Commentary

The US Lower Mekong Initiative

in Program

At the July 2009 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
meetings in Phuket, Thailand Secretary of State Clinton announced a new
initiative aimed at a deep reengagement with the states of the Mekong
Basin.  Although the United States has maintained close ties with most
of the ASEAN countries, both Washington and the region had worried
about a period of comparative US neglect, enough for Secretary Clinton
to declare “we’re back.”  The current centerpiece of US reengagement
with Southeast Asia is the newly created US Lower Mekong Initiative
(LMI).  This diverse multi-agency effort aims to positively contribute
to the improvement of education, the environment, health, and
infrastructure in the region.  The policy clearly also has the
geopolitical goal of achieving a better balance of external influence
in the region – where China’s influence has been rising fast over the
last decade.  

Although the details of the LMI remain light at
this early stage, several US agencies are already working on the ground
on important issues that affect the future of the Lower Mekong Basin
(Cambodia, Laos, Eastern Thailand, and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta).  What
remains is to establish a coherent leadership structure for these
diverse activities.

• The US Geological Survey, through its
National Wetlands Research Center, has initiated the Delta Research And
Global Observation Network (DRAGON) to share technical knowledge and
tools that can help many of the world’s great deltas cope with
anticipated changes due to climate change and development.  Can Tho
University in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta has been an eager partner to USGS
in wetlands and hydrological research aimed at supporting climate
change adaptation.  USGS has also developed a new multimedia tool
called “Forecast Mekong” that aims to clearly illustrate the
anticipated impacts to the Mekong River and Delta stemming from climate
change phenomena and infrastructure development, especially dams.  

A Mississippi-Mekong Sister River relationship has been established to
develop regional capacity in advanced river modeling tools and
techniques while also building institutional capacity.
• USAID is
working to improve access to clean drinking water and sanitation
facilities in the Mekong Basin, addressing vector-borne diseases and
pandemic threats, and providing assistance to the Mekong River
Commission and National Mekong Committees to increase regional
cooperation on issues of shared water resources.  
• The US Army
Corps of Engineers is providing modest assistance to the Mekong River
Commission for the development of planning processes and tools to
better manage the diverse needs of the river and the countries through
which it flows.  
• Even the US National Park Service is involved,
having developed a field-level exchange program that will build
regional forest stewardship capacities.

The LMI’s objective of
promoting equitable, sustainable, and cooperative development of the
Mekong River, a shared transboundary resource, will pose the greatest
challenge to the success of the policy.  The region is growing rapidly
and faces many difficult decisions, especially pertaining to energy
security.  Hydropower has been the focus of many recent proposals but
the current regional trend towards hydropower is one with little or no
regard for major adverse environmental and socioeconomic impacts.  The
US can provide technology and assistance to identify and promote
regional solutions to the pressing demands of energy, food, and human
security.  The LMI should increase information sharing amongst US
agencies active in the Basin as well as regional authorities.  It
should also provide new tools that improve the quality and availability
of information available to decisionmakers in the region.

A
challenging but constructive role for US reengagement would be to
encourage the countries in the Mekong Basin to cooperatively work
towards the creation of a “Mekong Standard” for evaluating hydropower
proposals in the Basin.  Ideally, the US could provide good offices to
facilitate a forum that brings together all parties and applies
advanced modeling technologies and full environmental and socioeconomic
cost-benefit techniques to create a mutually agreed upon standard for
Environmental Impact Assessments pertaining to water infrastructure.

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