The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is sounding the alarm on the growing challenge of macroplastics, urging its four Member Countries to establish a joint, permanent mechanism to monitor and clean up pollutants that seep into the soil, air, and fisheries — and can affect both the ecosystem and human health.
In the release on Wednesday of its first-ever report on “riverine plastic pollution” in the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMB), the MRC also recommends that Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam pass and enforce new rules and regulations on waste littering; the so-called “3Rs” of reduce, reuse, recycle; and riverine plastics waste management. As the report states, these policies should specify who should do what, identifying the “clear responsibility of national government, local government, private sector and community.”
Indeed, the risks of plastics pollution are growing more urgent. The MRC’s own Riverine Plastic Monitoring (RPM) Programme — the first one in the world — estimated that in 2020, its four countries had produced about eight million tons of plastic waste. At ports and piers, for example, some 70% to 90% of the solid waste was identified as plastic bottles, plastic bags and Styrofoam.
“As our region is undergoing rapid economic development and urbanization, plastic has found a wide variety of applications, due to its relatively low cost, light weight, durability, ubiquity, and malleability,” says Dr Anoulak Kittikhoun, CEO of the MRC Secretariat. “Yet, we must close our gaps in knowledge about the flux, transport behavior and pathway of plastic pollution, to minimize impact on the Mekong, but also to contribute to saving the ocean.”
Experts now view plastic pollution as a major hindrance to the “sustainable ocean economy” itself, which is relied upon by some three billion people around the world. Collective action is needed, as most such pollution reportedly flows from some 1,000 rivers globally, directly into the oceans. By some measures, the Mekong is one of the prime plastic polluters of the oceans.
Less visible than the solid waste, but even more harmful, are the “microplastics,” which are the miniscule pieces of degraded plastic, synthetic fibers and plastic beads that can be easily ingested by humans and animals.
As academic publisher Scientific American has described it, “This is very dangerous, as microplastics have been found to physically damage organs and leach hazardous materials that can harm the immune system, halt growth and reproduction.”
The issue of plastics pollution first became prominent in 2017, with the landmark research of a German-led team that documented how large rivers were the main source of many hundreds of metric tons of plastics that had begun to suffocate parts of different oceans. The researchers identified the rivers most responsible, around the world and the Mekong ranked 10th.
That said, in 2021 a team of researchers presented a more nuanced reality: Plastic “emissions are distributed over more rivers than previously thought by up to two orders of magnitude. We estimate that more than 1000 rivers account for 80% of global annual emissions […] with small urban rivers among the most polluting.”
In the Mekong, the MRC — as the intergovernmental agency tackling transboundary water issues — linked up with the UN Environmental Programme in 2019, which back then was the only organization monitoring the Mekong for plastics pollution. Through UNEP’s CounterMEASURE project, the MRC has helped “map” the issues of riverine macroplastics, microplastics, plastic leakage hotspots, and plastics accumulation.
The MRC also established the RPM Programme to assess “basin-wide status and trends of riverine plastic waste pollution” and generate “data, information and knowledge to support decision-making.” Through this programme, the quartet of MRC Member Countries developed their own “RPM methodology” to monitor this transboundary issue in a joint, cost-effective manner.
Once the RPM began to reveal the scope of plastic pollution, it spurred several MRC actions, both in-house and across society. Internally, the MRC Secretariat launched a “paperless initiative” and banned plastic bottles from meetings. More broadly, the MRC unveiled a public campaign to raise awareness: “Let’s act green for a greener Mekong.”
In 2020, the MRC also commissioned a comprehensive study of plastics pollution, including within fish. This now completed report contains those findings and proposals. As it states, the mapping activities with UNEP saw limited effectiveness because they lacked standardized survey methods and synchronized monitoring. That experience also reinforced why the Member Countries themselves must be involved and coordinated, from the top rungs of government to on-the-ground data collectors.
As the report recommends, moving forward, the complexity of “riverine plastic debris” will require “comprehensive approaches, including multi-sectoral cooperation and oceanographical knowledge.” Ongoing monitoring and data collection should lead to wiser, more effective policies that manage and reduce plastic waste pollution, through targeted enforcement and routine clean-up activities.
“Our work doesn’t end here, as much more must be done to protect the Mekong River Basin,” says Dr Kittikhoun. “We’ll look into more campaigns to raise public awareness and how to encourage relevant government officials to take meaningful actions.”