On 5 October, 20 representatives from civil society, government, and the academic sector, representing seven countries which are part of the Mekong and Brahmaputra-Meghna River Basins, met in Bangkok to identify cross-basin learning and collaboration opportunities. The event was co-organised by the IUCN BRIDGE Programme and the Asian Confluence, India.
The learning event provided a platform to discuss the legal and institutional processes operating in each basin. The 1995 Mekong River Agreement, for example, is the only instance in Asia where countries sharing a basin have agreed to a common legal framework and established institutional mechanisms to implement it: the Mekong River Commission (MRC) at the regional level, and the National Mekong Committee (NMC) at country level.
A presentation from Ms Chamaporn Paiboonvorachat, an MRC agriculture and irrigation expert, introduced participants to the Mekong Council study on Sustainable management and development of the Mekong River, including Impacts by Mainstream Hydropower Projects. All the countries who are party to the Mekong River Agreement participated in the study, which consolidated scientific evidence on the social and economic consequences of current water resource development strategies and plans in the Mekong Basin.
Unlike the Mekong Basin, the Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin suffers from the absence of a common legal framework and transboundary institutional mechanism to support regular communication and joint planning and development. However, at the local level, governments have established river basin institutions like the Meghalaya Basin Development Authority (MBDA) in India and the Haor and Wetland Development Board in Bangladesh.
According to the presentation given by Ms Rose Christine, an MBDA representative, the authority works closely with local communities on livelihoods and watershed management. She highlighted the active role played by communities in watershed conservation, and cited living root bridges – hand-shaped from ficus trees by the Khasi and Jaintia hill tribes over several generations – as an example of nature-based solutions to local needs and challenges.
Following the presentations, participants discussed how the two basins could learn from each other’s experiences. For example, the participants from the Brahmaputra-Meghna region noted the need for institutional arrangements similar to the MRC and NMC to foster regional coordination and communication.
Participants also shared approaches and experiences on specific river management challenges, such as the impacts of climate change on deltas and inland navigation, diminishing fishery resources, the role of CSOs in improving community engagement, and the management of challenges relating to hydropower, sedimentation, and floods.
Viet Nam in the Mekong region and Bangladesh in the Brahmaputra-Meghna region share similar levels of climate vulnerability, and fishing communities in both regions face similar challenges with likely similar solutions. For example, community-managed wetlands and ecotourism models in Tonle Sap, Cambodia, could be replicated in the Upper Meghna Basin in Bangladesh, which has numerous wetlands and a similar socio-economic context. The Mekong region has also conducted studies and developed guidelines on hydropower, sedimentation, and flood management that could be applied in the Brahmaputra-Meghna region.
To sustain and facilitate regional cooperation efforts, the learning event identified the need to document common issues, successful models, and cross-basin partnership opportunities among sectors and stakeholder groups. Additionally, participants suggested opening a regular channel of communication with young people, such as a Mekong-Brahmaputra-Meghna youth learning exchange platform. This could ensure the long-term sustainability of collaboration and create a network of future ‘Water Champions’ to be leaders in transboundary water management.
The BRIDGE (Building River Dialogue and Governance) project aims to build water governance capacities through learning, demonstration, leadership, and consensus-building in trans-boundary hotspot river basins. Facilitated by IUCN and financed by the Water Diplomacy Programme of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), BRIDGE is a multi-regional project, implemented in 14 river basins located in South America, Meso-America, Africa and Asia.
In Asia, the BRIDGE project focuses on the 3S Basins (Sekong, Sesan and Sre Pok rivers shared by Cambodia, Viet Nam and Lao PDR) as well as the GBM Basin (Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna rivers shared by Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal). The BRIDGE GBM project is supported by the TROSA Programme of Oxfam Novib. The projects have provided opportunities for dialogue and training on hydrodiplomacy, and produced data and studies to support technical discussion for stakeholders from different sectors and levels.