Nadeem Samnakay interview: addressing water governance issues in the Mekong

An interview with Nadeem Samnakay, a principal consultant for Enviro Policy Consulting. He discusses pathways by which water governance issues in the Mekong basin may be addressed, as well as the necessity of emerging transdisciplinary water professionals.

Nadeem has over 20-years experience in delivering environmental management programs locally and internationally. He has worked extensively in Murray Darling Basin Plan reforms since the inception of the Murray Darling Basin Authority in 2008.

He also has substantive experience in environmental program management and design, environmental and sustainability policy, research program management and environmental planning at regional and landscape scales. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture Business, A Masters of Science in Natural Resource Management and is currently a part-time PhD scholar in the field of environment and sustainability policy at the Australian National University.

Interview Sections

  • About Nadeem Samnakay
  • Diverse perspectives on hydropower dams in the Mekong basin
  • Comments on cooperation & cooperative river basin management among the Mekong countries
  • Emerging demands for transdisciplinary skills in the water sector
  • The rich experience of working in water

Nadeem Samnakay, can you tell us how you came to work with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and the Mekong?

I joined the Murray-Darling Basin Commission about ten years ago, a few months before it was changed to the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) during a period of water reform in Australia.

I have quite a mixed background, having begun in the agriculture sector with an agriculture degree, after which I worked in land-care and nature conservation for a while and in research management. Then I moved into my current work which is largely water governance, water policy and water reform. In fact, I call myself a natural resource manager rather than a water-management expert, because my background has been wider than just the water sector.

I returned from the Mekong River Basin in late 2017, after being posted there for five months as a water policy specialist.

The MDBA has been working with the Mekong River Commission, through the Australian Water Partnership. That came about through individual governments requesting help, via the Australian Water Partnership model which is demand-driven. Countries approach us for a service. We do not do much with the Mekong River Commission, except that I was there in a policy capacity, and we are providing some assistance with their sustainable hydropower strategy. We have only limited influence with the Mekong River Commission in terms of building a framework. Most of the work is done piecemeal, country by country.

In my view, the Mekong River Commission could benefit from more assistance, despite their restructure a year and half ago, and I think the MDBA would be happy to help further.

What do you see as the positives and negatives of hydropower dams in the Mekong River Basin?

Hydropower dominates the Mekong. I don’t think anyone can talk about the Mekong without talking about hydropower. There are already many, many hydropower dams built throughout the Mekong and its tributaries, and many many more are planned to be built, including on the mainstream. And of course, you know, the big challenge is on the mainstream Mekong where it was relatively dam-free but that is now changing as well.

My role, partly with the Mekong River Commission, was set up because there was a proposal to build another dam.

I think in some ways that dams have many positive points, which tend not to be talked about. The positives are because that region needs development, and hydropower provides an opportunity for development.

However, from a water management perspective, many of the negative issues arise because of the change to flow and the flow regime, and the impacts on sediment movement, and I think also impacts on community members including those that live adjacent to the dam. When a dam is built or is proposed to be built, there will be impediments, such as to transport or shipping on the main channel. Those are real tangible issues that need resolution or policy interventions to try and get to some resolution.

There is never a perfect answer to these issues, and particularly as you get more and more dams each problem multiplies. One dam may be bad but two dams are not just twice as bad but rather they could be three or four times as bad, depending on the dam’s location and impacts. These cumulative impacts of dams in the region are playing out in the water governance and the water policy world.

In relation to fisheries and peoples’ livelihoods and food supply, there have been many studies done. I think the assessments found there could be massive impacts, such as declines in fish production. I was very surprised to learn that the Mekong River is one of the most biodiverse rivers in the world, with something like 800 species of fish — massive diversity, including iconic megafauna.

And it’s not just iconic species, but rather it’s all wildlife that needs to go up and down the river. And for people also, the many dams that are built act to interrupt passage for people, though for fish some dams have fish ladders. The Mekong was a transport corridor and it no longer exists in that form. Some alternatives need to be found to enable people to move up-river and down-river. I think these and other problems have probably not been dealt with in the past but they are incrementally coming to the surface now.

On the other hand, for development in the Mekong region, water is a resource, a natural advantage, and you can’t blame anyone for using it. It’s said that done sensitively, dams can be one of the most environmentally sustainable and appropriate solutions for addressing power needs.

Is there a general framework and strategic approach that allows cooperation & cooperative management among the Mekong countries?

That’s a good question. I think there are several very different types of frameworks there for cooperation. One is the Mekong River Agreement, which the Lower Mekong countries have signed. It really is the foundation of the work of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), and it allows the member countries to come to the bargaining or negotiating table.

Also, I’m sure the Australian Water Partnership is funding a person to help develop the hydro-dam strategy system for sustainable hydropower there, looking at dams. We feel we are helping to establish an overarching framework or strategy, and supporting that mechanism.

Although I was only with the MRC for five months, and my observations are those of a newcomer to that region, I think that one of the things that are missing is a cooperative framework that allows the four-member countries to develop their water resources in some sort of coordinated fashion.

It’s a challenge anywhere in the world to do that because transboundary water governance is very difficult. However, I don’t think the existing frameworks in the Mekong are rigid enough to provide a cohesive or uniform approach to dam building.

Each country has its own sovereignty, and each country can do what it wants to do, in that sense. But as we all know, rivers don’t respect man-made boundaries, and therefore I think the Mekong River Commission or a similar platform is as important now as it was two decades back when it was formed.

The Mekong River Commission is very much like the Murray-Darling Basin Commission used to be. It’s a federated model similar to that of the Australian Government, which is a federated government comprising multiple states and their representatives. The Mekong River Commission operates in the same way, and after their big restructure a year and a half ago the MRC model now is much more decentralised and the MRC is smaller.

There’s a secretariat, but the four member-countries need to pick up bigger and bigger shares of the functions that might have been handled by the former ‘traditional’ Mekong River Commission Secretariat.

That reform of the MRC has been quite big, from a management perspective, I think, and it’s been possibly a big shock to that cooperative model of managed water resources. It has meant downsizing in staff and downsizing in capacity and so there has been a sharp decline for the Secretariat, with the four member-countries then having to ‘pick up that slack’, for want of a better phrase.

The four countries have different and unequal technical capabilities and capacities to undertake those functions. I think that although, after some lag-time, those countries will build up those skill-sets to manage resources within their own regions, it will be a challenge for them to manage resources collectively, and to get the cooperative model back up and working effectively.

This is not unique to the Mekong region; transboundary water management by neighbouring countries has similar issues everywhere. Australia hasn’t mastered it within the Murray-Darling Basin either, because the five basin states still try to manage their resources for their residents’ best interests, and so we are seeing, almost on a weekly basis, continuing rivalry between upstream and downstream.

Developing cooperative management is a process, which is why I say I think the Mekong River Commission still provides the mechanism for those processes to be discussed and brought to the table. The federated model prevents an authoritarian or unilateral approach because ultimately the four member-countries have to agree unanimously for a decision. I think that is one thing we do have in the Murray-Darling Basin via the MDBA: those mechanisms exist through the Authority with a cooperative model for meeting and negotiating.

So it’s hard to compare the Mekong with Australia in that way, because of the very different capabilities in each of the member countries. Thailand has a very strong capability in modelling, and in information and data management, and good capacity. Their understanding of their resources may be quite different from that of, say, Lao or Cambodia who are currently building up their capabilities. The countries are not all on a ‘level playing field’. Although there is a common platform for discussion and negotiation, each country has slightly different capabilities and capacities to bring to that negotiating table.

Lao is going ahead with dam development because hydropower energy is almost their number one political or economic tool for development. They may not be focusing strongly on transborder management, but they are very capable of developing their own resources, and they are getting assistance to develop their hydropower.

From the point of view of cooperative economic development, there isn’t really a joint mechanism. The Mekong River Commission provides a mechanism for dialogue and for problem-sharing and problem resolution, but I think that each of the countries does what it thinks is in its best interest economically — as you’d expect of every world country.

From a water resource management perspective, I have always been of the view that for managing transboundary water, every jurisdiction involved needs to be willing to give up something for the interests of the others. Water doesn’t respect boundaries, unlike other resources such as forests — forests don’t move. Water moves and therefore, in my view, water is the most challenging of the natural resources for management, for that reason.

You know the saying: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. For water, I feel you have to give up some part of your self-interest for the greater good. It’s a choice between viewing the resources you live on, and that pass through your property, as yours, or saying: “Well, look, this is something of a broader resource in the way it sits; it’s not something to be managed unilaterally”. And it’s really challenging to do.

I don’t think we in Australia have an ideal model either. It’s a difficult situation because you need to give up what might be considered your share so someone else can survive, but it is difficult to do because you are going to have to make decisions about how much you give up for the benefit of that other person or jurisdiction. And that’s critical and confusing, I think, in water management.

Has your multi-sector background shown you any approaches that could be of benefit in the water sector, especially for young water practitioners or community involvement?

I think the water sector is perhaps most multi-disciplinary and transdisciplinary of the sectors I’ve worked in. Here in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, we have been able to bring multiple skill-sets together to develop strength in evidence-based policy. That has involved investments in scientific research, scientific knowledge, scientific understanding, and turning that into policy. I’m not saying that the MDBA is perfect at this. It’s a process, and ultimately the policymakers have to make a decision.

The MDBA has a well-founded capacity in hydrology and modelling and we’ve made big advances there, and in ecology and hydrology, and in bringing those disciplines together. Also, meteorology, for understanding and predicting flows through forecasting, and what that might mean in terms of environmental flows and where we need to deliver environmental flows. That practical day-to-day management requires multi-disciplinary skills and so I think the MBDA has almost been forced to bring multiple skills together, and we have learnt by doing.

I think the water sector is very advanced in multi-skilling, and it’s one of the things I want to encourage in new starters in the water sector. I suggest you start by getting a couple of skill-sets under your belt as opposed to aiming to be a specialist in any one area … though that is not to say that there is no need for specialists.

Increasingly, multiple skills are trans-disciplinary skills, and they are important even for career prospects. So to young starters, my recommendation would be to get multiple skills. For example, GIS technology is really coming into its own, and GIS can help in decision making and policy formulation and cut down the time needed to achieve those. How much better to be decision-maker who can use GIS, than to have to go to someone who is a GIS specialist and ask them to do some analysis for you to use for developing policy.

I think having a bit of appropriate technical expertise yourself is a wonderful strength to have in building a career in the water sector. It is very easy to get your university degree and then your job and say: “Right, I’m a modeller.” You will stay in modelling. There’s nothing wrong with that, but people who are willing and able to branch out into other skills or at the same time build their skills in some other area just stand out in the water governance and water management world, because they can conceptualise beyond one singular discipline. However, please don’t read this as “Don’t be a specialist”. We certainly need specialists as well in the water sector.

Perhaps I’m being self-defensive because my own background has been multi-disciplinary and that’s helped me. I’ve dabbled in lots of different areas of work, and that has been helpful for natural resource management, and also particularly for water management. However, you don’t see employers recruiting for trans-disciplinary skills. Transdisciplinarity is an emerging area, I think because even universities tend to produce specialists rather than trans-disciplinarians.

For managing water, however, you end up in natural resource management. As everyone knows, you can’t manage water independent of the landscape it sits in: a forest, for example, or agricultural land, etc. The land and vegetation are all intrinsically linked to the outcomes you are trying to achieve in water management. The more complex the scale, from local-scale to basin-scale, the more the landscape is involved, and that enforces the need to manage from a ‘systems’ perspective, which needs multiple skills.

There is an increasing demand for sociologists because people are at the centre of all these water sector issues that we are trying to solve. Indeed, in the Mekong, it is a major challenge to get more community participation in water governance.

I think we do water governance relatively well here in Australia. Again, I wouldn’t say we are perfect, but the Landcare model has served us well, and we do get community participation and local level involvement in decision making.

In the Mekong, I would suggest that more resources need to be focused on trying to get local-level and community-level input into resource management and water governance — because it doesn’t happen. Partly that is because the political models are different from those here in Australia; the governance models are different; and people get marginalised, with less input into decisions on the dams. People are displaced because of dams, and there are active policies in these countries to relocate people.

And without community participation, how can the people have a say beforehand in where a dam should be built, or in where they should be relocated to, or what sorts of livelihood opportunities they should and can have when they are going to get relocated?

But as I said, I don’t think we do this well in Australia either, although we’re more participatory and we do have mechanisms for local and community groups to engage in policy governance.

Is ‘water’ a satisfying sector to work in?

I love the ‘water’ topic even though I’ve only worked for 12 years in it, specifically as ‘water’. It’s certainly a wonderfully rich world and I find it both enjoyable and frustrating. Water has so many problems, but it can also energise you, because of the people you interact with and the skill-sets you interact with.

I’ve just completed my Mekong River Commission experience, and it was fantastically rich because of the wonderful diversity of people that comprise the Mekong River Commission, from the four countries plus a number of experts that were there as well. You don’t get that mixture of people so much here in Australia. Here we have people from diverse backgrounds, but the Mekong River Commission is truly multi-cultural because the people come there from their respective countries to meet on a common platform.

The result is the Mekong is a wonderful place to work, with great richness and diversity of views and diversity of skills. For me, it was a learning experience, and very rich experience, to work in the Mekong Basin.

The needs, in water, are getting bigger and bigger, and water continues to be subject to conflict. The management of water is not easy; it is complex, and everyone has a vested interest. If you asked someone: “How do you manage that forest there?”, they may or may not tell you. But for water, because it is so intrinsic to life, everyone has a view – from the local fisherman to the farmer, to government officials — and everyone has a vested interest in water because everyone can relate to it in some capacity and therefore has a view.

In many of the natural resource management sectors, people don’t care so much and they can potentially be left out of the debate, whereas for water everyone is in the debate. Everyone has a view.

And it’s the people who manage the resource who have to take those views into account and find some clear path through (if there is ever such a thing). That’s what makes it interesting and challenging.

About Nadeem Samnakay

Nadeem Samnakay is the Principal Consultant of Enviro Policy Consulting and has recently completed some work with the Australian Water Partnership supporting the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Planning Division as a water policy specialist, partly focusing on developing a decision-making framework for assessing sustainable hydropower in the region.  He brought to this role the multidisciplinary experience of working both in the agricultural sector, before transitioning later to water policy and governance. 

This experience includes:

  • Landcare Coordinator in the rural wheat belt region of Western Australia.
  • Regional Extension Officer for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service in Roma, Queensland.
  • Working with the Pakistan Ecosystems and Livelihood Group with the IUCN in Pakistan.
  • Working with the now-defunct Land and Water Australia as a Knowledge and Adoption Officer across Landcare and nature conservation programs such as Environmental Water Allocation (EWA); Nature Vegetation and Biodiversity (NVB), as well as the Weeds R&D and Riparian Landscapes set of programs. He also had responsibilities with the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge research consortium.
  • Working in knowledge management for research for development (R4D) partnership between DFAT, ACIAR and the CSIRO on Food Systems Innovation
  • About 10 years experience with the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) working on several aspects of water reform including undertaking social and economic assessments, managing strategic research portfolios, and overseeing environmental water needs assessments for the Barwon and Darling Rivers, following the organisation’s transition from the Murray Darling Basin Commission.

Nadeem describes himself as a ‘jack of all trades’ and master of none’ or a natural resource manager rather than a water management expert. He is currently undertaking a part-time PhD in strategic environmental policy design at the Australian National University.

Hydropower development in the Mekong Region

Nadeem describes hydropower as the dominant issue in the Mekong and refers to a large number of planned hydropower dams increasingly being earmarked for the main channel, which unlike the Mekong tributaries used to be relatively dam-free. One of his roles with the MRC was to assist with the development of a framework to assess proposals for building mainstream dams

Source: Ian G Baird

Nadeem suggests that the positives that hydropower dams may have for countries in a developing region such as the Mekong don’t tend to be talked about. However the many negative issues such as changes to flow and sediment regimes an impact on community members that live adjacent to the dam that is also often not fully considered. Neither are impediments to transport or shipping. These tangible issues require resolution through policies and governance interventions.

These issues are often cumulative, where the addition of an extra dam may have negative impacts that multiply in magnitude by three or four times. This has strong ramifications for how water resources are governed. For example, Nadeem describes how hydropower dams have had major impacts on fisheries in the Mekong, which is one of the most biodiverse rivers in the world, with around 800 species of fish

The issue is complex. Hydrological flows are natural assets for the socio-economic development of Mekong countries and it is often argued that there are pathways by which they may be implemented in more environmentally sustainable and appropriate ways.

Strategies for cooperation between different Mekong Countries on Water Resources.

There is a range of frameworks, including the 1995 Mekong River Agreement, which all Lower Mekong countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) have signed and acts as the basis for how the MRC operates. Nadeem describes how the AWP is currently developing capacity in the MRC primarily focused on developing an overarching framework for sustainable hydropower in the region.

In his five months with the MRC, Nadeem concluded that a cooperative framework for decision making is a major limitation that prevents the four-member countries from developing water resources in a more cohesive or uniform fashion. Because the MRC understands that the sovereignty of each nation to pursue its own development path is an important principle, as outlined in the 1995 Agreement, the MRC has as much importance now as when it was formed.

Comparing the Mekong River Commission and the Murray Darling Basin Authority

Nadeem has a unique perspective as he has now worked on reforms to the MDBA and the MRC. Both institutions are tasked with facilitating knowledge sharing and transboundary cooperation. 

He suggests while, Australia and the Mekong both operate using a federated model, where a central organisation facilitates state or jurisdictional water rights or autonomous or semi-autonomous members, recent reforms of the MRC have created a more decentralised model with greater ownership and funding by member countries. As such, the role of the MRC has been weakened both by a reduction in staff and organisational capacity.

The MRC provides a mechanism for facilitating an agreement between its member countries, however, the sovereign nature of the water resources in these countries, limits the level of authority it has. Decisions need to be agreed upon unanimously. In comparison, Australia has already completed a lot of work to put mechanisms in place to facilitate a cooperative model of coming to the table and negotiating.

Each country in the Mekong has varying degrees of capacity for not only managing their own water resources but also managing water resources collectively. Capacity development in member countries is required to be able to manage these resources more collectively, as highlighted in the different types of country assistance provided in the Mekong Integrated Water Resources Management Project. Nadeem predicts that re-establishing the cooperative model of the MRC prior to its required reform in 2016 will be an ongoing challenge.

Transboundary Management Challenges

Because of this uneven capacity, each country has a different capability to use their voice at the negotiating table. For example, Laos does not hide the fact that hydropower is their number one political and economic tool for development. Even though their modelling and data management capacity is significantly less than a country such as Thailand, they are still able to access international assistance to develop their water resources.

From a management perspective, it needs to be acknowledged that water resources do not respect these country borders and in this context, each country or jurisdiction needs to make trade-offs with the interest of others in mind. Nadeem suggests that water is the most challenging of the natural resources to manage as stakeholders have to relinquish some of their self-interest for the greater good. 

Water Rights in the Lower Mekong Region

Nadeem role was not personally associated with water rights in the Mekong but he mentions that this is something the Australian Water Partnership assists Lower Mekong countries with at the country, rather than the regional level. He describes it as an emerging demand from member countries who wish to improve their systems of water rights that are not well established.

He mentioned that Vietnam and Thailand have an active negotiation where Australian expertise has been sought. In the Mekong, contested water resource issues are becoming more prevalent and water rights systems are becoming more necessary.

The AWP works through individual country governments who request help. This is in line with the Australian Water Partnership model of providing assistance that is demand-driven. 

Nadeem differentiates the work he completed on the sustainable hydropower strategy, which is limited to improving policy capacity, with the role of developing capacity on water rights. For example, in terms of the MRC framework, the AWP can only have a limited influence. He suggests the process of capacity development is more about piecing an agreement together country by country.  While the Mekong River Commission needs and would relish assistance, the issues related to the restructuring that occurred a year and a half ago means that it is necessary to follow the strategic process of water diplomacy.

Multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary skills

Nadeem suggests that the water sector is the most multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary natural resource management sector, with the capacity to bring multiple skill sets together to produce evidence-based policy.

He describes this as the result of investments in developing scientific knowledge and turning that into policy.  The process of developing integrated research capacity in hydrology and modelling has driven this. 

He suggests that this type of management requires transdisciplinary skills and those interested in working in the sector should be encouraged to develop a couple of skill sets as opposed to being a specialist in any one particular area. 

Nadeem suggests that people with multiple skills are able to conceptualise things beyond a singular discipline. Thus, as water management is a classic complex problem requiring management from a systems perspective, people with multiple skills are highly marketable in the sector.

Water Management is complex and needs to consider multiple perspectives.

Nadeem suggests that it is becoming more widely known that you cannot manage water independent of the landscape it flows through. The management of forests or agricultural land is intrinsically linked to water management outcomes and complexity increases as you expand across the landscape scale

He suggests that one skill, in particular, is increasingly being required by the agencies mandated to solve these problems is sociology. In Australia, this is done relatively better than in the Mekong due to the Landcare model, which has improved community participation in decision-making. However, in the Mekong, there is a need for processes to get the community more involved in governance and decision making and more resources are required.

As the political and governance models are different in the Mekong, people can often become marginalised, with less input into decisions such as dams. This occurs, particularly through relocation processes. Sociologists are able to understand processes whereby citizens can have a greater say on issues such as where a dam is built, where they will get relocated to, or what sorts of livelihood opportunities are available.

This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN.

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