Mekong States to Close the Development Gap

Safiya Charles / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
The US wants countries along the Mekong River to take greater care before embarking on large construction projects. Rethy Kunsun

Delegations from the five lower Mekong states met with officials from the Asia-Pacific region, the US and Europe yesterday to convene the 9th Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) and Friends of the Lower Mekong (FLM) Regional Working Group aimed at devising strategies to strengthen infrastructure, connectivity and cooperation as well as cross-cutting issues such as food security and water management.
The two-day conference will see delegations from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar work alongside their international FLM partners – the fundraising and capacity-building arm – to follow-up on the implementation of a Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership launched by US Secretary of State John Kerry at July’s LMI Ministerial Meeting in Laos.
The partnership seeks to assist the governments in the Lower Mekong region in developing and managing infrastructure projects that can better serve their growing populations as well as act as a technical training platform.  
As a whole LMI, which was formed in 2009 in partnership with then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, attempts to narrow the development gap between the Lower Mekong states and the rest of Asean.
With the impending US election, David Greene, head of the US delegation, underlined the meeting’s importance as a vital “agenda setting moment.”
“What we develop today will lay the foundation for an ongoing conversation that is going to very crucially inform the new [US] administration about what our collective development goals are in this region.”
Among those development goals are the six pillars of LMI: food security, education, connectivity, energy security, environment and health, with an added focus on gender equality. Food and water security have been critical areas of focus in recent years, with both droughts and floods wreaking havoc on Cambodian crop yields this year – a shared concern throughout an agriculture-heavy sub-region.
Many farmers throughout the country are struggling to cope with widespread floods over the past two weeks that have ruined crops and damaged roads, disrupting an industry already reeling from a drought earlier this year.
The Thai delegation asserted that water resource management remained one of the area’s most crucial issues.
“Given the severe drought facing the Mekong sub-region over the last few years, I persist that it behooves us to have a concrete, realistic plan of action with a clear timeline,” a member of the Thai delegation said.
At last year’s meeting in Pakse, Laos, the US stressed the importance of the Mekong River and the need for countries to think twice before erecting large hydropower dams, which have already had adverse effects on the biodiversity of the region and fish populations in the river.
Another issue of vital importance to the region is women and driving their economic empowerment to propel growth. US Ambassador William Heidt, who gave the opening remarks at the workshop, boasted of the success of one of the LMI’s women-centered initiatives in Cambodia, which after one year will now operate self-sustainably.
“The WECREATE project, which is a center that offers training, resources and mentoring for women entrepreneurs…symbolizes how our support for LMI can create the foundations and connections to help the Lower Mekong countries take charge of their own development process,” he said.
FLM members from Japan, South Korea, the EU and others pledged their continued support to the Mekong states and reported on a variety of mechanisms their governments and organizations had put in place to spur on development in the region – including energy development, climate-change modeling tools and agricultural modernization methods – before conceding that many challenges still lay ahead in meeting the initiative’s 2020 sustainable development goals and lifting millions more out of poverty.
However, delegation members expressed belief that the next two days would prove to be a productive start.

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