Countries in the Greater Mekong region have experienced unprecedented development in the past couple of decades. Large investments, such as in infrastructure, energy and agricultural production, are responding to growing demands for food and energy, but are also putting pressure on land and water resources.
Growth has led to many socio-economic changes as well, such as increased inter-regional trade, labor migration and political reform. Climate change impacts are compounding the effects of these shifts, especially in the Mekong Delta and the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia.
Without doubt, these trends are affecting the great rivers of the region—the Mekong, Red, Irrawaddy and Salween—on which millions of people depend for their livelihoods.
The more you know
A decade of research in the Mekong delta region has shown that partnering with communities is a highly promising strategy for tackling these challenges, and more recent efforts underscore its importance.
During the past six years, scientists working with the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) in the Greater Mekong region have sought to engage local communities, to learn from their localized expertise and understand how they are coping with their changing realities. The goal has been to collaboratively consider how to address an uncertain future.
Scientists working in villages along the Salween and Ayeyarwady rivers have, for example, conducted visioning exercises with local communities to help them gain a deeper understanding of river management.
Representatives from the villages were asked to describe what a healthy river looks like and to determine what actions would be needed to improve its health. Local government officials were also involved and participated in discussions about local challenges, such as eroding riverbanks and declining fish catches.
Following the exercises, women and men villagers met with regional and national-level government officials, civil society organizations, academic and others at river basin workshops, where they were able to strongly advocate for greater protection of river resources and for improved monitoring of the river.
Along the same lines, participatory research in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam considered how villagers’ rubbish disposal, pesticide use and intensive farming practices—with three rice harvests a year—adversely affect natural resources. In response, farmers have already adapted their livelihood strategies to include extensive shrimp farming, diversifying their sources of food and income, while also reducing the impact on the environment.
Even schools can be an avenue for increasing awareness and agency on environmental health issues: in the Songkhram catchment in North East Thailand, children in five different schools are monitoring the health of the local river through a process called biomonitoring – essentially catching and cataloguing aquatic bugs to assess the health of the river. This is slated to become a regular extra-curricular activity in the district.
Local voices for inclusive solutions
Researchers working with WLE in the Greater Mekong have also observed how working with and learning from local communities, and local researchers, can help bring about more inclusive, sustainable solutions to current challenges.
For example, researchers have supported the development of the Salween University Network in Myanmar, which is working to share knowledge between academics, researchers, NGOs, journalists, and local communities.
At a recent network meeting, Professor Maung Maung Aye, a professor who has worked on rivers in Myanmar for past few decades, highlighted that innovative solutions are needed to address the problems stemming from river development and that local community perspectives must be included in all policy processes. Research can play a role, he added, because it has the ability to boost knowledge transfer.
Researchers have also worked to document the effect of including communities in the management of natural resources. One study looked at how non-governmental organizations give local communities the support they need to manage fisheries and advocate for natural resource conservation, even in the face of powerful, conflicting interests.
NGOs are bolstering efforts led by the Cambodian government to establish community-based fisheries schemes. They provide capacity building, raise awareness, organize community meetings, and have helped establish committees that manage the community-based fisheries schemes—essential services that the state has struggled to provide.
In addition, the participatory approaches that NGOs generally use have helped create a context in which provincial and district-level officials can have an open and productive collaboration with the fisheries committees. Researchers’ efforts to document such outcomes can help validate and mainstream community-focused approaches to development to build bridges between fishers, farmers and authorities.
Communities are essential research partners
This wide range of experiences from the Greater Mekong region points to communities as essential partners. Increasing communities’ knowledge through participatory approaches may give them the evidence they need to take part in decision making for their rivers and livelihoods.
What’s more, partnerships with communities can also bring new, valuable insights into decision-making and policy processes, with the potential to make resulting solutions more inclusive and sustainable.
Researchers have an important role to play in this context, not least when contributing to a research-for-development program, such as WLE in the Greater Mekong region. They can bring out community knowledge, establish new connections and insights, and help usher development in the direction of positive change.
The research efforts in the Greater Mekong region may be the first step on a long road, to be walked alongside local communities.