Sept. 17, 2018

Lower Mekong Research Symposium

Where a facts is presented along other facts that produce an interesting collection but not yet add up to a sequel. Asking a sequel is a tall order for inter-discipline, trans-national research.

“Applied research” sounds simple but that could be one approach to deal with multiple interest, trans-national problem such with Mekong river. According to one presenter at the symposium, applied research is a multidisciplinary research and takes a comprehensive research from basic research to policy recommendation. For an applied research to be successful, the continuation between different of stages of research project is one, and trust-building between each discipline is a must. To believe one research is credible, one should start with the methods and materials, how the data were collected and processed, any conflict of interest should be disclosed, and the authors should stand by the findings and be aware of any bias to their discipline and their institution. To be aware of those biases are critical to give a comprehensive view about the problem, as well as be transparent to the readers of other assumptions that lead to the interest, approach, finding, and conclusion presented in a paper. The next step is the spell out some likely interpretation from the readers thought the findings. It is a sad story that some readers, like myself, often interpret any assumptions to discredit the findings, which is neither fair nor helpful to the authors and the research itself.

For audience in a symposium, they only have a limited mental space to absorb what is being presented on the projector. That put on top of the limited time to present a study that otherwise is presented in much detailed like in a journal. Thus, there is more likely that a good research is passed by, and then being concluded as not effective by the consortium style. The symposium benefits the small number of audience for a general view without jumping too deep any particular research. I cannot speak to all, but I often myself in that camp, a place between quick judgment and trying to get a whole picture.

So what is up with Lower Mekong River?

According to Wikipedia:

The Mekong is the 12th longest river with estimated length is 4350 km, and watershed area of 795,000km2 and discharge 473km3 annually. The Mekong started in China’s Yunna province, run through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam before joining the sea.
The Upper Basin lies within China with about a half of the entire river’s length, makes up 24% of basin, 15-20% of water, with a drop of 4500m.
The Lower Mekong runs through 6 countries, with less than 1000m drop. The main river joined by sub-system including Tonle Sap Lake, a very big lake in Cambodia with a reversed pattern of draining and filling to the Mekong river.

Trans-national is the first challenge when it comes to the Mekong river. The interest in this system are hydropower generation, biodiversity conversation, fishery, agriculture, and transportation. The development of one interest could hamper the other interests within one countries, and other countries’. Building dams is the most prevailing topic in the conference. To date, there are 8 built, 5 under construction, 11 planned in China; 2 built, 7 planned in Laos, and 2 planned in Cambodia. With dams in place, the hydrology of the upstream and downstream changes the fishery and agriculture sectors. While engineers could design gates to release 30-70% of sediments, there has no conclusive study about the effective of such remedy. Fish migration is negative affected by restriction of the dam. Similar problem with biodiversity, in which migration species or other species depends on the migration lose the benefits after the dam was built.

How to tie those challenges with the research questions?

The symposium dealt with two main groups of questions:

  • The hydrology models
  • The economic/ecological values change from building dam?

And a third topic interwovens to the two questions and other research problems, that is data collection and sharing. Most discussion heated discussions the symposium were what to share, how to share, and then jumped back to what data has been shared, where data have been shared, and the jumped back again to how to collect data, and what are challenges to collect data during to start on relevant questions. The organizer will put together a summary about the symposium, so I will update my post after the summary goes out.

I spoke in the symposium and confessed that I am an environmental engineer who see myself an outsider to the discussion. I am ignorant to the differences of hydrology models, so I presumed they are kind of the same. In addition, several talks mentioned the economic values, but I cannot make sense of the numbers, I suggested to benchmark those finding to average income of the region or nation in compare to the resident impacted by the changes of building dam, lodging timbers.

Presenters from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, when asked the priority for the research, suggested the capacity building. That makes sense because Thailand and Vietnam seems to have a stronger capacity to conduct complex research than others.

I don’t pretend that the research questions alone are difficult to solve. Some joined research and funded by the same agency, collaboration was demonstrated as you-do-your-part-I-do-mine approach. Collaboration has not reached to the level that either key researchers sit down for a discussion or an online meeting with the same purpose. It would be ideal if both team agrees on the materials and methods, and share the progress. Eventually, the data and finding will cross-check each other at the boundary of between two projects. I could be wrong or outdated on this point.

Looking to the similar collaboration in the States, speaking the same language well creates a conduit for exchange ideas that I don’t feel principal investigator (PI) are up to the same level to communicate directly. Secondly, the PIs (in the U.S.) have similar education background and they seem to show a genuine belief on other’s. That two obstacles are, in my view, the chief challenges to communicate between research in and to the Mekong river. That could trigger some reaction there. Improving communication by English is not pleasant topic who those have been tried hard. The upcoming researchers trained in the U.S. or other Western's institution is one hope for the Lower Mekong region. Learning how to collaborate with Chinese partners is the another topic. The sense that we don't want to deal this challenge is understandable, in the mean time, such as a waste of resource trying to understand and minimize the negative effects of building dams on Mekong River.

The multi-stakeholder decision on Lower Colorado River in the symposium from the USGS presented an a practical approach. The key to drive the whole process is a series of flow rates, and each stakeholders can vote if one number is the best, to the worst outcomes. Sound easy, isn’t it?

Yes, it is easier if each stakeholder has run the simulation and can see response with each flowrate. The first step is still missing with Lower Mekong research, one possible vote could be an extreme cases, such as no dam (fish migration, biodiversity), and as many dams as we could build (hydropower generation), but I have not yet seen the options in between. Agriculture is in the gray area because having flow control is better than the natural draught and flooding. And having a dam means less sediment and nutrients to replenish the soil. If the upstream countries built dam, the lower one would likely to object it because now the activity downstream has to be depended on the flowrate from the dam, and mostly served as the second interest after electricity generation.

Skeptics could point out that the Colorado River and the Mekong are different, one runs through dessert, mostly inside the States, while the other is in sub-tropical region and in its course, hugging the border line of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, then into Cambodia and then Vietnam. Even that, the state of California and Arizona are in dispute of which state has more water than other.

As an environmental engineer, my interest are on water quality, here is my position sent to the organizer:

I’m interested in contaminant fate and transport in Lower Mekong River. There is run-off water from main agriculture areas that carries extra nitrate and phosphate to nearby the water body and into Mekong River. These fertilizers stimulates rapid growth of microalgae that potentially creates a dead zone in water once microalgal biomass is sink down and decomposed. The decomposition consumes and depletes oxygen that is vital to aquatic life and directly worsens fishery catch. Besides fertilizers, other potential compounds such as pesticides from run-off water and Endocrine Disruptor Compounds (EDCs) from the discharge of municipal wastewater plants could result in a longer problem to the ecology of Mekong River. For example, the EDCs could be accumulated in fatty tissues of fish that could alter reproductive function. Those EDCs could ends up in human via the food chain.
For planning and risk management, we need to have a model to simulate the effects of such pollutants in Mekong River, we need to start monitoring or sharing available data on fertilizers, pesticides and EDCs. Those parameters should run atop with a reliable hydrology model.


I goal I wrote this post is the create some entry points of resource. There are many research done on Mekong River but somehow in many places, and a junior research misjudges a research has not been done while it was done and burred somewhere in archive.

  1. Starter: Designing river flows to improve food security futures in the Lower Mekong Basin

Will be updated with archives

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