On May 6 I read an article in Science Daily
about the current state of the Mekong Delta, Southeast Asia’s most productive agricultural region and home to 17 million people.
The message from the international team of researchers was clear: saving the Mekong from drowning requires urgent and concerted action among countries in the region. The immediate need is to lessen the impact of upstream dams and better manage water and sediments within the delta.
The urgent need for collaboration among the countries in the Mekong River basin reminds me of the efforts made in Europe’s Rhine-Meuse basin. Although this river basin is at least 4 times smaller than its Asian counterpart, I would like to highlight one lesson learned from a Dutch perspective.
Like the Mekong Delta, the Dutch Rhine-Meuse delta struggled and emerged from the impact of wars, canalization, floods, upstream dams and pollution. So, if you put the Dutch delta in historical perspective, and if you put lessons learned into practice, I am hopeful about the action plan needed to save the Mekong Delta from drowning.
Due to Europe’s industrialization in the 19th century, the pollution of the Rhine increased and the tension between the bordering states increased as well. The downstream Dutch delta was most threatened because we use the Rhine water for drinking water supply, irrigation, and flushing the polder to prevent salinization. The Netherlands negotiated with upstream countries for almost twenty years before the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine against Pollution (ICPR) was to set up in 1950.
This was just the beginning of a process of trust-building and creating measures to strengthen common aims. There was a big discussion between upstream and downstream countries: all countries noticed the pollution impact on the Dutch delta, but they didn’t want to pay for cleaning up the river, because the Dutch industry was still discharging untreated water. In 1971 the Rhine river was so polluted that the river was biologically dead.
After a century of increasing water pollution that harms fish stocks and human health, this disaster with international impact was the moment that the Rhine states realized the river needed to breathe again. The step-by-step process took time, but finally, the Dutch river delta was brought back from the dead by trust-building between states and international cooperation to integrate all water-related interests like navigation, fishery and pollution.
So collaboration between river basin countries is key to addressing the interconnected challenges, from hydropower dams and sea-level rise to groundwater extraction and sand mining.