SECRETARY KERRY: Well, everybody’s presence here underscores the very important link between the work with the Lower Mekong Initiative and ASEAN. And so I want to thank Brunei Darussalam for hosting us at the sixth Lower Mekong Initiative Ministerial Meeting. And I’m grateful to all of you for taking time to be here and all of the partner countries for your support in this initiative.
I want to emphasize to you the importance that the United States puts on this particular effort and the commitments of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam to work together to improve the health and the education and the water connectivity, the agriculture, the food security and the energy security, the gender equality, and the environment. We are working on a lot of different things. And I think everybody here would agree that they’re all important.
I want to tell you, though, this initiative is actually particularly important to me on a personal level. When I was 24, 25, 26 years old, I was on the Mekong Delta river, and I know the river. I have spent time on the Mekong, on the (inaudible), on many rivers in there. And I understand the delta very, very well. I can remember fishing off my boat; I can remember all the water traffic, all the incredible beauty of it. It’s very beautiful. And I remember the pleasure we took training with fisherman and getting fresh shrimp and enjoying life on the river.
I’ve also been to Phnom Penh and been on a river in Phnom Penh. I have a strong feeling I’ve seen what it means. And I’ve been to Laos and I’ve seen it in Laos.
So this has a personal connection to me, and ironically today, as I was flying in from the Middle East, we had a beautiful view of the entire river heading down towards the delta. So even in the craziness of war, I remember the beauty of this river and the meaning of this river to people who live near it and on it.
Today, I come to this initiative with a passionate commitment to trying to make sure that its natural resources and its unique ecosystem is preserved. If people do the wrong things upstream with this river, it can destroy the livelihood of the people downstream. It can destroy it for the long term. If the water levels go down, you can have sea-level water come in, you can ruin the capacity of the life that is there to exist, you can change the spawning of the fish, you can alter the ability of people to live where they live. So it is a special river. It sustains the lives of over 70 million people. And it is a powerful economic engine that connects the peoples of these countries.
And so I don’t think anybody is under the illusion that meeting the challenges of the future is going to be easy. That’s why we have a Lower Mekong Initiative. And also climate change and growing demand for resources – the growing demand for resources puts huge pressure economically on this kind of a resource. And economic development puts pressure on it. So as we see more demand for water, food, energy, the river will see and is seeing – we’re already seeing it – this increasing pressure. And you add that to the changing land use, to the clearing of forests and the damming of rivers, and it all weakens the system that has built the region into what it is today.
So that’s where the Lower Mekong Initiative comes in. In order to meet these challenges, it is essential that we redouble our efforts to balance the demand for resources with sustainability and to develop cooperative approaches. So smart, sustainable development should be our goal here. And we need to make sure that the decisions on infrastructure developments, such as dams that affect the Mekong, need to be made very carefully, very deliberately, very transparently, with all the input they can have from all countries. And it needs to be based on the best science that is available so that we can come up with the concept of sustainable. Sustainable is not just a word, it’s a practice. It’s a way of doing things. And we need to make sure we do it.
So I just want you to know the United States is prepared to partner with you in this effort. And this year, USAID is going to begin implementation of its sustainable Mekong program, which supports the requests of your governments to have technical assistance for the infrastructure. And we will also implement the Mekong Partnership for the Environment, which engages civil society and the private sector to support smart infrastructure. We plan to engage our government’s scientists in order to support improved land use and planning through the cooperation of both USAID and NASA.
So, for example, this effort to preserve the shared natural resources and the environment are linked very closely to the work that the Lower Mekong Initiative is doing. It’s very productive work and I’m very encouraged by the success so far.
So I’d like to just mention quickly, before I end: We’re developing a new project that will combine the educational resources of schools and governments and the private sector in the United States and in ASEAN in order to increase the number of skilled workers in LMI countries. And we’re working to stop the spread of infectious diseases like H7N9. We’re also providing technical communication skills and English-language training, and we’re improving agriculture and food security through the use of new tools that will make these efforts more efficient, more effective.
So everything we want to talk about here today requires teamwork, and I think that LMI is a good example of regional leadership that uses local expertise and wisdom in order to guide the direction of the region’s development. So I really look forward to the exchange of ideas here today, and I thank everybody for being here. Let me introduce Greg Beck. He’s the USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for Asia and he can talk about a couple of things we’ve done in the last year, then we’ll open it up. Go ahead, Greg.
MR. BECK: Can I steal your (inaudible)?
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, absolutely.
MR. BECK: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary, and to our Brunei and Darussalam hosts and all my partners for your participation today. The momentum behind LMI has really grown in the past year, and I’d like to just quickly highlight some of our progress. We’ve very happy to have founded the LMI Coordination Hub, which is a knowledge management center based in our regional office in Bangkok. In its first year of operation, the hub has already begun exploring the synergies between the LMI plan of action and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration, or the IAI.
Another success this year was the LMI Regional Health Pillar Working Group meeting, focused on enabling cross-border collaboration on infectious disease surveillance and counterfeit drug regulations. Events like this I think showcase the ability of LMI to improve communication between partner countries on trans-boundary challenges. On connectivity, the United States and LMI partner countries are working together to narrow the development gap in ASEAN through the delivery of training courses and technical assistance and trade facilitation, capacity-building and human resources development.
For example, in skilled human resource development, USAID is excited to start a new project called Connecting the Mekong through Education and Training, or COMET, that will increase the number of skilled workers in targeted sectors such as science and technology, through innovative approaches using technology and partnerships. We currently support a number of activities that can assist LMI partner countries in addressing shared water challenges – for instance, our water links program facilitates partnerships among water service providers to expand clean water and sanitation and strengthen climate resilience, as well as to mitigate anticipated impacts of climate change from private power infrastructure development.
One particular area of focus is smart infrastructure, which is designed to deliver efficient economic benefits while protecting natural resources, minimizing impact on food and water security, and ensuring that the poor do not suffer disproportionate negative impacts.
Finally, I wanted to highlight two new projects: smart infrastructure for the Mekong, where USAID will assist the LMI governments in planning smart infrastructure by rapidly deploying U.S. technical experts on demand to consult, review, and approve project design, and serve the Lower Mekong, which will enhance climate change adaptation and landscape management in the sub-region through the increased application of geospatial analysis.
In closing, we continue to be very excited about the possibilities in LMI and look forward to working together with you in the Lower Mekong sub-region. Again, I want to thank Secretary Kerry, our gracious hosts, Brunei and Darussalam, and our LMI partners. Thanks.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thanks very much, Greg. I really appreciate that. And now, we’d like to really get the discussion going and we open the floor up to all of the ministers. Thank you for letting us make some introductory comments, and I look forward to hearing from everybody. I think we’re going to begin with our Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister from Cambodia, Hor Namhong.