Sharing know-how between the water towers of Switzerland and Mekong

Switzerland shares six rivers and four lakes with its neighbouring countries. The use of these water bodies is regulated by cross-border cooperation treaties dating back several decades. Based on this extensive experience in sustainable TWM, Switzerland shares it technical and policy expertise with delegations from Asia via the SDC – this time during a field visit focusing on practical cases in Geneva, Martigny and Bern.

The two Asian delegations posing in front of a dam in Martigny.

In the field: in Martigny, the Asian delegations familiarised themselves with the technical functioning of the recently erected filtering dam. © FDFA

As far back as 1976, Pierre Barras' column in La Liberté warned of the need to "look after our groundwater." His main focus was on Geneva where the water table – an important source of drinking water for the region which has been tapped since 1890 – began to destablise in 1961. Why? Because the French border region had also started to exploit the basin, resulting in "international problems with France", noted Barras.

And the solution? International cooperation in sustainable TWM. To this end, in 1978 an agreement between the State of Geneva and Haute-Savoie on the joint use of the regional water reserve was signed. That was 44 years ago. Similar agreements such as on the management of the Rhine in the Basel region also exist.

All of this shows the wealth of experience in TWM that Switzerland has accumulated over decades. And it is exactly this expertise that it has now shared with the delegations from South East Asia during the practical field visits carried out from 6 to 9 September.

Sharing invaluable Swiss know-how

It's no wonder that Switzerland is known as the water tower of Europe. And with six of its rivers and four of its lakes crossing over into its neighbouring countries, cooperation and dialogue on 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. The 2022–25 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. The SDC prioritises climate change mitigation and natural resources management, including water.

Switzerland and Laos are both regional drivers.
Christian Engler, SDC deputy director for the Mekong region

The SDC supports 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.

A fisherman in the Mekong River at dawn, handling a net.
The Mekong River is the lifeblood of South East Asia – a source of life, hydropower and income for fishing communities. © Tran Van Truong/MRC

Inspiration from Geneva, Martigny and Bern

During the field visit from 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 Drance, which has been 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.

ASEAN delegation takes part

The MRC delegation was also joined by a delegation from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN has ten member countries, making it the largest intergovernmental organisation in South East Asia. It is committed to regional cooperation, peace and security as well as the sociocultural and economic development of the region. Switzerland became one of ASEAN's sectoral dialogue partners in 2016 in order to scale up its cooperation with South East Asian governments and expand its ties in the region. One of these cooperation priority areas was the focus of this year's field visit: climate change and DRR.

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