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  Home   MRC News Speeches Keynote address by Dr Olivier Cogels

Watershed Management in the Lower Mekong Basin

Keynote address by
Dr Olivier Cogels,
Chief Executive Officer
Mekong River Commission

Policy Dialogue,
Vientiane, Lao PDR
28 – 30 September 2004

1. Introduction

The MRC Vision for the Mekong River Basin is:

An economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally sound Mekong river Basin.

Sustainable development in the Mekong Basin requires the implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) at Basin Level:

  • in order to make optimal use of the water resources for the benefit of the Mekong People, specially the poor;
  • and to protect people and land from harmful effects.

Our understanding on the role of watershed management in the Lower Mekong Basin is based on this vision and approach. It is one of the key components of Mekong River Commission’s Agriculture, Irrigation, and Forestry Programme (AIFP), and contributes directly to planning and implementation of IRWM.

Having said this, I would like to begin with three hypotheses:

a. If we do not improve the framework conditions for watershed management, environmental degradation,
    poverty and social injustice will increase;
b. Stakeholders’ participation on all levels (horizontally and vertically) is a precondition for successes in
    watershed management;
c. Watershed development requires long-term investments and sustainable financial mechanisms; these in
    turn need favourable and stable political and economic conditions.

I hope that these hypotheses will be discussed during the dialogue circles the two following days.

This presentation covers the following fields of interest:

  • Watershed functions, watershed management and sustainable development;
  • Watershed management and its balancing role;
  • Watershed management policy, planning, implementation and evaluation;
  • Watershed management institutions;
  • Watershed management data, information and knowledge;
  • Watershed management investments.

2. Watershed Functions, watershed management and sustainable development

We use the following working definition for the term watershed management:

Watershed Management is the process of people guiding and organizing water, land and forest resource use on a watershed in order to provide desired goods and services without adversely affecting water, soil and vegetation resources.

Embedded in this concept is the recognition of the ecological interrelationships among land use, soil and water, and the ecological, social and economical linkage between uplands and downstream areas.

Watershed management supports the provision of goods and services and is people-oriented. This sustainable provision of goods and services can be regarded as the function of watersheds.

The watershed function is the sustainable provision of goods and services and watershed management is the supporting process for achieving this. Originally the ecological functions of watersheds were looked at most dominantly. Because of the interdependency of the ecological functions with social and economic functions, the latter need equal attention.

Functions Examples of functions
Ecological functions Provision of sufficient water with a minimum required quality.
  Provision of minimum water flow over time.
  Provision of other goods and services from natural resources like erosion control, soil fertility, biodiversity, clean air, carbon sequestration.
Economical functions Provision of sufficient natural resource products (food, fuel wood, timber, water, fish, (hydraulic) energy required for basic needs of the local population.
  Provision of income generating opportunities.
Social and cultural functions Maintenance of social structures.
  Protection and development of knowledge and lifestyle arrangements.
  Maintenance and revitalisation of cultural identity and values
  Recreational facilities.

The objective of watershed management is to maintain the watershed functions and with that to contribute to sustainable development in the region. This mechanism presupposes a suitable and supporting policy and institutional framework.

The debate on sustainable development incorporates a number of interesting elements that can be used for a better understanding of watershed management processes. In fact watershed management is a typical and valuable example how to make sustainable development operational.

This vision of sustainable development aims at the future development of countries and the global economy and guarantees greater social justice and ecologically sounds natural resources management.

The cross-border exchange of goods, financial capital and information is growing rapidly, moving beyond the reach of political control, and emerging as an entity in itself distinct from human society and the natural environment. This form of globalisation is causing more and more citizens and policymakers to feel uncomfortable. Numerous initiatives undertaken either jointly or separately by state, private sector or civil society actors aim to place social and ecological checks on the economy that induce actors to comply with certain standards, thus making a contribution towards sustainable development. (Burger, D. and Mayer, C. (2003) This is exactly what watershed management is all about. It checks the social and environmental implications of economic activities and decides if these activities are in line with the sustainable development of the specific area.

Sustainable development, understood as a process to harness potentials, is at the same time construed as a normative or ethical principle. The development interests and opportunities of future generations are placed on an equal footing with those of the present generation. This entails an obligation to manage both natural resources and economic and social resources, such that future generations encounter a stock of resources that saves them from poverty and offers them opportunities to satisfy their needs and undergo development that are at least equal to those enjoyed by the current generation. (Burger, D. and Mayer, C. (2003)

This vision of sustainable development implies the following dimensions.

  • An all-embracing process: The nature of the process is such that it embraces all spheres of life, i.e. not only the economy, but also the ecological and social dimensions. All efforts are people-centred. Poverty alleviation is an absolutely essential prerequisite for sustainable development.
  • A situation-specific process: The subjects of the development process must always find their own path to development, in accordance with the respective ecological, economic, social and cultural conditions that characterise their particular situation.
  • A process of negotiation: Sustainable development cannot be planned on a technocratic basis, but needs to be negotiated between the civil society, the private sector and the government. (Burger, D. and Mayer, C. (2003), IIED (2001

3. Watershed Management and its balancing role.

As indicated before, watershed management should not be understood as a specific technique. It is a continuous effort to optimise the provision of the watershed goods and services. Thereby the principle of sustainable development should take effect:

Balancing the three dimensions of sustainable development – ecological, economical, and social - in a watershed context.

It looks like a “mobile”. Pulling at one end creates disturbances at the other end. Only if no external influences occur the situation will be balanced. It is well known that a standstill is theoretical. In practise always some external factors do influence the system and these influences create the reactions.

Influencing factors for decision making of the stakeholders in the system are, for example, existing or potential trade and market access, regulative frameworks (policies, guidelines – regulations, various plans, level of education, awareness, training), changes in natural conditions, population growth, etc. To achieve the right balance a negotiating process between the different interests and viewpoints is necessary.

Negotiations or dialogues should take place on different levels and in different situations. Government with their different relevant sector line agencies, private industry and civil society representatives need to be part of it. All watershed management aspects need these dialogues: policy formulation, institutional support, planning – implementation and monitoring concepts, capacity building programmes. It is the task of watershed management to assure that in these dialogues negative impacts of individual activities on the watershed functions are considered and as much as possible avoided.

In fact the dialogue we organise today and tomorrow can be seen as part of the required regional exchange of views and opinions how to achieve dialogues and negotiating processes on the regional, national and local level. Based on the 1995 agreement, MRC has a comparative advantage in facilitating and supporting these dialogues and negotiating processes.

4. Watershed management

4.1 Watershed management policies
Maintenance of watershed functions and the role of watershed management require an adequate policy and regulatory framework. The formulation of a watershed management policy is needed. Watershed management policy should provide guidance to relevant sectoral policies. Relevant policies are those that have an impact or a potential impact on the maintenance of watershed functions. Involved sectors are agriculture, forestry, water resources management, rural development, environment, and infrastructure – transport, energy, flood management, etc.

The integration of the watershed management objective in the hierarchy of objectives of all relevant sector policies and regulations is crucial. Watershed management is not to be seen as a separate sector on its own. Watershed management is the responsibility of all involved sectors and this has to be reflected within the various policies.

4.2. Watershed management planning
Planning is an important instrument or platform to balance the interest of different stakeholders. Those stakeholders have to be involved which interventions have an impact on the maintenance of the watershed functions. Involvement of government, private sector and civil society organisations on all levels is fundamental.

As different levels of planning we know administrative (national, provincial, district and communal) and geographical (river basin, watershed and catchment) planning systems. For the purpose of the maintenance of watershed functions both systems are suitable, as long as the maintenance of the watershed functions is ensured. Important is the consistency of the different planning systems on the different levels when they are covering similar areas.

Watershed management does not necessarily require separate WSM-plans. If other planning levels are used, be they of sectoral, geographical or administrative nature, maintenance of the watershed functions should be ensured as one of the goals of the planning system.

4.3. Implementation
Implementation covers those field activities which have an impact on the maintenance of the watershed functions. They can be of agriculture, forestry, water resources management, infrastructure or similar nature. “Watershed implementation” as a separate technique does not exist. It is a selection of suitable implementation techniques from the various relevant existing sectors in order to ensure the maintenance of watershed functions.

A regional collection of accepted implementation methodologies, techniques and tools will be of great assistance to the individual governmental and non-governmental organisations. MRC can play an active role in establishing and maintaining this collection.

4.4. Watershed management monitoring and evaluation

The impact of planning and implementation of activities on the maintenance of watershed functions needs to be measured, analysed and discussed in a monitoring and evaluation system. This is a rather complicated issue because of the inter-sectoral nature of the system. Each and every plan with an impact on the watershed functions and all related implementation activities have to be looked at.

Monitoring and evaluation systems are not mainly of a controlling nature, but support to learning and decision-making are at least of equal importance. As the watershed management environment is changing over time, the requirements will change and the options of how to fulfil the requirements will change. Regular feedback into the planning and implementation system is therefore needed.

Regional networks to identify, analyse and discuss best practices, to reassess existing methodologies, instruments and tools as well as conducting capacity building measures play important roles in establishing state-of-the-art watershed management.

5. Watershed management institutions

All aspects of watershed management need the supporting environment of responsible institutions on all levels. Institutions with clear and transparent responsibilities and mandates need to be involved in policymaking, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Some of these institutions are in place and functioning well, several are not yet.

Relevant policies clearly have to indicate the responsibilities of the involved institutions. These institutions need an environment that enables them to fulfil their tasks. This includes elements of organisational development, continuous reassessment of the terms of references, capacity building programmes and ongoing budget availability.

As discussed, the environment for watershed management is changing over time. The relevant and responsible institutions have to change in similar dimensions. Organisational development includes continuous change management. Capacity building programmes need to be in place. Regional initiatives can support these programmes efficiently.

6. Watershed management data, information and knowledge

Proper decision-making requires proper information. To get closer to achieving the vision, an enormous amount of high quality data, information, and knowledge is required. Not only is the collection of these necessary, but the analysis, the valuation, the target group oriented preparation as well as the distribution has to be looked at. Again all of this is a continuous process. The achievement of our vision depends largely on the quality of this data, information, and knowledge management.

The right mix of regional, national and local data, information, and knowledge management is to be looked at. Not more of the same but complementary contributions of the different levels will deliver the quantity and quality that is needed. Because of this a highly efficient and effective network has to be established. Continuous evaluation of the requirements and the impact of the network need to be conducted.

We all know that data, information, and knowledge management means to create a level of transparency of experiences. This is not always comfortable but essential for improvements. Using lessons learned not for accusing people or institutions of blunder, but for proactively shaping future developments should be the common understanding. By sharing lessons learned we develop win-win situations.

MRC considers this issue as being fundamental to future successes.

7. Watershed management investments and sustainable financial mechanisms

Because of growing pressures on natural resources and increasing environmental degradation, watersheds will not be allowed to regenerate on their own, and the natural regeneration process will not be sufficient to create healthy watersheds by itself over time. Therefore external investments are required to allow for productive and sustainable used of watershed areas. Investors (private industry, insurance companies and investment banks) will base their decisions on favourable and stable conditions. Only if long-term security of their investments can be expected, these investments will be realised.

Watershed management includes clarification of up- and downstream relationships. The balance between give and take needs to be discussed. This is not only an ecological but very much an economic issue. Innovative financial mechanisms within watersheds and between watersheds have to be established.

8. Resume

  • Sustainable development in the Lower Mekong region needs the contribution of good watershed management.
  • As a cross-cutting issue watershed management provides the necessary platform to balance the interest of the different stakeholders within a watershed context.
  • The negotiating character of watershed management should be recognised and accepted.
  • Policy and institutional changes are required to provide favourable framework for sustainable watershed management
  • Necessary financial investments and mechanisms need a favourable framework

The processes and changes ahead of us will involve many organisations, institutions and individuals. Means and ways how to do this efficiently and effectively need to be worked out. It is impossible to cover the whole Lower Mekong Basin within a short period of time. We will have to focus on priority problems, areas and sectors. Regional, national and local strategies and concepts need to be checked on complementarities and consistency. Cross-border networks and institutional arrangements will assist in creating win–win situations.

The most relevant capacity building issue is facilitation. As mentioned several times before, Watershed Management mainly focuses on stakeholder’s participation and negotiation processes. The facilitation of these processes needs professional support.

To support the necessary changes will be the task for many of us. Only in partnership and in close cooperation with all relevant players: national, regional and international, can we get closer to our common goal: healthy watersheds in the Lower Mekong Basin.

Last but not least, MRC is prepared to play an increasingly important role in contributing to watershed management programmes in the basin and in creating win-win situations for all relevant and involved stakeholders.



1. Burger, D. and Mayer, C. (2003): Making Sustainable Development a reality: the Role of Social and Ecological Standards; Published by GTZ
2. IIED (2001): The Future is now. For the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, London.
3. Maute, H. (1994): Raeumliche Leitbilder im Wandel: Auswirkungen auf die Raumorganisation in Bayern. Dissertation am Fachbereich geographie. Muenchen.



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