M-POWER—the Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience—is a program of action research that aims to improve the quality of water governance in ways that support sustainable livelihoods in the Mekong Region. The acronym is a play on the verb “empower,” as this is an apt one-word description of motivation for engaging in action research about governance with a view to bringing about progressive changes.
By Mekong we mean the broad region of mainland Southeast Asia, not just the Mekong river basin, but an area that also includes the Irrawaddy, Salween, Chao Phraya, Red and other smaller river basins in between (see the map on page 278 of this issue of MRD). The idea of a program is that we are trying to develop a coherent set of action research activities that extend beyond a single project or grant. Our focus is on inland water, where water is treated as: a multipurpose resource to be enjoyed for livelihood activities; a threat or a disaster, as in the case of unexpected floods; a resource for generating energy; or an important medium for aquatic life. By environment, we are signaling our interest in both biological and non-living aspects of our world. Finally, we introduce the idea of resilience because it describes our concern for maintaining capacities to adapt and cope with change in a context where human society and the environment are seen as dynamic, multi-scale, and interrelated. The Program will be pursued for at least 4 years: 2005–2008.
Comparative studies and governance themes
The framework is organized around empirical comparative studies carried out by multi-country teams, and governance themes for synthesizing our experiences. The comparative studies are all comparative or regional, with each one usually composed of several ongoing action research studies. Action research means the work often involves being engaged in the political debates and actions we are analyzing and commenting upon. This significantly increases the levels of responsibility for doing our work well. Our program aims to draw lessons from these experiences through critical comparison and exchange of experiences.
Fisheries: ensuring food security
Floods: reducing the risks of disaster
Irrigation: managing supply and demand
Hydropower: meeting energy needs fairly and sustainably
Watersheds: securing resilient livelihoods
Water works: providing water for households and industry
There are 4 themes to help organize thinking about broader lessons concerning governance, which may cut across several or all politically related water situations represented in the comparative studies. Each of the comparative studies and themes has clear leadership, with responsibility for preparing written working papers. These will become peer-reviewed papers or policy briefs, or be distributed more widely through conventional media channels.
T1: Dialogue—deliberation, diplomacy, and negotiation
This theme aims to develop alternative models in environmental decision-making in the context of water resource governance in the Mekong Region. More specifically, it will examine the limitations of state-dominated processes and inquire into the potential for greater civil society involvement in the processes. This theme will also endeavor to find better structures for fostering regional and global cooperation, promoting human security, and preventing conflict in relation to water resources at all levels, from the local to the regional.
Much of the existing dialogue about water in the region is removed from the public eye. This theme will critically reflect on whether and how multi-stakeholder platforms could bring water policy and policy-making into the public domain. To accomplish this, members of our network will actively engage in water forums: on-going workshops, meetings, public hearings, and negotiations revolving around a set of interconnected water resource management and policy issues. Our analysis will pay careful attention to a wide variety of participants—as well as, importantly, relevant non-participants—including their discourses, relations, and the processes through which their interactions unfold.
T2: Social justice—gender, ethnicity, and class
This theme explores the social justice challenge of reducing differences in opportunity, rights, involuntary risks, sharing of benefits, and access, by changing the form of engagement in water governance. Attention is focused on issues of gender, ethnicity, and class.
For example, this involves investigation of the conditions and terms under which women as stakeholders participate in the governance of water resources, as well as the consequences of their participation for their wellbeing, especially in relation to health and food security. Similar questions are asked about other potentially socially vulnerable groups in the region, particularly ethnic minorities, immigrants, urban slum dwellers, and landless farmers. Finally, there is consideration of how class, ethnicity, and gender issues intersect, and the interdependencies thus generated.
The social justice challenge is not just a question of process, but also one of outcomes and impacts on the livelihoods of marginalized groups. Action research requires identification of inequalities, followed by work to improve outcomes for the disadvantaged. Changing discriminatory and unfair practices that result in unequal rights, benefits, and work is difficult but a key goal of the M-POWER program.
T3: Knowledge—assessment, practice, and communication
This theme addresses how different forms of knowledge inform decision-making and action. It aims to span and integrate understanding, from formal assessment processes established by governments and inter-governmental agencies to the diverse kinds of local and organizational knowledge that are often embedded in practices. Because the media can be very important in raising public awareness, shaping public opinion, and propagating myths, we directly address the role of media and communication in development.
Water resources management has a major technical component, whether it is forecasting growth in energy demand, anticipating the effects of climate change, modeling the impacts of diversions, in-stream structures, and land uses in surrounding watersheds, or exploring scenarios for the future of economic and social relations. Access to, and the capacity for, analysis are highly differentiated in Mekong societies. This calls for great social responsibility on the part of technical experts and their managers, given that they sit in bureaucracies with often strong organizational interests in particular types of rationales and findings. The science–policy interface must therefore be negotiated and neither side can ever be completely independent of the other.
T4: Policies—integration, decentralization, and privatization
This theme analyzes the history of state and regional water policies, paying particular attention to how benefits and involuntary risks are shared, how cross-sectoral competition and coordination are handled, and the ways in which issues become embedded in public policy. We take as a starting point the changes in formal laws and regulations related to water resources and the specific management and infrastructure development activities undertaken or facilitated by the state, focusing on privatization and decentralization reforms and how these alter rights to water.
We then extend our consideration to non-actions that in themselves constitute key policy choices, as well as the impacts of policies that are often critical while conventionally considered as non-water. Here we anticipate special attention being given to agriculture, fisheries, conservation, and energy. Finally, we will complement our policy analysis with institutional analysis of the interactions of actors in the bureaucracy, parliament, non-governmental organizations, and various stakeholders at different stages of the policy cycle.
There exists little whole-of-state, whole-of-Mekong-basin or whole-of-Mekong-Region analysis of the policy positions of each state, their shifting tides, and the driving forces with the most influence. Nor is there a clear picture of how actual processes are governed by formal policy postures. This theme will strive to rectify this.