When the first Covid-19 cases were reported, the Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership (SIP) team was still closing out our biggest annual event, the Mekong Research Symposium in Hanoi, Vietnam. Almost 300 people had attended the water management event, and interest was high for another such meeting. 

Then came January 2020. Some SIP project activities slowed, but plans for international meetings and training workshops were still in place. Another Mekong Research Symposium was already planned for Siem Reap, Cambodia, to take place at the end of 2020. 

By March, case numbers were exploding. “Once international borders started closing all around the world, it was clear that some project activities would have to be modified,” said Suparerk Janprasart, SIP Program Director.

At the same time, the long-running drought conditions on the Mekong meant that farmers in the Delta were experiencing their most severe salinity intrusion yet. In 2020, seawater crept inland up to 80 kilometers from the coast. Animal stocks, crops and incomes took a hit as saltwater contaminated irrigation ditches and freshwater ponds. Land subsidence and arsenic poisoning added to the problems. 

With the end-of-year Siem Reap symposium now impossible, the SIP team worked with the U.S. Department of State and partners to prepare a series of shorter events: Mekong Virtual Symposiums. 

The first such event took place online in July, bringing international experts together with water management professionals from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. More than 200 participants registered for the 90-minute session. Speakers and participants discussed ways in which the Mekong Delta, an important agricultural production area, can limit crop losses and secure farmers’ livelihoods. The event raised the interest of Vietnamese colleagues in holding a follow-up, hands-on training event. 

Fortunately, Vietnam was one of the more successful countries in controlling the spread of Covid. With cooperation from the Vietnam Water Resources Institute and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in Viet Nam, the SIP team prepared a three-day training event in September, supported by NexView, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of State.

The event took a blended learning approach. Thirty Vietnamese water resource professionals gathered in Can Tho to take part in online sessions with international speakers, followed by a one-day field trip to Nhon Nghia district. Another 30 participants took part just in the online sessions.

Speakers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Thailand’s Department of Groundwater Resources, Can Tho and Ang Giang University, the International Water Management Institute, the Living Deltas Research Hub, and the German development agency GIZ presented in the online sessions. One highlight for participants was hearing how the city of Bangkok had dramatically slowed its rate of subsidence from 10 centimeters per year in the 1980s, to less than 1 centimeter per year today.

Participants in the groundwater blended learning event take a field trip after online training sessions.

Dr. Nguyen Huong Thuy Phan, water and climate change specialist at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland, worked with SIP to facilitate the face-to-face sessions and field trip. The modules presented current problems of the Mekong Delta along with lessons learned and good practices in the Delta itself and in other parts of the world “Most of the trainees have direct responsibilities in groundwater and land subsidence management in the Delta and Viet Nam, so the training sessions were full of enthusiasm,” she said. 

Following up on partners’ suggestions, a second Mekong Virtual Symposium took place in  November. This time, the focus was on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. Speakers also discussed plastic waste in the lake, and the impacts of hydropower development, which has resulted in unusually low water levels and disruption of the Mekong’s natural flood-pulse that triggers fish migration and spawning. 

As our SIP team prepares activities for 2021, the need for sustainable infrastructure and the knowledge and skills to maintain it remains paramount. 

“While the Covid vaccine is being rolled out around the world, it’s likely that we will continue to offer virtual and blended learning events,” Janprasart said. “The enthusiastic response that we had in 2020 is something that we will build on this year.”

Groundwater training participants mark the end of the blended learning event at Can Tho.

The Mekong Virtual Symposiums were supported by the U.S. Department of State under its Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP).