When the first Covid-19 cases were reported, the Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership team was still closing out its biggest annual event, the Mekong Research Symposium in Hanoi, Vietnam. Almost 300 people had attended the water management event, and interest was high for another such meeting.
Then came January 2020. Some SIP project activities slowed, but plans for several international meetings and training workshops were still in place. Another Mekong Research Symposium was already planned for Siem Reap, Cambodia, to take place at the end of 2020.
By March, case numbers were exploding. “Once international borders started closing all around the world, it was clear that some project activities would have to be modified,” said Pact’s Suparerk Janprasart, SIP Program Director.
Implemented by Pact as part of the Mekong-US Partnership, SIP works across Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam to promote sustainable development. Over the last two decades, economic development, trade and urbanization have placed enormous pressure on land and water resources shared by almost 250 million people in the Lower Mekong region. SIP partners with Mekong governments, planners and policymakers to understand how these changes affect people in different ways, for example, in reduced fishery yields, increased salinity and groundwater depletion. Such impacts flow across borders, so solutions must cross borders as well.
Last year, In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, farmers experienced their most severe salinity intrusion yet. In 2020, seawater crept inland up to 80 kilometers from the coast. Animal stocks, crops and incomes took a hit as saltwater contaminated irrigation ditches and freshwater ponds. Land subsidence and arsenic poisoning added to the problems. Covid was disrupting SIP’s plans to build the capacity of Lower Mekong countries to respond to such environmental issues—but the need was as great as ever. SIP had to adapt.
With the end-of-year Siem Reap symposium now impossible, the SIP team worked with the U.S. Department of State and partners to prepare a series of shorter events: Mekong Virtual Symposiums. The first such event took place online in July, bringing international experts together with water management professionals from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. More than 200 participants registered for the 90-minute session—a morning time slot in the Indochina region, and a late evening one for colleagues in the United States.
Speakers and participants discussed ways in which the Mekong Delta, an important agricultural production area, can limit crop losses and secure farmers’ livelihoods. The event raised the interest of Vietnamese colleagues in holding a follow-up, hands-on training event.
Fortunately, Vietnam was one of the more successful countries in controlling the spread of Covid. With cooperation from the Vietnam Water Resources Institute and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in Vietnam, the SIP team prepared a three-day training event in September, supported by NexView, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of State.
The event took a blended learning approach. Thirty Vietnamese water resource professionals gathered in Can Tho to take part in online sessions with international speakers, followed by a one-day field trip to Nhon Nghia district. Another 30 participants took part just in the online sessions.
Speakers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Thailand’s Department of Groundwater Resources, Can Tho and Ang Giang University, the International Water Management Institute, the Living Deltas Research Hub, and the German development agency GIZ presented in the online sessions. One highlight for participants was hearing from hydrogeologist and groundwater expert Dr. Tussanee Nattasana about how the city of Bangkok had dramatically slowed its rate of subsidence from 10 centimeters per year in the 1980s, to less than 1 centimeter per year today, through legislation, groundwater pricing and vigorous monitoring of wells and groundwater extraction. Other presenters drew attention to solutions including remote sensing technology for groundwater monitoring, groundwater recharge techniques and innovations in the design of sluice gates and water storage ponds.
Dr. Nguyen Huong Thuy Phan is a water and climate change specialist at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland, where she is academic coordinator of its Development Policies and Practices Program. Dr. Nguyen worked with SIP to facilitate the face-to-face sessions and field trip with Vietnamese participants. She noted that most of the trainees have direct responsibilities in groundwater and land subsidence management in the Delta and Vietnam.
“They saw it was important to learn and bring back knowledge to strengthen their projects,” she said. “The training sessions were full of enthusiasm, since the modules were presenting current problems of the Mekong Delta along with lessons learned and good practices that have been adopted, either in the Delta itself or from other parts of the world.”
Following up on partners’ suggestions, a second Mekong Virtual Symposium took place in November. This time, the focus was on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. Speakers from the U.S. and the Mekong region sounded the alarm on issues including changes in river flow patterns, loss of flooded forests, illegal fishing and plastic waste. The Mekong River Commission and the University of Nevada, Reno, highlighted the current problem of ‘fishing down’ the food chain: As stocks of large, high-value fish are depleted, fishers take increased catches of lower-value species. While total fish catch remains stable for a time, ultimately all stocks will be depleted.
Fisheries expert Dr. Zeb Hogan, famed for his “Monster Fish” series on the National Geographic channel, called for greater attention and research into conserving “fish as biodiversity, rather than fish as food.” Speakers also discussed plastic waste in the lake, and the impacts of hydropower development, which has resulted in unusually low water levels and disruption of the Mekong’s natural flood-pulse that triggers fish migration and spawning. Water flows, climate and infrastructure were important to people 1,000 years ago, Hogan noted—and we continue to need good water infrastructure.
As the SIP team prepares activities for 2021, the need for sustainable infrastructure and the knowledge and skills to maintain it remains paramount.
“While the Covid vaccine is being rolled out around the world, it’s likely that we will continue to offer virtual and blended learning events,” Janprasart said. “The enthusiastic response that we had in 2020 is something that we will build on this year.”
The Mekong Virtual Symposiums were supported by the U.S. Department of State under its Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP). The symposiums build on existing efforts in the Mekong region to strengthen collaboration and dialogue on water solutions, as part of the U.S. ‘Vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.’