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Watershed governance

Livelihoods and resource competition in the mountains of Mainland Southeast Asia

Examines the challenges of managing the upper watersheds of mainland Southeast Asia, taking local livelihoods and resource competition as its point of departure.

Executive Summary

Recent years have brought new evidence of a burgeoning water crisis in mainland Southeast Asia. Cycles of flash floods and droughts emerged as the most serious threat to Vietnam’s growing agricultural economy. The reservoirs feeding Thailand’s irrigated rice basin, the Chao Phraya, dropped to record lows and instigated unprecedented cuts in water supply to Bangkok. In China, the historic 1998 flooding of the Yangtze River served as a potent reminder of the huge costs of inadequate watershed management.

Many areas of the region also face a crisis in the welfare of upland communities. They are not only left behind in national development, but are also losing access to local resources. The result for these people, such as the residents of Vietnam’s densely populated northern mountains or those displaced by logging companies in remote forests of Cambodia or dam construction in Laos, is growing poverty and bleak future prospects.

Crises in water supply and local welfare are symptoms of an underlying trend -- increased competition over the natural resources essential to the livelihoods of upland and lowland residents alike. If a village is isolated from outside claims on the natural resources on which it depends and if it is self-sufficient, then questions of how to meet the needs of the residents, how to manage the resources, and how to plan for the future can all be dealt with locally. But today such isolation is rare. The emerging reality in the uplands is one of interdependence and growing competition among users of forest, land, and water resources and also among alternative uses of the watershed system. Those poised to lose most in this competition are the households and communities whose livelihoods depend directly on the resources. Since most of the major river basins in the region cross international boundaries, the competition is expressed at an international level as well. Changing human needs and demands for the resource base are spurring on this competition, necessitating parallel changes in governance to more equitably allocate the benefits of scarce watershed resources and achieve more sustainable resource use.

This paper examines the challenges of managing the upper watersheds of mainland Southeast Asia, taking local livelihoods and resource competition as its point of departure. The analysis presents the factors of change that drive economic, environmental, and social transfromations of the area. These dynamics highlight the need for greater attention to the governance and challenges of the uplands- how are decisions over resource use made, who makes them, and to whose benefit? The report suggests principles for improving governance at the local, national, and regional levels to create greater environmental sustainability and equity in the uplands.

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