Notes from the Field

Asia’s Environmental Leaders Explore Water Resource Management along the Columbia River

October 15, 2010

For a group of environmental professionals who recently visited the U.S. from seven different countries in Asia, management of water resources was a unifying concern.

The delegation embarked on a nine-day study tour, organized by The Asia Foundation’s Asian American Exchange (AAX) and flew to Washington State to explore water resource issues along the Columbia River.

Participants from seven Asia country's visit the Grand Coulee Dam to study water resource management issues.

Participants from seven Asia country's visit the Grand Coulee Dam to study water resource management issues.

In different ways, each of the study tour participants is a leader in helping to address critical environmental concerns in their respective countries: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. While some work for government environmental agencies, others work for international and locally-based environmental NGOs.  Yet despite the diversity of their professional backgrounds – from environmental law to public administration – and their home country’s vastly different environmental concerns, each member of the group had a common interest in exploring different approaches to environmental concerns related to water.  Whether it is addressing the impact of hydro-electric dams along the Mekong River, reducing the pollution of waterways in cities like Dhaka and Colombo, or holding mining companies accountable for their impact on rivers and streams in Mongolia, the challenging tasks faced by these environmental leaders in their everyday work often revolve around this critical resource.

The Columbia River is the fourth-largest river in North America, and its drainage basin covers 260,000 square miles in seven U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, and dozens of tribal territories.  The water that flows through the river and its tributaries is a valued resource shared by diverse and often competing interest groups.  Hydro-power dams provide flood-control and affordable, renewable electricity to cities like Seattle and Spokane.  Water that is diverted for irrigation has converted thousands of acres of arid land into a prosperous agricultural region.  However, these dams and water diversion projects have had an adverse affect on natural ecosystems and have nearly decimated the migrating salmon population, which, beyond its economic value, is particularly important for sustaining the culture and livelihood of many Native American tribal communities in the region.  With so many interests at stake in this multi-jurisdictional setting, management of water resources in the Columbia River Basin is a complicated and contentious issue.

Participants meet with Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission's Billy Frank, Chairman (seated) and Jim Peters, Habitat Policy Analyst (back row).

It is this complexity that made the Columbia River the perfect case study for these professionals to explore environmental policy in the U.S. Beginning in eastern Washington and progressing downriver toward the river’s mouth, the delegates met with experts, including specialists from the agriculture industry, hydro-electric companies, environmental interest groups, and Native American tribal organizations as well as state and local agencies charged with management of water resources.  They got a first-hand look at the Columbia River, the large hydro-electric dams, irrigated farmlands, and fish ladders designed to mitigate the dams’ impact on migrating salmon.

Each person and place on the trip told a complex story of water rights management in which the delegates found many parallels to water issues in their home countries.  Although, as Mr. Sokha Ros, senior municipal program advisor with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Cambodia, pointed out after a visit to a state-of-the-art water treatment plant in Spokane, Washington, some of the solutions to environmental problems that they saw during the trip might not be available in countries with more limited financial resources, the various approaches for arriving at those solutions were instructive and relevant.  The delegates were particularly engaged in discussions on methods of civic participation, using scientific data to inform decision-making, and building political consensus to more adequately account for environmental and social-welfare costs in water resource management decisions.  For example, a meeting with Rick Roeder, the Columbia River Unit Supervisor for the Washington State Department of Ecology, stimulated a long and interesting dialogue on “adaptive management,” a structured decision-making process in which natural resource management decisions are made through continued collection and evaluation of data and, as Mr. Roeder emphasized, through consensus building and collaboration between stakeholders.

For many of the delegates, a highlight of their experience was a meeting with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC), an organization that provides both technical assistance as well as advocacy services for 20 Native-American tribes in western Washington State to support their role as natural resource co-managers.  Billy Frank, chairman of NWIFC, and Jim Peters, a habitat policy analyst, spoke about the unique perspective and concerns of tribal groups for whom salmon fisheries form a central part of their way of life and cultural identity.  The delegation was impressed with the advances that tribal groups have made in getting their voices heard and in influencing water resource management decisions in the Columbia River Basin.  Following heartfelt presentations by Frank and Peters, several of the delegates remarked that they had a new-found appreciation for the needs of the minority populations in their own countries whose way of life is similarly closely tied to the use of natural resources.  While the goal of their trip to the U.S. was to learn about policy mechanisms related to natural resource management, the stories and the first-hand perspectives that were shared during the study tour were, in this way, more personal and dynamic than a mere textbook study of environmental policy.

Oliver Petzold is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Asian-American Exchange program and can be reached at opetzold@asiafound.org. He accompanied these seven participants, alumni of the University of California Berkeley Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program, on this trip to Washington State.

Read about Blog Action Day’s 2010 focus on water.

View all posts by Oliver Petzold

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