Washington — The United States will spend approximately $187 million on projects to help four nations of the Lower Mekong River basin lessen the impact of climate change on water resources, food security and the health and livelihoods of nearly 60 million people.
During the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting July 22 in Hanoi, Vietnam, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described growing cooperation between the United States and the Lower Mekong countries — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The spending plan for 2010 covers environmental issues, health concerns, and education and training, with the largest share going to health programs.
“Managing this resource and defending it against threats like climate change and infectious disease is a transnational challenge,” Clinton told foreign ministers from the four countries at a private meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN forum.
“Regional cooperation is essential to meeting that challenge, to preserving the ecological diversity and fertility of the Mekong region,” she said. “We expect to continue similar levels of funding for the next two years.”
More than 60 million people in four countries live in the Lower Mekong basin, which is an area of approximately 606,000 square kilometers in Southeast Asia. The Mekong River Commission has reported that climate change most likely will increase flooding throughout the region, which will affect food production and food security.
The Lower Mekong Initiative was launched in July 2009 at the ASEAN meeting in Phuket, Thailand. The program’s objective is to promote the equitable, sustainable and cooperative development of the Mekong River, which is the world’s largest inland fishery and a transboundary resource, says Timothy Hamlin, a research associate at the Washington-based Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Project.
“The region is growing rapidly and faces many difficult decisions, especially pertaining to energy security,” Hamlin said earlier this year. “The United States can provide technology and assistance to identify and promote regional solutions to the pressing demands of energy, food and human security.”
The region faces the twin challenges of climate change and its impact on the river’s ecosystems, and the impact of expanding populations, the Mekong River Commission says.
LOWER MEKONG ASSISTANCE
The United States will spend more than $22 million this year on environmental programs in the Lower Mekong basin. One initiative will launch a three-year program to assist the four countries in developing cooperative strategies to address the impact of climate change.
A sister-river partnership was announced in May between the Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission in the United States. This partnership aims to improve the management of transboundary water resources. Work continues on the development of “Forecast Mekong,” which is a modeling tool to show the impact of climate change and some other challenges to sustainable development in the river basin.
A two-year research program has been funded among universities in the Lower Mekong countries to study persistent organic pollutants in the basin, according to the U.S. State Department.
The largest share of the funding this year is $147 million for health improvement programs that include a project targeting emerging pandemic threats in the region. The project will improve the identification of and response to new public health threats that originate in animals and aims to strengthen animal and human health systems to thwart outbreaks of infectious diseases.
A partnership is being launched to respond to infectious diseases by training health professionals and veterinarians to detect, track and contain outbreaks, and to establish a regional network to detect drug-resistant malaria. This builds on work launched at the Lower Mekong Conference on Transnational Infectious Disease Cooperation in June.
In addition to the other programs, U.S. assistance has provided HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention services to more than 2 million people across the Mekong region. This has contributed to a 50 percent reduction in the HIV/AIDS infection rate in Cambodia, facilitated the provision of antiretroviral treatments in Vietnam and supported the largest clinical trial of a vaccine regimen for preventing HIV infection in Thailand, according to the State Department.
The initiative announced in Hanoi by Clinton includes $18 million for education projects that include Internet availability for poor and rural areas and a program to bring regional professionals in education, environment and health to the United States to consult with professionals in their fields.
The initiative also supports English-language training through in-country scholarships that help professionals working in the Lower Mekong region to improve communications regionally and internationally.
By Merle David Kellerhals Jr.