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Lower Mekong InitiativeThe Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), established in July 2009, expanded its original focus to include a Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership in response to this year’s historic drought that devastated the Mekong region. With support from the U.S., the new partnership aims to promote economic development, environmental conservation, and climate resilience.

Through LMI, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the U.S. collaborated to create sub-regional cooperation that fosters economic growth and aims to narrow the development gap between the Lower Mekong countries.

At this year’s annual meeting, LMI designed the Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership, a training platform with two main goals: to help LMI countries identify training deficiencies in infrastructure planning and to develop a strategy to enhance the planning process and improve efficiency. This new partnership comes as a result of a crippling drought in the Lower Mekong. The region produces 13 percent of the world’s rice, centering its economic stability on agriculture. However, the current Mekong River levels are at their lowest point of the past century, putting millions of farmers that depend on this water source at risk.

The Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership aims to lessen the region’s vulnerability to climate change and strengthen its infrastructure. This new element adds to the existing six pillars of LMI: agriculture and food security, connectivity, education, energy security, environment and water, as well as health. The success of LMI can be attributed to the targeted approaches of each pillar’s program.

The Lower Mekong Initiative fosters agriculture and food security by expanding trade and investment in the region. Encouraging community engagement in the industry is also key. Similarly, the connectivity pillar draws upon U.S. strengths to promote physical, institutional, and people-to-people connectivity across the region.

The education pillar encourages the sharing of best practices between countries; supporting programs that encourage English language proficiency and teacher training. LMI health pillar combats transnational challenges, such as infectious diseases, as well as supporting the enforcement of International Health Regulations.

Both the Energy Security and Environment and Water Programs work to develop a regional strategy to create sustainable environmental management and access to energy.

The U.S. has played a central role in the success of LMI, having founded a U.S.-Singapore Third Country Program that has trained regional officials on cybercrime and water management. The U.S. has also helped Cambodia launch a women’s business center, with plans to launch another in Vietnam this year.

Through the Lower Mekong Initiative, the region has seen growth in several sectors. The adoption of the Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership will further benefit Lower Mekong countries, continuing to narrow the development gap across the region.

Anna O’Toole

Photo: Pixabay

Poverty in Cambodia
In May 2016, the World Bank Board of Executive Directors approved a $130 million grant to help reduce poverty in Cambodia and improve the lives of poor Cambodians.

The Royal Government of Cambodia and the World Bank signed an agreement on June 9, 2016. This agreement details the four major projects funded by the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s lending arm for the world’s poorest developing countries.

There are 3 million Cambodians living in poverty. However, poverty in Cambodia has steadily decreased over the past 8 years. Currently, 17.7 percent of the Cambodian population is living below the poverty line, compared to 34 percent in 2008.

Needless to say there is still work to be done in Cambodia. The World Bank agreement has created projects that target four specific areas of development to help alleviate poverty in Cambodia.

Health Equity and Quality Improvement ($30 million)

Life expectancy in Cambodia is 68.2 years, while the average life expectancy of developing countries in East Asia and the Pacific is 74.

The Health Improvement plan has two primary focus areas for funding Cambodia’s health care system. The Health Equity Fund helps to provide reliable financing for health facilities as well as cover costs for low income families, in order to reduce out-of pocket spending.

The second focus area applies to redesigned Service Delivery Grants working to improve the quality of health services. It places an emphasis on bettering health-facility management and staff in addition to enhancing coverage of health services.

Mekong Integrated Water Resources Management ($15 million)

Some of the most intensive freshwater fisheries are located in Cambodia. Fishermen catch 2.6 million metric tons of fish in the Mekong basin annually. However, Cambodia’s growing population and overfishing are causing the depletion of fish stocks in Cambodian waters.

The Water Management project aims to improve the oversight of fisheries and water resources specific to the Mekong River Basin.

Road Asset Management ($60 million)

Road condition surveys conducted in 2005 indicated that 60 percent of roads in Cambodia are in poor or bad condition.

This infrastructure development project is projected to supplement 218 kilometers (135.459 miles) of roads. They will also install flood resistant measures. The road improvement will allow for faster travel and better connectivity between the Preah Sihanouk, Kampot, Tbong Khmom, and Kratie provinces.

Land Allocation for Social and Economic Development Project ($25 million)

Agriculture has become increasingly vital for the Cambodian economy and fight against poverty.

Over the past decade, positive developments in agriculture have lifted 4 million people out of poverty. However, as farmland diminishes and global food prices decline, Cambodia is in need of new pathways to promote future agricultural growth.

The Land Allocation Project will provide more than 5,000 land-poor or previously landless families across five provinces with agricultural livelihood support. This project will also include the education and implementation of better farming practices.

In a World Bank press release article Ulrich Zachau, the Country Director of the World Bank for Southeast Asia, made a statement on the day of the signing: “The four projects signed today all contribute to improving the lives of poor Cambodians, and we are glad to support them.”

Kristyn Rohrer

Photo: World Bank

food security
A series of 88 hydroelectric dams to be built in the lower Mekong basin of Cambodia by 2030 is projected to put Cambodia’s largest source of food at risk. Cambodians eat 168 more grams of fish daily than the world’s average. The construction of the dams could cut the freshwater fish population up to 42 percent.

The growing demand for electricity in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China and Myanmar has prompted multi-national developers to begin planning 88 hydroelectric dams. Eleven of these dams will be located on the Mekong river mainstream and the 77 remaining dams will be on the various tributaries of the river.

“Cambodia is going to pay the highest price for dam development basin-wide, to the point of affecting the food security of its 80 percent rural population,” warned Eric Baran, a specialist with the WorldFish Centre.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister, Ouk Rabun, reported that Cambodia takes approximately 528,000 tons of fish from freshwater fisheries each year.

Fish is the cheapest food option for Cambodians. Consumed far more frequently than beef or poultry, fish is the primary source of protein for a population where a fifth of the citizens live below the poverty line of $17 U.S. dollars a month.

More than 40 percent of national production — about 300,000 tons of fish per year — comes from Tonle Sap Lake. Located in northeastern Cambodia, Tonle Sap is the most productive inland fishery in the world. WorldFish estimates that 1.5 million Cambodians make 95 percent of their income directly from the lake.

Cambodia has exceeded the Millennium Development Goal poverty target, and the poverty rate has halved, from 53 percent in 2004 to 20.5 percent in 2011.

However, those who have escaped poverty are still vulnerable to slight economic fluctuations. Neak Samsen, Poverty Analyst of the World Bank in Cambodia warns, “the loss of just $0.30 (US) per day in income would throw an estimated three million Cambodians back into poverty, doubling the poverty rate to 40 percent.”

The proposed site for the dam construction is the Mekong basin. Of the fish normally caught in the basin, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) found that at least 39 percent are migratory.

Building dams in the Mekong would obstruct the migratory fish from swimming between the basin and Tonle Sap.

According to the U.N. World Food Program’s country director for Cambodia, Edith Heines, “The reduction of fish stocks due to the construction of the dams could have serious implications on the health, and specifically the well-being of malnourished children under five.”

The World Bank projects future generations of Cambodians will rely more heavily on aquaculture and rice field fisheries to meet their fish consumption needs.

However, this change in food source has implications for Cambodians living in poverty, because “the poorest people will not be able to simply shift to different agriculture practices without reallocating water, building infrastructure, or exploiting other water sources.”

Although government officials argue that the money gained from the dams will go toward agricultural development, there have been no guarantees and the impoverished in Cambodia may likely be the ones to suffer the greatest losses.

– Grace Flaherty 

Sources: IRIN, The World Bank
Photo: IRIN