ON THE PENINSULA WHICH TAKES ITS NAME, the Mekong River is its most evocative icon. Aeons ago, before national boundaries snaked across the Mekong Basin, a multitude of ethnic groups formed a rich human tapestry across this ancient land. Over time, kingdoms arose. Then, colonial powers arrived and, when they left, civil strife took hold in their wake. So it was that only 20 years ago, the region was still home to some conflict, it was considerably closed to the world beyond, and had a large proportion of its population mired in poverty.
As the "bamboo curtain" slowly lifted, it became clear that a new paradigm was needed, one rooted in greater trust, peaceful coexistence, new ways of doing business, and shared prosperity. In 1992, the six countries of the region - Cambodia, China, Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam - entered into a joint programme of economic cooperation for the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS).
The after-effects of decades of conflict, together with lingering border tensions and antiquated economies, initially kept regional trade flows at a trickle. Nevertheless, these countries' leap of faith was ultimately rewarded. Today world-class roads and bridges criss-cross the Mekong region, allowing for an ever-increasing flow of goods and people. Since their initial agreement in 1992, GMS nations' exports have more than quadrupled, with foreign direct investment increasing seven-fold. Most importantly, millions of families have been freed from poverty, and more children than ever are enjoying good health, and a quality basic education.
Of course, this is cause for celebration. Nonetheless, issues remain. Extreme poverty continues to plague one in every five families in the Mekong Basin, and needless barriers to trade and development continue to constrain the region's competitiveness.
Today, despite the current crisis, the Mekong countries must take bold steps. They need to aim high. The region is ideally situated between the "dragon" and the "elephant" of the global economy - China, and India. With the right set of policy initiatives, backed by strong political will, it is easy to envision the GMS as a single economic subregion with integrated markets and dynamic production centres.
Speedy implementation of the landmark GMS Cross-Border Transport Agreement is a key jumping-off point for the countries to build a single economic subregion. The reduction of border-crossing times, coupled with higher volume and value throughputs, and overall cost reductions, will significantly stimulate intra-regional trade and tourism. Entrenched constituencies that retard the development of seamless trade and tourism flows must be disbanded, and national processes harmonised. In parallel, capacities to manage the systems must be built quickly.
Economic integration and development in the Mekong Basin has been accompanied by several challenges including rapid urbanisation, growing migration, and increased inequality. The governments need to ensure that the least fortunate of the Mekong's 300-plus million people share in the bounty of the region's economic growth. A key measure in this regard is establishing - and properly funding - stronger social safety nets.
Higher environmental costs dictate the need for the countries to adopt a cleaner growth path. There are disproportionate risks from climate change, including falling rice and agricultural production, higher intensity storms, typhoons and natural disasters, and diminishing clean water supplies. So, in addition to climate change adaptation measures, the countries need to consider increased investments in a new generation of carbon-neutral subregional infrastructure projects, such as railways, inland water transport, and clean energy - projects that will create jobs and stimulate growth, while protecting the environment.
A final word on the region's universally well-recognised icon, the Mekong River. The countries have to find better ways of sharing the resources of this 4,800-kilometre-long waterway that is, in fact, the region's lifeblood. Pursuing integrated water resources management at regional level will ensure that the river's management in both wet and dry seasons is done such that floods and low flows are both addressed optimally. Without such explicit management, water for food, industry, energy, and domestic consumption will remain stressed on both allocation and usage accounts. The region's economic strength depends significantly on the efficiency of the Mekong's water use. Enhancing this efficiency should be high on the agenda of the region's governments.
After 17 years of increasingly shared effort, the countries of the Mekong Basin are beginning to see the fruits of regional cooperation. Their unique initiative, however, needs deeper grounding through the aggressive implementation of cross-border projects and programmes that enhance connectivity, build capacity to design, implement, and manage, and improve their competitive edge. Such strategy is key for the GMS to take advantage of opportunities presented by a rapidly changing world.