Mekong and Mississippi River Leaders Strengthen Cooperation, Meaningful Exchange

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Dr Anoulak Kittikhoun and Maj. Gen. Diana M. Holland of Mississippi River Commission, along with their senior officials, pose for a group photo after the singing of their MoU in Vientiane capital, on 13 July.

The agencies representing two of the world’s most important rivers have agreed to deepen a bilateral partnership, in which they share their lessons learned and best practices in economic development, environmental protection, technological expertise, and other crucial areas.

On 13 July, as part of the Sister Rivers Partnership Exchange program, leaders of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – representing Southeast Asia’s largest waterway – and their counterparts from the Mississippi River Commission – which represents the world’s third-largest watershed – renewed their five-year Memorandum of Understanding to promote “safer, more economical, efficient, and environmentally sound water resources development and management.”

Prior to their Mekong visit this week, the Mississippi River Commission President, US Maj. Gen. Diana M. Holland, had described the value of this international, sister-river relationship, which formally began in 2010 with their first signed MoU. In the years since, the partnership has spanned exchange visits, capacity-building programs, and the development of tools and technologies.

Maj. Gen. Diana M. Holland, the Mississippi River Commission President, and commanding general of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley Division, addresses the delegation joining the MoU signing ceremony in Vientiane capital, on 13 July.

“We will build upon previous reciprocal meetings and discuss a wide range of water resource challenges common to both river basins,” Holland said. “Both Commissions represent significant expertise and will benefit from the continued exchange of lessons learned and best practices.”

The MoU, which was extended during this latest Field Visit to the Mekong by a Mississippi delegation, identifies 11 specific areas of collegial exchange: climate change adaptation; integrated water resource management; drought management; flood forecasting; hydropower development and impact assessment; water demand and utilization; agriculture and food security; navigational improvement; fish passage; water quality; and wetlands.

Each area is relevant and urgent for the Mekong, as recent years have seen the combination of hydropower water use and climate change-related floods and droughts dramatically impact the river’s water levels, sediment flow, fish migration, rising salinity, and many other areas. All of these issues affect the livelihoods and even food security for millions of fishing and farming families in the basin.

US and Mekong colleagues exchange views on their partnership before signing MoU in Vientiane capital, on 13 July.

The Mississippi River Commission, which was established by the US Congress back in 1879, is supported in all its technical and technological needs by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Holland herself is not only the Commission President, but commanding general of the USACE’s Mississippi Valley Division.

Among the sites her delegation visited during their Mekong trip were the Xayaburi Hydroelectric Power Plant, in Laos, which launched operations just three years ago; and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, which is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and recently recorded the lowest water levels ever. Plus, visits to Mekong government ministers and officials, like the Lao Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and other ministries in Cambodia.

Mekong and Mississippi river leaders pose for a group photo with representatives from the hydropower dam developer at the dam site, on 12 July.

After signing the MoU on 13 July, in Vientiane, Holland said at the ceremony: “We’re really excited to renew this agreement as a symbol of our friendship and future cooperation as part of our Sister River Partnership program and the broader Mekong-US Partnership.”

At the MoU-signing event, the MRC Secretariat CEO, Dr. Anoulak Kittikhoun, also expressed appreciation for the history and vast know-how of the American colleagues. For example, while some of the hydropower challenges and operations along the Mekong are relatively new, the Mississippi side sometimes grapples with infrastructure first erected in the 1930s.

“This kind of cooperation is invaluable to us, considering the challenges we face today,” said Kittikhoun. “They have much experience with river and water resource management, especially with operation of dams and adapting designs, from which the Mekong countries and public can definitely benefit. Through this exchange of lessons learned — then the technical cooperation that results from the MoU — we can also learn what shortcomings occurred in the past, which we can consider and avoid repeating here in the Mekong.”