Washington — In 2010, organizations that oversee two of the world’s most powerful rivers came together to chart a better course for water-resource management.
When the Mississippi River Commission and the Mekong River Commission signed a partnership agreement in May 2010, they focused on sustainable development along their two river basins and on disaster preparation. Though the regional context may vary significantly, many of the challenges they face — improving water quality, assessing the impact of watershed infrastructure, maintaining a healthy ecological balance — are the same.
This sister-river partnership is one component of the U.S. State Department–led Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), comprising the United States and four of the nations — Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand — that share the Mekong River. The initiative seeks to increase regional cooperation and consultation on issues related to the four “pillars” of education, environment, health and infrastructure. Under the LMI’s environmental and health pillars, the United States supports projects promoting the sustainable use of forest and water resources, preserving the biodiversity of the Mekong Basin and increasing access to safe drinking water.
For its part, the river partnership facilitates the sharing of best practices, lessons learned and other tools and techniques among the five member countries to manage waterways that are vital to millions of people in their respective regions.
According to Jeremy Bird, former chief executive of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat, the two rivers’ commissions strive together to manage their water resources against challenges related to climate change, extreme floods, hydropower development and increasing demand for water. He said improving navigation and trade and involving people in the river basins in decisions that affect their lives are also goals of the partnership.
Scientists, academics, and environmental and engineering experts from the five nations have already exchanged ideas on how to better manage floods and improve navigation, according to Stephen Gambrell, director of the Mississippi River Commission at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
New methods of flood control, involving the removal of levees and dams to ease floodwater pressures, are being adopted in the upper Mississippi River and its tributaries, Gambrell said. “The areas that are allowed to flood naturally within the flood plain can relieve stresses,” he said. They offer one example of a U.S. water-management tool being shared with experts from other countries.
Exchanges are an important component of the sister-river partnership.
Delegates from the Mekong River Commission visited the Mississippi River Commission in June 2011. This visit, largely funded by the State Department and coordinated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, brought high-level representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as the Mekong River Commission Secretariat, to meet with their U.S. counterparts and experts who work on issues related to basin governance, sediment transport, flood management and fisheries protection. The weeklong exchange culminated in a series of meetings and policy briefings with U.S. officials working on Lower Mekong issues in Washington, including Senator Jim Webb.
In August, the State Department’s U.S. speaker program will send Shana Udvardy, of the nonprofit American Rivers organization, to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
The State Department program is proposing a future visit by experts from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand to two cities in Florida, two cities in Missouri, and Seattle, in order to assess environmental conditions and review communication systems for use in emergencies.
“Considering the global challenge of climate change, this exchange is truly valuable to all parties involved,” said the State Department’s Ariel Wyckoff.
The partnership is “a mutually beneficial relationship,” agreed Gambrell. “The people of the lower Mekong have been living with and working alongside rivers much longer than [their counterparts] in the USA,” so Americans have much to learn from their partners’ experience.
By Lauren Monsen