Following the 11th Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) meeting on July 21, the foreign ministers of the MGC’s six member countries (Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam) agreed on the need to increase cooperation on sustainable water resource management. The ministers pledged to enhance technical cooperation in water resource management, share experiences, enhance human resource development, and improve the capacity of integrated water resource management systems. The need to prioritize climate change-related issues in the Mekong-Ganges basin was first addressed in the 10th MGC ministerial meeting, in which the foreign ministers decided to focus on climate change as a new area of cooperation, particularly stressing water resource management as the starting point.
According to the MGC plan of action adopted in 2019 for 2019-2022, steps regarding climate change were to be followed by undertaking collaborative projects in the areas of climate change adaptation, flood and drought management, disaster mitigation, and water resource management. India for its part offered to organize trainings and workshops for MGC countries’ professionals at the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj. This marked a fundamental change for the MGC, whose initial purpose, when it was formed in November 2000, was to focus on four traditional areas of cooperation: tourism, culture, education, and transport and communications.
The newfound attention to climate change might be a recent development, but it is a necessary one. The shift at the MGC has come at a crucial time, when the immediate effects of climate change are increasingly being seen throughout the world, with the Mekong-Ganges region no exception. According to a study mentioned in the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2017, the Asia-Pacific region, which includes the MGC countries, is at a higher risk of climate change-related casualties and economic losses for the period of 2020 to 2030. The report estimates that 40 percent of global economic losses due to disasters will be incurred by countries in the Asia-Pacific.
Furthermore, the report highlights the fact that since 1970, approximately 2 million people in the Asia-Pacific have died as a direct result of natural disasters, representing 59 percent of the global death toll. Though the principal causes have been earthquakes and storms, water-related incidents are increasingly becoming a prevalent cause of fatalities. In 2018, floods disrupted life in countries such as Afghanistan, China, North Korea, India, Japan, Laos, and many others in the region. In fact, almost half of the 281 natural disasters in 2018 happened in the Asia-Pacific, including 10 of the deadliest incidents. Given the wide ambit of risk associated with natural disasters, an increasing number of people in Asia and the Pacific now fall under the category of “affected”: people who require immediate assistance during a period of emergency i.e., basic survival needs such as food, water, shelter, sanitation, and immediate medical assistance.
Climate change has especially been a concern for the Lower Mekong River basin countries: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. An increase in temperatures along with changes in the intensity of rainfall and river flows, and a pattern of floods alternating with droughts are all impacting the lives of communities residing on the basin, destroying their homes, crops, and fisheries, and creating food shortages along with a decrease in livelihoods.
According to research conducted by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the next 20 to 50 years will see a wide number of changes marked by an increase in temperatures across the Lower Mekong basin. By 2060, it is estimated that the average annual temperature rise in the basin region would reach well over 3.3 degrees Celsius, with the change in rainfall under a dry climate scenario to fall by 16 percent and under a wet climate scenario to increase by 17 percent. Unpredictable weather patterns lead to a whole range of issues. One example is crop failure, which decreases the domestic supply of food grains, thereby increasing food prices and straining government resources. Moreover, the risk of disease also increases thanks to climate change, which can disrupt decades of development gains in a short amount of time.
Along with the Mekong River basin, the Ganges River also has been negatively impacted by climate change. The Ganges is a major river supporting millions of people, not just in India but also in Nepal and Bangladesh. As mentioned by C.K. Jain and Surya Singh, mixed patterns of precipitation due to climate change are going to cause both heavy floods and extreme droughts as a result of higher rainfall and higher temperatures. This will have a significant impact on habitats and communities along the Ganges River ecosystem. From 2002 to 2008, water levels in the Ganges basin have declined by an average of one meter every three years. This decline in water levels will be made worse by the continued growth in India’s population, which is estimated to increase to 1.6 billion by 2050. An increase in population will necessitate the need for rapid urbanization, which will further stress the Ganges River with increased demand for water.
For all the Mekong countries, climate change is among their top three security concerns. According to the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Southeast Asia Climate Outlook: 2020 Survey Report, 52.7 percent of respondents (including those from Mekong countries) considered climate change as a serious threat, posing immediate challenges to the well-being of the region. Furthermore, above 90 percent of the respondents of the Mekong countries felt that the private sector should play an important role in tackling climate change by adopting green practices.
As for the public response in India, the Climate Change Asia report 2013 revealed that over 50 percent of Indian respondents were informed about climate change and its adverse effects. The Mintel Sustainability Barometer 2021 also concluded that overall 48 percent of Indian respondents were concerned about climate change, with 78 percent of those having listed deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and chemical spillage as among the top environmental concerns.
In the case of the respondents from the Mekong-Ganges region, it should be pointed out that tangibility plays a crucial role in public perception of climate change. A growing number of people understand global warming mostly through their daily lived experiences and changes to their immediate surroundings. This in no way negates their experience about climate-related issues or their expectations from the government to address issues that directly impact their lives.
In fact, citizens of the MGC countries feel that government should do more in taking concrete steps to address the challenge of climate change, as highlighted in the aforementioned surveys. The focus of the MGC Ministerial Meeting on sustainable water resource management and climate change has therefore become a crucial and urgent area for cooperation on these issues. MGC countries can take this opportunity to increase awareness of climate change with their citizens and at the same time build trust by taking relevant steps that address the climate issues in the Mekong and Ganges region.