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Asian Ministers Tackle Mekong River Development

  • Robert Carmichael

People fish on wooden boats on the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, Aug. 19, 2010. (file photo)

People fish on wooden boats on the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, Aug. 19, 2010. (file photo)

Environment ministers from six Asian nations are meeting in Phnom Penh to finalize how they will work together to balance economic development and environmental protection in a region that includes one of the world’s longest and most biodiverse rivers in the world.

In 2005, the nations that share the 4,800 kilometer Mekong River set up the first five-year plan to unify efforts for balance environmental protection with development and poverty reduction.

That $30-million program, with the unwieldy name of the Core Environmental Program and Biodiversity Conservation Corridors Initiative, expires in December. The six countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion group are China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and their environment ministers have endorsed, in principle, extending the program until 2016.

Formal approval of the plan is expected in December.

Senior natural resources specialist Sanath Ranawana, with the Asian Development Bank, which administers the program, explains why such talks are critical for tens of millions of people.

“The GMS, the Greater Mekong Sub-region, is an area that is growing very rapidly. And the potential for growth here is enormous; countries like China, neighboring countries such as Indonesia or India, which create a huge demand for the resources and the products from this region. And so this program is quite important and crucial for balancing what this region might do in the future, development in the future, with how it can manage its resources in a sustainable way,” Ranawana says.

The Mekong River and its tributaries are one of the richest freshwater fisheries in the world, but environmentalists warn it is increasingly under threat from pollution and new hydropower dams.

Activists dance in front of the Chinese embassy in Bangkok after delivering a letter demanding its government to stop building dams on upper Mekong river
Mar. 4 2010 (Reuters).

Environmentalists fear dams could cause significant damage to migratory fish stocks, as well as the flow of sediment that builds up and protects the Mekong Delta region in southeastern Vietnam.

The most controversial proposal is the $3.8-billion Xayaburi dam in Laos, but following pressure from downriver countries Cambodia and Vietnam, Laos officials recently said they are suspending construction.

The Mekong’s importance to Cambodia was highlighted by Prime Minister Hun Sen who told Thursday’s gathering that managing the river’s water resources is “a matter of life and death” for the people who rely on it.

Laos also sees the river as a key way to boost its impoverished economy by generating electricity from hydropower dams in this energy-hungry region.

The ADB’s Sanath Ranawana says linking energy programs with the environment forms a central plank of the second stage of the program. It will also link the environment to investment decisions in other vital areas such as agriculture, tourism and transport.

“We have made the case, and the countries recognize very well, that environment is an integral aspect that they need to take care of," he says. "The ecosystem services that are generated from the conservation landscapes are what underpin the whole economic program, the economic development. So agriculture, hydropower, all of the sectors that are important for economic development are based on having valuable ecosystem services.”

In Bali last week U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the annual Association of South-East Asian Nations Regional Forum that Washington is working with the ADB and the European Union to improve infrastructure and the environment in the Lower Mekong.

She also called for a pause in all new dam construction until fully assessing their environmental effects.