THE MEKONG AND MISSISSIPPI SISTER-RIVER PARTNERSHIP Similarities and Differences

To the Friends of the Mekong

Much attention was given to the meeting on 7/23/2009 between the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterparts from the four nations of the Lower Mekong region: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. They met in a sideline meeting to the ASEAN conference held in Phuket, Thailand. For the first time, the U.S. and the countries of that region sat together to discuss about cooperation covering various areas.
The meeting took place in extraordinary circumstances with China showing complete disregard to the objections from the scientific communities as it pressed on with the construction of the series of hydroelectric dams over the upper Mekong. This country was also setting the stage to put into operation the Xiaowan Dam, the fourth dam which is many times larger than the existing Manwan, Jinghong and Dachaoshan dams.
In view of China’s behavior and her tendency to consider the Mekong as her personal property, the news about the upcoming partnership between the commissions of the two rivers following the meeting of the five foreign ministers from the U.S., Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam is greeted as a positive step which can usher in a brighter era to the gloomy prospects of the Lower Mekong.

On the occasion of the “partnership” between the two rivers; Ngo The Vinh, the author who devoted his works and researches in the later years to the Mekong, has completed an analysis of the similarities and differences between those two large rivers as well as the prospects for future cooperation.

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A MEETING WITHOUT ANTECEDENT

Last July (7/23/2009) on the occasion of the ASEAN conference, responding to the request from the United States, the foreign ministers from five countries met in a sideline meeting in Phuket, South Thailand. The participants included Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton of the U.S. and her counterparts from the four countries in the Lower Mekong Basin: Cambodia, Laos Thailand, and Vietnam. Representing Vietnam was Mr. Phạm Gia Khiêm, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. An unprecedented declaration was issued covering the issues of common concern especially in the areas of Environment, Health, Education, and Infrastructure Development in the region.

The American Secretary of State stressed the importance her country holds toward the Lower Mekong Basin and each of the countries in question. At the same time, she also reconfirmed the commitment of the United States to work toward the peace and prosperity of the ASEAN region as a whole. The four foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam welcomed the closer cooperation of the United States with the four countries of the Lower Mekong in the areas of mutual concern in order to secure a lasting development for the region.

The foreign ministers reviewed the common efforts underway and agreed to open up new areas for cooperation. They particularly applauded the initiative “The Mekong River Commission and Mississippi River Commission Sister-River Partnership” allowing for the sharing of technical experience and know-how in areas like: adaptation to climate change, coping with floods and droughts, development and impact evaluation of hydroelectricity, management of water resources, and food safety.

The foreign ministers also agreed to let the group of experts carry on with their detailed discussions on each of the areas of cooperation and monitor the ensuing results.

A fact sheet was also issued by the American Department of State. In the year 2009, the United States will provide assistance to the Lower Mekong Basin in the areas that still remain deficient: Environment, Health and Education.

1) Environment: The U.S will spend more than $7 million in 2009 on environmental programs in the Mekong Region. Programs in this area include: Development of “Forecast Mekong”, a predictive modeling tool to illustrate the impact of climate change and other challenges to the sustainable development of the Mekong River Basin. An agreement between the Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission to pursue a “sister-river” partnership to improve the management of trans-boundary water resources. Support for projects that promote the sustainable use of forest and water resources, preserve the tremendous biodiversity of the Mekong Basin, and increase access to safe drinking water. The US is seeking Congressional approval for an additional $15 million in 2010 for assistance related to improving food security in the Mekong Countries.

2) Health: US assistance to the Mekong countries in the health field will total over $138 million in 2009, and focus on the following areas: HIV/AIDS – working in partnership with Mekong countries, ongoing US assistance has contributed to the 50% reduction in HIV/AIDS infection rate in Cambodia, and provide treatment and prevention services to over 2 million people across the region. Pandemic influenza – the US has provided $95 million since 2006 to support ongoing programs in Mekong countries to prepare for, and respond to threats from outbreaks of pandemic influenza. Malaria and tuberculosis – US assistance support the tracking, identification and treatment of multi-drug resistant malaria and TB in Mekong region. Plans to hold a “US-Mekong Conference on Integrated Approaches to Infectious Disease” in the next 6-9 months.

3) Education: U.S assistance in the area of education for 2009 totals $16 million, including: support for more than 500 student and scholarly exchanges with the Mekong countries each year through the Fulbright Program and other educational programs. Support for increasing basic education enrollment and expanding broadband Internet connectivity in rural communities. Plans to hold a “US-Mekong Forum on the Internet, Education and Development” to promote best practices and regional collaboration on the use of Internet connectivity to foster development. (1)

For a start, the total amount of fund involved is not sizeable in itself. However, it conveys a vital symbol signaling the reengagement of the United States in Southeast Asia at a time when China is exerting worrisome pressure on the region, especially on Vietnam. Once Vietnam becomes overwhelmed and under control, a Domino effect will inevitably occur causing the remaining countries in the Mekong River Basin to successively fall to Chinese expansionism.

THE TWO RIVERS ENTERING A SISTER-RIVER PARTNERSHIP

On July 29, 2009, a preliminary meeting between the Mekong and Mississippi Commissions was held immediately in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, following the meeting at the ministerial level between the American Secretary of State and the four foreign ministers of the countries of the Lower Mekong Basin. The Commissions expressed their intention to cooperate on the issues pertaining to the use of water resources in the two basins as well as exchange technical cooperation and know-how to determine the optimal way to adapt to climate change as it affects the ecology of the two rivers. The two Commissions also commit themselves to work together to promote a sustained policy for hydroelectric development, cope with floods and droughts, coordinate the utilization of water resources, address the issue of food safety, and improve the navigation of inland waterways as well as expand riverine trade. (2)

Mr. Michael J Walsh, President of the Mississippi River Commission, remarked: `"While the Mekong and Mississippi Rivers are experiencing challenges, their respective Commissions also have considerable institutional and professional expertise in dealing with these challenges. Both organizations will profit from a closer partnership and the sharing of best practices..."
Mr. Jeremy Bird, CEO of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat, commented: "The Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission are very similar in terms of their principles and mandates, Both organizations strive to sustainably manage water resources against challenges related to climate change, extreme floods, hydropower development, increasing demand for water, improving navigation and trade, and involving people in the basin more on decisions that affect their lives. Both organizations are therefore well-placed to benefit each other through a technical exchange and learn how to best manage their respective complex trans-boundary rivers."
The two Commissions are working in tandem to reach a common future action plan.

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