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Southeast Asian Rivers Under Covid-19 Virus

Experts from across range countries of SE Asia discuss key topics

Discussion on Impacts of Covid-19 Virus upon SE Asian Rivers

In attendance:

(left to right) Mark; Steve; Michael; Oliver


Cambodia - Mark Drew

China - Steve Lockett for Cheng Chen

Indonesia - Michael Risdianto

Laos - Oliver Farrington

Malaysia - Shazana Sharir

Myanmar - Frank Momberg

Thailand - Apinun Suvarnaraksha

Vietnam - Various

(left to right) Shazana, Frank, Apinun, Mark


Adrian Pinder (Mahseer Trust/Bournemouth University)

Christopher Bonzi (WWF Myanmar)

Shawahiq Siddiqui - (India Environmental Law Organisation)

Zau Lunn (FFI Myanmar)


Mark Everard - University West of England/Mahseer Trust


Steve Lockett - Mahseer Trust

Following on from our previous meetings in India and the Indian subcontinent, our final discussion meeting was with representatives of SE Asian mahseer range countries. Beyond the specifics of the impacts of Coronavirus control measures and lockdowns on river habitats, there was plenty of input about how general water use is adding to daily pressures, especially through the Mekong basin. Lack of flow, which some attribute to Chinese dams, while reports from China suggest climate change impacts on important tributaries, are being felt all the way to the delta.

With several major river basins in this region all crossing international borders, there was a focus on transboundary implications of virus actions and wider conservation priorities. Michael Risdianto had comparisons within Indonesia itself: ‘Where I have worked with tribals in Borneo, we have sharpened their traditional conservation and sustainability concerns and linked their ecological potential to the world. We also changed behaviour away from destructive fishing methods being used on a transboundary river. In Java, by comparison, most of the rivers are in a very poor state due to pollution, destructive fishing and non-native fish introductions.’

Summary of Main Points Raised

+ Some countries already coordinating virus responses

+ Chance to learn more about improved habitats

+ Many of the countries have avoided high levels of virus

+ Some reports of improved water and air quality

+ Harvest season over in some places, so food available

+ New frog species discoveries lead to calls for conservation cooperation

+ Lower levels of pollution

- Many reports of people accessing protected areas for food

- Diversion of officers leaving rivers vulnerable

- Loss of fishing markets

- Crash in tourism-related business

- Cross-border markets lost as borders close

- Floodplains expected to be used for farming as some areas need extra food

From Malaysia and Indonesia, reports that enforcement officers in many fields have been co-opted to virus-related work. Shazana Sharir reported ‘illegal trespass appears to be getting closer to protected areas due to lack of enforcement.

Also concerns about the rise of fishing, often using simple or destructive methods. On the Mekong, Mark Drew reported ‘fishing using gill nets and even electro-fishing runs the risk of killing river dolphins, of which there are only around 92 left in the wild.’

Mekong water, as expected, was a shared concern, from Yunnan, China all the way down to Vietnam. From the upper catchment, there has been a prolonged drought, where Steve Lockett reported ‘1.5 million people in Yunnan have a drinking water shortage.’ At the other extreme, areas of Vietnam have no access to freshwater due to ‘the lowest flows ever recorded’ Steve had added. Ollie Farrington said ‘there have been water releases from dams in Laos, with very little warning; in one case, only one hour.’

Paradoxically, energy production in Cambodia has suffered recently, ‘caused by a lack of water in the dams,’ said Mark Drew. Clearly there is a need for greater cooperation throughout the Mekong basin, and to share information to those other areas with shared rivers, so that upstream interventions do not adversely affect life chances of those downstream.

In the final stages of the discussion, attention switched to the various mechanisms under which ecosystem services can be paid upstream. Frank Momberg said there is such a system in Vietnam, where ‘tribal and hill-dwelling communities are paid to ensure forest cover and sediment transportation provide river services’. Shawahiq Siddiqui explained ‘this system is called Decree 99.’ All agreed that there is more to learn from the current situation and that many platforms exist to enable what is termed under RAMSAR ‘wise use’.


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