Creating water champions by breaking down disciplinary barriers

By Katrina Bukaukas, IWCAN

In an interview with Virak Chan, the World Bank focal point for the Cambodian water sector, he described how more water champions are needed to lead innovative approaches and develop new partnerships to solve increasingly complex water resource issues. Virak encouraged us to try and imagine what ‘water champions’ might look like and how to build “true leadership that is committed to the results our country wants to see.”

Complex problems and the need to find a better way of doing things

Cambodia faces many complex water resource problems, each with unique challenges and opportunities. The capital, Phnom Penh, sits at the confluence of the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South-East Asia, as well as the mighty Mekong River. These resources remind us of the immense force of water, but also its fragility.

Cambodia is faced with increased climate variations leading to more severe and frequent cycles of droughts and floods, combined with transboundary disputes over resource use and availability, and a degrading environment from pollution and over-extraction. Cambodia has a clear demand for high calibre local water leadership informed by high-quality information drawn from and shared with stakeholders at all levels. Water champions are needed as leaders, but currently, there is a limited talent pipeline of water resource professionals.

The question is where to find and nurture these essential water champions?

Building water leadership

Virak recognised the urgent need for water leaders in Cambodia and decided to do something about it. Virak helped to create the Center for Sustainable Water to develop new water champions.

The center focuses on training and capacity development to build key skills and fill knowledge gaps required to help Cambodia achieve its Sustainable Development Goals and adapt to climate variability.

The center also provides a platform for the development of leaders. Activities such as networking events, mentoring programs, work experience and training sessions are organised to build the leadership skills for a new generation of water champions.

Virak explains, “When we provide this capacity building program, there is an immediate impact, we have participants developing their water interests, applying themselves, obtaining employment, and making a commitment to working in the water and sanitation sector”. He adds this commitment is key as it can be transformed “into a vision of what they can achieve and truly start to get the region working together”.

Information is the key to inclusive decision-making and more effective responses

“Knowledge is important as it can transform into leadership and commitment from people in the water sector to implement new ideas.”

Virak provides the development of hydropower dams on the Mekong River as an urgent example where leadership is required. “We can see there is a lot of development including hydropower dams affecting fisheries and other livelihood opportunities. Protecting these resources is very important. It is crucial that people are proactive in managing resources and recognise the importance of integrated water management.”

One approach being used by Virak to support the aims of the Cambodian government and develop opportunities for local leadership to emerge is the “development of a database management system to monitor the whole water resource cycle including water quality, sediment, flood control, and fisheries”. The challenge, however, comes in turning this information into knowledge, which can be used effectively. Whilst overcoming communication barriers in the form of access to resources, language, and different professional affiliations.

One way to overcome knowledge gaps is to embrace different types of skills, knowledge and occupations in the water sector. Water requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Water often gets left to engineers and the national government to manage. This has significant implications for local governments, the private sector, community health workers, teachers, and social workers, amongst others. Virak emphasises that “all stakeholders need to come together to discuss what is happening in the field, and to use this information to focus efforts at the national level to recognise the role of the local government in providing an effective and strong front-line approach to implement projects. I would call it the bottom-up approach”.

The role of the ‘Water Champion’ in bringing people together

Virak defines leadership in his interview as “everyone (the stakeholder, the owners of the country, and of the projects) putting aside their egos and looking at how they can move forward collectively in order to make things happen”. Virak is guided by the actions of past water champions such as His Excellency Ek Sonn Chan, who spent 20-years reforming the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority and who was featured as the topic of a recent ‘Water Corner’ event held by the Center for Sustainable Water.

Water champions who can bring people together to share in dialogue and practice can result in innovation, collaboration, and partnerships between the community, government, institutions, development partners, and donors at the country and regional level. This is what is needed to solve the most complex water resource challenges we face.

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