U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets students in the village of Kien Vang during a visit to the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam on December 15, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
Remarks on Climate Change and the Environment
Secretary of State
Kien Vang Market Pier
Mekong Delta, Vietnam
December 15, 2013
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SECRETARY KERRY: I want to thank Dr. Dang Kieu Nhan for – from Can Tho, from the Can Tho University, who just gave me, over the course of our boat ride, a briefing, and before the boat ride, a really eye-opening briefing about the effect of climate change here in the Mekong Delta. Dr. Nhan and colleagues of the Climate Change Research Institute have been working very closely with the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor the effects of climate change in the Mekong Delta, and the United States is very grateful for that research and how it informs our environmental efforts in the region.
Now, it is obviously amazing for me to be here today. Decades ago, on these very waters, I was one of many who witnessed the difficult period in our shared history. Today, on these waters, I’m bearing witness to how far our nations have come together. And we are talking about the future, and that’s the way it ought to be. As our shared journey continues, our eyes are firmly fixed on the future, not on the past. And, my friends, nothing threatens the future of this region – where millions of people work, live and supply food for millions of other people around the world; the entire planet is impacted by what happens here. This is one of the two or three most potentially impacted areas in the world with respect to the effects of climate change.
And if we continue down the path that we are on today, scientists predict – let me emphasize, not politicians, not radio talk show hosts – but scientists predict that by the end of this century, the sea will have risen by almost a full meter on average. To some people, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot. But here, in Ca Mau, it’s easy to understand the damage that just one meter of sea-level rise would do. It would literally displace millions upon millions of people around the world. It would destroy infrastructure. It would threaten billions of dollars in global economic activity. And this hits home. The reason we’re here today is to emphasize that a large part of the world’s shrimp farming and catfish farming takes place within the delta. And there are some 70 million people who rely on the Mekong River for economic stability.
While no single storm can be related to climate change, everybody does know as a matter of scientific fact that rising temperatures would also lead to longer and more unpredictable monsoon seasons and more extreme weather events. Later this week, I will be traveling to Tacloban in the Philippines, to see firsthand the immense devastation that extreme weather events can leave in their wake. This, too, has a very special significance here in Vietnam, where every year on average between six and eight typhoons or tropical storms tear through communities. That includes Tropical Storm Linda which, years ago, killed more than 3,000 people across the country and cost nearly $400 million in damages.
Most importantly, this is the rice basket of the world right here. Rice is one of the great exports of Vietnam. And literally tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people throughout Asia and the world depend on that rice as a staple of their nutrition. Here in the breadbasket – the rice breadbasket of Vietnam, higher sea levels mean more salt water spilling into the Mekong Delta. And anybody who has ever farmed or grown a garden can tell you that salt water and salt are no friend to rice paddies.
Vietnam is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change. And we will see very serious impacts if we don’t change course today. That’s why all of us need to work together and focus in on these issues. That’s why I came down here to this remote part of the Mekong Delta, which just coincidentally happens to be a place I’ve been before. But I came here not to go into the past, but to look at this challenge that we’re facing with respect to the future.
The United States and Vietnam are already cooperating. We’re working now on many levels in order to strengthen Vietnam’s resilience to the effects that we can already see. And today I’m pleased to announce an initial commitment of $17 million for USAID’s Vietnam Forest and Deltas Program. That money will go towards helping Vietnamese communities reverse environmental degradation and adapt to climate change.
But it’s not just about adapting to climate change. We are also working to stop the worst effects of climate change from happening in the first place, including by promoting clean-energy development and energy efficiency. I’m proud to say that American companies are heavily involved in this effort: Just yesterday, when I was in Ho Chi Minh City, General Electric signed a $94 million contract with Cong Ly, a Vietnamese firm, in order to provide additional wind turbines for the first wind farm in nearby Bac Lieu province just to the north of us here.
Now, it is also true that without careful planning, some clean-energy development – like hydropower – can wind up having negative impacts on other aspects of the environment. This is a very serious issue. China is currently building dams on the Mekong River, and Thailand is contemplating building – Cambodia. There are several countries that get the waters of the Mekong before Vietnam, but they all share the benefits of these important waters. And no one country has a right to deprive another country of the livelihood and the ecosystem and its capacity for life itself that comes with that river. That river is a global asset, a treasure that belongs to the region. And so it is vital that we avoid dramatic changes in the water flow and sediment levels. And already, we are seeing that fisheries are experiencing threats to the fish stocks as a consequence of the changes taking place. This is particularly concerning given the level of aquaculture products that are the largest export of Ca Mau province. And they’re even bigger today than the rice exports.
Let me bring it home: Legal Sea Foods in Boston, Massachusetts, which now has outlets in other parts of the country – Washington, D.C. and elsewhere – comes here, and many of the fish products that come to Legal Sea Foods and other restaurants in America come from right here. We’re connected to this. Our livelihood, our economy is connected to this. And we all need to work together in order to deal with it.
That’s why decisions on infrastructure developments – including things like dams – have to be made carefully, deliberately and transparently. Sharing data and best practices in an open and cooperative dialogue will help ensure that many resources of the Mekong continue to benefit people not just in one country, not just in the country where the waters come first, but in every country that touches this great river.
I can tell you that we will – we, the United States, will continue to focus on this. And I will, in my next visit to China as well as in other international fora, raise this issue so that we can work together on it in an effective way. We, the United States, actually do have something to share with people about this, because we have worked on similar issues for a long time – for decades – with the Mississippi Delta and the Mississippi River, with the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere in the United States. We have been through this, we’ve learned some lessons, and we want to try to share those lessons with other people. We are now developing through the Smart Infrastructure for the Mekong – or the SIM – program. We are working on sharing the lessons that we have learned. This part of the Lower Mekong Initiative is a topic that I discussed when I was in Brunei with Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh and other foreign ministers who touch on the Lower Mekong Basin countries.
Ultimately, my friends, in Vietnam and around the world, we have a responsibility to pursue development in a way that’s sustainable for our ecosystems, for our economics, and for our climate, and for our people. And here in Ca Mau, the importance of honoring that responsibility is as clear as anywhere. And that’s why we wanted to come here today.
Local farmers and local fisheries have depended on these waters for centuries. This is not a new phenomenon. This is life itself here, and they depend on them today. They need their children to be able to depend on them in the future. And the United States is committed to working with Vietnam to make sure that they are able to do so; that our shared journey continues, and that we’re leaving behind a planet that’s worthy of the generations to come. And I can’t tell you how good it feels for me to be back here in this place, to be working on the future and to be working together with our Vietnamese friends in an effort to try to build that future together in a constructive way.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)