Indo-Pacific Virtual Conference on Strengthening Governance of Transboundary Rivers

Ambassador Michael George DeSombre’s Closing Remarks

Indo-Pacific Virtual Conference on Strengthening Governance of Transboundary Rivers

I would like to start by thanking Satu Limaye and the organizers at the East-West Center, Assistant Secretary Stillwell and my colleagues at the State Department, and of course you all – experts from across Asia and beyond – who have come together today to share your thoughts and help create a more prosperous future for the Mekong region.  I was especially pleased to hear the important message from Secretary General Somkiat about making the Mekong a river of prosperity, connectivity, and sustainability.

Today’s discussions reinforced for me not only the challenges, but also the utmost urgency of strengthening our cross-border water management agreements and institutions.  This year’s drought that Assistant Secretary Stilwell described is a call to action.  As we witnessed here in Thailand and across the region – the livelihoods, prosperity, and indeed the very lives of millions of people who depend on the Mekong River hang in the balance.

This work is hard.  Balancing the priorities of all the wonderfully diverse Mekong region nations requires accountability, transparency, stakeholder input, and above all, trust.

Chicago, where I was born, is situated on the Great Lakes, which is one of the most famous shared water bodies in the world.  And the United States and Canada have faced our fair share of challenges regarding these waters.  But through strong institutions – like the International Joint Commission which Commissioner Jane Corwin spoke about today – over the course of more than 100 years, the United States and Canada have found ways to share and jointly manage our transboundary water resources to improve the lives of citizens on both sides of the border.

The Mekong region is fortunate to have just such an institution – the Mekong River Commission.  Established in 1957, the MRC is an enduring model for regional cooperation and has been a central focus of our discussions today.  As we have learned, improving the capacity of this treaty-based organization is one of the most important ways that we can promote equitable use of the Mekong river’s plentiful resources.  As Dr. Hatda, the MRC CEO, said today, the MRC is constantly working toward water diplomacy solutions that promote the principle of reasonable and equitable use.  Together, we must work to strengthen the MRC’s capacity to resolve conflicts around joint management of water resources, both within the Mekong region and with countries outside of the region.

I am proud to note the U.S. government’s longstanding, prominent role in these efforts, most recently through the Mekong-U.S. Partnership that Assistant Secretary Stillwell mentioned.  This includes an additional $1.8 million to support the MRC’s important work through existing programs and partnerships.

Building on these efforts, our USAID Regional Development Mission for Asia, based here in Bangkok, is finding new and innovative ways to help the MRC and Mekong region nations reduce their vulnerability to floods and droughts like the one we experienced earlier this year.  Through a unique partnership with NASA, USAID’s SERVIR Mekong project – together with the MRC – co-launched the “Drought Early Warning Platform.”  This online tool will provide Mekong countries with an early warning system to forecast and monitor drought in the region.  We shouldn’t need a rocket scientist to solve these problems, but it sure is nice to have some helping us.

As we heard today, countries from across the globe – spanning from Europe to East Asia – stand ready to share with Mekong region nations their experiences and lessons learned on transboundary river management.  The United States is no different.  As noted previously, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has facilitated exchanges between the Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission to share best practices in river and water management.  In addition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supported development of the 2021-2030 Mekong Basin Development Strategy.  Recognizing the value of these partnerships, here in Thailand we are working to formalize an agreement between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Office of National Water Resources in the coming months.

Success in the Mekong region will depend not only on strong institutions and partnerships, but on transparent flow of data as well.  That is why the United States created the Mekong Water Data Initiative with input from more than 60 government and NGO partners to improve data sharing and science-based decision making.  The platform, announced by Secretary Pompeo last year, includes more than 40 tools covering everything from weather forecasting to citizen science.  We plan to unveil a major upgrade to this platform in coming weeks.  As Brian Eyler noted during the first session today, transparent data sharing is a key aspect of being a “good neighbor” in the Mekong River basin.

The United States negotiated our first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with Canada in 1972, which led to significant improvements to our shared resources.  But that was not the end. Scientists continued to work together and identified ways to improve the agreement in 1978, and again as recently as 2012.  Transboundary river management in the Mekong region – among not only two, but six countries – will require the same collaborative approach, extreme patience, and commitment to continued evaluation, transparency, and trust among all nations that share the river’s bounty.

As Assistant Secretary Stilwell noted in his opening remarks, the United States, along with our friends and allies from across the globe, is committed to continued partnership with Mekong region countries to build a prosperous, sustainable, and healthy future based on these shared resources.

Thank you again to the organizers, to our distinguished speakers, and to all the participants for your excellent contributions today.  I look forward to our continued collaboration, and stronger, more effective governance of transboundary rivers in years to come.