January 25, 2022

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Opening Remarks at the Indo-Pacific Conference on Strengthening Transboundary River Governance

14 min read

Ambassador Atul Keshap, Principal Deputy Assistant SecretaryBureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

Video Conference

Hosted by East-West Center Washington

Opening Remarks

Thank you, Satu and the East-West Center, and good evening or good morning to all who are joining us from around the world. Thank you as well to Representative Lieu, Ambassador Ngoc, Ambassador Chum, and Ambassador Manasvi for joining us here today.

It is good to see so many who joined us last October. I welcome you and the new participants here today for the launch of the conference report.

This report is excellent and summarizes our work examining the challenges facing the Mekong River basin and its ties to the economies, livelihoods, and culture of nearly 70 million people.

We remain concerned—just as we were in October during the conference—that record droughts and the upstream dams in China that exacerbate them are hurting the communities and ecosystems that have relied for countless generations on the Mekong River’s natural flood pulse. There are dramatic consequences for food security, economic development, and the environment.

It’s clear that upstream dams are withholding water with limited coordination or notification, unnecessarily exacerbating the water security challenges that Mekong communities are facing.

Just last week, the Mekong River Commission (MRC)  again issued calls for China to share timely and essential water data. This was in response to what the MRC called recent “worrying” drops in Mekong River water levels.

The MRC statement  cited Beijing’s agreement in 2020 to share year-round water level and rainfall data and to notify the MRC of any abnormal rise or fall in water levels. It’s clear that the PRC has not lived up to this commitment.

This is an urgent issue and this report helps focus our attention on the next steps.

The Conference Report

The conference report will serve as an important resource guiding our efforts to improve transparency and strengthening the communities and institutions responsible for protecting the Mekong River.

The nearly 70 million people that depend on the River have much to gain from transparent governance. Expanding economic growth and addressing climate change also require coordination and information sharing. The United States and our partners developed the Mekong Dam Monitor  to better provide information on water usage. Upstream dam operators need to be more transparent and consultative with downstream neighbors.

Stronger governance, institutions, and mechanisms are needed to support regional cooperation in the Mekong. The United States has supported the Mekong River Commission for decades and remains committed to sharing our expertise and working with you to preserve the autonomy of the Mekong region.

Perhaps most significantly, this report emphasizes the importance of including all stakeholders in river management. This requires moving beyond just government bodies and the MRC to include civil society in the decision-making process.

The Role of the United States

The United States is committed to following through on the ideas discussed at the conference and in this report. We support the people of the Mekong and the future of the Mekong River.

Since 2009, the United States has invested over $3.5 billion of assistance in the countries of the Mekong, including:

  • $1.2 billion for health programs;
  • $734 million for economic growth;
  • $616 million for peace and security;
  • $527 million for human rights and governance
  • $175 million for education and social services; and
  • $165 million for humanitarian assistance.

Last year, we launched the Mekong-U.S. Partnership  to broaden, deepen, and better resource our collaboration.

Through the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, the United States is partnering with Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam on solutions to emerging challenges, including transboundary resource management, regional economic connectivity and human resources development, and non-traditional security issues like health security, and narcotics, weapons, wildlife and human trafficking.

We are strengthening our long-standing support for the MRC, guided by principles of transparency, inclusivity, good governance, and respect for autonomy and international law.

We are continuing our work under the Mekong Water Data Initiative to improve water data sharing, including support for the Mekong Dam Monitor. I encourage you all to explore the Mekong Dam Monitor online; it’s an amazing resource.

We are empowering the skill and talent of the people of the Mekong through programs like the new Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Academy at Fulbright University Vietnam and our Young Scientists Program.

We are supporting regional organizations like ACMECS and the efforts of partners like Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and countries in the European Union to support sustainable development and share global best practices.

These efforts are collaborative and inclusive and follow the helpful efforts of countries like Vietnam to raise the profile of Mekong issues within ASEAN. We encourage ASEAN to regard the Mekong River basin as being as important to unity and prosperity as the issues in the maritime domain.

Finally, our work would be incomplete without the efforts of local media reporting on the value of the river and the effects of unsustainable practices. We applaud the tireless efforts of civil society advocates that strive for transparency, sustainability, and accountability.

Closing

The conference report reflects knowledge and expertise from around the globe. It provides recommendations to ensure the millions of people who depend on the Mekong River have a prosperous future.

There is much riding on our efforts, and a lot of hard work lies ahead of us. I encourage you all to stay in touch on our work. You can check out our website at mekonguspartnership.org and follow us on Twitter at @USAsiaPacific . I also encourage you to the follow and use the excellent Mekong Dam Monitor at @MekongMonitor  and at monitor.mekongwater.org.

Together, I am confident we can ensure the Mekong River basin remains healthy and vibrant, sustaining generations far into the future.

Thank you.

More from: Ambassador Atul Keshap, Principal Deputy Assistant SecretaryBureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

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