Integrating Climate & Water Diplomacy For Rivers

Senqu River Lesotho

The Mekong River is vital, serving more than 66 million people. As the changing climate is likely to intensify water-related challenges in the river basin, more time and resources are needed to support adaptation. But instead the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is seeing funding cuts. Sabine Blumstein shares three reasons for more climate diplomacy in her recent article for China Water Risk

The Mekong River Basin covers large parts of South East Asia that are shared by six Asian countries. The river is an important source of life for life for the people living in the basin which live from agriculture and fisheries. Managing the shared resources of the Mekong has however been difficult. Particularly, the more recent usage of the Mekong as a source of hydropower and the building of large-scale dams have created disagreements and disputes among several riparian states.

Water-related challenges are likely to intensify in many international river basins

As the changing climate is likely to intensify floods and other water-related challenges in many international river basins – including the Mekong – it is important to strengthen the capacities to manage the risks of climate change in order to safeguard livelihoods and to prevent conflicts.

In a report launched at the 2016 World Water Week in Stockholm, adelphi argues effective adaptation in transboundary river basins could benefit from closer integration of water and climate policy instruments.

The report Water and Climate Diplomacy outlines different water governance instruments that are already employed by river basin managers and policy makers to support climate change adaptation, but also shows that a number of deficiencies still exist. The report argues that climate policy instruments could be used to overcome existing shortcomings, strengthen adaptive responses, and help to avoid disputes.

In many river basins around the world, much has been done to improve water management and to address the impacts of climate change. In the Lower Mekong River Basin, an important source of livelihood for the roughly 66 million basin inhabitants, four of the six riparian countries have established the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The river commission aims to ensure the sustainable management of the river basin resources and to coordinate various national activities along the river.

The Mekong River is expected to be severely affected by climate change. Climate scenarios predict an increase of rain during the wet season while dry seasons are likely to become even drier. In combination with melting glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau water shortages are likely to worsen during the dry season while floods are expected to increase during the wet season.

The Mekong River is expected to be severely affected by climate change

Under these conditions, adaptation to climate change is crucial to ensure livelihoods and political stability. The MRC has been quite active in addressing the challenge of climate change. In 2009 the organisation has adopted and subsequently implemented the Climate Change Adaptation Initiative (CCAI). Amongst other things the program realised research activities that contributed to better understand the impacts of a changing climate and implemented various capacity building activities. Additionally, MRC’s Flood Management and Mitigation Program helped improve the technical and social adaptive capacities.

However, the two upstream countries Myanmar and China are not members to the MRC which complicates adaptation to the impacts of climate change. China (as well as other Mekong riparians like Laos) is in the process of building several dams which, in addition to expected changes from climate change, are likely to further alter the river’s flow regime.

Considering the enormous funding cuts by international donors for the Mekong River Commission, international climate finance mechanisms such as the recently established Green Climate Fund could provide an additional source of funding for MRC activities to address climate change. As such, the MRC could explore possibilities to access this funding and become accredited to existing climate change funding mechanisms.

This and other examples outlined in the report demonstrate that “climate diplomacy” tools – such as climate funding or national adaptation planning – can be employed to strengthen adaptive responses to climate change at the transboundary river basin level.

Three main reasons for stronger integration of climate policy and water instruments 

Overall, the report calls for the incorporation of climate policy tools in addition to existing water instruments and a stronger integration of the two to support adaptation. Such stronger integration is needed for three main reasons.

First, adaptation to climate change is so far mainly an issue of national concern. At the national level, several climate policy instruments, such as vulnerability assessments or national adaptation plans, are already commonly used. However national adaptation activities can create (unintended) negative effects for other riparians. If, for example, an upstream country increasingly dams a river for hydropower, downstream neighbors can be affected by changes in flow regime.

Second, stronger coordination between riparians over one international river basin could provide benefits. For instance, often flood protection measures are easier or more cost effectively realised in a country other than the one affected by floods (usually a more upstream riparian).

In both cases, a stronger integration of (national) adaptation tools and transboundary water activities could support adaptation in international river basins for the benefit of socioeconomic development and security.

Third, adaptation to a changing climate will in many cases require additional funding. In recent years, the international community has therefore established different funds for climate change mitigation and adaptation such as the Green Climate Fund. While most of these funds to date focus on national adaptation projects, they could be used to finance activities in transboundary river basins.

How to support adaptation in international basins?

So what can international actors do to support adaptation to impacts of climate change in transboundary river basins and strengthen the integration of water and climate policy? The report identifies a number of concrete steps that regional and international actors can take, including engagement to set-up new river basin institutions (or strengthening existing ones), facilitate access to climate change funds or increasing links between regional and national levels of river basin management. These activities require stronger support from the international community and climate and water policy actors in particular.

Investing time and resources to strengthen synergies between water and climate diplomacy may be time consuming and require additional resources. Yet if we want to manage the risks posed by global climate change and ensure peace and stability, such investments are likely to prove worthwhile.


Sabine Blumstein is a project manager at adelphi. Her work focuses on international water cooperation, resource governance, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change.

Integrating Climate & Water Diplomacy For Rivers has been published online on 17 January 2017. Republished with kind permission by China Water Risk.

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