Thank you very much, Mr. Co-Chair, I appreciate it very much. And again, I repeat we all appreciate your leadership and particularly hosting us here now. And I want to welcome the ASEAN Secretary General Minh. Thank you very much for being here with us, too. And to all of our colleagues.
Cooperating closely with ASEAN, by the way, couldn’t be more important for this effort because we and the Lower Mekong Initiative partner nations are very focused on the question of how the Lower Mekong Initiative can actually close the development gap within ASEAN, and that obviously plays into the ASEAN goal of an economic community by 2015, which is important.
Everybody knows why they’re here. The importance of this river cannot be overstated. I was in Vietnam last December, and I spent some time on the Mekong, and I mentioned to the ministers a few minutes ago before we were joined by our Friends of the Mekong that you can see the impact, you can already see it. It is visible to the naked eye, and you can hear it in the people who live there. And so this fragile ecosystem is really in our hands, and we are so grateful, the nation states, are so grateful for the Friends who have come together in order to be part of this.
Climate change is obviously one of the greatest threats facing the planet today, and there are unfortunately too many threats. But it has profound implications for this region and profound implications for the Mekong, in particular. If you walk along the shores of the Delta today, it’s easy to understand how the climate impacts like sea level would inflict devastating damage on the Delta, displacing millions of people, destroying infrastructure, and decimating entire industries.
If you look at rice farming, for instance, the high sea levels mean more salt water spilling into the Mekong Delta, and anyone who tells — who has ever farmed rice will tell you very quickly salt water is no friend to rice paddies. There are about 70 million-plus people who depend on — 70 to 90 million who depend on the Mekong Delta for the rice supply.
The solution to climate change, we all know, is actually very simple. Getting there politically is not. But the solution is energy policy. If you make the right choices in your energy policy, you solve the problem of climate change. And we also face the problem of what happens upstream matters deeply for the people who live downstream, and it matters for the long term. So it is absolutely critical that we avoid dramatic changes in the water flow and in the sediment levels.
As a result, the word “sustainability” means a huge amount to the people around this table and to the people who live in the Mekong region. Sustainability matters not only for the environment, but for everything else. The World Wildlife Fund recently estimated that in the Greater Mekong Subregion, an estimated 10 to 12 percent of GDP is lost every single year because of the overexploitations of forests, land, wildlife, and fisheries, in addition to the ecosystem pollution. So just think about what it would mean if we were able to prevent half of that GDP from being lost. Just an extra 5 percent of GDP would mean an extraordinary amount to each of the countries around this table.
So here’s the bottom line: You don’t have to choose between economic growth and energy development. It’s a false choice. And you don’t have to choose between both of those: economic development and energy development, and protecting our resources. On the contrary, the future of this region depends on addressing every one of those things altogether, and that’s exactly what our discussion today is going to focus on.
The first thing we should try to do is identify the low-hanging fruit. What are some of the actions that we can take today with quick returns? For example, our colleagues in Thailand, with support from USAID, are now identifying small-scale water storage sites across the country as opportunities to develop low head hydro power. And if you have a thousand of these sites, that’s an enormous contribution to the power needs of the country.
Second, it’s important that we incentivize collaborative planning and development among the various sectors. How do we make sure that different industries and fields are inspired together to work to tackle these challenges? And I’m not talking just about a public-private partnership, though those are important. It’s about getting our ministries to look beyond the walls of their ministry, and that is within our countries and outside.
Third, we need to strengthen the policy and the regulatory environment in order to ensure that we are considering the impacts of energy and food protection on our water resources, and second, so the depleted natural resources do not become an even greater impediment to economic growth.
Now, there’s another reality, just like climate change, which can’t be solved by one country. The problems of the Mekong River and those of us who are here are not going to be solved by any one country. All of us together have to work together to find the solutions.
So once this meeting is over, I’d like to maintain our collective momentum and explore opportunities for further direct engagement in the near term. In that spirit, I want to thank our friends from Lao PDR for offering to host by early next year an extraordinary meeting of the Friends of the Lower Mekong at the sub-cabinet level to develop specific recommendations around the ideas and the challenges that are articulated and discussed today. And that meeting could bring together high-level officials with responsibilities for national development and growth plans, as well as the implementation of regional and international development objectives.
For our part, the United States would be prepared to bring representatives from technical agencies with experience in managing these issues in our country, like the Department of Energy, the Corps of Engineers, and USAID. And every one of these entities could help contribute to the solutions we need to put together.
So I’m very pleased that our partners agree. For example, Lao PDR’s recent decision to engage in regional consultations on an infrastructure development project is a very constructive effort and step to help resolve. This is positive.
So I really look forward to the discussion that we have today, and I’m very grateful for the work that the Friends are doing throughout the critical region in helping to lay down a plan so we all understand what the road is going forward.
So thank you, my co-chair, I appreciate it very much.