In response to requests from several governments in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), UN-HABITAT developed a three phased strategy for a Mekong Region Water and Sanitation Initiative (MEK-WATSAN) in 2005, to be implemented under the Water for Asian Cities Programme. The term Mekong Region, which is now home to some 250 million people generally refers to the geographical area centered around the world’s 12 largest river, the Mekong.
The MEK-WATSAN initiative will support participating governments to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for water supply and sanitation, with emphasis on innovative solutions and speedy delivery. The initiative will focus on capacity building; project design, planning and implementation; and follow-up investments. With a growing awareness of the benefits of a regional approach among Programme countries, participants at an inception workshop shared ideas on benchmarking, regional training and capacity building initiatives, regional networking, and cooperation in protecting and managing a shared resource – the Mekong River. One critical issue that seems to affect every country is that of sustainability of services for the poor, especially in terms of cost recovery and subsidy arrangements.
The Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) comprising the Kingdom of Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China (Yunnan province), the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is home to some 250 million people who have had social, cultural and economic linkages dating back many centuries. With impressive GDP growth rates ranging between 5 -10 percent per annum during the 1990s and early 2000s, the GMS region has recorded equally high rates of urbanization. In Vietnam, the urban population is expected to grow from the current figure of 23 percent of total population to 45 percent by the year 2020.
Urban poverty in the GMS is most marked in Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam, where its incidence ranges from 9-26 percent of the urban population. New migrants arriving from the rural areas make up much of this figure. Not only are they financially poor, they also have little or no access to basic services, including water and sanitation. This impacts adversely on their health and productivity, further perpetuating their poverty. In Lao PDR, 72 district towns are officially classified as poor.
Although water supply and sanitation programmes are currently underway in the Mekong Region, current levels of investment are grossly inadequate. Secondary towns which have been starved in investment for decades are particularly in need. With limited budgetary resources, governments are severely constrained in their ability to meet the needs of these secondary towns.