The US Lower Mekong Initiative

Stimson Spotlight

The US Lower Mekong Initiative

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.