By Robert Irven
This week, the Center for Social Development Studies (CSDS) at Chulalongkorn University, in partnership with The Third Pole, welcomed journalists from Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and India for a three-day media workshop entitled “Water and the Neighborhood.” Discussion centered on the social and ecological issues surrounding the major transboundary rivers of South and Southeast Asia, including the Brahmaputra, Mekong and Salween Rivers.
Also in attendance was the new class of graduate students from the Faculty of Political Science’s Master of Arts in International Development Studies (MAIDS). They took the opportunity to kick off their studies and discuss development in action. They also had a chance for some initial fieldwork with a visit to Koh Kret Island on the Chaophraya River on the second day of the workshop.
Participants and guests from the first day of the media workshop (Photo by Robert Irven, 2017)
The speakers held a vast array of experiences and backgrounds, including from international organizations such as UN Environment. the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), and the Mekong River Commission, academics such as from the Indian Institute of Technology (Guwahati), as well as media organizations such as the Mekong Eye and civil society groups such as International Rivers. They engaged in a variety of presentations and discussions with the goal of sharing knowledge, exploring the context of transboundary river contestation and cooperation, and providing journalism-specific insights to benefit those in the field on the front lines of these often highly contentious, transboundary issues.
While presentations ranged in scope and topic, common themes and questions helped focus debate that allowed for meaningful interactions in a multicultural gathering and saw academics, civil society organizations and journalists all learning from one another. One commonly discussed theme, for example, was the importance of placing riparian communities central to decision-making, including through engagement with River Basin Organizations (RBO’s). Whether in the form of formal networks, as represented by inter-governmental RBOs, or via informal arrangements, networks are now seen as vital to the regional conservation and sustainable development of these delicate ecologies, where humans and the natural world intersect in a variety of ways. From the Salween River, shared between China, Myanmar and Thailand, to the Brahmaputra/Jamuna River that starts in China and flows through four countries in South Asia, accelerated and often poorly planned large water infrastructure projects are threatening the existing ways of life of tens of millions of people that depend on the life-giving qualities of these waterways, where communities that have built their lives around nature for centuries. RBO’s at their best may act as a focal point for community, government and non-state actors to gather knowledge and a platform to encourage conversation and decision-making from all sides.
Field trip to Ko Kret to learn about traditional life and flood adaptation (Photo by Robert Irven, 2017)
As the Director of the MAIDS Program, Assistant Professor Dr. Naruemon Thabchumpon, reiterated during the kickoff of the event, the fate of the region’s rivers and basins and the communities that depend on them hang in the balance, so it is the type of cooperation and knowledge sharing undertaken at this event that becomes crucial for all nations to succeed in their conservation efforts. Saw John Bright, speaking for the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), pointed out that given the variety of challenges faced throughout the region, it will take equally innovative solutions and management to fix many of the long-term problems that are faced, including community based natural resource management and in the case of the Salween River, he proposed support for the establishment of a “Salween Peace Park.”
Without the discovery and documenting of new and lesser-known stories by the media and academics alike, inclusive and fair decision-making around transboundary rivers is highly unlikely. With the tools and knowledge gained over the past week, journalists and experts alike left not only better prepared to continue their work on these issues, but more energized and galvanized for the challenges ahead.