The Lower Mekong River basin is home to 30 million children and young people across Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam. For these children and families, the river represents life itself - their homes and communities are bathed by its waters, its waters nourish crops and put food on the table, and millions make their living of fishing and aquaculture.
However, the health of the river is under threat. Climate change and infrastructure development have led to low-flow and water scarcity that has ravaged the region. The wet season has shrunk from 5 to 4 months and within the wet season the water flow is on average 50% lower. This has impacted the sediment that provides nutrients to the soil for the primarily agrarian riparian communities, caused sea water to flow into the river and the rising salinity spoiling rice crops, and lower levels of oxygen in the river is affecting the biodiversity of fish and aquatic life. And all of this is occurring in addition to the socioeconomic impact being felt by the river basin families due to the polycrises. In addition, 37,000 tonnes of plastic is pouring out of the Mekong Delta each year, making the Mekong a top marine plastic polluter in the world.
Climate and environmental degradation issues affecting the Mekong River are all directly linked to children’s well-being and fundamental rights - their rights to survival and development, their right to education, to shelter, their right to clean water, their right to healthy food and a clean and safe environment. According to the 2021 Children’s Climate Risk Index by UNICEF, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Thailand and Lao PDR are among the highest ranked risk countries in the world.
These unprecedented challenges require all stakeholders to cooperate and generate innovative solutions for climate action, which is what the young people living in the river basin are doing. As children and youth climate activists remind us, “Nothing about US without US.” From across the 4 countries these young people have generated cost effective and efficient solutions to address water pollution and scarcity and replenishment of soil moisture.
21-year-old ‘Son’ from Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta helped design environmentally friendly trash collection machines to address plastic waste pollution among floating river markets. 12-year-old ‘Lilly’ from Thailand managed to gain national attention campaigning for an end to single-use plastics. She has inspired her peers to conduct beach clean-ups and has worked with the Ministry of Education to develop environment-centred courses.
Last week at the Mekong River Commission Summit, where UNICEF was the first agency to raise the issue of the climate crisis being a child rights crisis, teams from Cambodia and Lao PDR won the MRC River monitoring technology competition. Over 20 universities competed from the 4 countries. The Cambodia Academy of Digital Technology won the 1st prize for developing a water level sensor that could detect changes very quickly in water levels and thereby provide an early warning system against floods. The National University of Laos won the first prize for creating the “Internet of Things Based Soil Monitoring System,” to provide real-time information on soil moisture and quality. In Thailand, the Young People Advisory Board (YPAB) on climate change and environment has joined UNICEF to provide ideas, consultation and influence UNICEF and government counterpart’s work on climate change in Thailand.
These young people are tackling climate change, and we must do more to support their efforts. Across the 4 countries, UNICEF offices are working on strengthening climate resilient social services and calling to action government and donors to embrace climate-resilient development policies and honor their commitment to climate finance. We are motivated and inspired to create solutions for a healthier river and safer communities for the 30 million children living in the river basin.