The Mekong River Commission (MRC) called on its four-member countries to establish a permanent joint mechanism to monitor and clean up pollutants that seep into the soil, air and fisheries, as it sounded the alarm on the growing challenge of macro and micro plastics and how they can affect both the ecosystem and human health.

In its first-ever report on “riverine plastic pollution” in the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMB), released on December 21, the MRC recommended Cambodia, Lao, Thailand and Vietnam pass and enforce new rules and regulations on waste littering; the so-called “3Rs” of reduce, reuse, recycle.

The report said these policies should specify who should do what, identifying the “clear responsibility of national government, local government, the private sector and local communities.”

In the press release, the MRC said the risks associated with plastics pollution are growing more urgent. The MRC’s own riverine plastic monitoring (RPM) programme – the first one in the world – estimated that in 2020, the four countries had produced about eight million tons of plastic waste, adding that at ports and piers, for example, some 70-90 per cent of the solid waste was identified as plastic bottles, plastic bags and Styrofoam.

As the region is undergoing rapid economic development and urbanisation, plastic has found a wide variety of applications, due to its relatively low cost, light weight, durability, ubiquity, and malleability,” said MRC Secretariat CEO Anoulak Kittikhoun.

“Yet, we must close our gaps in knowledge about the flux, transport behaviour and pathway of plastic pollution, to minimize impact on the Mekong, but also to contribute to saving the ocean.

“Our work doesn’t end here, as much more must be done to protect the Mekong River basin. We’ll look into more campaigns to raise public awareness and how to encourage relevant government officials to take meaningful actions,” he said.

Experts now view plastic pollution as a major hindrance to the “sustainable ocean economy” itself, which is relied upon by some three billion people around the world, according to the press release.

Collective action is needed, as most such pollution reportedly flows from some 1,000 rivers globally, directly into the oceans. By some measures, the Mekong is one of the prime plastic polluters of the oceans, it added.

In the Mekong, the MRC linked up with the UN environmental programme in 2019, which back then was the only organisation monitoring the Mekong for plastics pollution. Through UNEP’s “CounterMEASURE” project, the MRC has helped map the issues of riverine macroplastics, microplastics, plastic leakage hotspots, and plastics accumulation.

The MRC also established the RPM Programme to assess “basin-wide status and trends of riverine plastic waste pollution” and generate “data, information and knowledge to support decision-making.” Through this programme, the quartet of MRC Member Countries developed their own “RPM methodology” to monitor this transboundary issue in a joint, cost-effective manner.

In 2020, the MRC also commissioned a comprehensive study of plastics pollution, including within fish. This now completed report contained their findings and proposals.

The mapping activities with UNEP saw limited effectiveness because they lacked standardised survey methods and synchronised monitoring. That experience reinforced why the member countries themselves must be involved and coordinated, from the top rungs of government to on-the-ground data collectors, said the report.

The report recommended that moving forward and the complexity of “riverine plastic debris” will require “comprehensive approaches, including multi-sectoral cooperation and oceanographical knowledge”.