A Collaboration for a Trans-Boundary Free Flowing River

A Collaboration for a Trans-Boundary Free Flowing River

The first plenary session, where Professor Saw Win (right) from Myanmar was opening the session, with Dr Chayan Vaddhanaphuti (left) who was next to give his remarks and analysis on the Salween — Image Credits

The Salween-Thanlwin-Nu (STN) Studies Group organized a 2-day conference titled “State of Knowledge: Environmental Change, Livelihoods and Development” on 14-15 November 2014, at University Academic Service Center (UNISERV), Chiang Mai University, Thailand. There were around 220 registered participants from many countries, including China, Myanmar, Thailand and from beyond Southeast Asia. This conference was supported by Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southeast Asia and Heinrich Böll Stiftung China. Here is a summary about the various panelist's speeches.

On his Welcoming remarks, Professor Watchara Kasinrerk emphasized that this particular river has so many names, in Thai it is called ‘Salaween’, in Burmese it is called ‘Thalnwin’, and in Chinese it is called ‘Nu Jiang’. Many different livelihoods and cultures have been developed along the area that the river passes, this is what we know, but there is still a lack of knowledge. He sees that the objective of this conference is to bring the knowledge together, to collect the wisdom and later to use it for management of the river and he believes that this conference can be a starting point.

U Aung Myint from Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM) said that many dam projects should be reconsidered. For right now, there are alternatives in energy generating. It is a fact that most of the energy goes to foreign countries. At the moment, Myanmar doesn’t need much energy. He views that the required energy should be balanced with the environment if we want Thanlwin River as a river of peace.

Dr Yu Xiaogang from Green Watershed, China concluded that scientific research should be used for sustainability, as well as the harmony between nature and human society. Scientists with a sense of justice are now working together with people doing grassroots study, so as to assist policy makers and politicians to make better decisions. NGOs are the bridge between them.

Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, The Director of RCSD Chiang Mai University, states that to save the mighty Salween/Thanlwin River and ensure people-centered development some efforts must be urgently undertaken. He underlines that there is a lack of research about socio-economic, political topics, who are the actors, what are their livelihoods, what are the impacts if dams were to be built. We need more macro policy research to understand better. A trans-boundary river management can be proposed to China-Myanmar-Thailand Governments. By observing more energy consumption and high forecast of energy demand, a trans-boundary river management is regarded as a solution.

Prof. Maung Maung Aye, Patron & Chief Advisor of Myanmar Environment Institute stated that it is urgent that the future of the Salween River is responsibly planned and equitably managed to protect the environment and the inhabitants of the watershed. He proposed that our trans-boundary Salween River should be the river of peace, the river of cooperation and the river of friendship among the relevant riparian countries.

On the second day of the conference, Witoon Permpongsacharoen from The Mekong Energy and Ecology Network (MEE Net), Thailand proposed a Governance framework, namely the Salween River Commission (SRC) and Salween Ethnics Council (SEC), which will be represented by all ethnic groups living in the Salween River Basin. While for the academic sector, there will be the Salween Research Institute (SRI) which will coordinate and work with the universities located in Salween basin.

Prof. Maung Maung Aye again gave an interesting presentation on the idea of sharing the river potential in terms of Hydropower which is a common way in the Transboundary River Basin, especially in a region with increasing energy demand. But all three countries have different interests to International Water Resource Management (IWRM) implementation statuses in the projects due to their different backgrounds and national developments. He proposed that, as China has mainly unilateral interests in the Hydropower projects and no experience over IWRM and Myanmar still struggles with its civil war and is in the early stages of IWRM, therefore Thailand is expected to be a leader based on its experience in the Mekong River Basin.

Dr. Zhou Zhanggui, the Director of International Institute for Water Security, Center for Non-traditional Security and Peaceful Development Studies, Zhejiang University. Transnational cooperation means at least trilateral cooperation of the riparian countries, but more to that it is also about ‘balancing interests’ by doing analysis of demands of different stakeholders: Central Government and Army, minorities and local power, the non-governmental organization, and the political opposition.

Khun Srisuwan from TERRA Thailand said that there are still gaps being produced by academics and issues being brought up by the grassroots, he noticed that the government and policy makers are being ‘insane’ to push projects without enough consideration. Every stakeholders are doing their job separately. He doesn’t see the government coming closer to grassroots to address these problems. We have to begin a discussion on what NGOs and CSO can do, in terms of cooperating in various states along the Salween River.

On his closing remarks, Dr. Chayan recalled that now we have more knowledge on the Salween River, Water Tower and Seismicity, with detailed information that might allow us to predict natural disasters. We also learned about The Chinese Government’s position, the bank’s policy, and the idea towards dam constructions along the river.

There was a good action plan to establish two institutions: Salween River Commission and Salween Ethnic Council. He pointed out one of the weaknesses from experiences with the Mekong River Commission was little participation. Therefore there is no mechanism that allows the three countries to come up together yet. We should support this idea. He believes that people who have different ideas can still work together, can learn from each other, knowing their differences and then can compromise.

Post-Conference Plan: There will be more discussion for actions to be taken, either online by uploading the intervention, or by organizing a workshop on how to carry out a certain type of research. This will be useful not only for the knowledge but also for actions to gain more understanding on the power relations between the upstream and downstream level. He closed his remarks by thanking everybody again and by saying that the conference cannot be organized without generous support from funding agencies, partners, Khun Oy, the RCSD Secretary and staffs.

The conference is seen as successful as it has provided an opportunity for scholars, policy makers, community groups and civil society from Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, China and internationals to exchange information and to learn from one another about critical environmental change, livelihoods and development issues in the Salween River Basin. This conference also launched the Salween-Thanlwin-Nu Studies Group, which aims to be a regional network of scholars, policy makers, community groups and civil society working on issues related to the Salween River. A field trip with 70 participants to the Salween River from Thai side was followed on the 16-17 November 2014.