Two American generals talk about the Sister Rivers Agreement with Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia

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The Mississippi River has two things many rivers lack. It’s got its very own commission established by Congress in 1879. And it has a sister river, the Mekong of Vietnam and Cambodia fame. The Mekong also has a four-nation commission that  includes Laos and Thailand. Under the auspices of the State Department since 2010, the two river commissions have had a memorandum of understanding to work together. The current president of the Mississippi River Commission is U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Major General Diana Holland. She also leads cooperative training and engineering activities of the two commissions.  Holland, along with Brigadier General Kirk Gibbs, joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin recently in studio for an update on the sister rivers agreement.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin:  Let’s start with this whole idea of the Mississippi River Commission and the sister rivers project. Major General Holland, what’s going on there?

Diana Holland: Well, thanks for that question. If I could start with a little bit of history about the Mississippi River Commission. It’s a seven member presidentially-appointed commission, established by Congress in 1879 for the purpose of overseeing the engineering policy operation of the Mississippi River watershed and its tributaries. And so back then, it was about engineering for navigation and flood control. Today, it still does some of that, but more at a strategic policy level.

Tom Temin: I guess back in those days, they called it inland improvement. Today, we would call it infrastructure.

Diana Holland: Absolutely. And just really harnessing the benefits of the river for the good of the nation. And as you probably know, our economy has greatly benefited from the Mississippi River through navigation. But it’s also essential to provide flood control along the banks of the Mississippi in order to keep it within its bank so that we have a dependable inland waterway. And so the commission goes back 140 years.  In those 140 years, the commission is also a conduit of requests and needs by the people and businesses that live alongside the river. So we do that through a couple of sessions each year. Official public hearings are held and people come to the motor vessel Mississippi to give their testimony. There are seven members on the commission. I serve as the president of the Mississippi River Commission. We also have two other general officers from the corps who are on the commission, who oversee some of the major tributaries. And then we have three civilians as well as a NOAA Admiral.

Tom Temin: And does the Army Corps of Engineers then do work in the Mississippi? Say dredging or shoring up shorelines or whatever the case might be?

Diana Holland: Absolutely, we’re responsible for keeping the federal channel open, safe and navigable for barges, and we’re responsible for responding with dredges anytime there’s too much sedimentation, or shoaling, or anything that inhibits safe navigation of the river.

Tom Temin: It’s amazing, I guess, in this 21st century with rail and flight and every other mode of transportation, how important rivers really are not just to recreation, but to commerce. We often I think, overlook that. Even the average American citizen.

Diana Holland: Yeah, there’s there is no comparison in the economic benefits for barges versus trucking, and rail, it well exceeds the benefits of those other things. And environmental, it’s much better for the environment, the cost of fuel, all of those things. Hugely beneficial that we keep our inland waterways as navigable and safe as possible. And so that’s the U.S. side. On the Mekong side, there’s a Mekong River Commission. It’s a little different than our commission, but it has similar responsibilities. It incorporates the four Mekong countries of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, it was formed in the 1990s. And then in 2010, the State Department believed that it would be a good idea to marry up these two commissions. There were a lot of similarities with similar interests, and a way to further the interests of all these countries if we could get together periodically and talk about common challenges and solutions. And so in 2010 there was a memorandum of understanding signed between both commissions. And that memorandum of understanding fell under the framework of the sister rivers partnership, which is part of the Mekong U.S. partnership program. That’s really under the State Department. And so that’s what brought us together, part of that agreement is to conduct reciprocal visits. And so two weeks ago, we just returned from our visit to the Mekong. It was wonderful opportunity. It had been a few years since we’d seen each other because of COVID. But we were able to renew that relationship, renew the memorandum of understanding that will be in effect for another five years.

Tom Temin: And before we get to some of the maybe diplomatic or operational ideas here, dealing with the Mekong, General Gibbs you’ve seen the Mekong. Tell us more about the nature and quality of that river.

Kirk Gibbs: This was my first trip out there, I saw numerous similarities. It’s a huge river has quite a bit of capability. They have dams along the river, locks as well, to be able to help with the transportation of boats, larger and smaller ones. So just a lot of opportunity on that river in the trans-boundary nature of the river between Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, as well as a couple of other countries that are not part of the Mekong member countries. All of them are impacted, just based on the importance of this river to the livelihood and health of the people that live along it.

Tom Temin: And you didn’t have to go as far to this conference, because you’re based in Hawaii.

Kirk Gibbs: That’s correct. I am based in Hawaii and my division lives out there in the Pacific. We operate in the Pacific and engage with numerous countries out in the Pacific, not just the Mekong countries on a weekly basis, sometimes a daily basis. So we’re familiar and we’re always thrilled when we can bring the expertise and the leadership of the Mississippi River Commission out. We’ve got numerous partnerships, but this one between Mississippi River Commission and the Mekong River Commission is at the very top and importance in what we get out of it.

Tom Temin: Sure. And I guess there is some sensitivity to the fact that that river does originate in China.

Diana Holland: This is one of the big differences between the Mekong River and the Mississippi River. Our country is blessed to have  our entire river within our national boundaries. And it’s hard enough to get agreement across state lines and between federal agencies within one government. The Mekong River crosses six countries. And so the collaboration required, the cooperation required is a huge challenge. It’s a big difference between what the two commissions are grappling with. But this is a start, you know, you got to start somewhere. And so the Mekong River Commission is always looking for opportunities to collaborate closer with Myanmar in China,

Tom Temin: Operationally, though the river is navigable, and it’s also used for trade and commerce in the way the Mississippi is. Do the nations at least agree that they need to keep it open in the maybe not the political-geo sense, but at least in the sense of having a river that operates just as you oversee the Mississippi to make sure the boats can get from point A to point B?

Diana Holland: They certainly all appreciate that they’ve got to cooperate towards common objectives. Right now, you know, the biggest thing that they’re all looking at is hydropower, there’s a lot of hydroelectric power plants going in with the dams in various parts of the Mekong. And that’s a very major diplomatic effort as to what that means down river. That’s something we talked extensively about in those two weeks was, it is so important that up river talk and provide predictability to down river because the impacts can be enormous for down river. That’s something we contend with. And again, the Mississippi River is all within our national boundaries.

Tom Temin: Sure, there must be some understandings that you can impart to them from the history of the United States. Also, the Colorado River has two gigantic major dams that have totally changed the politics, the water distribution, the land qualities, and the operation and qualities of that Colorado River since the Hoover Dam, and then later the Glen Canyon Dam. And so again, what’s happening in our rivers is something that you can give as learnings to the people that are concerned with the Mekong?

Diana Holland: Yes, absolutely, it is, you know, for them well, for all of us, water is life. And so it is so important that we all cooperate internationally and within national boundaries, especially in the age of climate change. So we see this, and this was another thing that we talked quite a bit about. Another topic we talked quite a bit about was the effects of climate change on our river basins, and how we are all having to operate our infrastructure a little differently. And it’s got to be in the context, not just of what downstream needs, but also the fact that the weather patterns are changing. Saltwater intrusion, sedimentation. All of these things that both river basins share, have in common. That cross- boundary collaboration is so important. And we carry that message there. And they will come back. The Mekong River Commission will come to the United States next year to do their reciprocal visit. And we’ll see where we take them, but they have a wish list of things they’d like to see many of them have already been to the United States, worked with USACE, I think one of the great things I learned from this trip is the great trust that they have in the corps of engineers, the respect and the reputation of the corps of engineers, even in that part of the world. And, and so that was one of the great reasons to have General Gibbs there was he’s able to bring that expertise to bear on a more daily basis, while we take back to to our region, you know, when we bring them back, here’s what we want them to see. Here’s the experiences we want them to have.

Tom Temin: 
Yeah. What do you teach them operationally? What are they looking for from you when you’re there?

Kirk Gibbs: A couple of the big topics that I took out of there; dam safety. We spent a lot of time in Laos, we spent time in Cambodia. Both of those elements of the Mekong River Commission and agencies in both of those countries spoke very highly of our dam safety expertise in the corps, as well as hydropower. I think we’re going to be partnering a lot in the coming years as it pertains to dam safety. I’d highlight that starting on the 11th of July, actually, he was with us for a portion of our visit, we have embedded a U.S. Army corps expert on dam safety in the country of Laos. And he’s going to be there for about the next three months. The requests are rolling in for him to bring training to them on those efforts. So the final thing that I would highlight, and this goes back to you know, what you asked General Holland, it struck me as we left that, particularly with the leadership within the Mekong River Commission, that oftentimes I think they struggle with that cross- boundary communication between the nations. Are the communication techniques in place to let the population that’s downstream know if the water levels come in high? It could be a possible flood. So I think also the Mississippi River Commission will be working with the Mekong River Commission on  communication alerts that might go out and how we talk to each other much like – there’s still challenges I think, along the Mississippi River. Sometimes on how the states communicate with each other even though that’s a national river. So I think that as we move forward, I would say we’ll talk about communication. We’ll talk about dam safety, we’ll talk about hydropower. Those are the top three that really jumped out to me.

Tom Temin: And the United States, of course, is a rich country, regardless of those SNAFUs in communication. And so when we do communicate, it’s over the state of the art radio systems or telecommunication systems. And when you do physical work on the river, we’ve got the best diggers and dredgers and cranes  anywhere in the world. What’s it like in those Southeast Asian countries nowadays, technically?

 Kirk Gibbs: They’re getting better, not just the Mekong countries. I recently visited India, they want me to come back and look at their ports because of the dredging expertise that we have. Because of just how we have developed and built our ports in the United States. And they want me to take a look and see what their challenges are in those ports. So we can help them in that way as well. So when we engage with the Mekong countries, it’s usually with the Mississippi River Commission, although we do engage in other ways all throughout Asia. I mean, as you well know, there’s water, there’s a lot of nations bordered by water, and they depend on it for many, many things. And as General Holland said, water is life, water security is important. There’s numerous, numerous subjects that they engage us on, on  how to partner and how to work together.

Tom Temin: And General Holland, I want to get back to the State Department role, because it seems like an ideal situation of where the military and the diplomatic sides of the U.S. government can actually augment one another. And that’s been something of a holy grail for a long time. Is this a good example of that?

Diana Holland: Absolutely. The other thing that I learned from this is the amount of energy and excitement from the U.S. side that we were doing this, that DoD and the State Department were cooperating in such a way and our counterparts on the other side, were really excited. I mean, we had access to ministries in Laos, and ministries in Cambodia, and we’re speaking to their principal leaders about what we do, the friendship that we want to continue, renew the relationship, and that we will take back any of their requests for assistance, technical assistance, or training, and the State Department will consider how they want to support it. Just really, there was just a lot of enthusiasm. And it’s really a testament of when we have something, a common challenge, a common interest that we all share coming together and talking about it and sharing lessons learned can be beneficial to all of us.

Tom Temin: Just a final question. Is there a little sense that some unfortunate piece of history of the United States and Southeast Asia going back now 50-60 years really, is being corrected in the sense that now we’re cooperating on important issues that affect people in peacetime versus what it was in 1972 and 1962?

Diana Holland: Certainly, there is an appreciation for the United States today that  they’ve had to overcome some of their past. We did talk about the fact not in these engagements, but with the U.S. Embassy, about their activities of de-mining. What the United States and the world are doing to help de-mine unexploded ordnance out of Laos. Still a lot of it is being found and disassembled and still casualties from it. So it is a huge concern, and it’s one of the U.S. number one priorities to help make up for that from the past.

Kirk Gibbs: This particular visit was so exciting just as General Holland was laying out. We hadn’t been face-to-face in about three years. And that’s because of COVID. What we have in common, and what was very clear to me, is we have a concern, some of it due to the impacts of climate change on water security for the people that live in our countries. Whether it’s to support agriculture, the fishing, the commerce. So water security is number one. And then we all I think we would agree with the Mekong countries, we care so much about our people in their safety, their livelihood, their welfare, and their ability to have healthy water that allows them to make a living and to provide for their families. We have that in common. And I think that’s very important. And so I think we are working closely together with numerous Pacific nations in those areas.

Tom Temin: And does the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers activities extend beyond the banks of the river there into those countries?

Kirk Gibbs: They absolutely do. Since 2007, the US Army corps has been doing many different types of work out in support of the Mekong countries. One example, we’ve completed about 160 humanitarian assistance projects, totaling about $58 million. Those include schools, health clinics, disaster and emergency response centers, operation centers, and then wells, the emplacement of wells. Each of those, what it has in common is the welfare of people, their people, and we do that in support of the Department of State and USAID. Those are some of the things that I’m very proud of and that type of work continues.

Tom Temin: Brigadier General Kirk Gibbs of the Army Corps of Engineers and you also heard from Major General Diana Holland discussing their support of the cooperative agreement between the Mississippi River and the Mekong River Commissions.


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