7. June 2016

Keynote – Louis Lebel

Nexus narratives and the governance of transboundary water resources in the Mekong Region
Louis Lebel
Director, Unit for Social and Environmental Change, Chiang Mai University, Thailand

Background: Large‐scale hydropower development is increasingly being promoted as a form of climatecompatible development because it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, relative to producing the same electricity from fossil fuels. In the Mekong River Basin however, this strategy would have large adverse impacts on productive inland fisheries, and thus major implications for food security. Alternative sources of protein would require a lot more water for crops, and energy to get the water to those crops, or energy to transport protein imports.

Rationale: Several distinct policy narratives around the water‐food‐energy nexus in the greater Mekong Region have appeared in the last couple of years. It is not clear however, to what extent these nexus narratives are influencing international negotiations, or national policies on transboundary water resources.

Objectives: The main purpose of this study was to identify the key features of the nexus narratives, analyze how they have been used by pro‐ and anti‐ large‐scale hydropower development actors, and assess the influence they have had on international negotiations, donors, and national policies in the Mekong Region.

Study design: This paper examines the structure and content of nexus narratives in official documents, reports, press releases, and media statements by key policy actors. It also reviews and synthesizes the findings from several important earlier studies of nexus discourses and narratives. The approach to coding information and data analysis drew heavily on the policy narratives framework, evaluating content in terms of characters, problem framing, and preferred solutions.

Findings: Nexus narratives are used by pro‐ and anti‐hydropower coalitions, but are not yet dominant. The pro‐hydropower development coalition stories emphasize economic efficiency, climate benefits and energy security. Emphasizing benefits helps deflect scrutiny and criticism, regarding potential adverse social and environmental impacts. Actors who oppose large‐scale hydropower development adopted a more diverse mixture of narrative elements, often placing more emphasis on burdens and risks.
Technical elements which depoliticize and omit significant issues related to distribution of risks burdens and benefits, were found in both pro‐ and anti‐hydropower coalition arguments. Quantification and analysis of narrative influence is on‐going. Preliminary evidence suggests modest impacts on international cooperation through expanding coalitions. Evidence of influence on national policies was more difficult to find, and appears to vary substantially among countries, in line with their different stakes.

Significance: This was one of the first systematic applications of the policy narrative framework to a transboundary water governance problem. The analysis of narrative content and strategies, were shown to be useful for understanding changes in composition of coalitions, and international cooperation. But, less so for detecting influence on national water‐related policies, in part, as these are more indirect. The main implication for the governance of the water‐food‐energy nexus in the Mekong Region is that, there is still a long way to go to convince policy elites of the significance of the nexus, let alone how it might be steered.