IWCAN Forum

I joined the Stockholm Environment Institute – Asia office in Bangkok, one of seven regions and nine offices around the world, working as a volunteer for the next three months, on water quality issues in the Chindwin basin in Myanmar. The water management challenges in the region are multiple, and I arrived at a time when drought is hitting the Mekong region. In Bangkok, water saving measures are needed to allow the heavy rains from the wet season in August to refill Bhumipol Dam, one of the major reservoirs providing water for the city.

SEI-Asia office is nice and spacious, and consists of an international team of staff of around 30 people, and a number of interns on short term arrangements. The way people work here is very different from what I am used to: loosely defined team structures, very flat and minimal concerns about hierarchy. Everyone is highly motivated, and works on different aspects of a number of concurrent and interrelated projects. The working mode at the office is very informal, but of course when interacting with key stakeholders due attention is given to representation, position and seniority.

Discussions range from content to process and methods, strategies, planning and funding opportunities, and everything in between.  Debates are highly dynamic and interactive, and can touch on a range of challenges and include philosophy, values to practical applicability and policy influence. Meetings and workshops occur frequently – in the two weeks I have been here there were a number of meetings in the first week, and the entire second week was taken up by meetings and a three day workshop, with around 50 participants, representing the countries from the Mekong region: Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Last week, two staff from the San Diego office joined SEI-Asia, to present at the workshop on Robust Decision Support for Water Scarcity Management.  The method involves stakeholder mapping, participatory discussions on four modeling components, and the development of models for scenario-building to deal with uncertain future scenarios.

At SEI personal initiative and entrepreneurial thinking is highly encouraged, and the absence of much red tape and office distractions makes this a very pleasant place to work. Low email traffic, barely any phone calls and a quiet workspace allow people to concentrate and focus on their science and policy research. Resources are often sparse and data are hard to get by, so problem solving, developing and implementing projects requires a lot of inventiveness and collaboration.

This is a very unique organization which is fairly complex in structure, but brings together some of the best experts in water science, policy and modeling. SEI international works across water, energy, agriculture, environmental management, disaster relief and gender equality, and exchanges between various offices are frequent, despite their autonomous nature. I feel very lucky to be part of this unique NGO, even though I am only here as a visiting researcher for a few months. Everyone makes you feel very inclusive right from the start, and is very keen to discuss ideas, projects and desires your input. Social interaction happens frequently and include lunches at the university canteen, invitations for dinners, birthday cakes and even staff volunteering to show visitors around during the weekend.

As part of the Chindwin Pilot project, I will be travelling with a small team to Myanmar to collect water samples, and compare seasonal differences at particular locations. This work will contribute to a draft management strategy for water quality monitoring and evaluation as part of the Ayeyarwady Futures Project. More information about the project can be found at:

http://www.sei-international.org/projects?prid=2139

author: Frederick Bouckaert

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