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Mekong River Project Targets Asia's Poorest Region

Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam held talks this week on a multi-billion dollar project to develop the Mekong River basin - one of the poorest regions in the world. The four countries hope to set economic priorities without damaging the environment and the Mekong River itself. Senior representatives from Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam met Friday in Bangkok - taking a crucial step to formulate a list of development projects for the Lower Mekong River region - home to 60 million people.

The Lower Mekong Region covers 600,000 square kilometers, but remains one of the world's poorest regions with an average per capita income ranging from $200 to $400 a year.

In an effort to address the area's poverty, the four nations signed a political cooperation agreement in 1995 to promote sustainable development under an umbrella organization called the Mekong River Commission.

Friday's meeting in Bangkok was a milestone for the commission in deciding which projects will enhance the Mekong River's importance to agriculture, transportation and communications.

Commission Chief Executive, Joern Kristensen, says the key is balancing the conflicting needs of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. "Thailand would like to take off the water to irrigate North East Thailand which is still the poorest part of the country, where there is still plenty of room for development," he explains. "The Laotian side would like to use the water for hydropower generation, the Cambodians need to maintain the stable flow of the water for fisheries and the Vietnamese with the downstream country, they need sufficient water to irrigate to support agriculture in the Mekong Delta." Vietnam's Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Nguyen Dinh Thinh says another top issue is how to promote industrial development in the region without damaging water quality.

"The four countries have a commitment to cooperate together to try and find a solution to protect the water sources of the Mekong River basin," he says. "The atmosphere of cooperation is now increases and the four countries now trust each other to cope with this issue." And trust will be vital for the development projects to succeed. After the region's recent decades of war and internal political strife, development of the Mekong River's resources will be a key to cope with the area's growing population set to reach 100 million people by 2025.