Prof. Dr. Khin-Ni-Ni Thein interview: applying integrated water management in the Ayeyarwady river basin

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]An interview with Professor Ni-Ni Thein, secretary of the National Water Resources Committee (NWRC), the peak body for integrated water resources management in Myanmar.  She discusses the State of the Basin Assessment and Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management program and the need for building trust with international partners and the citizens of Myanmar to be successful. She also shares some lessons from the 3rd Asia Pacific Water Summit

Prof. Ni Ni has close to 40 years’ experience in the water sector and is the founder and president of the Water, Research and Training Centre (WRTC), before her current role. Teh WRTC has been conducting public interest water research in Myanmar since 1997. Currently, she is the secretary to the advisory group, as well as a member of the National Water Resources Committee (NWRC), which is a peak body for Integrated Water Resources Management in Myanmar.

Interview topics

  • Overview of the work on the State of the Basin Assessment (SOBA) report on the Ayeyarwady Basin which was launched at the 3rd Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Myanmar, and next steps.
  • Experiences working with international collaborators
  • The value of having the 3rd Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Myanmar, and the opportunity offered by the Yangon Declaration
  • Achieving water security combined with the SDGs
  • Final comments and where to find out more about AIRBM and SOBA

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The State of the Basin Assessment, SOBA, was launched on 10 December here in Myanmar at the 3rd Asia-Pacific Water Summit. Speaking from your experience, what has been happening over the past two years, and what’s about to happen in the future of this project on the Ayeyarwady Basin?

When we started SOBA, the State of the Basin Assessment for the Ayeyarwady Basin, it was really a dream that only a few professionals understood. We needed to do a lot of consultations at various levels to get the consensus among key stakeholders which eventually convinced the government that SOBA is something we have to do. SOBA is the starting point for very meaningful and sustainable development in Myanmar.

There has been a lot of groundwork, attending to small details and many time-consuming matters, and we have overcome all that. We met the challenge of setting up SOBA without any preliminary data. In order to cope this huge challenge, we constructed the SOBA in such a way by dividing the SOBA study into six thematic packages and inviting experts to apply their best knowledge and relevant experience to each.

  • Package 1 covers surface water resources, and makes a start on the task of exploratory basin planning, though we didn’t mention that at first; we just asked for a surface water budget.
  • Package 2 is on groundwater, and also WISDM — the water information system for data management.
  • Package 3 is about sediment transportation, morphology, and the physical topography of the whole Ayeyarwady River system.
  • Package 4 covers biodiversity, ecosystem and environmental issues.
  • Package 5 deals with socioeconomics at the macro level: that is, macroeconomics, macro-socioeconomics. This package looks at the implications of the development of the whole Ayeyarwady Basin: the current situation, and what is likely to happen with SOBA or without SOBA. Therefore, package 5 is very important for communicating with decision-makers, because of its focus on economics and policy.
  • Package 6 is also important, because it takes the scientific evidence we get it from SOBA 1 to 5, and uses it in communication with the people of the region. That is university people, and people who live in the villages and small towns along the river and elsewhere in the basin. For this communication, people needed to be able to visualise the basin, so we made a relief map and later a big physical static model of the river basin. That has been a very successful idea, initiated by the SOBA experts. It really helps people understand the basin, and has helped our communication gain the intended impact. Moreover, participants of every consultation got excited just by seeing their Ayeyarwady in three-dimensional scale model laying on the floor. They stand by the relief map and start communicating, advising, and of course arguing the issues close to their life.

All that was an early stage of the SOBA. Now the SOBA Report fills more than 1500 pages, in two volumes: the Synthesis report, Volume 1, with the key messages of each SOBA package; and the Comprehensive Report, Volume 2. The SOBA Report is very comprehensive, being the result of inputs by more than 25 organisations and more than 120 highly experienced professionals.

For Myanmar, SOBA is just a beginning, on which we now are basing the Basin Exploratory Scoping Study (BESS), which will contribute to the Basin Master Plan.

In summary, we have gathered the data, and ‘state of the art’ situation from six different angles (themes), and put those into the data bank (WISDM). We aim that 90% of the data we are collecting will be able to be shared as open-source. Only data related to national security and sovereignty (expected to be about 10% of the total) will be kept confidential, for use by the authorities only.

After this, we want to prepare the Basin Master Plan, which can really help Myanmar’s Gross Domestic Product. We aim to measure the impact on GDP not only in dollars but also in environmental sustainability and people’s participation – inclusive decision making.

In preparing the SOBA Report we have already begun that culture of participation. The people certainly participated: they asked many questions, some about current situations and some based on past experiences, driven by fear and sometimes with grudges. For example: “Here you come; what do you want? Are you going to do what you want, and you are going to tell us that it is for the country’s benefit? But we are the people who suffer!”

We have explained the project, and our findings and assessments, and we used that relief map. And we have given a guarantee that our methods are not like those of the past. This is a new thing; a new beginning. And we will keep that promise, not to do things that are harmful to the environment, and to negotiate. We need to overcome the culture of distrust.

I do understand that just because I say to you or anyone, “Please believe me, ”there is no reason why they should. Therefore, our words will be backed by our deeds. To all these people who participated in our public consultation meetings, I promised that whatever we said and promised, we would keep to it, and not violate it. We ask them to watch, monitor, and decide for themselves because I cannot tell them to trust us overnight. There has been so much betrayal of promises. People from the highest level, as well as professionals and people at the grassroots level, have all broken promises in the past. It had become a kind of norm, so people’s distrust is deep-rooted. We have to change.

Tell us about working with international collaborators, in relation to the AIRBM Project and SOBA. Could the SOBA process be applied elsewhere?

If we want the international community to help us, we have to be able to offer an enabling environment. That enabling environment in IWRM (integrated water resources management)is mainly based on legislation and policy to protect foreign investors. Personally, I think we need to go a bit further. Yes, for international investors we need laws and regulations and policies and guarantees and trusted banks and insurance and reinsurance, and so on. But we also need laws and regulations for the people, the citizens of Myanmar, to keep our environment clean, and to keep our investors and development partners happy.

However, this is a very delicate issue because although we want to keep our international advisers and development partners and research partners happy, we don’t want to do that at all costs. By that I mean, if we promise something we must keep that promise and show that we Burmese are very trustworthy. We must not promise things we cannot deliver. We can keep the balance between aiming to please the international community and keeping the promises. For example, if we say yes, yes, yes to everything the international community wants us to do, there will be something we cannot deliver.

Therefore, Myanmar needs to engage in building the capacity of our own people, only then our capabilities will make us less likely to be at risk of overpromising when dealing with the international community in many areas and many different forms. We have good researchers, whose focus is not on money but on research, teaching, training. Our human resources, our people, our researchers, need to be able to talk freely with the international teams, and for that, we need to expand our people’s skills in English, and in computer science, and in water sciences. Then we can understand and work together, sit at the same monitor and run the same model, and talk the same language. For that, we really need a lot of capacity building.

So, I will be very happy if international investors understand the situation and start suitable investment procedures. Yes, we need their help, but we also hope they will understand our situation. Instead of only being willing to help us after we are ready, we hope they will first help us get ready to work together.

What we look for is integrated thinking and integrated participation from our international collaborators. For most people in the project, it doesn’t matter where they sit to work. They can be in a hotel, or a rented house, so long as they are thinking as participants in an integrated team, not with a silo approach. A lot of the SOBA experts work from home, so it should not matter to international collaborators that any one place has not enough desks or work-spaces for them. Only the staff of the Secretariat and of the Hydro-Informatics Centre, and of the Advisory Group need to work together in shared space. In fact, we now have the land for the AIRBM (Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management) Project office, and we have let the tender for the design and construction process.

Our aim for the Basin Master Plan is to have it completed by 2020. That is not a long time, but we don’t have the luxury of time because our country needs this to be ready soon. For the SOBA Report, we decided to try and complete it in less than one year … and we did it, thanks to the help and cooperation of all our SOBA experts! As you know, the SOBA Report was launched during this 3rd Asia-Pacific Water Summit, on 10 December 2017.

Currently, we have set another short-term goal for an output with a big impact: three months to complete the Exploratory Scoping Study. We want to have it done by the end of March 2018. Then that work will flow into the Basin Master Plan.

It would be feasible to apply our SOBA process elsewhere. For the Salween River, which is partly in Myanmar and partly in China and Thailand, we could do the research on our Myanmar part, and the part in China would need to be researched by others, and we could join forces. We are researchers without borders.

Of course, what is needed is time and financial assistance. I’m sure there are a lot of researchers who are already interested. The SOBA process should be usable in Africa or some other parts of Asia, and in Europe. I think it is 100% applicable and replicable.

What does it mean for the people and government to have such a high-level forum, the 3rd Asia-Pacific Water Summit, happening here in Myanmar, in Yangon? What opportunities have arisen?

I am thrilled, personally. Everybody, including the delegates, and the current and the former Presidents of Myanmar, and even the people who serve the coffee and clean the floor, we are all sharing the joy of having this summit here. I would say it’s joy, joy. It’s international joy, Asia-Pacific joy, and Myanmar’s joy and our workforce’s joy. As I said to the Minister, even I am beaten physically by someone at this moment that couldn’t take away my happiness at this summit, because my happiness is bigger than anything. The happiness links us all — scientists, engineers, water professionals — it’s called (a moment of) Gross National Happiness (GNH), and that nowadays is used as a measure of the development of a country. So I think we are really on the good path to national development!

For development, we have to have science and evidence-based consultation with the people so that there is inclusive decision making. People have to understand what they are doing, and why they are doing it and what they will get out of it, and what are likely to be the hardships that we will have to bear. Altogether, that is happiness. Happiness doesn’t depend on everything being OK, with no problems, no quarrels, no failures. Real happiness is the deep understanding of what we are doing, why we are doing it, knowing where we want to go, and whether we are on the right track. That is happiness.

Therefore, holding this 3rd APWS in Myanmar gives us the feeling that yes, something has changed in our country. We can all see the change: it is real. That is why we have called our APWS declaration ‘The Pathway Forward’. The declaration itself is the Yangon Declaration, on ‘water security for sustainable development’, and the explanation of that declaration is ‘The Pathway Forward’.

In drafting the declaration, we distributed it to the organisers of this summit, and we consulted experts, both local and international, and the Advisory Group members, and the Government of Myanmar. That was the first round. As the second round, we sent it to the other governments who are attending the summit, and of course the Secretariat – which is the Joint Secretariat between the NWRC Secretariat (this is at the Union Government Level), the Asia-Pacific Water Forum, and the Yangon Regional Government.

We feel the issue we raise in this 3rd APWS is not isolated to Myanmar. It is based on the 1st APWS that was held in Japan and on the 2nd APWS in Thailand. In fact, this summit here has the largest attendance so far: 300 people were at each of the first two summits and there are nearly 700 people here — by far the largest audience and participation. The current issues are based on the progress made since the last APWS.

We feel that we have discussed the issues. We feel that we have found possible solutions. We know that there is no ‘one size fits all’, so people will take away these possible solutions to their own countries and try them out and sort out their own problems. The main thing is that we will all come back to the next summit with our progress measured by indicators for water security and how much we achieve.

We, water professionals, say that to increase Myanmar’s GDP we must implement IWRM, integrated water resources management. To us it is obvious and logical, but not to everyone. For people who are obsessed with development for itself, we have to show them the research results; they indicated that when you implement IWRM, you get a 9% increase in GDP. It’s very clear. So we can now lay out the options and say: “Well it’s your decision. If you want a 9% increase, do it. If you don’t care about that, that’s up to you.”You see, we have used the scientific evidence base, and the research base, and brought in the community participation and consultations, and then we have gone to the decision-makers. Therefore, we are quite confident that the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will be fulfilled.

How do you see Myanmar achieving the combination of water security and the Sustainable Development Goals?

We believe that Myanmar will do its best to achieve both those targets because this summit was opened by our top leader, the State Councillor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. That shows that the size of the political will is 100%

If you go back to look at her speeches, you can see that she is committed to integrated water resources management, and to water security, and to the fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals.

We have also started two new ways of thinking. First, what do water security and the SDGs mean to the Myanmar economy? The past leaders of our country have focused on an agro-based economy. We support that and we also want to see more: not only good crops of rice and potatoes but also a boost to the whole of Myanmar’s agro-production; also to value-added products and non-perishables, as well as the related industries ranging from cottage industries to those of small and medium-size.

Our second new way of thinking is about greenhouse gas emissions. All these goods need transport. How do we export our horticulture products to the Netherlands, say, in one day? It takes more than one mode of transport, so we need multimode transportation. That means the water highways, water transportation, will become important in the rest of the 21st Century, to minimise our emissions of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. It is ok to use a cargo aeroplane for short-lived goods like flowers, but not for grain.

Then there is the nexus, which is usually called the water–energy–food nexus. But that phrase takes “an assumption” for granted that water will always be there to be managed, and if the water is always there then we have only to choose between food and energy or the combination of food and energy. No, that is not right. We have to start with the water: where to get it sustainably.

It is most important that we develop water, and maintain that water. That’s why in this summit, we talk about the water-energy-food–ecosystem nexus because the ecosystem is the developer of the water and the keeper of the hydrological cycle.

People are talking about the ‘water cycle’, and that’s OK: it is short and simple. To have that water cycle doing well, and doing what it should be doing, we need healthy ecosystems.

Among any final points you may wish to make, can you tell us where we can find out more about the AIRBM project and SOBA?

I would like to thank the Australian Government for giving us the opportunity to speed up SOBA. In everything to do with SOBA, the Australian Government was fundamental. We were newcomers to World Bank projects, and the country had no experience in receiving World Bank funding. Everybody had to learn from scratch, and we found the procurement procedure is a really difficult subject to learn, yet we still had to produce the product in time. I will be always grateful to the Australian Government for its support.

To find out more about our work, you can go to our project AIRBM website ( will give you a lot of information on SOBA. And after reading that, for more information, you can contact us through the web.

And I would like to thank you very much for this Kini interview. You are helping me to reach out to a lot of people, and that is a big opportunity. Thank you.

Further reading:

Yangon Declaration (December 2017). ‘The Pathway Forward’. Third Asia-Pacific Water Summit: ‘Water Security for Sustainable Development’.

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About Prof. Khin Ni-Ni Thein

Professor Ni-Ni Thein is a high-level water professional with close to 40 years’ experience in the water sector. She is the founder and president of the Water, Research and Training Centre (WRTC), which has been conducting public interest water research in Myanmar since 1997.

Currently, she is the secretary to the advisory group, as well as a member of the National Water Resources Committee (NWRC), which is a peak body for Integrated Water Resources Management in Myanmar.

In her many roles, she has used her experience to develop many initiatives aimed at developing the capacity for Integrated Water Management. For example:

  • As the Chief of the Sustainable Water Management Section of the Water Sciences Division at UNESCO, she initiated the Hydroinformatics for Asia (Hi4A) consortium in collaboration with the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok.
  • She also initiated a Research, Development and Dissemination (RD&D) team of Myanmar professionals to promote Green Growth in Myanmar.
  • She is a Patron of the Ayeyarwady River Basin Research Organisation and a steering committee member of the Global Water Partnership based in Stockholm.
  • She was a Senior Advisor on the UNEP Dams and Development Project;

She has academic affiliations including teaching and research work a wide range of universities including:

  • She is a full professor at the International University College GROUP T in Leuven, Belgium;
  • A founding member of the Institute for Civil, Earth and Water Engineering in Yangon, Myanmar.
  • A fellow of the ASEAN Academy of Engineering and Technology.
  • An editorial board member of the ” International Geoinformatics Research and Development Journal “
  • Editor-in-Chief of the translated IUCN “FLOW” book in Burmese
  • She also teaches Global Environmental Governance, River Engineering, and Integrated Water Resources Management at the Yangon Technological University.

The State of the Basin Assessment for the Ayeyarwady river basin

“When we started the SOBA, it was really only a dream and there were few professionals understood the need for it, but we needed to do it. We had to do a lot of consultation to convince the government that it was very necessary to achieve meaningful and sustainable development in Myanmar. That was the starting point”.

The SOBA that Professor Ni Ni Thein refers to, with a ‘tangible sense of excitement’ is a State of the Basin Assessment. It is the first stage of the much larger Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management (AIRBM) project. The Myanmar government has received a US$100 million credit from the World Bank to facilitate it. The different components of the larger project are described here.

“The objective is to help Myanmar develop the institutions and tools needed to enable informed decision making in the management of Myanmar’s water resources and to implement integrated river basin management on the Ayeyarwady. The project supports basin development planning and the development of institutions, the development of monitoring and information systems, and the enhancement of navigation on the Ayeyarwady River”.

For people unfamiliar with the Ayeyarwady River, this State of Knowledge Report “River Health in the Ayeyarwady” is a very comprehensive summary to bring you up to speed.

The SOBA is a comprehensive integrated environmental, social, and economic baseline study for the Ayeyarwady Basin. Because of the recent history of Myanmar, there was significantly less data than for assessments, the SOBA was broken up into six packages to enable experts to assist locals to develop the outputs. The six packages are described in detail here, but to summarise

  • SOBA 1 deals with surface water modelling and the defining water balance volumes including environmental flow requirements.
  • SOBA 2 is about groundwater modelling using Water Integrated Systems Dynamic Modelling (WISDM)
  • SOBA 3 relates to geomorphology and sediment dynamics related to the physical topography of the entire Ayeyarwady River system.
  • SOBA 4 deals with environmental issues such as creating a biodiversity and fisheries assessment of the Ayeyarwady.
  • SOBA 5 is focused on the macro socio-economic situation of the basin. It identifies the implications of different scenarios for the development of different sectors within Myanmar from a whole of basin perspective. It looks at demographics, trends in different industrial sectors, pollution and impacts on GDP. Professor Ni Ni Thein suggests that SOBR 5 is particularly important for communicating the science to policymakers. Josh Tait from Alluvium Consulting wrote an article about his work related to this process.
  • SOBA 6 focuses on the scientific evidence collected from the first 5 sections and communicating with ordinary people in the region such as people who live in the villages and small towns along the river in the basin. It involves developing a portable three-dimensional map to facilitate local consultations about the assessment and the basin plan.

“We had to visualise the basin. So we made a relief map, a large physical static 3D model of the river basin. This was a very successful initiative that was well received. It was helpful in getting understanding from participants and had the intended impact”

More than 25 organisations and over 120 experienced professionals completed work on the SOBA baseline. Ninety per cent of the data is planned will be openly shared, with a small proportion limited due to security-related sovereignty reasons. While the plan is expected to improve Myanmar’s GDP the aim is to understand from both an economic and environmental sustainability perspective.

Following the State of the Basin Assessment, the following activities will take place as:

  • A three-month basin scoping study as described by Professor Ni Ni Thein to assess the sensitivity to change of the information collected by the SOBA baseline and assess the potential trade-offs and synergies needed to respond to risks.
  • A multi-stakeholder forum to facilitate the dialogue between stakeholders from different sectors, as necessary to ensure a successful planning process.
  • The development of a decision support system to enable a better understanding of the physical, environmental, social, and economic implications of planned changes, with respect to factors such as floods, flows, water quality, sediment, and salinity
  • An assessment of the equitability of different basin-wide planning scenarios outlining the distribution of costs, impacts and risks for those living in the basin.
  • The staged development of a Basin Master Plan, identifying existing and future trends and priority needs for the Ayeyarwady Basin, including a basin development strategy.

Professor Ni Ni Thein spoke about the intention to invite public participation, and inclusive decision making to engender a ‘culture of participation’. In the interview, she describes the scepticism that many in Myanmar may have about this process and the need for this culture for the plan to be effective.

“Actually, I understand that when I say people, please believe me. Why should they? We will not violate our word. So please watch, monitor, and make your own assessment…… You know, when at the very high-level people break promises, it becomes a kind of social norm that you can promise anything and then break it. We have to change” .

Relationship building to establish trust for international collaborations

The interview referred to the importance of international support from the Australian and Netherlands governments in developing the capacity for completing the SOBA and enabling the project support from the World Bank to be negotiated.

She discussed the need to start with a focus on the enabling environment, which is often focused on the laws and regulations that build trust with the institutions that invest in the process of development, but also emphasised the importance of maintaining trust with the citizens of Myanmar

“We want to keep our international advisors, development and research partners, happy, but not any means. We show that our promises are trustworthy but we do not promise what we cannot deliver”.

She also referred to the importance of the international community working alongside Myanmar’s human resources if they are going to be successful in meeting their commitments

“I am happy when international investors understand the situation. We need their help and the privilege of understanding the situation and not saying “when you are ready, we will help you”. We want them to make us ready together” .

She also spoke of the challenges of respond to the prevalence of a silo thinking approach in Myanmar and if water resource sector reform is to be achieved at the country level that an integrated approach by the institutions developed by the project is required.

These institutions include:

She referred to the national experience with the process of completing a basin assessment for the Ayeyarwady Basin, which is a river basin confined within Myanmar’s borders, gives some insight into how this approach may be negotiated for a transboundary river basin, such as the Salween River, which is shared with China and Thailand, and the willingness and feasibility of working across borders given the time and financial assistance, following successful experiences in Europe.

The Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Yangon.

Professor Ni Ni Thein referred to the benefits of hosting the 3rd Asia-Pacific Water Summit.

“What would I say we gain, it is international joy, the Asia-Pacific’s joy, and Myanmar’s joy. I was telling the Minister that if he will beat me to death now, I can’t be unhappy, because my happiness is bigger than anything”.

She recommended the idea of ‘Gross National Happiness’ as a measure of development for a country as an appropriate pathway for scientists, engineers, and water professionals to experience this kind of joy.

“Happiness is not saying that everything will be OK, and there will be no problems or failures. Happiness is a deep understanding of what we are doing, why we are doing it, where do we want to go, and are we on the right track? The 3 rd APWS really gives us that feeling that something has changed in Myanmar”

So suggested that the Yangon Declaration made at the summit is a declaration of this pathway forward and the explanation of that declaration is Pathway Forward and how the issues discussed at the APWS are not isolated to Myanmar and suggested a regional vision for water security that manifests differently in each country context.

Professor Ni Ni Thein explains the underlying reasons for implementing IWRM and the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Myanmar, referring to some research that shows that this will result in a 9% increase in GDP.

“If we want to increase the GDP in Myanmar we cannot do it without implementing Integrated Water Resources Management. It is very obvious, it is very logical, but there are some obsessed with development alone, and for those, we have to conduct serious research to convince the decision-makers”.

She suggests that the participation of the State Councillor at the APWS is evidence of the political will in Myanmar of meeting these targets and referred to two national strategic ideas that were reinforced at the conference.

1. The need for Myanmar to shift to a sustainable production-based economy.

2. The importance of good water resource governance and hydrological cycle for addressing the water, energy, food nexus.


Interview Quotes

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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