27 February 2013

Mekong River Basin: Perception vs. Reality? Perception is Reality?

So much of my work is based on perception of reality. I believe that perception drives decision-making for big and small things. You decide which lettuce to buy in the shop based on what you can see, but also maybe what the label reads (if you shop in a place that labels), maybe you want to buy from a particular farm, maybe a particular region, maybe you like a specific color or turgidity, maybe you have had the lettuce before and prefer it to others you've tried. But you are not tasting lettuce in the store, only observing and making a decision. This is based on your perception and preference.

This human behavior is as true for buying lettuce as it is for making high level state decisions. I am not suggesting that people make decisions that are flippant. I am suggesting that people make decisions with information at their disposal, and information, some call facts, can be largely based on perceptions rather than on reality. At what point does perception become reality?

I am working in the Mekong River basin. I am staying in Laos. There is a perception that is being generated by the international community and activists through the press and whatever other channels of communication, that the Xayaburi Project is problematic. One of the reasons stated is how it will hold back sediment. In my initial data gathering I found something pretty astounding, if it is in fact true. The amount of sediment that this Project potentially holds back is minimal and insignificant compared with the amount of sediment being removed throughout the basin: through sand and gravel mining,  numerous tributary dams, upstream dams in China, and levee and small structures on tributaries.

So, the current fear and assertion that sediment trapping by this Project is a reason to criticize it seems to me to be more based on perception and fear, rather than on reality.

26 February 2013

Water-sharing story from Kenya

Check out this article that tells a story about regional water conflict and grass-roots peace resolution in Kenya. 

25 February 2013

Planting in the riverbank...

LUANG PRABANG, LAOS- FEBRUARY 19: Locals and Tourists Farm, Swim, and Relax on the Banks of the Nam Khan River Where it Meets the Mekong on February 19, 2011 in Luang Prabang, Laos Stock Photo - 8944949
Nam Khan River

I recently went on a day-long kayaking trip in the Nam Lik River in Laos. A friend of mine was with me and commented on how isolated we were. I pointed out the riverbank farms (or riverbed agriculture) and small fish traps we passed by. We are not alone here, I said. True, the footprint is small and a bit hidden, but people are definitely here. The locals are cultivating in the fertile soils of the river banks, taking advantage of the natural cyclical sediment movement.

Farming in riverbeds and riverbanks is typically a traditional method of farming. This method takes advantage of fertile soils caused by the ebbs and flows in river systems. Sediment is carried by water from erosion in highlands, and moved along with the flood season. When the water flow levels out, the sediment is deposited in the river banks, in the flood plain, in the riverbed itself. This is something studied in the west to better understand how contaminated soils move, but in many other places, the movement of this sediment is known to provide for good harvest.

I saw this method of farming in my field site area of the Benishongul-Gumuz Blue Nile Valley area in Ethiopia, and am seeing it again here in Laos on the Mekong River. The World Bank has a piece about riverbed farming on their blogsite. The Bank's blog suggests that riverbed farming is a way to buffer the landless from poverty. But, with all the river engineering projects that the Bank promotes, aren't they also promoting the loss of this subsistence way of life through development?

19 February 2013

The West and Rest: importance of objective research

Water is an interesting resource to research. There are many directions to take with water research that will inevitably lead to complex and fascinating puzzles in need of solving or at least exploring. It doesn't matter if you are interested in hydro-engineering, hydrology, water policy and management, sanitation, water equity...it is all fascinating stuff.

Currently, research issues of water through the lens of human security - I love the natural science of water - how and why it does what it does, how and why it is what it is - but, I am also interested in the nexus of water with energy, with culture, with religion, with ecosystems, with industry, with local and national economies, with navigation, with recreation...water, meet human and natural systems, and then I want to know what happens.

Human security offers a way to measure what is important to people to live and prosper in a healthy and harmonious way. I have designed a multi-sector approach in order to consider how changes to water systems can be viewed and understood from a variety of potential opportunities and challenges. This then may inform how and why people make decisions about water resources. I hope. It isn't finished yet.

Right now I am focusing on internationally shared river systems. Within that I am looking at dams being developed on those rivers. I would like to better understand why humans want to change water systems. What does that change mean through different sector lenses, whether it be environmental, economic, etc?

I am spending this year looking to answer those questions practically, on the ground, through the eyes of others. Through the eyes of people who have hope for changes to water systems that can change the opportunities that they experience in their lives. It is a beautiful story so far and I look forward to telling it in more details in the weeks to come.

But now I am coming into something different with my current case study on the Mekong - there are a whole mess of people actively opposing dams as changes to water systems. They think it better NOT TO alter the water system for a myriad of reasons that challenge the reasons TO alter the water system for a myriad of reasons. The voices against dams on the Mekong are predominantly the international community and neighboring countries, the voices for are a developing country and neighboring countries. It appears at first glance to look like a standoff, where the discourse is so divided that it is hard for either group to feel comfortable speaking about dams or to speak with one another. I hope this is not the case. But this highlights why being objective in research is so important. This situation seems to be bifurcated - the truth is either one story or the other. How can both be true? Objective research may be able to answer that question.

What role does objective research play in modern global discourse? It should play a stronger role and it sadly appears that there are not many objective researchers considering big sensitive questions, like anything "political". At least this is what I am being told when I want to go somewhere and build a case study about a dam. I cannot be the only one being turned away from research projects - I know there are more of you out there - denied funding because your project is not politically interesting or too politically interesting. Denied access because of the politics. And I am not talking about simple politics of a country - I mean the political climate of the global community.

When I approached the Ethiopian government to ask permission to study the Grand Renaissance Dam through interviews with national and local people, they granted me access with assurance that the truth would stand. My objective approach has revealed to me quite a different story within Ethiopia than the one being told outside of Ethiopia. Different than the press or whoever else is spinning stories would have other believe. When I took a balanced approach toward a topic that could possibly be controversial or otherwise imbalanced, I found many shades of gray. Dams are not black and white as most people would have you believe. And capturing the nuance of opportunities as well as challenges is key to moving forward as a global community. What do I mean with such a statement?

Let's be realistic. Progress is happening and change is inevitable. Why aren't we looking for more collaborative approaches with neighboring countries or communities when change becomes apparent? How we approach decisions about change, our attitude, our superficial understand of the complexity of change...this matters. If we go on looking at our global challenges of poverty, disease, and general suffering as either modern or traditional approaches, we limit ourselves. When we find a position and stick with it despite change, we will be left behind. The Western voices want to resist change on one front - say dams - and promote change on another - say medicines - but where the West resists, others can offer promotion - for example - the World Bank wont fund your dam, so ask someone else who can loan money, like China or a mining company. The rules are changing as economies change, but instead of resisting and challenging, we should be looking to better understand that change so we can respond positively to it. I am not suggesting there is no room for prudence and caution or outright resistance, but when is it helpful and appropriate? And we may find that looking at the same old story in an objective way will shed light on why these changes are happening, or need to happen. I think in most situation the big picture is being missed with instead an insistence on "the facts". This could inform on why the Global Climate Change issue is still a debate rather than something to respond to...Perhaps we can find solutions to working together as a global community if only we started opening our minds and asking different questions. Then we'd have another reality instead of remaining the West and the Rest