Mekong Research Symposium shows value of local partnerships

March 21, 2023

Civil society partners and local communities brought new dimensions to this year’s Mekong Research Symposium (MRS), which took place in Chiang Rai, Thailand, from 14 – 16 March. They spoke about the value of citizen engagement in deciding what data are useful and who needs the data, why local communities should be involved in collecting and analyzing data, and considering who has rights to data and knowledge.

Diversity

Organized on the theme of ‘Data into Action for a Resilient Mekong’, the symposium convened over 200 participants and more than 30 speakers from five Lower Mekong countries and beyond. Participants and speakers discussed how research data — including ‘big data’ from earth observation — can be used in decision making.

While annual symposia have been organized since 2018, MRS 2023 was the first occasion to include participants from grassroot organizations. Interpreters supported the discussions with translations to and from Burmese, Khmer, Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese.

Inclusiveness

In discussions led by speakers from international and local civil society, participants discussed principles for inclusive practices in data collection, analysis and application. The presentations and discussions highlighted the value of involving local communities at every step of the way — not only in data gathering led by others, but also in research of their own.

Fields trips on day two of MRS allowed participants the chance to observe examples of participatory research and action, led by local civil society. Five field trips took place in parallel, including visits to a wetland conservation area, an Akha village, and The Mekong School, a platform for local knowledge on the changes caused by developments in the Mekong River Basin.

One civil society representative of a program that is teaching local youth how to measure and share water data highlighted the value of this citizen science. Even where results are imprecise, he noted, “local people learn that they have a right to knowledge, by producing their own.”

Application

Speakers showcased the practical application of data to answer some of the Mekong region’s most urgent environmental questions, for example:

Exhibitions and demonstrations of‘Discovery Corner’ demonstrations at the conference venue also showcased the approaches and technologies being used by participating organizations.

  • Mae Fah Luang University academics showed that the five hydropower projects currently proposed by Lao PDR can only meet 1.8% of anticipated power demand in the Lower Mekong Basin, while the negative environmental impacts of the proposed dams will be at least 30 times greater than the benefits.
  • The Hydro-Informatics Institute of Thailand has used river monitoring and rainfall data to generate disaster warnings to communities in the north, south and east of Thailand
  • The ‘Wonders of the Mekong’ project has documented giant fish species in the Mekong, contributing to the government’s policy stance against large dams in Cambodia.
  • Wetland restoration by the Department of Water Resources at Bang Pakong on the outskirts of Bangkok has shown that aquatic biodiversity can bounce back and thrive through nature-based solutions such as ‘fish houses’ that provide new habitat for fry.

Emerging themes

Over the two and half days of MRS 2023, some themes emerged more than once. Participants emphasized the importance of trust building among civil society and policy makers, the value of stable and predictable funding for research, and the need to prioritize science communication and science to inform decision making.

For ‘data into action’ to become a reality, MRS participants affirmed that there is a cost in terms of time, and financially. This is even more so if we resolve to gather, interpret and apply data in an inclusive manner. In conclusion, one speaker noted on the final day, “Translating data into policy requires many conversations!”

The Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership co-hosted MRS 2023 with Mae Fah Luang University. Many partners and donors also supported the symposium, including the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC), WWF, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute.

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