Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Mekong: charting a sustainable future

Eric Coull is the Regional Representative for the World Wildlife Federation Greater Mekong Programme, which covers Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. He wrote an editorial in the Bangkok Post about a regional meeting underway right now: Not far from where regional heads of state are meeting for the triennial Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) summit in Vientiane runs the Mekong River, a flowing thread that weaves its way through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong River is a powerful symbol of national pride, connectivity and vitality _ the most productive inland fishery in the world, the river with the highest biodiversity in Asia, and home to at least 1,300 species of fish including the Mekong giant catfish, the largest freshwater fish on Earth.

…As the GMS becomes one of the fastest growing regions in the world, the challenge facing the governments is increasingly clear; how to sustain rapid economic growth while making sure the Mekong River and the region's ecosystems continue to support the needs of people and nature.

At stake are rivers and forests that provide vital ecosystem services which we all rely on, supporting economies, and yet that often remain overlooked in investment decisions. It is for this reason that the World Wildlife Fund encourages the leaders of the GMS to recommit to a vision of growth where environmental sustainability is the foundation for development.

There is no time to lose. A report by the non-governmental organisation Oxfam that was published in 2007 stated that ''the ability of natural resources to continue to support poor peoples' livelihoods in the Mekong is at a crisis point. Forests and rivers are in a state of rapid ecological decline caused by human over-exploitation''.

…Three years ago, GMS leaders committed themselves to one vision: an integrated, harmonious and prosperous sub-region that is partly based on Biodiversity Conservation Landscapes. These are large expanses of forest and freshwater _ approximately 60,000 square kilometres _ that were identified as being vital for ecological functions and ecotourism. Now, in the face of climate change and its projected impact on the people of the GMS, the foresight of designing these landscapes is increasingly relevant.

Identifying conservation landscapes is the necessary first step; but there is an urgent need to take more tangible measures within a new management framework. This framework would not only define the landscapes and river basin priorities, but also regional standards for sustainable infrastructure and climate change adaptation measures over the long term.

A true vision of the GMS is one where the Mekong River continues to meet the needs of the region over the coming decades in a sustainable way. The question is, can the GMS ensure the integrity of diverse and productive ecosystems in order to foster sustainable growth? Can it buffer countries and people against the worsening impact of climate change? Only the leaders attending the Greater Mekong Sub-region summit have the answer.

Photo of the Mekong River in Laos by Ondřej Žváček, Wikimedia Commons

No comments: