Interview with Robert Mather

14 December 2011 | Article

Robert Mather, Head of Southeast Asia Group and also Project Manager of IUCN's Building Resilience to Climate Change Impacts-Coastal Southeast Asia (BCR), talked about how the BCR project works with communities on climate change adaptation.

Can you tell us about the project and the link to climate change?
Building Resilience to Climate Change Impacts-Coastal Southeast Asia or BCR for short is working in 8 different provinces along the coastal stretch of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam between the major cities of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh city. The project is all about building resilience at the local level supporting adaptation to climate change impacts. But we have to realize that climate change, though it is becoming increasingly important topic, it's only one of factor of concern at the local level of each of the places we are working. So people already have issues about socio-economic conditions. They already have issues about management of the natural resources and ecosystem, good and services that those resources provide.
Climate change is just one set of additional concerns or issues or drivers of change that have to be considered in the context of the other things that going on. So the trick really is to identify the no-regret actions. These are the things that will provide direct benefit right now but also at the same time make communities and the local ecosystem and habitats that depends on more resilient in the long term as well. So this is what we try to get at.

Can you give some example how does the project works on climate change in local community?
In one particular example, Bang Chan sub-district which is in one of the target provinces in Chanthaburi, Thailand. There are about 3,800 households in 6 different communities. Based on the discussion with the community, one of the main major issues is fresh water supply, drinking water supply. And actually we see that this issue is repeated across the communities we are working in Cambodia and Vietnam as well. So now we are really looking in detail how we can address the issue of water supply in these remote communities living in the mangrove forests. When we examine things in details, there are three or four options that could be possible. One is the option of harvesting rain water. And to some extent, the community already do this already. But they don't harvest enough and they don't have sufficient facilities to be able to collect enough rain water to see them through the whole of the dry season. Bearing in mind that under climate change scenario, the dry season will become longer and hotter and dryer. They will need even more water in the future.
So one option is to look at how much could they really collect for the roofs of their houses and how much storage do they really need in order to store that for the whole of the dry season. It's probably the simplest, the most straightforward solution but when you look into the details of cost, it's actually quite an expensive solution. It would probably require around a thousand dollars investment per family. And we are talking around 700-800 families then that's quite a significant amount of money. Second option would be some kind of well. Obviously if you dig shallow wells in mangrove area, you will only get salty water. So we look into the option of deeper wells going down into the layers of aquifers where you find fresh water. This requires some more investigation and research because for now we don't know exactly the situation of the ground water aquifers in Bang Chan Sub-district. The other main option would be small scale desalination which actually seems to be quite cost-effective process now using the reverse osmosis technique rather the thermal technique. It's just that nobody in this area has experience this so for them it's kind of untested technology and they are a little bit hesitant to make the decision to use this kind of technology without being sure that it will really work.

What is a link to nature-based & community-based solution?
So in all of these cases, what we are after is nature-based and community-based solution to economic development and climate change. You might say that the last of those options that I mentioned, the small scale desalination, is really not nature-based solution, isn't it? It's more technology-bases solution. But at the same time. We would set up such an option in a more integrated package which also look at things like restoration of mangrove forest for ground water recharge and natural cleaning of the waste water after the villagers have used it. So we wouldn't just buy the machine, set them up and just the end of it but we would have a more integrated approach that features ecosystem action as well as technology. Plus, right now when we analyze how much the communities are spending on buying drinking water which they bring from outside, the amount is quite extraordinary. So whatever system we set up whether it is desalination, whether it's a deep water well, or whether it's a collection of rain water.

Are there any potential for economic development?
There is a great potential for community to discuss among themselves what fee they will charge for that water after they produce it. Certainly, they can sell that water for price which is much less much lower than the price they currently pay to import water. But at the same time, a price that is enough to pay for electricity to run the machine. To pay for the service and maintenance of the machine. So they will have significant some leftover which could be put in to, for example, a village fund for mangrove restoration. So we are really looking at things at integrated package like this.

What is the next step?
Well, we are hoping that we can find a successful solution in Bang Chan sub-district first and then we can also share that learning with Cambodia and Vietnam. So that's a long way to go but things are looking very promising and very exciting.