Mekong's Conundrum on Climate Change

Over the past decade most nations sharing the Mekong river have enjoyed a period of unprecedented growth and plummeting poverty rates. While the majority of the Mekong countries produce a proportionately small share of global greenhouse gas emissions, their growth has been largely fuelled by carbon-based energy, and as they continue to grow, so too will their carbon output.

The growth, and its accompanying prosperity, however, brings in its wake a daunting dilemma: how can the Mekong countries enable their poorest citizens to realise their rightful aspirations, providing them with jobs and a better standard of living, while also protecting them from the potential ravages of global climate change? Equally, how do the countries ensure that climate change does not erode growth? There are no easy answers or quick fixes to this conundrum.

Climate change threatens to create a "perfect storm" of seasonal droughts, floods and saltwater intrusion in the Mekong delta that would threaten families' livelihoods, and the foundations of the region's economy. By the end of this century, there is a reasonable likelihood that levels in the South China Sea will have risen half a metre. A 30-centimetre rise in sea levels would contaminate lower Mekong river tributaries up to 10km inland, devastating some of the region's most fertile agricultural land, and leaving millions of farming families without a viable means of support.

Were water levels to rise a full metre, the Mekong delta would be swamped, one in 10 families would be displaced, and 7% of Vietnam's agricultural land would be submerged.

In addition to rising sea levels, higher temperatures associated with climate change are also on the rise in the Mekong. A mere 1C increase in minimum growing season temperatures would diminish crop yields by 10% or more. With the Mekong delta serving as Southeast Asia's "rice bowl" - one of the principal sources of nutrition for families throughout the region - diminished crop yields and large swaths of land lost to saline intrusion would decrease the affordability of food staples, diminish farming families' incomes, create a significant drag on economic growth, and cast millions of Mekong families back into poverty.

The 320 million people who call the Greater Mekong Sub-region home aspire to the same standard of living that families in the developed world enjoy - a standard of living fuelled by energy. To a family struggling to put food on its table, the pending threat of global warming is an abstraction - their pressing need for life's basic necessities is paramount. For these families, electricity access offers the promise of a fundamentally better life; there is a high correlation between energy deprivation and child mortality, public health, and literacy levels. Moreover, without reliable and abundant sources of energy, the Mekong countries cannot sustain the social and economic gains of the past decade. This is a sacrifice no Mekong nation is willing to make.

Of course, the increasing use of hydrocarbons exacerbates climate change, which in turn threatens Mekong families' livelihoods and well-being. The competing climate change and energy challenges facing Mekong nations are profound, but not insurmountable, provided that both they and the other members of the international community seriously commit themselves to take firm action to counter current trends.

Today the Third Greater Mekong Sub-region summit convenes in Vientiane. Leaders of the six Mekong nations - Cambodia, China, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam - will discuss a range of issues, including joint approaches to contend with climate change and the region's energy needs.

The summit presents a unique opportunity for Mekong countries to seriously commit themselves to real change in these areas. There are several concrete measures that they can pursue that will place the region on a path towards more enduring, environmentally sustainable development.

First, the use of energy should be more efficient. Residential and commercial buildings account for more than 60% of electricity demand. More efficient lighting, cooling equipment, and other efficient appliances could reduce energy consumption by 70%.

Vast gains can, and must, be realised in the transport sector. Unless engine efficiencies improve, and alternative fuels are considered, CO2 emissions along major economic corridors are likely to increase over two-fold by 2015. Again, since urban car travel uses 3.5 times as much as energy as urban bus travel, and 6.6 times more than electric train travel, well-designed mass public transit systems in major cities are imperative. Work in major centres such as Bangkok, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City has commenced, but much more needs doing.

As the Mekong's largest cities continue to grow, the outdated lifestyle model of working downtown, living in suburban areas and shopping in malls becomes increasingly untenable. Governments need to improve urban planning and reduce travel demand to make their cities more livable.

On the supply side, countries need to gradually move away from hydrocarbon-based power generation toward cleaner energy sources as they become economically viable. While this transition will take time due to the current high cost of renewable energy compared to traditional energy sources, concessional funding by donors and multilateral finance institutions like the Asian Development Bank can help move this agenda forward.

Even with these concerted efforts, there will inevitably be families in the Mekong who will have to adapt and develop new ways of earning a livelihood as environmental conditions change. Governments need to anticipate problems the most vulnerable families will face from climate change, and start providing rural farming families with drought and flood resistant crop strains, irrigation innovations, and water supply and sanitation solutions.

Only time will tell if the developing Mekong countries can successfully overcome the dual challenges of poverty alleviation and global warming, and provide the region's young and growing population the opportunities they seek without sacrificing the quality of the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the environment they live in.

Over the past 10 years, the Mekong countries have set aside past differences and have worked together to solve common problems. This "peace dividend" has ushered in a new age of prosperity for the region.

If recent history is any guide, the spirit of partnership has taken firm root and there is a sense of optimism and vigor that will allow the sub-region to grapple effectively with a changed set of challenges.