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Workers construct the framework of foundations at Stung Treng’s Lower Sesan II dam site in 2014. Phak Seangly

Environmental connectivity and economic growth

This week, regional leaders are meeting in Phnom Penh to discuss how to build a more connected, prosperous Southeast Asia at the World Economic Forum on Asean. They will talk about how technology, infrastructure and closer trade ties will help Asean’s youth – a rising powerhouse – shape the economic future of the region and the globe. But there is one key element missing from this discussion that can make or break this vision: the Mekong River.

The Mekong is essential to the region’s economy; its abundant natural resources feed the Greater Mekong countries’ impressive 5 percent to 8 percent economic growth rates. However, the Mekong and the critical services and resources it provides are threatened by a host of poorly planned and coordinated development projects that threaten not only the ecosystem, but also the economy and the livelihoods of millions of people. If Asean’s economies are to grow for another 50 years, urgent action must be taken to protect this vital river.

Lifeblood of the region’s economy
The influence of the Mekong River extends far beyond its banks. As it flows through China, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, its water nourishes crops; its sand and gravel are extracted and turned into concrete and glass to grow the region’s booming cities; and its fish feed the growing population. The Mekong is the world’s largest inland fishery and second only to the Amazon in biodiversity; its annual fish catch is valued at $17 billion and these fish are a key source of protein for millions of people in the region. In its natural state, the river generated an estimated 160 million tonnes of nutrient-rich sediment (containing silt, clay, sand, gravel and pebbles) each year, which replenishes the fertile agricultural fields along its path, stabilises the river bed and banks, and provides key raw materials for construction. This abundance of inexpensive food and materials underpins the region’s competitive labour and building costs, helping propel the economic growth that has fuelled the region’s rise and lifted millions out of poverty.

Hitting the limits of growth
We are rapidly approaching the limit to these riches. In the name of economic growth, unsustainable development is pushing the Mekong’s ecosystem to the brink and eroding the very foundations of the region’s prosperity. Short-sighted decision-making prioritises using the Mekong and its resources for short-term returns without considering the long-term and river-basin-wide impacts, which can be economically and environmentally devastating.

Take, for example, the current rush to build hydropower dams on the Lower Mekong. In seeking to address one problem – lack of affordable electricity – governments are creating many more. Mega-dams disrupt critical fish migration routes, endangering fish stocks and regional food security, and trap sediment upstream. When coupled with rampant, uncontrolled sand mining, this leads to catastrophic erosion downstream. Two provinces in southern Vietnam have already declared a state of emergency this month over riverbank erosion, which is threating lives, homes, key infrastructure and agricultural land, and causing millions of dollars in damages. Large-scale migration is taking place as rural people are forced to abandon their eroding land and move to already congested cities, compounding problems there.

One river, one economy
Decision-makers must reframe the way they think about the Mekong if regional economies are to continue to thrive. The region simply cannot afford to continue treating environmental impacts as an afterthought to economic concerns, because they are in fact one and the same.

Corporations across the Mekong basin are beginning to recognise the risks of ignoring the Mekong to their businesses and are taking action to mitigate them by making their operations more sustainable. Good environmental management is good business for the many economic sectors that will be – and are already being – impacted by the rapid changes in the Mekong ecosystem. Without a functioning Mekong River, costs for everything from water and building materials will rise. Most notable is the connection between wages and thriving fisheries: the high-quality, low-cost protein wild fish provide is key to sustaining the competitive labour prices that attract manufacturers to Cambodia and Vietnam.

Connectivity is the right theme for the World Economic Forum, but right now critical connections are being ignored. Businesses depend on biological connectivity, or the movement of water, fish and sediment through the river system, just as they do on trade and technological connections, though many do not yet realise it. Working to conserve the Mekong and its ecosystem services is also preserving the future of business in the region.

Solving the Mekong’s economic and environmental problems will also require new connections: they cannot be answered by any single actor. Decisions made in one stretch of the river have impacts across the entire ecosystem; therefore, any meaningful solution must involve stakeholders from all sectors along the entire Mekong River basin.

Government economic and water resource planners must come together with businesses, civil society organisations, scientists and communities to look at the cumulative effects of development decisions on the Mekong and together shape policies to minimise the negative impacts while maximising benefits for all. Only by taking this big-picture approach and collective action to manage the Mekong can we build strong, resilient economies in the region.

Marc Goichot is WWF-Greater Mekong’s lead on sustainable hydropower.

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