By Sarah Allen
Small group discussion at the Salween University Network meeting. Photo: V. Lamb.
The people living in the Salween River Basin, and their voices,have been largely ignored. The up to 10 million people living in the River Basin are continually left out of decision-making processes that will directly impact their livelihoods and futures. But this is changing. I can point to recent civil society and academic research, high-profile research collaborations, and international meetings that aim to attend to the complex ecologies and politics of the Salween River Basin and its challenges, which is much more than when I first joined Salween University Network meetings five years ago.
The most recent Salween University Network meeting was held on January 29-31, 2016,at Chiang Mai University, Thailand with support from the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD), Chiang Mai University, and CGIAR Water, Land and Ecosystems Greater Mekong Program. This meeting was an opportunity to review existing research, and to bring a wide range of actors together to discuss the future of the Salween River Basin. A meeting of this variety is a milestone for the Salween University Network, which has been working since October 2012 to build a network in the Salween River Basin as a way to share research and knowledge between academics, researchers, NGOs, journalists, and local communities.
In fact, prior to this 2016 meeting, there were several meetings organized to draw international and basin-wide attention to the issues affecting the River Basin, in Myanmar in 2014 and in Thailand in 2014 . In October 2012, for instance, I was among a smaller group who met to discuss what to do about the future of the Salween River Basin. During this meeting, discussion revolved around the mega projects planned along the upper Salween River Basin and the downstream impacts, should the projects gain approval, as well as logging and mining in the River Basin. The interest in the future of the Salween River Basin at that time was eye-opening to future possibilities for collaboration. The opportunity to attend a workshop at its early stages of development and watch its progression to now has especially eye-opening for me who, at the time, was a recent master’s graduate in Global Governance. I was witnessing the beginnings of international collaboration and the formation of a basin-wide organization where the emphasis was on inclusive knowledge production. One of the Network’s biggest strengths is that it is composed primarily of a range of actors from the Salween River Basin region, who are working to produce high-quality research on the Basin and who are concerned about future developments of the basin which put residents at risk.
At present, the River Basin is indeed at risk. The mainstream of the Salween River is currently undammed, but that status is being threatened by proposal for 16 large hydropower development projects. The Salween River Basin supports rich fisheries, farmland, and a diverse river landscape. However, high demands for new sources of electricity, especially by Thailand and China, are outweighing and ignoring the needs and voices the region’s people.
A strength of the Network’s meeting was the diversity of the participant’s research presentations. Pai Deetes from International Rivers spoke about the plans to divert water from the Salween River, or the tributaries of the Salween River, to the Chao Phraya River in Thailand. She spoke on the importance of collecting adequate baseline data before projects of this kind are accepted. Pai Deetes also noted that there have been no impact assessments done on the implications of this project and therefore the likelihood of solving drought conditions in Thailand are unlikely. She explained further that
“If the water level lowers further it will cause some species to lose their ecosystems; species and people alike on the river will likely struggle for survival. It is important to study the effects.” (January 2016)
Pai Deetes, of International Rivers, presents information about the Salween water diversion plans. RCSD photograph
One of the meeting organizers, Professor Saw Win, former rector of Maubin University and current member of the Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM), spoke about why such a meeting is considered a milestone for academics and civil society members in Myanmar. He explained,
“Working under a military government for 40 years I have not had the opportunities to network or attend international meetings. This is the first opportunity for increased collaboration and networking.”(January 2016)
In comparison to previous decades of military rule in Myanmar, at present researchers have more freedom to do research, and that includes research on the Salween River Basin. In fact, due to successful mobilization efforts and collaborations in the region,academics, and civil society groups are making great strides. The Salween University Network is in a unique position to learn from the mistakes made and gaps that exist in producing knowledge around the other major river basins in the region. Beyond being composed of people from the region, the Network has also established important links with local universities in order to stay connected to the River Basin as a whole and the people who live there. In this way, the opportunity has been created for scientific knowledge and community oriented research to come together to inform national policies.
Discussion led by Professor Saw Win, organizing committee member and member of the Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM). RCSD photograph
Dr. Yu Xiaogang, the director of Green Watershed in Kunming, China, spoke on future means of collaborating and building a stronger Network. Dr. Yu proposed:
“A Salween Friendship Partnership that brings together civil society actors, academics, community members, and other interested individuals across borders to imagine transboundary cooperation and highlight economic, cultural, social, and political values of the Salween.” (January 2016)
The Network’s meeting this past January included two full days of presentations and various group work sessions where participants had the opportunity to identify knowledge gaps, current research, future collaboration opportunities, and priorities for future work. One of the many positive aspects of the meeting was the wide range of presentation topics, from: challenges faced by local communities, methods for community empowerment, traditional knowledge research, the importance of the media, the relationship between people and the environment, proposed infrastructural changes on the River, geomorphology studies, and local case studies highlighting the current state of the River. The full meeting report can be found at:https://www.dropbox.com/s/dcm09n2kdcyhsl1/SUNM%202016%20Report.pdf?dl=0
Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, director of the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD), Chiang Mai University.RCSD photograph
Poignantly, the most recent meeting ended with an important message from Dr.Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, director of the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD), Chiang Mai University. He emphasized that there is both a “geography of knowing and [a] geography of ignorance” for the Salween. In other words, the Salween River Basin has a rich and long history, butby staying ignorant to the voices of its communities,researchers, and policy makers are jeopardizing the River Basin’s future. Dr Khin Maung Lwin, Member of Myanmar’s Advisor & Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, also reiterated these sentiments, explaining that “Policy gaps are more a result of poor ears than poor policies.” It is important to learn from each other and share that information rather than creating separate, closed-off expert knowledge groups.
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