Dr Ian Campbell interview: knowledge transfer in the Mekong region from an Australian perspective

An interview with Dr Ian Campbell on knowledge transfer in the Lower Mekong region from an Australian perspective and his own business, Rhithroecology. Ian has over 40 years’ experience in freshwater ecology and river management, working in Australia, Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea. He has worked as a river basin management agency specialist and a consultant on projects in the water, mining industries.

Interview topics

  • About Ian Campbell
  • Knowledge transfer in the Mekong in the 1980s
  • Limitations in research capacity in the Mekong
  • The lack of drivers to promote ecological research in the region
  • Capacity building challenges in the Mekong region
  • Working with cultural differences
  • The need for patience and a long-term strategy
  • The importance of developing good relationships if you are to ‘make a difference’

Tell us a bit about your background and your business, ‘Rhithroecology’.

My background is in freshwater ecology and particularly river ecology. I did a PhD at Monash University in Melbourne on lifecycles of a group of aquatic insects — mayflies —– and worked as a lecturer at Chisholm Institute of Technology (which later merged with Monash University).

My international work began in Thailand in the late 1980s, through Chisholm. Colleagues and I ran a workshop on water quality management in tropical regions, funded by AusAID. The workshop was run jointly with Chiang Mai University and the Office of the National Environment Board in Thailand and involved specialists from all the ASEAN countries. Afterwards, I formed linkages with some of the professors at Chiang Mai University and we started some joint research. I maintained that contact and had some Thai lessons.

Then, in about 1997, Monash was part of a consortium that successfully bid for an AusAID project called the Thailand–Australian Science and Engineering Assistance Project (TASEAP). It was funded by a loan to the Thai Government from the World Bank and its aim was to upgrade and equip the science and engineering laboratories in Thailand’s government universities. AusAID funded the capacity-building and procurement processes and our part of that lasted three years. I was one of two long-term advisers appointed in the team working on procurement. As the science adviser, I was based in Bangkok for two and a half years of the project and my role was to interact with the deans of about 21 different universities. In that role, I made a lot of links with Thai universities.

That was the first time I encountered the Mekong River Commission, which at that time was based in Bangkok. We were interested in how they were doing procurements. About a year later, I was contacted by a colleague who had done some work for the Mekong River Commission (MRC) because they were looking for an international environment specialist to work with their environment program. On winning that job, I went over to Cambodia and spent the first three years at the MRC headquarters in Phnom Penh and then we were moved to Vientiane, where I spent another year and a half working on a whole variety of things around the environment program.

Next, I worked for a year and a half in Papua New Guinea at the Ok Tedi Mine. Then, I came back to Melbourne and worked for about 4.5 years with GHD, a professional service company.

After that, I returned to my own business, Rhithroecology, which I had set up in the 1990s as a vehicle for some consulting work and allowed to be dormant for the time I was overseas. ‘Rhithroecology’ specialises in freshwater ecology — anything to do with rivers particularly. The name comes from the Greek, rhithrom, which means the flowing part of rivers, the upstream part of rivers — effectively, river ecology. In Australia, Rhithroecology has worked on alpine aquatic insects and management issues, primarily in ski resorts, and on river monitoring such as in the Goulburn River in Victoria. Overseas, we have just done the invertebrate part of a big environmental flows project on the Mekong and we’ve also been involved elsewhere evaluating environmental flows proposals, and as an expert in legal cases.

What was it like working on knowledge transfer in Thailand?

It’s a really demanding experience, going to work in a completely different country, in a completely different cultural and political environment.

The Mekong is a very interesting and important region, both because the Mekong is one of the world’s largest rivers in terms of discharge and also because the river runs through a politically challenging environment. This area has endured severe conflicts: the American war in Vietnam, wars in Cambodia, and wars in Lao. The area experiences clashes of influence between countries, such as the United States and China, which occupies part of the Upper Mekong and difficult interactions between the region’s countries themselves — with Thailand and Vietnam on different sides during the American war. Thailand hosted US bases and the Americans were fighting the current Vietnamese government, There were also clashes between Vietnam and China.

In terms of knowledge transfer, when I first went to the Mekong region in the late 1980s not very much was known about the Mekong River itself. There had been taxonomic studies on the fish and we knew it had a highly diverse fish fauna with something like 800 described species (people speculate there could be well over 1000 species when the taxonomy is finished). Also, there had been long-term efforts to gather hydrological data on the river, set up in the times of French colonialism and there had been a project mapping a lot of the river. But, the data had never been digitised.

Other knowledge was hard to find as well, and that was partly because of the troubled history. In the Khmer Rouge period, almost everybody in Cambodia who was qualified — teachers, academics, government officials for instance — had either left the country or been killed. I think there were only eight doctors in the whole country at the time the Khmer Rouge were displaced; and even after that, many of those who had left didn’t come back. Also, written records were scarce because those held at the National Library of Cambodia had been destroyed.

What was research like at the universities?

None of the Mekong countries had a strong research culture at the universities. Vietnam and Thailand were strongest but English was not their first language. Many Thai universities recognised the need to publish and therefore set up their own journals: on general topics and some science journals. Academics had to publish in their university’s own journals. However, the journals were not indexed and were not in computer databases, so were not widely distributed. For example, none of the university libraries we looked at had all the journals from the other universities, which added to the difficulty of finding out what had been studied and what was known about the Mekong region.

Another example: during TASEAP, we invited a librarian to come and talk about the importance of cataloguing and information management, to an audience of scientists and engineers. She arranged a workshop at which the participants could access some of the big worldwide databases. We asked them to search for any information they could find about pollution in the Mae Klong River, which is a river in Thailand. In an hour of searching, they found nothing … and then we were able to show them at least seven papers with some very good data, all published in Thai university journals.

Everybody in Thailand and Asia was very enthusiastic about online data searching and using computer databases and so on. But, the important point is that while these global databases are very useful for global information, a lot of local information never gets indexed there and you need to use other tools and search other places to find that information.

Journal subscriptions are expensive and universities in those areas are relatively poor, with not much money for their libraries. There has not been a strong culture, certainly in Thailand and Lao, of reading and doing library research. Libraries tend not to be highly valued (as can also be the case in Australia). When I was teaching part of a Master of Environmental Economics course at Chulalongkorn University, which is one of the most wealthy and prestigious universities in Thailand, I included a class exercise where groups of three or four students would each be given a scientific article to read and understand. Then, the next week, the group would have to do a presentation on the article. My objective was for them to read and see the value of journal articles — something none of them had experienced as undergraduates. Unfortunately, the university library had no ecological journals, even though the university had departments of Biology and Marine Biology and quite a few ecologists working there. The library had just started to subscribe to Ecology, this was in about the year 2000, so for the class exercise, I had to use articles taken from Science, which tended to be short and not as good as a full ecological journal article. The aim was to encourage students to start to look at and read journal articles and to use scientific literature.

Things may have changed by now but I notice you still do not see much ecological literature coming from the universities in the Mekong region.

Were people interested in working in ecology and biology?

Ecology and that sort of organismal biology were not popular in academic institutions in the region. There is a boost in biology now, however, mainly because of genetics, which is seen as potentially quite lucrative.

Ecology was not seen as a desirable career for several reasons: (i) you had to be outside, which tended to make your skin dark (which is considered an issue) and exposed you to hot uncomfortable conditions; (ii) people were quite nervous about going into the forest, possibly for fear of rebel groups there given the recent history of Cambodia. However, in Thailand, the forests were also not thought attractive places.

The preference was to get a job in an air-conditioned office, in a career that would be financially rewarding: computing, business or engineering, for example. It is interesting that most of the academics in Thailand are women — maybe 60% or 70% — and on being asked why they say: “The men all want to go and work in business because you make more money,” and that’s understandable. These countries have historically been quite poor. Thailand is the wealthiest of the Lower Mekong countries and it’s doing quite well economically but it’s still relatively poor compared to Australia. There is a quite strong incentive for people to have careers that will make money, so they can support their families. Most students in university would still probably be the first generation of their family to go into higher education.

Another interesting aspect was the lack of interest in research. At Mekong River Commission, I wanted to foster research into the Mekong by local institutions. At the end of every talk, I made the point that the MRC was keen to encourage research on any aspect of the Mekong and if people had proposals they wanted to put up, we would be happy to look at funding them. I gave invited talks about the MRC or the Mekong at probably 10 or 12 universities in the four and a half years I was there … and in that whole time, only three people approached me asking for research funding.

In Australia, we don’t appreciate, because it’s so embedded in our culture, that we have had around 50 years of graduate students working on aspects of rivers and ecology — it could be fish ecology or leaves falling in the river, or the carbon, the hydrology and so on. But you don’t get that in the Mekong, not for the river, nor for anything else.

Of the three applicants the MRC funded, one was a Cambodian guy studying at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, who wanted to look at pesticide use around a lake. One of them was an Australian girl, Isabel Beasley, who was working on dolphins in the Mekong. The rule was that for people who were not citizens of the riparian countries, the MRC would contribute funding towards their work in the riparian countries. So, we provided Isabel with funding to employ local people to help in her research and for local travel and expenses. The third applicant was a Cambodian student at Monash University, who was helped with his PhD fees at Monash and then his in-country work on primary production and lake food webs. It was frustrating and saddening that we did not get more proposals from local people and local universities, even though we were actively seeking them.

What has been your experience in working on the ecology of the Mekong River?

The Mekong River Commission and similar bodies setting up new work need to find people who have the capacity to do the tasks involved. We were very keen always to use local people and that was very difficult when I first set up bio-monitoring. The MRC was able to train people in sampling techniques and data analysis, but they could not employ someone to learn about organisms — say aquatic insects, or algae — or to learn how to identify them. So for the monitoring, we needed to find someone who could already identify suitable organisms and finding that person determined the organisms we would sample.

We wanted to bio-monitor using methods approved in Australia and Northern America, Europe and elsewhere. In Victoria, Australia, for instance, the Environment Protection Authority has a procedure whereby you sample aquatic invertebrates from mid-stream and from the river edge and you identify them into families. We wanted to do a similar sort of thing in the Mekong. First, we needed to decide what organisms to monitor. Should it be aquatic insects, phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, or something else?

We found a guy from Chiang Mai University who could identify diatoms, a form of attached algae. We found a couple of people from Lao who could identify aquatic insects, and we found a girl from Vietnam who could identify zooplankton. Fish would have been a very good indicator because they’re very important in the Mekong, but we could not find anyone from the region’s countries who would be available and able to identify the fish. With around 800 species in that basin, it’s quite a problem to identify them all.

Some of the country governments said: “We want our own national teams.” But we simply couldn’t find their own people to do the work.

Identification was one constraint on what we could do and there were others, both physical and cultural.

The Mekong River is three kilometres wide which makes sampling quite a challenge. The most straightforward means of sampling would have been something like electro-fishing, but electro-fishing is illegal in all the Mekong countries, as it is in Australia.

There was also a cultural constraint to sampling fish. In Australia, if we had permission to do a survey for the Fisheries Department by electro-fishing, we would tell any curious local fishermen that “We’re doing a survey for the Fisheries Department,” and the fishermen would say: “Oh, OK.”

But in the Mekong region, anyone who sees you with government people doing electro-fishing will assume you’re poaching, and telling them otherwise will not convince them because there’s a lot of illegal activity and sometimes people from government facilitate it or are involved.

For bio-assessment, the lack of capacity was the biggest challenge and yet capacity building in these countries was also very challenging and remains so. This is partly because the education systems are fairly weak. Capacity building cannot really succeed until the whole education system has been improved.

For example, in Australia if we wanted to develop expertise in a particular type of science that is done very well in America or China, say, we could employ a Chinese or American expert to collaborate with scientists working here in a complementary or related field. Once the required techniques had been shared, they could be applied and shared more widely. However, in the Mekong region, the poor quality of schooling meant it was difficult to find someone who could pick up such ecological skills. People who were capable would often learn the skills and then leave the government system and go into private consulting rather than teaching others. You would be left to repeat the whole process all over again with a new group of people coming out of the school system.

Another complication within the Mekong River Commission was the decision that the organisation’s function should include capacity-building for the region, and they set a limit on intake. Any person from the four Mekong countries that got employed at MRC could only be employed for three years, with the potential to have that extended for another three years: a maximum of six years. In practice, it took two or three years to train somebody, and that person could then stay at MRC for another three years but then they had to leave … so you’d have to start training all over again. This made it very difficult to build up capacity in the organisation.

What other differences have you seen when working in Australia and overseas?

When you go into the region as a foreigner, to live or work there, you are often surprised because of things you don’t think of that are very different between our cultures. It’s interesting. All the differences I’ve mentioned were challenging and the way they affected our work varied from time to time and project to project … and there were other challenging differences too.

One was that people often do not appreciate the difference in socio-economic conditions between Australia and the Mekong. The Mekong region has vast numbers of subsistence users of natural resources. Unlike in Australia, where inland fishing is largely recreational, the fishermen on the Mekong depend on fishing for their livelihood. When a river barrier, such as a dam, is put in on a river in the Murray-Darling Basin, the reduced access for fish is a conservation issue for that stretch of river and it may cause some fishermen to be angry. In the Mekong, a dam may mean people will starve because they have lost their complete livelihood. That is also the situation in Papua New Guinea.

Another challenge was the difficult relations between jurisdictions along the river. Although in Australia we see clashes between our states from time to time, especially along the Murray and Darling Rivers, there’s nothing like the suspicion that can exist between countries that have recently been at war. There was great suspicion, and considerable concern, in the Mekong countries to maintain their national place. For example, now, for the first time, the MRC has a CEO from one of the four member countries. That has been achieved only by having a system whereby the CEO’s position will rotate through the countries in order. The first person is from Vietnam, and the next will be from Thailand, and so on. The position cannot be advertised.

Then there are differences in what is culturally acceptable or not. For instance, there was a guy from Australia in his late 30s/early 40s applying for a position at MRC. He had considerable relevant experience gained at the Murray-Darling Basin Commission (forerunner of the MDB Authority), having been in a very significant role with great responsibilities. However, when he came to be interviewed for the job, the senior person on the interview committee said: “We can’t possibly appoint him, he’s too young! This is a senior position. We can’t possibly have someone that young.” It didn’t matter that he was easily the best qualified and the most impressive candidate we interviewed. Seniority and age are really critical for many people within the Mekong region cultures.

Is it possible to see impacts your work in the region has had on the local communities?

That’s not easy to answer because impacts often don’t show up until some time after a project ends. I think that is one of the problems with development projects and the ‘short-termism’ we have in Australia’s political situation. Aid agencies in any country are always looking for evidence that aid has had an impact, within two or three years of a project.

I think the TASEAP project I was involved in around 2000 had quite an impact. As I mentioned, we worked with the seans in science faculties, who identified particular areas they wanted to develop. There were around seven different fields and every faculty participated in three of those. And on top of those, they all wanted basic maths, science, biology and chemistry. Well, about three years ago, I was sitting on a plane next to a woman I recognised whom we had recruited to work on the computing component — and she was still working with those same Thai universities. And I’ve also heard from several others that the chemistry groups are still going. This shows we have had a real impact on the research and teaching in several Thai universities, that have been maintained 15 years after the project finished.

At the time of TASEAP, one of the staff in the Thai universities said to us that he thought the project would make a very big difference to the work in his university, but that you wouldn’t see the difference for ten years because they had to wait until the senior staff retired before they could implement these things.

Patience is necessary then, to achieve change in this region?

The great king of Thailand, King Chulalongkorn (1853 – 1910), is the man credited with modernising Thailand. He was a really interesting guy. He fended off the colonial nations’ colonising ambitions, and one of the ways he did that was by doing a tour through Europe. Once he had been received at the Royal Courts in Great Britain and Russia, France and Germany, those countries could no longer pretend that Thailand was a nation of savages that could just be taken over, because they’d recognised the ruler. So that was clever.

The story was, when King Chulalongkorn first came to power, he wanted to change things and make things more efficient but when he started to do that he ran into massive resistance from the powerful families that held the senior positions in the Thai government at the time. And so he stopped. For 30 years he did nothing. He let things go on in the ways they always had but over those 30 years, he put his brothers into all the key positions and then at the end of 30 years, when he had secured all the key positions, then he made his changes.

The important thing was that he was patient. But, through all that period when he wasn’t doing anything, he didn’t lose his vision. It was always a plan: “This is what I’m going to do, but in order to do it I need to take my time, get the key people into place; then I can implement it.”

I’m impressed by his patience, but I’m also impressed by the fact that he didn’t get sucked in by the existing system, which would have been so easy to do. He maintained his vision of what he wanted to achieve, but acknowledged: “I just have to wait my time ‘til I can successfully bring that change about.”

Do you have advice for people hoping to work and ‘make a difference’ in the Mekong region?

I think it is important to remember that lots of projects start out with very grand ideas and people go into them thinking they’re going to make a huge change and have a huge influence. But they won’t — at least to begin with. You have to focus on helping one person, or on making one small change, and hope to have ‘planted some seeds’ that can lead to a bigger change in the future.

Relationships are very important in that region. Everything depends on who you know over there, just as it does over here in Australia, so it’s a matter of trying to develop some linkages. That might involve making some trips to the Mekong region to meet people. It might involve getting in contact with people in Australia who have already worked there and trying to link up with them. You need to be patient, but you need to meet people and to get known. It happens equally here, but it’s even more important over there and you may need to do something different than you would do here to get your foot in the door.

You need to get involved, participate in workshops and those sorts of activities, over there if you can afford that, so you can get known by the people there. That then becomes very important when you’re applying for projects.

That’s pretty much how I got started. I had done some work with the Thais and they knew me, and my experience of working in Thailand then allowed me to get the job within the Mekong River Commission, because one of their criteria was to know something about, or have worked in, that region.

This whole Australia-SE Asia region is a very important part of the world. South-East Asia has got really big challenges and people in Australia have a lot of experience and understanding and knowledge that can helpfully contribute to that area.

But we need to be very sensitive about the way that we offer that knowledge, because just as we wouldn’t welcome someone coming from another country and telling us they know everything, the people in that region are not looking for Australians to come in and tell them what to do. But we do have some very valuable skills and understanding about water, and making that available to people in SE Asia is I think a really important and useful thing that Australia can do.

This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN

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