Mekong modelling project benefits SE Asia

Finnish environmental experts have teamed up with the Mekong River Commission's Water Utilisation Programme in a project that combines modelling technology with social research and training to improve knowledge and management of one of the world's largest river basins. As Ilona Suojanen of WUP-FIN explains, this knowledge can be used in future projects in the region.

WUP-FIN is a Finnish partnership project that has operated in the Mekong river basin region since 2001. To comprehend the basin's water resources and changes, WUP-FIN has focussed on improving understanding of four target areas around the Mekong River:
  1. At Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, the purpose is to understand the processes in the lake and its floodplain, and to forecast the impacts of upstream basin's developments to the ecosystem, fisheries' productivity and people's livelihoods (see panel).
  2. In the Mekong Delta in Vietnam the models are used to enhance understanding of the complex hydrological, ecosystem and socio-economic processes and understand how conflicting water needs can be met. Issues in the area are problems of saline intrusion, water quality, acidic soils, hygienic conditions and aquaculture.
  3. On Thailand's side in the Nam Songkhram Watershed, the interest is in simulating the hydrological processes and estimating the environmental and socio-economic impacts on development scenarios. Maintenance of fisheries, flood control, wetlands and irrigation development are the main issues in this area.
  4. In Laos and Thailand, around Vientiane and Nong Khai, WUP-FIN has an important role analysing causes of riverbank erosion and helping in developing bank protection measures.
The Mekong River is one of the largest in the world, and its basin is shared by six South East Asian countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Around 70 million people live in the basin, most of them depend on the water and natural resources, such as fish.

The annual flood pulse, together with the sediment that the river brings, are vital for agriculture. However, economic development and urbanisation of the region, combined with rapid population growth, particularly in Laos and Cambodia mean that irrigation schemes, hydropower development and navigation projects are all impacting on water resources, the environment and people.

"We want to find the accordance with fisheries and agriculture and explain the controversy in using water for different purposes - without destroying nature," says Juha Sarkkula, leader of the WUP-FIN project. "The idea is to show the impacts of actions in advance and to find solutions to allow further development while minimising these impacts."

The WUP-FIN project involves the cooperation of three Finnish partners: the Finnish Environment Institute, the Water Resource Laboratory of the Helsinki University of Technology and the Environmental Impact Assessment Centre, a research company. WUP-FIN works closely with many different stakeholders and the project is implemented through a consultancy contract with the Mekong River Commission Secretariat (MRCS) which is based in Laos.

WUP-FIN also cooperates closely with the National Mekong Committees (NMCs) as well as several ministries, line agencies and universities in the four member countries of MRC Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Different collaborators, model users and beneficiaries, from the USA, Japan, Australia and Hungary are significant for the project as well.

Socio-economics
Project socio-economist, Marko Keskinen says, "Water management is much more that managing water; issues in water management comprise not only hydrological but also environmental, social, economic, cultural and governance aspects. Understanding of all these aspects is essential for success of the modelling activities."

For WUP-FIN the challenge lies in successful integration of these different pieces of information. Modelling has to comprise a participatory element in order to reflect actual problems and to increase interaction on local level.

Juha Sarkkula says: "Indigenous knowledge needs to be included into technical processes from the beginning, otherwise the risk of incompetent results, loss investments and irrelevant actions is high."

Through village surveys WUP-FIN has collected information on different socio-economic factors, focusing on livelihoods and their seasonal variation, access to and use of natural resources, as well as on trends of environmental changes and migration. The methods used in the village surveys consist of interviews, group discussions, participatory mappings, observations, preference rankings and analysis.

In Mekong, as is often is the case, there is a risk that the poorest people would be the ones who suffer the most from decisions made at a higher level, and benefit the least from the results of development. It is the strategy of MRC to ensure that decisions are made to benefit the poorest.

Capacity building
After modelling and socio-economic and environmental assessment, the third component of WUP-FIN is training and building capacity to take care of maintenance, development and future use of the models, and to effectively respond to emerging development plans with regional importance. Workshops and academic conferences are significant for networking and information dissemination.

As important is the organisation of training courses at the MRCS and line agencies, and the preparation of lecture series and the support of research at local universities. This also increases the understanding on the needs of the institutions and offers a two-way channel for information sharing.

Success
Even though the project is still underway, it has already proven to be successful in garnering knowledge and forming cooperative networks. The project results have been used in projects for hydropower, food security, navigation, construction, flood management and fisheries.

WUP-FIN has created a comprehensive knowledge base and tools, which are used in an extensive network of institutes, but also by organisations such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Conservation Union and numerous academic studies. To achieve even better results and, above all, sustainable and balanced development and cooperation, an open atmosphere is needed during the planning process along with dialogue at all levels of society in the riparian countries as well as among the stakeholders.

Although WUP-FIN is concentrated on the Mekong region, the developed models and the results are applicable in other river basins, wetlands, lakes and coastal regions as well.

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