Thứ Sáu, 3 tháng 10, 2014

THE MEKONG AND MISSISSIPPI SISTER-RIVER PARTNERSHIP Similarities and Differences

To the Friends of the Mekong
 
Much attention was given to the meeting on 7/23/2009 between the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterparts from the four nations of the Lower Mekong region: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. They met in a sideline meeting to the ASEAN conference held in Phuket, Thailand. For the first time, the U.S. and the countries of that region sat together to discuss about cooperation covering various areas.

The meeting took place in extraordinary circumstances with China showing complete disregard to the objections from the scientific communities as it pressed on with the construction of the series of hydroelectric dams over the upper Mekong. This country was also setting the stage to put into operation the Xiaowan Dam, the fourth dam which is many times larger than the existing Manwan, Jinghong and Dachaoshan dams.


In view of China’s behavior and her tendency to consider the Mekong as her personal property, the news about the upcoming partnership between the commissions of the two rivers following the meeting of the five foreign ministers from the U.S., Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam is greeted as a positive step which can usher in a brighter era to the gloomy prospects of the Lower Mekong.

On the occasion of the “partnership” between the two rivers; Ngo The Vinh, the author who devoted his works and researches in the later years to the Mekong, has completed an analysis of the similarities and differences between those two large rivers as well as the prospects for future cooperation.

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A MEETING WITHOUT ANTECEDENT
 
Last July (7/23/2009) on the occasion of the ASEAN conference, responding to the request from the United States, the foreign ministers from five countries met in a sideline meeting in Phuket, South Thailand. The participants included Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton of the U.S. and her counterparts from the four countries in the Lower Mekong Basin: Cambodia, Laos Thailand, and Vietnam. Representing Vietnam was Mr. Phạm Gia Khiêm, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. An unprecedented declaration was issued covering the issues of common concern especially in the areas of Environment, Health, Education, and Infrastructure Development in the region.
The American Secretary of State stressed the importance her country holds toward the Lower Mekong Basin and each of the countries in question. At the same time, she also reconfirmed the commitment of the United States to work toward the peace and prosperity of the ASEAN region as a whole. The four foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam welcomed the closer cooperation of the United States with the four countries of the Lower Mekong in the areas of mutual concern in order to secure a lasting development for the region.

The foreign ministers reviewed the common efforts underway and agreed to open up new areas for cooperation. They particularly applauded the initiative “The Mekong River Commission and Mississippi River Commission Sister-River Partnership” allowing for the sharing of technical experience and know-how in areas like: adaptation to climate change, coping with floods and droughts, development and impact evaluation of hydroelectricity, management of water resources, and food safety.

The foreign ministers also agreed to let the group of experts carry on with their detailed discussions on each of the areas of cooperation and monitor the ensuing results.

A fact sheet was also issued by the American Department of State. In the year 2009, the United States will provide assistance to the Lower Mekong Basin in the areas that still remain deficient: Environment, Health and Education.

1) Environment: The U.S will spend more than $7 million in 2009 on environmental programs in the Mekong Region. Programs in this area include: Development of “Forecast Mekong”, a predictive modeling tool to illustrate the impact of climate change and other challenges to the sustainable development of the Mekong River Basin. An agreement between the Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission to pursue a “sister-river” partnership to improve the management of trans-boundary water resources. Support for projects that promote the sustainable use of forest and water resources, preserve the tremendous biodiversity of the Mekong Basin, and increase access to safe drinking water. The US is seeking Congressional approval for an additional $15 million in 2010 for assistance related to improving food security in the Mekong Countries. 

2) Health: US assistance to the Mekong countries in the health field will total over $138 million in 2009, and focus on the following areas: HIV/AIDS – working in partnership with Mekong countries, ongoing US assistance has contributed to the 50% reduction in HIV/AIDS infection rate in Cambodia, and provide treatment and prevention services to over 2 million people across the region. Pandemic influenza – the US has provided $95 million since 2006 to support ongoing programs in Mekong countries to prepare for, and respond to threats from outbreaks of pandemic influenza. Malaria and tuberculosis – US assistance support the tracking, identification and treatment of multi-drug resistant malaria and TB in Mekong region. Plans to hold a “US-Mekong Conference on Integrated Approaches to Infectious Disease” in the next 6-9 months.

3) Education: U.S assistance in the area of education for 2009 totals $16 million, including: support for more than 500 student and scholarly exchanges with the Mekong countries each year through the Fulbright Program and other educational programs. Support for increasing basic education enrollment and expanding broadband Internet connectivity in rural communities. Plans to hold a “US-Mekong Forum on the Internet, Education and Development” to promote best practices and regional collaboration on the use of Internet connectivity to foster development. (1) 

For a start, the total amount of fund involved is not sizeable in itself. However, it conveys a vital symbol signaling the reengagement of the United States in Southeast Asia at a time when China is exerting worrisome pressure on the region, especially on Vietnam. Once Vietnam becomes overwhelmed and under control, a Domino effect will inevitably occur causing the remaining countries in the Mekong River Basin to successively fall to Chinese expansionism.


THE TWO RIVERS ENTERING A SISTER-RIVER PARTNERSHIP

On July 29, 2009, a preliminary meeting between the Mekong and Mississippi Commissions was held immediately in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, following the meeting at the ministerial level between the American Secretary of State and the four foreign ministers of the countries of the Lower Mekong Basin. The Commissions expressed their intention to cooperate on the issues pertaining to the use of water resources in the two basins as well as exchange technical cooperation and know-how to determine the optimal way to adapt to climate change as it affects the ecology of the two rivers. The two Commissions also commit themselves to work together to promote a sustained policy for hydroelectric development, cope with floods and droughts, coordinate the utilization of water resources, address the issue of food safety, and improve the navigation of inland waterways as well as expand riverine trade. (2)

Mr. Michael J Walsh, President of the Mississippi River Commission, remarked: `"While the Mekong and Mississippi Rivers are experiencing challenges, their respective Commissions also have considerable institutional and professional expertise in dealing with these challenges. Both organizations will profit from a closer partnership and the sharing of best practices..."

Mr. Jeremy Bird, CEO of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat, commented: "The Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission are very similar in terms of their principles and mandates, Both organizations strive to sustainably manage water resources against challenges related to climate change, extreme floods, hydropower development, increasing demand for water, improving navigation and trade, and involving people in the basin more on decisions that affect their lives. Both organizations are therefore well-placed to benefit each other through a technical exchange and learn how to best manage their respective complex trans-boundary rivers."

The two Commissions are working in tandem to reach a common future action plan.

THE HISTORY OF TWO COMMISSIONS


THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER COMMISSION: was established more than 130 years ago on 06-28-1879. It was entrusted by the U.S. Congress with the duty to improve the navigation on the waterways, expand commerce and trade, and prevent destructive floods on the Mississippi. With its headquarter located in Vicksburg in the state of Mississippi, the Commission is responsible to advise, monitor and report on the improvement programs of the Mississippi in order to consult with the Government, Congress and Armed Forces on issues pertaining to a basin that covers 41% of the area of the United States. (4)

The president of the Mississippi River Commission, Mr. Michael J. Walsh, has a very interesting background. He graduated from the Polytechnic Institute in New York with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in construction management from the University of Florida. He returned from the Iraq war with the rank of Brigadier General of the US Army corps of engineers. Since February 20, 2008 he served as Commander of the Mississippi Valley Division and President of the Mississippi River Commission. Mr. Walsh manages a construction program with a budget of US$ 7,5 billion encompassing a basin that comprises 10 states reaching all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. He also serves as Commander of Task Force Hope, in support of the FEMA / Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to the devastating Katrina Hurricane of the 2005; to this day the region has not fully recovered from it.

THE MEKONG RIVER COMMISSION: is a relatively young inter-government organization that consists of four nations: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Established in 1995, it is a reincarnation of the 1957 Mekong River Committee. Its mission is to cooperate in the development of the Mekong River Basin in the areas of: fishery, agriculture, sustained development of hydroelectricity, maintenance of the navigation of the waterways, prevention of floods and preservation of the Mekong River Eco-system. One must also add to that list: management of the impacts of climate change like unusual big floods and prolonged droughts including rises in the sea level. The Commission has the duty to provide advices, facilitate and expand communication between governments, private organizations and civil societies in order to cope with the existing challenges. (5)

Mr. Jeremy Bird, a leader who is a newcomer to the scene, was appointed CEO of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat in March, 2008 with a three year term at a time when the prestige of the institution was at its rock bottom. Mr. Bird from the UK, a Chartered Engineer with postgraduate qualification in water law and policy, has over 25 years of international experience in the field of water resource management. He is an old-time member of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Commission Dams (WCD), in addition to 15 years working with the Mekong River Commission on the area of water exploitation. It is important to note that Mr. Bird’s long time association with the WCD provides him with an exhaustive understanding about the extents of the threats posed by the big hydroelectric dams to the entire eco-system and the life of the communities that live along the river’s banks.

THE GEOGRAPHY OF TWO RIVERS
 
Countries: (1) Mekong runs through 7 countries: Tibet, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam; (2) Mississippi runs through one country/10 states
Length: (1) Mekong: 4,880 km; (2) Mississippi: 3,734 km
Basin: (1) Mekong: 795,000 km2; (2) Mississippi: 2,981,076 km2
Source: (1) Mekong: Mount Guozongmucha, Tibet Qinghai; (2) Mississippi: Lake Itasca, Minnesota
Mouth: (1) Mekong: Mekong River Delta, Eastern Sea; (2) Mississippi: Louisiana/Gulf of Mexico
Elevation: (1) Mekong: 5,224 m; (2) Mississippi: 450 m
Average Discharge: (1) Mekong: 16,000 m3/sec; (2) Mississippi: 12,743 m3/sec
In fact, the Mississippi is part of the “Missouri-Mississippi” river system, the largest in North America. Its total length comes to 6,300 km and has an average discharge of 16,200 m3/sec. It ranks fourth in length after the Nile/ Egypt, Amazon/ Brazil and Yangtze/ China.

SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES

The similarities are apparent. On the other hand, one can point to striking differences between the two rivers. For example, the Mekong’s elevation is 12 times higher than that of the Mississippi. This indicates that the Mekong possesses an extremely rich potential for hydroelectricity generation that is unavailable to the Mississippi. Presently, there are only four dams built on the main Mekong current. In dimensions and height, the Xiaowan dam records a height of 293m. The existing 40 dams that were mostly built in the 1930’s on the Mississippi do not have anything to match that figure. In addition, the Mekong’s ecology system ranks second only to that of the Amazon. What is unique in the world: only the Mekong can flow in both directions when during the high season, its tributary, the Tonle Sap River, reverses its course and runs into the Tonle Sap lake. This is considered a wonder in the world.

On the other hand, while the Mekong has the misfortune of running through many countries, the Mississippi only flows within the boundaries of the United States and bears the name “misi-ziibi”, meaning “the Great River”, given to it by the Ojibwe Indian tribe. The people living along its banks speak only one common language: English, and possess a high level of consciousness for the ecology. As for the Mekong, it courses through seven countries – with Tibet now being reduced to an autonomous region of China. Consequently it is called by different names: Dza Chu/ Tibet, Lancang Jiang/ China, Mae Nam Khong/ Laos and Thailand, Tonle Thom/ Cambodia, and Cửu Long/ Vietnam. The people who live along its current hail from various ethnic groups, speak different languages and belong to diverse cultures. But, perhaps the most significant difference is that the Mekong has yet to run through a “land weathered by Freedom and Democracy”. The Mekong continues to be exploited and abused even under the motto “to destroy in the name of construction”. Meanwhile, the voice raised by the communities living along its current continues to be ignored.
The Mississippi has entered the literature of America and the world. It served as the set for the works written by Mark Twain (1835-1910) like “Life on the Mississippi” and for William Faulkner (Nobel prize 1949) like “the Bear”, one of his three most popular short stories. Moreover, it is the inspiration for “Moon River”, the theme song of the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” played by Audrey Hepburn.

There is not yet a literary work about the Mekong which is significant enough to be considered of a world-class category, besides the travelogue “Voyage dans les Royaumes de Siam, de Cambodge, de Laos et Autres Parties Centrales de l’Indochine” (1883) written by the French explorer Henri Mouhot (1826-1861), this French author was credited for the “rediscovery” of the Angkor Wat with its vibrant Khmer culture of the 13rd century. The Angkor Wat is always regarded as a “wonder” of the Mekong. One must also note the diaries written by the French members of the “Expédition du Mékong 1866-1868” like Francis Garnier and Doudart de Lagrée as they were exploring for a trade route with China.

GETTING READY FOR ACTION 
  With a fresh breath of vigor and opportunity knocking at the door, one wonders whether Vietnam’s Mekong Commission is ready to join this new era. It would be unacceptable if its personnel operates like ordinary government employees. On the contrary, they must possess a high dose of “gray matter” including an ability to foresee far into the future as well as a heart devoted to the survival of the Mekong. They need a vision to project hundreds of years into the future and it is not too early now to think of investing into the training and improvement for the next generation of experts. As planned, each year 500 Fulbright scholarships will be allocated to the four countries of the Lower Mekong. If this number is divided equally among them, Vietnam will be awarded 125 recipients. A small number of them will be experts in their field while the lion’s share of them will consist of Vietnamese students who graduated from local universities. They are chosen to study or do researches in the United States for a period of one year or longer.

It is useful to recall that the Fulbright program started more than 60 years ago - in 1946. It is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. To this date, 183,000 students and scholars from more than 150 nations have participated in this program. The criteria used in the selection of the recipients are: “outstanding scholarship and ability to lead”. Besides fulfilling the requirements of the study program, attending classes and doing researches; the participants are also given opportunities to exchange their ideas and work together in the search for solutions to international problems. On a practical note, in the particular case of Vietnam this would be to find solutions to settle regional conflicts. The ideal place to recruit the participants to this program is nowhere else but the universities of Cần Thơ and An Giang whose student bodies are born and nurtured by the alluvia and the perfumed rice stalks of the Mekong River. It should be recognized that the number of scholarships is still modest in view of the requirements of the tasks to be accomplished in the future. There should be a ten-fold increase in the number of Fulbright scholarships per year. The government must put forward an appropriate investment project in this area.

Recently, when referring to the “river being strangulated” by the series of hydroelectric dams built in China, many authors of newspaper articles in Vietnam, mentioned the slogan “we have to save ourselves”. Yes but how? One cannot fail to pay attention to the proposals from a professor holding a doctorate degree to build dams to contain fresh water or keep in check the encroachment of sea water in the Mekong Delta (6). This is a commendable effort on the professor’s part that will require decades of implementation not to mention the “extremely high cost and low feasibility levels” because the Mekong Delta is still a relatively young and unstable land.

A ‘THINK TANK’ FROM THE CẦN THƠ UNIVERSITY

It is evident that there is no way to prevent China from implementing her gigantic and ambitious electrification plan. Likewise, under the tremendous pressure exerted by the conglomerate of dam builders, the eleven dams planned for the Lower Mekong will without fail be constructed in successive steps. However, at a certain point “the drawbacks and safety risks of each dam-building project must be made known to be monitored and rectified”.

The time has never been more urgent and critical for the University of Cần Thơ and its Mekong River Department to assume their role of “intellectual lighthouse”. It is our hope that the future main center dealing with the issues pertaining to the Mekong River will be located not at the Mekong River Commission in Vientiane but rather at the University of Cần Thơ. The University will serve as a “think tank” of international stature where researches as well as training courses will be conducted to provide the needed “gray matter” to the entire region.

This is the proposal the author would like to submit in this article. It is the same proposal that the author has expounded seven years back including the concrete steps for implementation (7). At that time we called for the building of a specialized library containing all the books and materials pertaining to the subject matter of the Mekong. As of today, to take into account the new situation, the Mississippi should be added as the second subject matter.

Moreover, we propose the establishment of a teaching staff which consists of the university’s regular academic body working hand in hand with experts from the Mekong River Commission and also those from the Mississippi River Commission.(2) One should not forget the international expert advisors from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Commission Dams (WCD), and the International River Network (IRN)…They should be invited to teach at the Mekong River Department as visiting professors. The materials used in their lectures will provide invaluable information gathered from actual work experience.

Candidates to the program will come from a select group of students fluent in a foreign language and meeting the Fulbright criteria for selection: “outstanding scholarship and ability to lead”. Scholarships offered by the University should not be limited to Vietnamese students but should also be extended to those from the countries adjoining the Mekong’s current like Thailand; Laos; Cambodia; Yunan, China; and Myanmar. The fund for training will come from the government’s budget. The academic program aims at the training of experts in ecology. Hand in hand with theoretical teachings, students will be given the opportunity to face real world situations through fieldtrips at the dams and important sections on the River. Furthermore, the students will spend a period working as interns at the Mekong River and Mississippi River Commissions. To graduate they must complete a small thesis on the conservation of the Mekong River’s ecology.

With such an academic baggage and a sense of mutual dependency as well as responsibility, this group of international students will represent a valuable source of “gray matter” to the Mekong River Commission and the governments in the region that are suffering from a severe penury of trained personnel. This young and dynamic group of experts will form a common denominator ushering in a new era of stable cooperation for the seven countries along the Mekong current. (7)

The University of Cần Thơ, the Mekong Delta will be the site hosting international conferences and workshops about the Mekong. Looking forward to the year 2010 when Vietnam will assume the chairmanship of ASEAN, it will then have the responsibility to organize and chair many important conferences throughout the year including the meeting of the foreign ministers of the ASEAN countries. Could there be a better time than this to organize a second “Phuket style” sideline meeting in the Mekong Delta itself, the place which is now becoming the most unforgiving “ecology battlefield” resulting from self-destructive exploitations by the gigantic hydroelectric dams in the Upper Mekong in China. On a more practical note, 2010 would also be an opportune time to review the achievements of the first year of cooperation between the Mekong River and Mississippi River Commissions.

As for the government, it is imperative that a network of “attachés for ecology” be established at its embassies and consulates in the countries of the region: the Vietnamese Consulate in Kunming, Yunnan and the four Vietnamese embassies in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. They will act as eyes and ears, human observation posts for the Mekong River Department and the Ministry for the Protection of the Ecology.

This must be considered a long-term investment of great import to the “Spirit of the Mekong” that affects all the cooperation and development plans of the region. Naturally, there is a high but well justified price to be paid if one wishes to save the Mekong and the preservation of life in the Mekong Delta for future generations. We should remind ourselves of this mantra from Sea World San Diego: “Extinction is forever, Endangered means we still have time”.

NGO THE VINH, M.D.
California, 09-09-2009

References:
  1. US– Lower Mekong Countries Meeting: Press Release, US Department of State, July 23, 2009.

  2. USA – Mekong Basin Cooperation follows ASEAN Meeting, Vientiane, Laos PDR, July 30, 2009, www.mrcmekong.org.

  3. Changing Currents: Navigating The Mekong’s Past, Present and Future_Watershed, Vol. 12 No 3, November 2008.

  4. Mississippi River http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi River.

  5. Mekong River http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mekong River.

  6. Trung Quốc khai thác Sông Mekong và nguy cơ giết chết Đồng Bằng Sông Cửu Long htpp://vietnamweek.net 06/21/2009

  7. Cần Thơ University, Mekong Delta and the Mekong River _Ngô Thế Vinh_ Đi Tới Magazine, Montréal, Canada, No. 59 & 60,Jul-Aug, 2002

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