Excellency, Mr. Nguyen Quoc Dzung, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam and ASEAN ASOM Leader of Viet Nam

Excellency, Mr. Tran Tuan Anh, Minister of Trade and Industry

Distinguished guests and panelists,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour to moderate this important session on Sustainable Development in the ASEAN Region.

At the outset  I would like to commend Viet Nam and ASEAN countries for the great efforts in containing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are lucky to be in Viet Nam, one of the safest countries with more 90 days without any community transmission allowing us to convene this workshop in person as well as virtually. Viet Nam’s success story has been recognized globally as one of the best examples of joint efforts by Government, businesses and communities to address this  significant challenge.

To help set the context for this panel discussion I would like to highlight two key issues. The first  is on the key elements needed to  accelerate the progress of achieving the SDGs in the ASEAN region.  The second is related to the opportunities and challenges in Mekong Region.

Turning to the SDGs,  the UNESCAP’s Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2020   released in March 2020, and which had not captured the impacts of Covid-19,   showed that South East Asia was doing reasonably well on a number of SDGs, including quality education (Goal 4), industry, innovation and infrastructure (Goal 9), zero hunger (Goal 2) as well as good health and well-being (Goal 3). There was however a need to reverse certain negative trends and accelerate progress to reduce inequalities (Goal 10), and peace, justice and strong institutions (Goal 16).

However, the most recent joint report by UNESCAP, UNDP and ADB, entitled ‘Fast-tracking the SDGs’  released in May 2020, shows that without accelerated actions, South East Asia is not on-track to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Overall the largest gap is in ‘promoting sustainable and just societies’ with South East Asia falling significantly behind other sub-regions.    

There  was also notable overall progress in human well being and capabilities with far fewer people in the region poor and undernourished.  This progress is under threat however, from the impacts of COVID-19 both in the immediate and longer term.  According to UNDPs Human Development Report it is the first time since the index was introduced 30 years ago that progress on poverty will be reversed.   Clearly, returning to ‘business as usual’ in the context of Covid-19, is  not an option, if the countries are to achieve the SDGs by year 2030.

There is also  cause for optimism as with the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts by governments in the region presenting an opportunity to ’build-forward  better to accelerate a movement of change towards inclusive and sustainable development.

The UNESCAP-ADB-UNDP ‘Fast-tracking the SDGs’ report outlines four building blocks[1] and six transformative entry points[2] that can help frame recovery efforts for systemic change towards achievement of Agenda 2030.

The Four building blocks include:

  1. Set direction & mobilize stakeholders, partnerships
  2. Policy-making that allows for managing complexity
  3. Systemic shifts to remove barriers & re-align
  4. Ready people and institutions to sustain change

The report highlights 6 transformative actions aligned with the SDGs:

  1. Strengthening human well-being and capabilities;
  2. Shifting towards sustainable and just economies; 
  3. Building sustainable food systems and healthy nutrition patterns;
  4. Achieving energy decarbonization and universal access to energy;
  5. Promoting sustainable urban and peri-urban development;
  6. Securing the global environmental commons.

I would like to raise three questions for the panel to consider:

First, efforts to strengthen social solidarity and ensure that “no one is left behind” must be re-doubled. Basic social protection must be extended for people living in poverty and to prevent the near poor from falling into poverty.  In the context of ASEAN what are the implications for reducing the development gap between as well as within countries in the region?

Second, innovations and digital solutions can help overcome perceived development ‘trade-offs’ between growth and social and environmental outcomes.  At this time, it is critical to assess what are the real costs of the trade-offs between going back to business as usual, and moving on to more sustainable pathways?  The latter risks setting a course where achieving the SDGs will not be possible

Third, While there is much agreement that it is time to move beyond GDP as the sole measure of progress, why has it not yet happened?  Perhaps it is time for ASEAN to take up this challenge.

 Turning to the second issue,  I would like to briefly  share some of  the key challenges and opportunities in the Mekong River Basin

Challenges

The Mekong River is one of the world’s great river systems. Its immense biodiversity is fundamental to the viability of natural resource-based rural livelihoods of a population of 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong Basin. The Mekong river basin is faced with unprecedented challenges due to fast socio-economic development due to fast social and economic development, which is exacerbated by climate change.

At least 44 dams and hydropower plants constructed along the Mekong river have already modified the water regime. There will be up to 126 such new construction works along the rivers, which will further affect the biodiversity and have other hydrological impacts. For example, we have already seen how low water level in the river, coupled with droughts in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta in 2015-2016 and in 2019-2020, have caused saltwater intrusion as far inland as between 45 – 120 km in rivers.

The sediments captured in the upstream reservoirs reduce fertility in the delta and result in erosion of the riverbanks, threatening resilient housing and livelihoods of thousands of people downstream in the Mekong Delta.

Extreme droughts, forest fires, flashfloods, heavy rains, and other extreme weather events have become the new normal in the river basin. Sea level rise, typhons, saltwater intrusion are occurring at a faster pace in Vietnamese Mekong delta.

Except to Lao PDR, all ASEAN countries have border to the oceans, where the marine plastic pollution has been becoming a global alarming challenge. It is estimated that 70 per cent of the waste to the sea come from the land-based activities.

Opportunities

Following the impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic, there is great opportunities for ASEAN countries to attract investments to re-ignite their economies. As countries enter the recovery phase, it will be important that this recovery is green and aided by innovation and digitalization. 

ASEAN countries need to continue to cooperate to find innovative solutions to identify and enact multiple-win options to accelerate SDG agenda, including i) pursuing a green recovery of the ASEAN economy; ii) transforming towards more sustainable and green production and sustainable consumption, , iii) increasing actions to protect the environment, which in turn will help reduce the risks of future pandemics and of extreme weather events, and iv) doing so in ways that are inclusive..

There is great potential for increased renewable energy development in the ASEAN countries, including wind, solar, biomass, hydropower, etc., If countries  cooperate more closely and pursue  a common framework of energy development that has an increase in renewable energy sources ,   this could lead to a reduction of the  development of mega hydropower plants, which in turn will reduce severe environmental risks, especially to the Mekong region,  while acceleration  energy security for the ASEAN  region.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is clear that stronger collaboration and innovative approaches are needed across the ASEAN countries to take forward the recommendations to achieve the SDGs by 2030 and to protect the Mekong River Basin.

In conclusion, the policy choices made today will determine the depth and duration of the COVID-19 induced development setbacks the ASEAN region is experiencing. The right choices can set the region on an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development path, which will help attain the SDGs.  The UN/DP stands ready to support countries in the region in this journey.

I look forward to hearing from the panelists views on the right mix of policy choices to make at this time to deliver the SDGs in ASEAN in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thank you!

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