Groundwater for more resilient agriculture in the Lower Mekong: governance challenges and lessons at the local level
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES)
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Agricultural groundwater use in the Lower Mekong is gradually gaining attention due to increasing uncertainty over water availability. Although this region is blessed with abundant rainfall and a network of rivers, climate change, commercial agriculture, and competition for hydropower, ecosystem and urbanization are shifting demand-supply pattern and affecting water available for irrigation. Groundwater is increasingly seen as a viable alternative to tackle growing uncertainty over water security, either as a supplement or as a main source of irrigation. Before the expansion of agricultural groundwater could become a norm, countries in the Lower Mekong should have appropriate governance mechanisms in place so that “tragedy of groundwater commons” due to unplanned and uncontrolled resource exploitation, as observed in other Asian countries, such as China and Indo-Gangetic plains was not repeated in the first place. This study examines the challenges of establishing a vibrant institutional mechanisms at different levels for promoting sustainable groundwater use. Lessons were drawn from existing mechanisms of groundwater governance in Asia and their potential implication on promoting groundwater management,in the Lower Mekong is discussed. Review of groundwater governance cases across Asia reveals that challenges are often encountered in situations where there is inadequate decision support information to address multifaceted management complexity such as lack of knowledge on resource system, uncontrolled abstraction, high cost of energy and low profit margin. On the other hand incentives and access to information are the binding factor for groundwater management decisions which often lead to a group formation and subsequent institutional development. Secured access to groundwater abstraction facilities and affordable cost sharing mechanisms are basic incentives for a viable group formation either at community level or among a group of farmers. Information about groundwater resources, agronomic and water management technologies, and markets are vital for productivity enhancement and higher returns. Making groundwater irrigation viable and climate resilient agriculture in the Lower Mekong is therefore about equipping farmers with information and securing year round access to groundwater in sufficient quantity and quality. At the local level a strong linkage with local bodies (such as village leaders, agriculture traders, agriculture extension staffs, etc.) and their effective coordination can lead to a productive groundwater use. More difficult is to establish a vertical linkage with line agencies such as electricity, land use, agricultural development, water resources which have an important role in providing support, clearing regulatory hurdles, and mainstreaming sustainable groundwater management in the national policies. It is now timely that governments in the Lower Mekong make best use of successful and unsuccessful lessons from other regions to manage groundwater in a sustainable manner and to make irrigated farming climate resilient.