its “water diplomacy” role due to the clear legal framework (Mekong Agreement and its Procedures) it operates under; the legitimate institutional mechanisms and processes that bring countries together, that engage partners and stakeholders, and that facilitate agreements; the strategic basin vision and strategy (Basin Development Strategy) that looks beyond national interests; and finally the technical guidelines (e.g. Preliminary Design Guidance on Mainstream Dams) based on science.

The Mekong River Commission

As early as 1957, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam grouped together to found the Mekong Commission dedicated to harnessing the hydroelectric potential of the Greater Mekong subregion, under the aegis of the UN. In 1995, these founding countries created the Mekong River Commission, thanks to the signature of an international cooperation agreement “for the sustainable development of the Mekong basin”. Its role is to ensure the integrated and concerted management of the water resources and the associated resources of the basin for the well-being of the populations. China and Burma joined the commission in 1996, with the capacity of observers.

You recently joined IFGR as a new member. What do you expect from IFGR and why is it important to join such an organization for you?

We hope to share our experience of the Mekong and MRC with other IFGR members, and at the same time, learn from the good practices of both water management, development and diplomacy and cooperation from other large basins and basin organizations.


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