Remarks by Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for Asia Gloria Steele at the USAID Mekong Safeguards Launch of the Mekong Infrastructure Tracker

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

[As Prepared]

Good morning, everyone, and thank you, Nancy, for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here.

I’d like to begin by thanking the Stimson Center for hosting today’s launch of the Mekong Infrastructure Tracker. This remarkable tracker is the result of countless hours of hard work by colleagues at USAID, The Asia Foundation, the Global Environment Institute, and The Stimson Center. Thank you for bringing us all together.

Infrastructure and Natural Resources in the Mekong Region

Today’s event could not be more timely. The Mekong region has experienced significant growth over the past decade—but it has come at considerable environmental and social costs. Today, the economic, social, and environmental risks are even higher due to the unprecedented global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Decisions made today will impact the livelihoods of those who depend on the Mekong for generations.

In April, The New York Times reported that China appears to be manipulating Mekong River water levels by holding back water at its dams to meet domestic needs. This is impacting tens of millions of people downstream who depend on the river for their livelihoods and has contributed to unprecedented droughts and flooding.

Last year, countries in the lower Mekong experienced the worst drought in a decade. One river gauge in northern Thailand, for example, reported its lowest water level on record. This happened despite the fact that China’s region of the basin upstream saw above average rain and snowfall.

The Mekong flows through six countries: China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It sustains the livelihoods of some 60 million people in the Basin. And yet, this critical lifeblood of the region is being clogged at a frightening speed. The number of dams currently under construction or planned for construction will effectively quadruple the total number of dams, to about 400, on the Mekong.

Irresponsible infrastructure development erodes the natural resources that are so critical for our partner countries’ long-term growth. If not built and used responsibly, these dams destroy fisheries, drown crops that feed countless families and communities, and rob one of the world’s most fertile rivers of its nutrient-rich sediment. And if associated contracts and costs are not transparent, countries can end up facing long-term debt distress.

Around the world, China is offering predatory loans that feed this destruction. Its loans prioritize short-term expediency and countries with natural resources that it values, like energy, water, wildlife, forests, and marine species. Water is a shared resource and a finite resource; not one to be manipulated by any country for personal gain.

Without enforcement of strong environmental and social safeguards and without government transparency, more families and more communities will suffer under the weight of irresponsible infrastructure development and practices.

Advancing A Shared Vision For A Free and Open Indo-Pacific

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the Indo-Pacific one of the greatest engines of the global economy. Yet, the scale of infrastructure development, and the consequences of irresponsible development and practices I just described, threaten this promising future.

With so much at stake, USAID encourages government transparency and promotes policies that adhere to internationally accepted standards, including strong environmental and social safeguard standards. In fact, we’ve made natural resources management a key focus area under the Indo-Pacific Vision to bolster these efforts. The private sector plays a crucial role, especially to help close Asia’s immense infrastructure financing gap. Pre-COVID, the Asian Development Bank estimated in 2017 that Asia needs $1.7 trillion in infrastructure investment each year, or $26 trillion by 2030, to maintain its growth. Today, Asia invests $881 billion annually—barely half of what is needed. And of course this is all before COVID struck. There is no doubt that even greater investments will be needed as the region deals with the impacts of coronavirus.

All of us—the private sector, as well as governments, investors, and developers—need to work together if we are going to be successful in implementing sustainable, high-quality infrastructure development in the region.

USAID’s Impact and the Mekong Infrastructure Tracker

That brings me to today’s launch. USAID Mekong Safeguards promotes smarter, more sustainable infrastructure development to prevent environmental damage and depletion of natural resources in the Lower Mekong region. The project aims to ensure that large-scale infrastructure is planned and developed in ways that optimize sustainable social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

To that end, I’m proud to help officially launch the Mekong Infrastructure Tracker. This user-friendly tracker is the most comprehensive online platform on energy, water, and transportation infrastructure projects in the Lower Mekong region.

It promotes transparency, and allows anyone—from decision makers and investors to journalists and the general public—to easily understand the details and impact of infrastructure projects that are being planned, constructed, or already completed.

Importantly, it helps all of us see for ourselves the potential impacts that development projects could have on the environment and people in a given location. For example, international initiatives from China and the ADB are pushing for greater investments in the region’s railway system. The tracker has the ability to show where the planned railways are, and can overlay planned construction on top of regions that are home to indigenous peoples and endangered species. These data give anyone who is interested in preserving cultures, fragile ecosystems and wildlife the ability to assess the potential impacts of a specific project.

Closing

I am very proud of this remarkable product. I’d like to thank you all again for being here, and for being part of the solution.

This tracker will impact how we plan and evaluate infrastructure development in this critical region. And as more data are added to the tracker over the coming months and years, I’m confident that with widespread engagement in its forecasting, we will begin to see parallel improvements in environmental and social outcomes.

Thank you again, and I look forward to today’s discussions.

Last updated: May 29, 2020

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