Mekong, Mother of Water

USAID encourages Mekong River stakeholders to make sustainable choices as the region undergoes rapid growth and climate change.
On the Waterfront: USAID encourages Mekong River stakeholders to make sustainable choices as the region undergoes rapid growth and climate change.
Richard Nyberg, USAID

Mekong means “mother of water” in the Thai and Lao languages, an apt term for the seventh largest and second most biodiverse river in the world. With its headwaters in China, the river flows 4,200 kilometers downstream through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where it makes its way through an extensive delta into the South China Sea. More than 60 million people live in the Mekong River Basin, relying on its water for drinking, growing food, catching fish, and providing energy.

But the region’s resources are in jeopardy as the Lower Mekong’s climate becomes wetter, hotter, and more unpredictable.

Climate change is resulting in extremes.  In many parts of the region the dry season is expected to become even drier, increasing the annual period of drought despite an increase in annual rainfall. To complicate matters further, the average temperatures are expected to rise in the range of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius with the most extreme temperature rises in the southeast portion of the Mekong basin. Cooperative management of the watershed’s resources is necessary to ensure the food security and livelihoods of the more than 60 million people who live there.

In 2009, the U.S. Government spearheaded the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) to facilitate the joint resource management of the Mekong. A number of USAID programs support the LMI objectives by working with the region’s scientists, public officials, and other stakeholders to promote socially and environmentally sustainable growth.

Cross-Boundary Scientific Innovation

Trans-boundary cooperation means more access to data and greater utilization of science and technology. Last year, USAID and NASA jointly launched the 5-year, $7 million SERVIR Mekong project. SERVIR – which means “to serve” in French and Spanish – provides satellite-based Earth observation data and science applications to help countries assess environmental threats, understand changes in weather patterns that could affect crops, and respond to and assess damage from natural disasters. The program aims to facilitate data sharing, develop tools, and train decision makers to protect lives and livelihoods.

“SERVIR gives us an opportunity to open the floodgates for data sharing to improve decision making on the ground,” said David Ganz, chief of party for the USAID SERVIR Mekong project.

To ensure its work addresses local needs, SERVIR Mekong has been planning and holding meetings with government officials across the region, including members of country ministries of forestry, agriculture, and environment, to create what Dr. Ganz called “a demand-driven project.”

The project is building on models that have been developed elsewhere in the world. To help the Mekong countries reduce losses from flooding, SERVIR Mekong is looking into adapting a flood forecasting and warning system originally created for Bangladesh. It is also exploring other models that use publicly-available remote sensing and hydrological data to enable, for example, farmers to select the optimal time to harvest their crops.

USAID is further supporting technological cooperation through Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER), its engagement with the National Academies of Science that provides grants to scientists in developing countries who partner with U.S. collaborators. PEER is supporting scientists from LMI countries who are working together to find scientific solutions to the region’s problems.

“Science does not stop at the border or at the water’s edge,” said Jessica Robin, program director for PEER for the National Science Foundation, a partner in the effort. “As PEER continues to grow, both the U.S. scientific community and our foreign partners benefit.”

One of the PEER-supported projects in the Mekong will create a network of scientists who use advanced genome mapping to classify and catalog aquatic species. Its goals include enabling scientists to monitor species abundance and diversity, identifying ecological barriers to healthy species development, and zeroing in on illegally trafficked wildlife.

Promoting Multi-stakeholder Solutions

All the scientific progress in the world, however, would be meaningless if the resulting discoveries did not find their way into the hands of decision makers. Two additional LMI programs, Smart Infrastructure for the Mekong (SIM) and the Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE), share the goal of encouraging key stakeholders to make sustainable choices as the region undergoes rapid growth.

Launched in late 2013, SIM matches technical expertise to governmental requests. The program will provide $1.5 million over the next year to a variety of projects, including ones focused on designing fish passage systems for dams and improving watershed management in the region.

“This program has turned our normal way of doing aid upside down,” said Alfred Nakatsuma, director of environment for USAID’s Regional Development Mission for Asia. “Instead of creating a project and implementing it based on what we think should be happening, it’s about listening better and providing the government and the people with what they are asking for – providing, of course, it’s a sound course of action.”

MPE also seeks to inform development decision-making, emphasizing the active participation of everyone with a stake in development – government, private sector, and civil society. The 4-year, $15 million program is acting on growing calls for greater regional cooperation to reduce the impacts of the rapid pace of investment and development in the Lower Mekong region. By supporting efforts to improve environmental and social impact assessment as a means to inform project planning, MPE is encouraging inclusiveness in decision-making in order to reduce the negative impacts of development projects. The hope is that when new infrastructure projects, such as dams, are proposed, all affected stakeholders will be able to constructively participate and achieve equitable outcomes.

Wetter and Hotter

Teaching decision makers how to adapt to climate change, manage development, and make sustainable choices is just one focus of the U.S. government’s work in the Mekong region. USAID’s Mekong Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change (USAID Mekong ARCC) program works on these same issues amongst the millions of ordinary villagers who also struggle with managing scarce natural resources. The program is working to improve water storage, management, and distribution systems, and to equip villagers with the knowledge and tools they need to be resilient in a changing climate.

USAID Mekong ARCC and its partners are holding on-the-ground trainings to share knowledge and providing tangible assistance to help locals manage rising temperatures and saltwater intrusions from rising seas. In January 2015, experts from USAID, the Asian Management and Development Institute, and the Vietnam Red Cross led hands-on demonstrations of salt-tolerant rice, salinity monitoring, and shrimp nurseries that can speed the sale of shrimp to market. These interventions have led to significant leaps in awareness of adaptation strategies among villagers.

Le Hoang An, a farmer from Thuan Hoa commune in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, said these workshops were immensely helpful. Mr. An had previously tried to bar himself from the impacts of climate change by hedging his bets and farming rice for half the year and cultivating shrimp the other half. But he was nevertheless unprepared when he saw his rice crop fail for the first time in 15 years.

“We didn’t get enough rain to wash the salt from the field, so the rice died when its roots hit the salty layer in the soil,” he said.

At the trainings, Mr. An learned ways to prosper despite unexpected climate events. “The trainings helped me to understand how salt-tolerant rice can cope with different weather and soil conditions,” he said.

The coordinated efforts of the various USAID projects will help millions of stakeholders from different countries to safeguard the all-important Mekong, improve the management of natural resources, and boost incomes. More importantly, now stakeholders are cooperating for a Mekong that is worthy of the generations to come.

K. Unger Baillie

More Information

LMI Website

LMI on Facebook

USAID Asia Regional Website

Last updated: June 08, 2015

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