Dr Len Drury interview: mapping groundwater in Myanmar’s Dry Zone and publishing 35 years of findings

An interview with Dr Len Drury, director of Aqua Rock Konsultants. Len has worked as a consultant across the world for 35 years as a hydrogeologist, previously working with the government for 10 years. Len discusses water, sanitation, and the mining sector in the Indo-Pacific region and what it will take to achieve SDG6. He also discusses his book, a groundwater project in Myanmar, revived after 30 years.

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Interview topics

  • About Len and his extensive international water management experience over several decades
  • Stories from working in politically challenging environments
  • Len’s book: ‘Hydrogeology of the Dry Zone — Central Myanmar’
  • The need for community ownership for a successful project
  • Len’s personal experiences of working as an international development consultant

Can you tell us about your consulting work – some of the countries you’ve worked in, and the types of projects? And how do you find out how to navigate the cultural and psychological elements in each new country?

During the last 35 years, my work as an international water consultant has taken me to almost 50 developing countries across the world: South East Asia (everywhere except Cambodia) and Asia and Central Asia, Mongolia, Africa, the Pacific. I’ve also worked all through Australia. There have been projects for village water supplies, for town and city water supplies, for refugee camps, and for mining and for oil and gas projects. I’ve also consulted on broad-base projects such as hydropower dams and as team leader on environmental projects for major construction sites. Currently, I’m in the final stages of publishing a book on Myanmar’s geology and hydrogeology.

My first international contract was in Vanuatu, known then as the New Hebrides, to advise the Australian government on the type of drilling rig it should supply as an aid package to suit the country’s geology. It is a beautiful place and I was sailing or flying between the islands and staying in high-class hotels with great food. Very pleasant.

Soon after that, I was in Rangoon in Burma, as it was then called, which was in a military dictatorship. It was a major contrast. Nothing was easy, and a boycott on goods coming into the country meant we had to plan six months in advance to keep the project going. That project involved 29 drilling rigs and four drilling stations to supply water to 3100 villages for almost three million people. The circumstances were difficult but the people were great and it was a fantastic experience. Burma had just emerged from 20 years of isolation and socialism and we, my wife and three children were with me, were among very few foreigners there.

Another of my contracts was in South Sudan, just after the Civil War, and there were land mines everywhere. We had to work around the unexploded ordinances to get the job done.

Every country is great to work in. Each has different issues and different challenges. You need to understand that the people themselves are dealing with issues, such as boycotts or land mines, and it is important that you show respect to everyone. You are a guest in that country, and so you need to behave as a guest, and obey the laws, understand their religions and their history and recent past. You need to respect their cultures, their government — some have been in a military dictatorship, others have been in war zones, some are liable to have explosions of mob violence. You must understand each country individually to be able to work there effectively: accumulate some general knowledge about it, and make a study of its peoples and its history. In some places, you need to be extra careful about your speaking habits: for example, Pakistan has a blasphemy law.

Respect is key and teamwork. I believe I’ve been successful in most of my projects because I’ve gone there with something useful to contribute as a team member, rather than as an ‘expert’. Treat everyone with respect, especially your team members, from the tea boy and cleaner upwards: the team is a very important group of people in relation to your work in that country.

Refuse to participate in corruption, right from the start, because once people see you engage with it, it becomes a spiral that you can’t escape. Corruption is a big problem in many countries, and particularly in commodities, electricity, water supplies, sewerage. Remember, it’s not your country: it’s up to them. Whatever you think about corruption, you need to show respect to everybody to survive.

Have you experienced challenges, such as political timelines, in completing your projects successfully and on time? How have you dealt with complications?

There is always a timeline, and as the project manager, I’ve always delivered the project on time and on budget. I’ve never had a problem, although there have been some very difficult situations to overcome. We have succeeded by showing respect to people and also by making it clear that we are absolutely anti-corruption. You are under an obligation to complete the project and so you either walk away from difficult jobs or you sit down with the client and negotiate, determinedly, to sort out the issues. In many cases we have had to put in a lot of extra work, sometimes up to 15-hour or 18-hour days, every day for months, to achieve the end result. They may expect that you, as a foreigner, will do what they tell you, but in fact, you are supposed to do what the contract says. We’ve always worked it out in face-to-face discussion and by showing friendship towards them. That way, eventually you come around to achieving the project.

There are some very difficult projects and some very difficult people. There are some countries, where a contract means nothing. Among very difficult clients, I can think of one government department which had no intention of sticking to the contract; they didn’t have the information required, told lies to get the project going and then, expected us to do all the extra work, without any increase in funding.

Every country has its own way of doing things. For example, I’ve worked in Myanmar when it was a military dictatorship in 1984–88 and when the riots started in 1988. I’m also working there now, with changing politics and very different conditions. During the ‘80s, in the dictatorship, although the Burmese people were very accommodating, the contract was complicated by having to get permission to do anything. For example, at one stage, every two weeks we had to go into the dry zone, which is where we were working and for that we had to get a ‘no objection’ certificate. You had to apply and if you heard nothing you’d go but to get a certificate for every trip meant planning well in advance. To get up-country, we had to fly because by car we would have had to drive through areas of insurgency. So we flew, and the drivers drove the cars and met us at the airport, Mandalay or Nyaung U. In those four years, we were there, Burma Airways lost four aeroplanes in various accidents because there was no mentality of maintenance. So it was an exciting time but we achieved the target.

There were no computers then, and communication there was by Telex machine and landline telephone, which was monitored and every conversation recorded. We only had access to project vehicles, which we used for the work and also for our families. With the instability as 1988 approached, the children were taught the evacuation drill at school and the cars were prioritised, so as always to be available for the children first, regardless of other needs.

In complete contrast, the project I’m working on now in Myanmar, whatever I ask for happens. The current directors were my students there 30 years ago and they treat me with great respect because I taught them. There is great respect for teachers in Myanmar, unlike many other countries where they don’t have that sort of respect towards people. Thirty years ago, if you had to go and see someone in a Burmese government department, you had to get an official letter sent across to obtain approval. Today, I just ring them up and say, “can I come and see you?”. The circumstances have changed considerably.

For successful project management, as I have said, you need to treat everyone with respect and you need to understand the local sensitivities and faiths. For example, in Buddhism, giving water is very important and you get merit points for it — so I’ve got quite a few merit points! You become friends with your counterparts and almost part of the family. I still have many friends from the 1980s, including some who are now very senior and some in private enterprise, because during our project work 30 years ago I took part in their important family occasions, especially funerals of their family members. Being part of the project team meant you chose to be part of their lives.

Our working language is English. All the professionals we work with speak English. The only language difficulties arise sometimes when we are working in a village and even then I can speak enough Burmese to give greetings and thanks, for example.

You are about to publish a book about the geology and hydrogeology and water resources of Myanmar. Can you tell us about it? When will it be launched?

There is no other publication like this about the geology and hydrogeology of the dry zone of Myanmar. I think it is going to be a great manual for all practitioners. It’s in English and has 300 pages, many A0 maps, and over 60 diagrams. The book should be launched in mid-October, provided everything comes together in these final stages of publishing. It is an eBook so anyone can download it. The 50 copies that are being printed for the official handing over at the book launch, will each include a disc so that people can run off copies if they wish.

The initial draft of the book was written when we were in Burma in 1986/87, but the unrest of 1988 prevented it being printed then because all foreign countries withdrew their funding for projects. Then, twelve months ago the opportunity came, with AusAID, to revisit the book and to update it. Of course, after 30 years there are substantial changes in information and its accessibility. For this final phase, I have found doors open — when I have wanted information it has been found — when I have wanted to go into the field the people from the Irrigation and Water Utilisation Management Department (IWUMD) have come with me and organised all the logistics. Everyone, including retired hydrogeologists and drillers I worked with 30 years ago, have been very enthusiastic to give me the information so this book can be prepared.

The geology hasn’t changed much. Many universities in Myanmar have the draft book from 1986 and they still teach from that draft text. However, hydrogeology has changed substantially. There are now big irrigation areas and a big development of artesian areas, so that has needed updating.

We had to get the geology section correct because many people see groundwater as a mystery, not knowing whether a new bore will find freshwater or salty water or no water at all. However, it is actually quite simple: once you know the geology you can interpret the groundwater quite well.

The hydrogeology maps are generalisations: within areas that are labelled ‘high yield’ you might get one bore that is dry, but maybe 95% are successful. When I gave out the initial draft of the book with its A0 colour maps of the geology and hydrogeology, the geologists took the maps out to their drilling sites — and tested them compared to the results of the drilling. That was the first guidance they had had. The maps are not infallible and I hope the Burmese GIS groundwater guys will further update the maps and the GIS layers and the book itself, every six months, based on new information as they collect it. It’s the beginning of the next stage of their learning.

In many ways, this book is for the managers and for the Ministers and Director-Generals, so when they want to develop a project they can look in the book and see where there are high yield areas of low salinity, for example. The maps will help in the management of the groundwater resource, showing areas where there can be development and areas where they are taking out too much water. We have done some radiocarbon dating of the water in some parts of the dry zone, finding dates from 2000 to 20,000 years old. Sometimes the water table is over 300 metres deep.

There is no monitoring or management at present of the huge artesian basins. Some have been allowed to flow until the artesian pressure has dropped so much the bores have stopped flowing. These are recoverable if you put in a pump. The managers need to adopt a philosophy of turning off the pumps and the tube bores when they are not required for irrigation. This book is there to identify the issues, as well as to help the management side

The book has water-balance models for many locations within the dry zone, indicating the likely amount in storage, how much recharge is taking place, and what discharge is taking place through pumping and also through discharge back to the river. When you do the water-balance calculations, the aquifers appear to have more water available for sustainable yield than they are taking out.

I have also recommended many viable management tools in the book and indicated where additional assistance is required, such as for groundwater modelling. At present, there are no skills in groundwater modelling so there are no groundwater models of any aquifers in Myanmar.

The book makes many suggestions about work that is required and about the way forward. The Burmese themselves are very capable people, and the young professionals are very enthusiastic to work with you. One suggestion is that maybe Myanmar needs a similar book on the geology and hydrogeology of the whole country: this book covers only the dry zone, which is only about a third of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River delta and basin.

There are sections on suggested research for academics and research institutions also — just ideas. The book also has basic material and will be used by universities for lecturing. International water groups, such as the Australian Water Partnership, will be using the book when discussing where they could make inputs to water management in Myanmar.

The recipients of the book will be predominately government departments and also NGOs. Some copies will be given to specific people who have contributed greatly to the book, and there will be copies for the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

From your extensive experience, do you see opportunities for improving access to safe water supplies and sanitation, as in SDG6?

There are a lot of opportunities as more information becomes available. I think one big problem in a lot of countries is their lack of data — though quite often the data is there but is hard to access. Then people develop projects without the benefit of data and they don’t properly understand what is likely to happen. I’ve seen a lot of projects that turned into disasters — World Bank, ADB, institutional projects — because they were set up using an engineering approach rather than bringing in the social aspects.

In my view, the important thing when you’re working on a village water supply or a town water supply is for the project and its outcome to belong to the people. The community has to take ownership of the project. I’ve seen so many cases where a group, say UNICEF, puts in a bore and a hand pump, and after being used for a time the pump breaks down, and the people say, “Oh UNICEF needs to fix it because it’s a UNICEF project”. No, actually the community owns it; the community must take on the responsibility for it. Otherwise, it is a disaster because when something breaks down, that’s it: the people go back to their own ponds and their polluted water.

All the projects that I have worked on, over the last ten years or so, have had community participation. You just don’t give them an entire well, or a bore, or a pump. You give them 80% and then they have to raise 20%. They have to dig the trenches, or build the water tank and so on. They have to charge users for the water so that there is money available for maintenance to repair the pump. The bores that we put in 30 years ago are still being used because there’s a community looking after them. Every village has a water committee, and they are responsible for collecting money and maintaining the pump.

I think that we have learnt a lot over the years. We now know how to make sure we don’t go into a project and say, “This is what we’re going to do”, and then stand back. We know now we have to work with the community because they have to look after the completed project when we leave.

Different projects have different criteria. I worked on the Mandalay city water supply in northern Myanmar. It’s run by the Mandalay City Development Committee which is a big government department. They monitor the system, and they make sure that the pump works. Every town water supply for every town in Myanmar has a township development committee which is responsible for collecting the money to maintain that water supply. They are very competent people and they do a really good job carrying out their own maintenance. Under the law, each town has to form a committee, and the members of it are paid. They operate in various ways. Sometimes the government will give them a grant and will help them. But they’re supposed to be autonomous and supposed to be running their own water supply. So they collect the money. They employ people. It works just like any town water supply in Australia or the United States or France.

Mining projects are very different: easy and yet controversial. Most mining clients are fantastic. They need something done, they approve the project and go and do it. They work with you all the time. Mining projects do have a social aspect. There’s always an environmental and social impact assessment associated with a mining project which means the mining company has to work with the community. The difference is that during the operation of the mine, the mining company operates everything. If something breaks down, the mining company fixes it, unlike a village water supply where nothing happens once it breaks down. Quite often when the mine finishes and there’s a well-fill, it’s handed across to the community anyway. All the international mining companies these days are very responsible in their cleaning up because they have to comply with the legislation. Australian mining companies, for instance, are bound by Australian law, and if they are listed on the stock exchange in Australia then the Australian Government makes sure that the company acts as it would have to if it was working in Australia. They’re very strict.

Water projects for refugees are different again because in those you are not there to train people but to get water to them within a few days to address an issue or an emergency. You hope it won’t be a long-term water supply, but quite often they end up being a long-term water supply.

Is there anything else you’d like to speak about in relation to your international consulting?

Yes. It’s important when you’re travelling so much, to have your wife or husband there to support you as part of the team. For me, the project manager’s wife is absolutely critical. It’s a partnership. We both want to work on these projects, and we are both excited about them, and so my wife comes with me. On all these long-term projects, my wife and the kids, when they were younger, were with us all the time.

I’d add that we have had some fantastic experiences and also a lot of traumatic experiences. In a few projects, quite a lot of people were killed. It is an aspect that you have to live with, because if you cannot do that then you shouldn’t be doing international consulting in these countries anyway.

There is always an attraction and there was always excitement. Each day is a challenge and we survive.

Len Drury is an international water consultant, with extensive experience working on water projects in South East Asia, Central Asia, Africa, Mongolia, Australia and the Pacific. The only country he hasn’t worked in SE Asia is Cambodia. Len talks about the experience of working in developing countries and says it is about respecting the people and laws of each country. The first country he worked at was Vanuatu, before relocating to work in Myanmar for three years, during the military dictatorship. He believes that a lot of his projects have been successful because he doesn’t go to countries as an expert but to work with people as a team to help them.

Len’s work in Myanmar in the 80s

Len talks extensively about working in Myanmar which had just opened itself to foreigners. He says the Burmese were very accommodating but seeking permission at every step to get work done was more difficult. Landline phones were monitored and had to go through an exchange and cars weren’t always available for wives but children were a priority.

Len reveals that the projects he is doing in Myanmar now are with his students 30 years ago. For him, it feels amazing because if he wants any information, he gets it because they were his students. He says that the experience of living in Myanmar in the ‘80s with his young kids in an age of no proper communication was a great experience that shaped his and his kids’ perspectives.

Len’s book on the ‘Hydrogeology of the Dry Zone — Central Myanmar’

Len tells the story of how the first draft of the book in 1986 and the maps of the book were printed in the Burma Mint.

His 300-page book is set to be published on 16th of October, 2018 and will be available in English. There has been a 30 year-hiatus on publishing the book due because of the riots of 1988 when foreign aid was withdrawn. He revisited the book 12 months ago with support from the AWP. Len talks about the ease of accessing information this time around, with strong support from the Irrigation and Water Utilization Management Department and now retired hydrogeologists, who he taught 30 years ago.

Len hopes it will be a great manual for all practitioners, managers, ministers, director generals, NGOs, and hopes that Myanmar’s groundwater experts update them periodically. The book also identifies the issues and the needs of the Burmese people. He hopes to continue to partner with the AWP to continue to assist in improving water resource management processes in Myanmar.

Groundwater management in Myanmar

Len suggests that the same as many parts of the developing world, Myanmar has large groundwater reserves, more than what is currently being drawn. However, as there are no official monitoring but water balance calculations have shown that there is more water in aquifers than they are taking out.

Len’s book provides details of water levels, and recharge & discharge rates for many areas for the whole Dry zone. In Myanmar groundwater is owned by the State and you need to get a license to extract it.  Groundwater modelling in Myanmar may be improved by developing capacity.

While no groundwater monitoring is currently occurring, radiocarbon dating may be used to indicate the age of groundwater in specific reserves. Len believes the geology and hydrogeology of the whole country should be mapped in the future, beyond the Dry Zone.\

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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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