Mekong countries short-change the environment

opinion December 23, 2014 01:00

By The Nation

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Grand talk about climate change at the Bangkok summit just ended, but a mere sliver of funding

The leaders of the member-countries in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) – Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – need to pay closer attention and put more effort into protecting the environment.
During the fifth GMS summit in Bangkok last weekend, the leaders dutifully addressed the need to prepare for the widening environmental challenge.
They have a clear vision of the threat posed by climate change. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha proposed that the member-nations “enhance their economic capacity to grow sustainably and be environmentally friendly”. His Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Tan Dung, called for greater effort in coping with climate change, especially with regard to water management in the Mekong Basin. 
Myanmar’s Thein Sein said the countries must collectively tackle transnational issues such as climate change, disaster-risk management and the availability of food, energy and water. 
In a joint declaration at the end of the summit, the leaders noted that the GMS environmental programme continues to focus on safeguarding and enhancing natural resources. Regarding climate change, they said the bloc as a whole and its individual members must apply environmental management tools and invest in infrastructureaccording to national circumstances, rules and regulations and Their respective levels of development.
However the leaders failed to address what’s most important. Climate change stems from both manmade and natural factors, yet the GMS invariably overlooks the human cause. Over the past two decades it has focused chiefly on infrastructure construction, from roads to hydroelectric dams. Our leaders are no doubt well aware of the negative impacts these projects have on the environment and on people living nearby.
Absent from their latest summit was any demonstration of the collective will necessary to protect the environment from the ill effects of construction projects. Statements of good intent are fine so far as they go, but where is the financial investment to back up that intent? 
According to the Regional Investment Framework (RIF) Implementation Plan (2014-2018) tabled at the summit, the group will spend US$30.1 billion (Bt990 billion) over the next five years on developments throughout the Mekong Basin. This is its priority action plan, demanding urgent implementation.
But 90 per cent of that figure is allocated to the transportation sector. The estimated budget for safeguarding the environment is less than 1 per cent.
Alongside its lengthy list of roads and railways to be constructed in the next five years are 13 tasks related to environmental protection and the easing of impacts. Their total cost is $408.6 million, of which five projects will take the lion’s share of $360 million. Only two of these have been given high priority – the Global Environment Fund for the Regional Biodiversity and Forestry Programme (covering all six countries) and Low-Carbon Freight Corridors (in Laos and Vietnam).    
This amount of money is too little – and, given the urgent manoeuvring that climate change warrants, might also be too late. The GMS, if it really takes these matters as seriously as it claims, needs to overhaul its work plan and put more effort, resources and funds into environmental projects.