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Integrating learning away-from-work into return-to-work plans – an innovative approach to action the benefits of training

Reflections on the Multiscale Integrated River Basin Management training program by Frederick Bouckaert

Taking three weeks out of a busy work schedule, pushing aside important commitments, and convincing your workplace that it is worth it to apply for a highly competitive Multiscale Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM) training program, requires courage and convincing. One of the key components of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) training program was the return-to-work planning that was built into the program from the start.

The return-to-work component of the Multiscale IRBM program is a coaching component tailored to each participant and their individual and organisational needs. This included post-training coaching activity to follow up and engage participants in a joint Zoom coaching session, where they had an opportunity to present plans on how they were using the knowledge from the IRBM training in their work. An integral part of the program is to ensure the training received will have optimal impact and this impact is evaluated.

The multiscale approach outlined in the IRBM program illustrates the need to understand how impacts of climate change in the upstream parts of the basin can cascade further downstream. This was exemplified by the issue of freshwater springs drying up in the upper parts of the Koshi River Basin, reducing streamflow availability downstream. Conversely, glacial lake outburst flooding (GLOF) resulting from enhanced glacier melt requires early warning systems to be developed.

Return-to-work planning starts with collecting information on the expectations of participants of the training program and its components, regarding how the training will enhance their professional skill set and allow them to incorporate learnings into their professional roles and objectives of their workplace. These expectations are revisited at the end of the training, and several months after their return to work.

The training, consisting of nine modules, aimed to offer multiscale interdisciplinary perspectives of IRBM that simultaneously address 3 dimensions of knowledge (expertise), values (ethics) and praxis (experience). These three dimensions were reflected in the training through a mixture of theory, discussions, and demonstrations of application via a field trip to the Koshi River Basin in Nepal, representing issues in the HKH region, and an exposure tour in the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia, to compare, contrast and challenge some of the salient issues in each of these basins.

At the start, asking participants on how they will use their training across the three dimensions seemed overwhelming, especially combined with the busy training schedule. But as the training progressed, and participants also started learning from each other, the return-to-work plans started to emerge and take shape. Participants discovered how they would find entry points to apply their learning in their personal roles at work, as well as disseminate their insights to colleagues and embed this into their work culture.

By sharing their workplace challenges and discussing the training content and how it was reflected in basin management, the group dynamics evolved to a realisation that even after the end of the program participants could continue knowledge exchange and support each other in the challenges faced with applying IRBM principles in different contexts, situations, and organisations.

Discussing early warning systems for flash floods in the Koshi Basin: a huge management issue in many parts of the HKH region. A pulse detector warns a community coordination volunteer of rising water levels in the streambed. Once validated, this information is passed on to downstream communities for evacuation purposes.

The return-to-work plans spanned five countries and twelve different organisations, ranging from universities, conservation NGOs to government officials in departments of water, energy, and irrigation. Out of the twelve participants, ten attended a joint coaching session in November 2022, two months after completing the training. This two-hour session was an opportunity for each of them to share their return-to-work plans, as part of an emerging Community of Practice, which keeps in contact through a WhatsApp group.

The coaching session was inspiring for all involved and through presenting to colleagues, participants were encouraged to make their plans specific, tailored to organisational projects and programs, and providing targets and timelines. Only in that way would the plans provide value to their organisations, but also to each other for further collaboration and networking purposes.

The themes emerging in the plans included objectives for biodiversity conservation, water security, water diplomacy, nature-based solutions, stakeholder engagement and gender equality, disability and social inclusion (GEDSI). Depending on participants’ programs and positions, tools and strategies to achieve these objectives within a timeframe were also presented.

For one participant, the training was incorporated into a Master training program, which focussed on GLOF. He included water diplomacy and GEDSI into his , undertaken in Japan with the aim of developing strong collaboration networks with Pakistan, his home country. For others, learnings could be incorporated into existing projects and programs, or inspired them to explore hydrological or social learning tools to advance their program objectives.

Most significantly, despite a wide divergence in primary objectives of organisations and participants’ roles, the importance of developing a common language IRBM in the KHK region will foster greater collaboration across rivers, countries, regions, and institutions. In that context, participants have taken on the challenge of providing leadership by adopting and promoting their learnings back home in a multitude of ways, including adaptation to impacts of climate change on water management.

In an age where climate change requires flexible learning and adjustment of tools, models, knowledge and adapting experience to changing conditions, these learning modalities create an opportunity for training participants to remain connected and develop a community of practice through sharing their successes and challenges.

We wish to acknowledge the Australian Water Partnership (AWP) and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) for funding this project, and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Alluvium, the International Water Centre at Griffith University and RiverReach Consulting for developing and delivering this project.


Featured image: Learning about protection of ecological assets and its biodiversity through delivery of environmental flows – Barma-Millewah forest visit in August 2022, along the Murray River, Australia.
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