SUMERNET Policy Forum: Learning from the past to explore better futures

SUMERNET researchers joined policy makers, donors, and researchers as well as colleagues from SEI Asia in a policy forum on “Learning from the past to explore better futures:
 Water, food and energy in an uncertain and changing Mekong Region.”

The policy forum on 11 February 2015 was one of the key activities of the SUMERNET Annual Meeting 2015 from 10-12 Feb. in Bangkok. The meeting brought together research partners, research mentors, boundary partners, members of SUMERNET Steering Committee (SSC), policy actors and experts, donors and media, to share their knowledge and experience to catalyse key strategic discourses on sustainable development in the Mekong Region.

In his welcome note, Dr Louis Lebel, member of the SUMERNET Steering Committee (SC), said the Mekong Region is entering a key phase with its entry into the ASEAN economic community. “While the region may gain increased economic benefits due to the integration into ASEAN, there are concerns about its social and environmental sustainability that needs to be looked into especially from the policy viewpoint” he said.

Regional economic integration, one of the three SUMERNET research themes, was also one of the key themes addressed at the policy forum, how can it be directed so that it supports ecological sustainability and is socially- and gender-equitable?

Dr. Adis Israngkura, Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) said that the region is seeing many challenges in regional integration. But he warned that many of the economic activities are becoming similar across the region. He said, “economic prosperity arises when we are different. Maintaining diversity in the region is important, for both economic and natural resources policy. Each individual Mekong country needs to address its own challenges, sometime a regional policy cannot really provide solutions for local problems.”

Mr. Sommay Kosada, Department of Planning and Investment in Lao PDR, talked of the importance of research for working with policy makers. He said that policy makers rely on evidence such as numbers and figures to be convinced of the benefits or impacts of projects. “Researchers need to support the decision makers with coherent and clear information,” he said.

Addressing the gender dimensions of economic integration, Assoc. Prof. Kyoko Kusakabe from Asian Insitute of Technology (AIT) said that more attention needs to be paid to the daily lives of marginalised women in the process of economic integration. “These debates about regional integration are usually at the national level. But how can we learn from the daily livelihood experiences of people potentially affected by regional integration and make this a more bottom-up debate,” she inquired.

The SUMERNET research theme on ecosystem services for development was also addressed at the poliy forum that explored what policies can help maintain or enhance the ecosystem services from managed and natural ecosystems.

Mr. Nguyen Van Van, Chairman of Vinh Phuoc People's Committee, An Giang, Vietnam explained how farmers in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam rely on rice in the dry season and fishing in the rainy seasons. He said that the building of hydropower dams in the upstream has resulted in increased water pollution in the delta region.

“Now local people have to grow 2-3 rice crops per year and dykes have to be built to prevent flooding from destroying the rice crops. One of the local solutions has been to grow ‘floating rice’, a specific rice variety that can grow up to 3 meters high and thus withstand high flood levels. Moreover, this is organic rice as it is grown without using any chemical inputs,” he said.Mr. Long Kheng from Cambodia's Ministry of Environment explained the protected area strategy to conserve biodiversity.

Mr. Long Kheng from the Ministry of Environment (MoE) in Cambodia spoke of the importance of small wetlands for biodiversity conservation. He described how the government has allocated conservation areas to protect habitats for birds and animals. “Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment has a department on wetlands and coastal zones and has initiated a national framework and strategy for protected area management,” he explained.

The question of ecosystem services for development is very much related to the communities at the local-level, and how they depend upon and benefit from natural ecosystems.

Dr Carl Middleton from Chulalongkorn University said that “the relationship between people and nature needs to be rendered visible, it’s a very practical not abstract concept.”  

The third topic of the policy forum was on the last SUMERNET research theme: climate compatible development. The panelists explored the questions of: 1. ‘how can development that supports equitable human development and ecological sustainability take into account the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change?  2. What are the challenges and opportunities arising from the links between water, food and energy systems?Dr Saykham Voladet talked of the water-food-energy nexus at the SUMERNET policy forum.

Dr. Saykham Voladet from the National Economic Research 
Institute, Lao PDR said there’s no simple solution to these complex questions. Sometimes regional insititions are also not always the best answer. “Water management is problematic at the regional level. When I am sitting in committee meetings in the Mekong River Commission, its difficult to talk about regional institutions to represent national priorities. He talked of the water-food-energy nexus: “Understanding the interactions through the water-food-energy nexus is important but we need better coordination between countries to find the right balance in resource management.”

SUMERNET is a collaboration of more than 50 research and policy-making institutions with a strong track record of research. SUMERNET receives support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded Lower mekong Public Policy Initiative (LMPPI). In 2014, SUMERNET launched its phase 3 (2014-2017) in which seven research projects will be undertaken. More information on phase 3 research projects and the summary profiles of these projects is available in the SUMERNET website.  

For a storify collection of live tweets from the SUMERNET policy forum, please use this link: