More than four decades ago, as a young lieutenant in the “brown-water Navy,” my crew and I journeyed down the Mekong River on an American gunboat. Even with the war all around us, in quiet moments we couldn’t help but be struck by the beauty and the power of the river — the water buffalo, the seafood we traded for with local fishermen, the mangrove on the sides of the river and inlets.
Long ago, those waterways of war became waters of peace and commerce — the United States and Vietnam are in the 20th year of a flourishing relationship.
Today, the Mekong faces a new and very different danger — one that threatens the livelihoods of tens of millions and symbolizes the risk climate change poses to the entire planet. Unsustainable growth and development along the full reach of the river are endangering its long-term health and the region’s prosperity.
From the deck of our swift boat in 1968 and 1969, we could see that the fertile Mekong was essential to the way of life and economy of the communities along its banks. In my many visits to the region since then as a senator and secretary of state, I’ve watched the United States and the countries of Southeast Asia work hand in hand to pursue development in a way that boosts local economies and sustains the environment.
Despite those efforts, the Mekong is under threat. All along its 2,700 miles, the growing demand for energy, food, and water is damaging the ecosystem and jeopardizing the livelihoods of 240 million people. Unsustainable development and the rapid pace of hydropower development are undermining the food and water needs of the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the river.
What’s at stake? In Cambodia, the Mekong supports the rich biodiversity of a watershed that provides more than 60 percent of the country’s protein. In Vietnam, it irrigates the country’s “rice bowl” that feeds the fast-growing economy. Throughout the region, the river is a vital artery for transportation, agriculture, and electricity generation.
The Mekong rivals the Amazon for biodiversity. Giant Mekong catfish and the Irrawaddy dolphin are unique to the river, and scientists are constantly identifying new species of animals and plants across the delta. Some of these newly discovered species could one day hold the promise of new lifesaving drugs.
The challenge is clear: The entire Mekong region must implement a broad strategy that makes sure future growth does not come at the expense of clean air, clean water, and a healthy ecosystem. Pulling off this essential task will show the world of what is possible.
The fate of this region will also have an impact on people living far beyond it. For instance, U.S. trade with the Mekong region increased by 40 percent from 2008 to 2014. This trend has meant more jobs for Americans and continued economic growth for countries across Southeast Asia.
Meeting this challenge requires that we work with these countries to address very real development needs even as we work to sustain the environment. This requires good data for proper analysis and planning, smart investments, strong leaders, and effective institutions to manage the Mekong’s riches for the benefit of everyone in the region.
To that end, we joined with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, to launch the Lower Mekong Initiative. Its goal is to create a shared vision of growth and opportunity that recognizes the river’s role as an economic engine and respects its place in the environment.
That is why this week (Feb. 2 and 3) the United States and the government of Laos are co-hosting a major meeting of senior officials from the five lower Mekong countries, the United States, and the European Union in Pakse, Laos, where the Mekong and Xe Don rivers meet. They will be joined by representatives of the private sector and donors like the Asian Development Bank to work on a blueprint for a sustainable future.
At the meeting, we will launch the Sustainable Mekong Energy Initiative, a plan to encourage the countries of the region to develop programs that will redirect their investments to innovations in renewable energy and other sources that do not harm the environment.
This is not a question of dictating the path of development in these countries. Rather, it is about the United States and other countries working alongside our partner nations to establish a consistent set of investment and development guidelines that ensure long-term environmental health and economic vitality all along the river’s path.
This partnership is an essential part of the broader effort by President Barack Obama and the entire administration to support the people of the Asia-Pacific region, and a further sign of our commitment to helping these vibrant economies and emerging democracies.
For Americans and Southeast Asians of my generation, the Mekong River was once a symbol of conflict. But today it can be a symbol of sustainable growth and good stewardship.