It is no wonder that Switzerland is known as the water tower of Europe. With six of its rivers and four of its lakes crossing over into its neighbouring countries, cooperation and dialogue on Transboundary Water Management (TWM) are essential.
Globally, no less than 153 countries have transboundary water basins but only a third are covered by cooperation agreements. The issue of fair water allocation remains crucial, however, which is why Switzerland is seeking to share its expertise with other countries, particularly in the Mekong River Basin in Southeast Asia.
The 2022–2025 Swiss cooperation programme for the Mekong region incorporates specific know-how and good governance to support local and national authorities working for the inclusive, resilient and sustainable development of society. Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) prioritises climate-change mitigation and natural resources management, including water.
The SDC is supporting the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which is the only treaty-based intergovernmental organisation for the Mekong River Basin. The MRC brings together four countries in the region – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – with a view to promoting the fair use of the Mekong River Basin and addressing cross-border issues.
Switzerland can draw on its history of diplomacy and water management to actively contribute to the implementation of the MRC's Development Strategy for the Lower Mekong Basin 2021–2030 and MRC Strategic Plan 2021–2025, including through multi-donor pooled funds.
Do Switzerland and the Mekong region really have the same issues? Yes, they do. "Switzerland and Laos are both regional drivers," explained Christian Engler, SDC deputy director for the Mekong region at the first water security dialogue between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the MRC in 2021. "In this context, both Switzerland and ASEAN countries face similar issues. Regional challenges require regional solutions as well as regional implementation, planning and action."
According to the MRC, the key is a more proactive approach to regional planning so as to meet long-term water needs and respond to more frequent and extreme floods and droughts caused in particular by climate change and the development of hydroelectric infrastructure.
During the field visit from the 6 to 9 September 2022, the SDC gave the ASEAN and MRC delegations a hands-on insight into Swiss expertise on technical and policy matters, focusing primarily on TWM and disaster risk reduction (DDR). The goal was to share Switzerland's approaches and lessons learned in the area of TWM. Are these relevant to the Mekong context? Can they be adapted? The delegations discussed these issues and the need to bolster partnerships and networks with Swiss organisations and actors.
In Geneva, the delegations learned about TWM in the region. In Martigny, they visited the new dam on the River Dranse, built to protect the thousands of city inhabitants in the event of irregular water flows. In Bern, they were shown around the project to widen the bed of the River Aare, which has been designed in response to increasingly frequent flooding, while creating more space for walkers and different animal and plant species.
The ASEAN and MRC delegations can now return with specific examples and know-how on sustainable and peaceful TWM in addition to other souvenirs from their stay in Switzerland.