The Mekong River Commission is sounding the alarm on the growing challenge of macroplastics and microplastics, urging its four Member Countries to establish a joint, permanent mechanism to monitor and clean up pollutants that seep into the soil, air and fisheries — and can affect both the ecosystem and human health.
Regarding this pollution in the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMB), the MRC also recommends Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam to pass and enforce new rules and regulations on waste littering; the so-called “3Rs” of reduce, reuse, recycle; and riverine plastics waste management. As the report states, these policies should specify who should do what, identifying the “clear responsibility of national government, local government, private sector and community.”
The MRC’s own Riverine Plastic Monitoring (RPM) Programme — the first one in the world — estimated that in 2020, its four countries had produced about eight million tonnes of plastic waste. At ports and piers, for example, some 70 to 90 percenet of the solid waste was identified as plastic bottles, plastic bags and styrofoam.
Dr. Anoulak Kittikhoun, CEO of the MRC Secretariat said as the region is undergoing rapid economic development and urbanisation, plastic has found a wide variety of applications, due to its relatively low cost, light weight, durability, ubiquity, and malleability.
“Yet, we must close our gaps in knowledge about the flux, transport behaviour and pathway of plastic pollution, to minimise impact on the Mekong, but also to contribute to saving the ocean,” he said.
Experts now view plastic pollution as a major hindrance to the “sustainable ocean economy” itself, which is relied upon by some three billion people around the world. Collective action is needed, as most such pollution reportedly flows from some 1,000 rivers globally, directly into the oceans. By some measures, the Mekong is one of the prime plastic polluters of the oceans.
Less visible than the solid waste, but even more harmful, are the “microplastics,” which are the miniscule pieces of degraded plastic, synthetic fibers and plastic beads that can be easily ingested by humans and animals. As academic publisher Scientific American has described it, “This is very dangerous, as microplastics have been found to physically damage organs and leach hazardous materials that can harm the immune system, halt growth and reproduction.”
The issue of plastics pollution first became prominent in 2017, with the landmark research of a German-led team that documented how large rivers were the main source of many hundreds of metric tonnes of plastics that had begun to suffocate parts of different oceans. The researchers identified the rivers most responsible, around the world and the Mekong ranked 10th.
That said, in 2021 a team of researchers presented a more nuanced reality: Plastic “emissions are distributed over more rivers than previously thought by up to two orders of magnitude. We estimate that more than 1,000 rivers account for 80 percent of global annual emissions […] with small urban rivers among the most polluting.”
“Our work doesn’t end here, as much more must be done to protect the Mekong River Basin,” says Dr. Kittikhoun. “We’ll look into more campaigns to raise public awareness and how to encourage relevant government officials to take meaningful actions.”
Source: Agency Kampuchea Press