[In progress] ...This fourth Ministerial Meeting of the Lower Mekong Initiative and I am very pleased to join my colleagues from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. We began this initiative two years ago to give rise to more frequent and effective cooperation among the Lower Mekong countries and the United States. We saw many opportunities for effective partnership on issues that impact the people of the region: health, education, infrastructure, environmental protection, water quality, and so much else. And we thought there was value in taking an integrated approach, because all of these issues are connected. If water sources are polluted, health declines; if children are unhealthy, they struggle to learn; if education systems are weak, it affects the success of public health and environmental campaigns. So the initiative reflects the reality of this interconnection.
Let me briefly highlight a few of the achievements of the past year. With regard to the first pillar of our partnership, health, Laos hosted a workshop for developing and testing clean cookstoves. Billions of people worldwide cook their food and warm their homes with open indoor fires, but the smoke from those fires cause major health problems that kill nearly 2 million people a year, primarily -- in fact, nearly all of them are women and children. Burning wood also contributes to climate change, which makes cookstoves and technological improvements in them an easy and affordable way to save lives and protect the environment, and I applaud Laos for bringing more clean cookstoves to more people.
In the area of environmental protection, we are building capacity through the Forecast Mekong project, which sends environmental scientists to hold training workshops and help develop models for measuring important data, such as the effects of climate change. And we're about to launch a program with our Lower Mekong Initiative partner countries called Lowering Emissions in Asia's Forests, or LEAF, and that is to mitigate one of the leading causes of climate change, deforestation.
On infrastructure, the United States was pleased to participate in an exchange between delegates from the Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission to share best practices and technical knowhow to ensure that future infrastructure projects are designed with a consideration of their social and environmental impact.
On education, because we have heard from our partners about the need for more English-language training, especially on technical language to make it easier for experts to work together, we will be starting a regional English-language program this fall for people working in health, infrastructure, and environmental protection.
These are just a few examples, but we are looking forward to even greater progress in the year ahead. In Cambodia in March, our nations drafted a Lower Mekong Initiative concept paper and plan of action, which lays out our principles and specific goals for the next five years under each of the four pillars, including targeting infectious diseases, fostering dialogue between environmental scientists and policy makers, and mobilizing private sector funding for infrastructure projects. We have created a virtual secretariat, which we will unveil in just a few minutes, and we are bringing more nations into this partnership by creating the Friends of the Lower Mekong group, which meets for the first time today.
There's just one issue I want to mention briefly before concluding, and that is the very serious question of new dams on the main Mekong stem. This is a serious issue for all the countries that share the Mekong River, because if any country builds a dam, all countries will feel the consequences in terms of environmental degradation, challenges to food security, and impacts on communities. I want to urge all parties to pause on any considerations to build new dams until we are all able to do a better assessment of the likely consequences.
The Lower Mekong Initiative reflects the commitment of the United States to the well being of the people and the long-term success of the nations in the Mekong River area. We support your efforts to build a stronger foundation for prosperity and progress, and we look forward to continuing to work with you as partners and friends for years to come. Thank you.
Now, I would like to invite each of our partners to offer a few words, starting alphabetically with Cambodia.