Developing an operational framework for river health assessment in the Mekong River
Working Paper 1: River health in Thailand—The perspective
of national stakeholders
Mukand S. Babel
, Victor R. Shinde
, Oleg Shipin
, Panpilai Sukhonthasindhu
, Pinida
, and Sangam Shrestha
1. Water Engineering and Management, Asian Institute of Technology, Pathumthani, Thailand
2. Environmental Engineering and Management, Asian Institute of Technology, Pathumthani, Thailand
3. Thai Water Partnership, Thailand
4. Freshwater Division, Pollution Control Department, Thailand
Abstract. This paper describes the initial work of
an ongoing project, aimed at developing a holistic
River Health Indicator (RHI) system for rivers in
the Mekong River Basin, and demonstrating its
application in the Songkram Catchment in
Thailand. Traditional health assessments in
Thailand have been centred on river water quality
parameters. However, in order to paint a complete
picture of river health conditions, other drivers of
river health, such as catchment disturbance,
hydrological changes, riparian habitat conditions,
etc. must be taken into consideration especially
given the increasing development pressures the
catchment in facing. This paper emphasizes on the
outcomes of the focused group discussions carried
out with national stakeholders in a workshop,
which helped unearth the relevant issues related to
river health in Thailand, which would serve as
input for developing the proposed RHI system.
Keywords: Community-driven monitoring;
Focused Group Discussions; River health
Indicators; Stakeholder workshop.
The Mekong River is arguably the most important
river in South East Asia, and has been the focus of
much research given its rich biodiversity, and the
large population it supports. The sustainable
management of these resources depends on
maintaining the health of the river. Over the years,
however, increasing unplanned development
pressures within the basin have caused many direct
threats to important riverine ecosystem services
resulting in a decline in capture fisheries, intensive
agriculture, less predictable climate change patterns,
etc. Ongoing and proposed construction of several
large hydropower dams in the basin only compound
the problem. Monitoring the river’s health, and its
subsequent evaluation, is, thus crucial for reducing
uncertainty and arriving at meaningful solutions to
these problems. Current health assessments in the
basin are centered heavily on river water quality
indicators, with some biological indicators
monitoring in very few places [1]. However, in order
to paint a complete picture of the river’s health, it is
important that other dimensions of river health are
also taken into consideration [2].
In January 2015, the Asian Institute of Technology
(AIT), in collaboration with the Thai Water
Partnership (TWP), and the Pollution Control
Department (PCD) of Thailand’s MONRE, embarked
on a ‘research for development’ project to “develop
an operational framework for river health assessment
in the Mekong River Basin”. The project, supported
by the CGIAR’s Water Land and Ecosystem (WLE)
Greater Mekong (GM) Program, seeks to plug
existing knowledge gaps by developing a holistic
River Health Indicator (RHI) system at two
scalescatchment, and communitycapable of
addressing a variety of dimensions of river health in
the Mekong River Basin. This efficacy of indicator
system will then tested by employing it to monitor the
Songkram River’s health over a three year period.
One of the main concerns with RHIs reported in
literature is that although the community’s role in
river health has been repeatedly highlighted over the
year[3], hitherto social indicators (i.e. how
communities would rate river health, and what they
would want river health to be) are not used anywhere.
Like with other environmental matters, the idea of
“citizen science” is gaining much prominence in river
health decisions, and it is becoming evident that
considering the perspectives of different user groups,
specific to gender, occupation, social standing, etc., is
required for a holistic assessment and management of
the riverine ecosystem.
This paper presents the outcomes of a stakeholder
workshop carried out, as part of the project, with a
number of national stakeholders in order to seek
multi-perspective feedback from the stakeholders on
matters related to river health in Thailand. It is
Developing an operational framework for river health assessment in the Mekong River
expected that these outcomes will be instrumental in
designing the proposed RHI system.
On 12
May, 2015, the authors organized a national
stakeholder workshop in Bangkok with a number of
government ministries and line agencies, as well as
academicians and research institutions. From the
public sector, there were participants from the
Pollution Control Department; Department of Water
Resources; Department of Groundwater Resources;
Land Development Department; Department of
Fisheries; Department of Agriculture; Department of
Agriculture Cooperatives; Department of
Environmental Quality Promotion; Department of
Health; National Health Commission; and the Office
of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and
After sensitizing the participants to the project
objectives and expected outcomes, they were divided
into three groups for focused group discussions. Each
group was given a fixed time to deliberate upon the
following set of questions:
How does river health affect you or your
organizations activities?
The purpose of asking this question was to explore the
inter-linkages between the various government
agencies in context of river health
What are the factors that affect the health of
rivers in Thailand?
The answers to this question were expected to help in
identifying the various relevant dimensions, or
components, of the river health, which then would
form the major input for the holistic RHI proposed in
the project.
Is there any particular aspect of river health that
you are working on, or are interested in?
This question was posed to identify the key actors in
the public sector, who could be engaged throughout
the duration of the project.
Do you have any specific suggestions to enhance
the existing river health assessment framework
in Thailand?
It is always easier to build on existing initiatives than
create new ones. It was expected that the answers to
this question would provide a good understanding of
how best to go about the development of the RHI
How can community-driven monitoring systems
be made feasible in Thailand?
In line with the concept of ‘citizen science’, the
project endeavors to develop a community-driven
river health monitoring system, which would feed into
RHI system developed in the project. This question
was designed to investigate the feasibility of such an
initiative from the institutional perspective.
This section presents the key points of the three
focused group discussions
1. How does river health affect you or your
organizations activities?
As expected, there was a unanimous agreement
among the participants, particularly among the
government stakeholders, that the state of river health
had some kind of bearing on the nature of their work.
While this effect was quite obvious for agencies such
as the Department of Water Resources and the
Department of Agriculture, it was interesting to learn
the National Health Commission of Thailand give
river health a lot of attention because of the strong
human health-river health linkage that is evident. The
effects of poor river health are, no doubt,
sector-specific, but the ‘take home’ message from the
participants was universal proper river health
assessments are integral to ecological and social
well-being. In terms of what river health really means
to the participants, there was a notion that until now
traditional definitions of river health have alluded to
ecological and physical human health. However, a
modern definition must account for the
“psychological”, and “spiritual” satisfaction that
healthy rivers provide.
2. What are the factors that affect the health of
rivers in Thailand?
The discussions revealed that the factors affecting
river health in Thailand can be categorized under four
groups: (a) Agricultural and aquaculture
intensification; (b) Land-use change; (c) Climate
change; (d) Direction of development. While these
will, no doubt, be instrumental in developing the
dimensions of the RHI, merely monitoring the river
health may not be sufficient. There will also be a
need to devise a mechanism to evaluate the outputs of
the monitoring activities, and allow for “reflection
and adjustment” in a dynamic cycle.
3. Is there any particular aspect of river health that
you are working on, or are interested in?
Apart from the various sector-specific inputs received
in this regard, an interesting point of discussion was
on ensuring the long-term sustainability of the RHI
system, especially if it involved communities. The
premise here was that in order for communities to be
engaged beyond the duration of the project, there has
to be some incentive for them to do so. The
participants opined that the incentives will come only
when there is sufficient awareness among the