Institute for Water Resources

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Posted 6/11/2018

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ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA.  In recent years staff from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Institute for Water Resources (IWR) and its Collaboration & Public Participation CX have worked alongside USACE’s Pacific Ocean Division to support the Southeast Asian countries of the Mekong River Basin on water resources management issues. In 2016, the IWR team led a series of workshops on Building Capacity in Public Involvement, Shared Vision Planning, & Conflict Resolution for the government of Lao PDR’s Ministry of Energy & Mines. The Lao PDR had requested the support to help them better address local, regional, and international concerns regarding the multiple planned hydropower projects in the Mekong basin. The success of the workshops led to a request from the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to provide interest-based negotiation and collaborative modeling training for its staff and joint commission members. In July of 2017, IWR staff Drs. Seth Cohen, Guillermo Mendoza, and John Kucharski of HEC, led members of the Joint Commission from the four countries of the MRC (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) in a series of Shared Vision Planning (SVP), collaborative gaming, and negotiation techniques to prioritize national and regional interests, examine tradeoffs, and seek joint solutions for the Lower Mekong Basin.  

An outcome of that first workshop was a request to use current MRC data and develop a collaborative planning model to provide a common point for discussion and an understanding of the tradeoffs associated with various management plans. In November 2017, IWR staff Drs. Jennifer Olszewski and Seth Cohen, along with consultant Sarah Helinek, conducted a second workshop in Vientiane, Laos to present the model to stakeholders.  

Addressing Trans-boundary Water Resources Management Challenges

Trans-boundary water resources management is complex and requires evaluating and then balancing multiple and often competing priorities and goals. It is further complicated by multiple governance structures and varying authorities. IWR worked with the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental river basin organization, to facilitate regional cooperation in the management of the shared water resources of the Mekong River Basin. Together, IWR and the MRC have explored a number of water resources issues including flood risk management, water supply, hydropower, sediment management, and environmental protection as well as interest-based negotiation and collaborative planning techniques to manage them.

A Shared Vision Planning Approach to Developing a Decision Support Tool

The model used this fall with the MRC relies upon Shared Vision Planning (SVP), which is a collaborative approach to formulating water resources management solutions. It combines three practices: 1) traditional water resources planning, 2) structured public participation, and 3) collaborative modeling. In SVP a “model” can be anything from a qualitative survey to a complex model of a river basin. The model used with the MRC was a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that used outputs from a complex water basin model as its metrics. For example, countries are able to define and weight various economic, environmental, and social parameters. Model users can then evaluate the outcomes of various planning scenarios, including tradeoffs within and among countries.

These models can be useful when working with a variety of stakeholders who want to see how their various preferences (interests) impact present and future scenarios. In this situation, each country has a specific tab in the Excel workbook where the user can adjust and rank specific parameters, such as a biodiversity index, GDP growth, and water quality. In total, the model currently includes 230 metrics to choose from and prioritize, though the MRC and IWR are cutting down the list to the most important metrics and eliminating redundant metrics.  This collaborative approach provides a basis for MRC technical staff to communicate with decision makers by providing a common, transparent point of reference.

Workshop participants were enthusiastic about the model and its potential applications, noting it was helpful to see how their priorities would impact other countries. The model will be a helpful tool to facilitate discussions with decision makers, as it is often challenging to summarize various impacts of planning options.  As a follow up, in 2018/19 decision makers hope to participate in a negotiation workshop informed by the model in order to work through areas of agreement and divergence on their proposed Lower Mekong basin plans.

Dr. Olszewski noted that beyond the benefits to the MRC members, this type of project provides IWR with a helpful perspective on international issues and how it could apply similar innovative methods to domestic projects. In particular, this type of model would be helpful in complex planning situations, where there are conflicting interests and perspectives. It also serves as a means for constructive and informed communication and supports an improved dialog between stakeholders.

For More Information

To learn more please visit:

Collaboration and Public Participation Center of Expertise (CPCX)