Earlier this year I joined U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to discuss the conservation of the Greater Mekong basin. We were joined by the foreign ministers of the Lower Mekong countries—Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and, for the first time, Myanmar—along with senior representatives from those countries most heavily invested in the region, including the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the European Union.
Secretary Clinton accurately described the Mekong River as a miracle. It sustains life and livelihoods—directly or indirectly—for hundreds of millions of people. But unprecedented economic and social development threatens the health of the Mekong, as does its particular vulnerability to climate change, making conservation work here especially important.
When you map the value of nature throughout all the countries of the world, the Mekong River countries stand out because they have what everybody else wants: a major river system that drives sustainable hydropower, feeds tens of millions of people and supports a thriving agricultural sector. The challenge and the opportunity here are the same—to manage this vibrant ecosystem and its rich natural resources as a complete, interconnected whole. Because when plans are made piecemeal, country by country, cohesiveness is lost and systems begin to fail.
So there’s a deal to be brokered among the countries represented at the meeting in Phnom Penh: to keep the Mekong basin intact while ensuring that all can derive the benefits the river provides. But any agreement must be supported by the best available science at a national level, and it must be connected to political commitments from the Lower Mekong countries and other key stakeholders.
WWF has worked in the Greater Mekong region for more than two decades. As much as any place on Earth, it embodies the imperative of finding ways to manage the demands of humanity without destroying the planet that supports us all. This is our moment in time, while the Mekong River ecosystem is still intact, to do the right thing to keep this extraordinary place healthy and whole.
This story was originally published in FOCUS, WWF's bi-monthly member newsletter.