Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Thimpu, Bhutan
April 28, 2010


It is an honor to be here today to represent the United States Government at the 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. Let me begin by congratulating His Majesty the King of Bhutan and the Royal Government of Bhutan for their superb arrangements to host this Summit and their warm hospitality, for which Bhutan is renowned all over the world. SAARC welcomed the United States as an observer member at its New Delhi Summit in 2007. Since then, we have looked forward to Summits as opportunities to collaborate with our South Asian friends and deepen our partnership.

The U.S. Government supports and welcomes SAARC’s vision of greater South Asian regional cooperation. As Secretary Clinton said in January, we are working to deepen our historic ties in Asia, as well as, to build new partnerships. We also seek to collaborate with existing multilateral organizations to pursue shared interests, and to reach beyond governments to engage directly with people in every corner of this vast region. I am here in Thimpu because SAARC offers the opportunity to deepen those important ties, to engage with the people of SAARC countries and to pursue our shared interests in addressing climate change, increasing trade, promoting education, cooperating on disaster preparedness, and more.

Climate Change

The United States welcomes the decision to focus on climate change as the theme of this summit. This demonstrates SAARC’s commitment to lead on climate change and raise awareness on this important topic. Perhaps no region in the world will be more affected by climate change, from glacial melt, lower water tables, food security and rising seas. These are challenges we must address together. The U.S. government recognizes the need to proactively address the environmental security implications of climate change by identifying key vulnerabilities and strengthening the ability of countries and their communities to adapt to potential reductions in water and food supplies.

In January 2010, the U.S. launched the Eastern Himalayas Forests and Climate Change Program in Nepal, Bhutan, and some of the northeastern states of India. This program will include technical exchange on forest inventory and monitoring that includes carbon accounting, national greenhouse gas reporting, payment for ecosystem services, disaster response, and climate change adaptation.

Another important initiative will be undertaken when Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) to monitor and map the flow of water out of the Himalayas and into the South Asian region. With this knowledge, we can better help address the needs of the billions of people whose access to water depends on the flow from the Himalayas.

To help prevent the worst effects of climate change and assist climate adaptation, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) will hold a global investment conference on "Renewable Energy & Clean Technology: Investment Opportunities in Emerging Markets" in New Delhi. We also helped establish the Regional Center for Lighting in Sri Lanka, and we support micro hydropower development in Nepal. In Bangladesh, we have installed more than 180,000 solar household systems in rural areas.

Trade

Trade is another indispensable part of creating a more sustainable future for the SAARC region, and creating economic opportunities for the youth South Asia and thereby combat extremism. Today, intra-SAARC trade represents only five percent of your total trade, far below what it could be. As the United States has found, trade with neighbors makes good economic sense – Canada and Mexico are two of our biggest national trade partners. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) can also foster greater trade and opportunity among SAARC members, particularly if you can join hands to reduce the number of items each country prohibits from import.

To highlight the important role of business in our societies, President Obama this week hosted an Entrepreneurship Summit focused on countries with significant Muslim populations. South Asian entrepreneurs from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh came together with entrepreneurs from many other countries to emphasize the role businesses and diaspora groups play in the world economy. In the end, the Summit yielded new cross-border links and potential new partnerships among South Asian entrepreneurs that could lead to new commercial and economic opportunity in the region.

Disaster Management and Risk Reduction

Disaster management is another area where regional cooperation has had, and can have even greater, positive benefits for all. Capacity to prepare for and manage disasters requires close cooperation among the nations in the region. The United States stands ready to help SAARC members prepare for and mitigate the effects of disasters.

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that devastated South and Southeast Asia, the world witnessed how concrete collective action and a fixed focus on results can provide hope in the face of tragedy. Beyond immediate assistance to areas hit by the tsunami, the disaster response was a catalyst for cooperation throughout the region. We should learn from this example, and act with similar urgency and efficiency in dealing with challenges such as climate change and food security. The United States has been and will continue to be a leader in this area.

The U.S. government has been engaged in Disaster Response and Disaster Risk Reduction activities in SAARC countries for well over a decade. We provided extensive disaster Incident Command System training following the tsunami, and followed up with a SAARC-wide training workshop in 2008 for emergency management professionals from throughout the region. We have been active working with partners throughout the region to establish and deploy the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System. To reduce further risks our Program for Enhanced Emergency Response (PEER) presently operates in six countries – including India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – with a high earthquake vulnerability, the need for improved disaster readiness, and keen governmental and civil society commitment to the program.

To increase resilience to climate variability and change, USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster relief has also been implementing the Asia Flood Network program which aims to reduce flood hazard vulnerability in Asia through building regional and national capacity in climate, weather, and hydrological forecasting, encouraging information exchange in transboundary river basins and improving the dissemination of forecasts and warnings to at-risk populations in the region.

Agriculture and Food Security

South Asia has the largest concentration of poverty, hunger and under-nutrition in the world. The region’s rapidly growing population and climate change will put additional pressure on the agricultural and fisheries sectors to meet rising food needs. Greater regional cooperation on agriculture research and development, and collaboration on forecasting weather and climate for agricultural needs will greatly enhance food security in South Asia. The U.S. has been supporting agricultural development in many SAARC countries and will continue to do so through “Feed the Future,” the U.S. Government’s comprehensive global hunger and food security initiative, and other programs. As part of our efforts to help countries to mitigate the effects of climate change, we support efforts to incorporate climate change adaptation and resilience into agricultural development and are helping countries apply and develop green technologies. For example, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society is collaborating with India’s leading agriculture and meteorological agencies to improve approaches for forecasting and managing drought and other climate risks in agriculture.

Conclusion

As a SAARC observer, and a friend to all the countries of South Asia, the United States will seek new ways to bring our resources and expertise to partner with SAARC on education, economic reform, poverty alleviation, health, counterterrorism, climate change, and more. Our commitment to our South Asian friends is visible in the support we already offer to important initiatives in the region. In 2010, the United States will provide a total $4.4 billion in bilateral assistance programs to SAARC member countries, and an additional $13 million for regional assistance programs to promote cross-border energy, trade, communications networks, education linkages, and security cooperation. A particular priority will be to work with SAARC countries on President Obama’s global initiatives in the areas of food security, climate change, and health – goals we all share.

To conclude, the United States again congratulates and thanks Bhutan for its leadership and hospitality and rededicates itself to working with SAARC and all of the governments of South Asia to expand cooperation, prosperity and opportunity in this vital region of the world.

Thank you.