Rob Rendell interview: Water Efficiency Improvement in Drought-Affected Provinces (WEIDAP) project in Vietnam

An interview with Rob Rendell, principal at RMCG consulting group, where he shares some insights about the Water Efficiency Improvement in Drought Affected Provinces (WEIDAP) project in Vietnam and provides some advice for water practitioners who want to work in the region.

Rob has more than 40 years’ experience in irrigation, groundwater drainage, salinity management, project management, extension, reclaimed water re-use, practical irrigation farming and farm management, agricultural industry benchmarking, and sustainability indicators. Rob’s wide range of experience, from the practical to technical and managerial and capacity to develop strategy and policy. He is recognised as a leader in the water and irrigated agriculture sector.

The Water Efficiency Improvement in Drought Affected Provinces project

Water security is a growing concern in Vietnam, particularly in drought-affected provinces. Most recently the 2015 -2016 El Nino drought and associated saltwater intrusion affected some 400,000 hectares of cropland to varying degrees of productivity loss. Urban and rural water supplies were also significantly impaired resulting in around 2 million people lacking access to water in 2015. In response, the Government is taking active measures to improve water use efficiency and water productivity, especially focusing on the agriculture sector since it consumes the bulk of surface and groundwater.

With support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Government is preparing an investment project of $120 million to modernise irrigation water management in five drought-affected provinces. The project which is titled Water Efficiency Improvement in Drought Affected Provinces (WEIDAP) is currently under preparation and will commence in early 2018 and is expected to be fully operational by early 2024.

The project consists of 3 components:

  • Improving the delivery of irrigation management services
  • Modernising selected irrigation management systems
  • Improving on-farm water management practices

The outcome of the Project is climate-resilience and modernised irrigation systems providing flexible and affordable services to beneficiary farmers in the five participating provinces.

Interview topics

  • Introduction and some of Rob’s background
  • About the WEIDAP project and challenges associated with that work
  • Experience working in Vietnam, with an Australian background and point of view

Tell us about yourself and your path to the work you do now

I grew up on an irrigation farm, doing hands-on physical work (e.g. using a shovel), irrigating, working with my father. I studied agricultural engineering at the University of Melbourne, in the days when it was a recognised degree in its own right while continuing to work on the farm, enjoying the engineering aspects of it. Then I joined a water authority. Over the years, I’ve worked in all aspects of rural water, from the farm level to the level of policy-making for the Murray-Darling Basin. It’s been a fascinating journey for me and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

Can you tell us about the project called ‘Water Efficiency Improvement in Drought Affected Provinces’? How did you become involved?

The Water Efficiency Improvement in Drought Affected Provinces (WEIDAP) project is about water modernisation in Vietnam.

The project was set up following the 2015–16 drought, because during the drought a number of areas Vietnam struggled to get enough water for their cropping enterprises. The project focuses on small patches of very high-value agriculture in the central highlands, of only a few hundred to 2000 hectares each. They grow crops such as coffee, dragon fruit, mangoes, vegetables, etc., and this project aims to modernise the water supply to twelve different parts of five provinces, to make it more secure. WEIDAP is funded by a USD120 million loan from the Asian Development Bank.

The five provinces are Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan, Dak Lak and Dak Nong, and Khan Hoa. The projects are very similar to some that have already been undertaken in high-value orchard and cropping areas in South Australia, the ‘Riverland’, and north-west Victoria, ‘Sunraysia’, putting in similar size pipeline and pumping schemes.

Another aspect of WEIDAP is groundwater. The growers have used groundwater in the past and this new system was going to replace that use of groundwater. No-one knew if it would replace all the groundwater used. They didn’t really understand that groundwater and surface water are linked, nor how to manage the effects when you change the relative usage of the parts of that interlinked resource. Fortunately, I was able to get Greg Holland from Jacobs to come to Vietnam quickly to work with them on the groundwater aspects of the project.

My involvement started when the Australian Water Partnership (AWP) was doing some work with the Asian Development Bank. That interaction was to try and give [ADB-funding recipients] an overall structure, rather than only help with the physical aspects, building things. That led to the Asian Development Bank sending people from a range of places to Australia, and some of the people from the WEIDAP project were among those who came here. They saw that we had some expertise in different ways of managing irrigation projects, and several different styles of institutions and they asked for some help. I was asked to go over and talk to them about that.

My first challenge was that I needed quickly to understand all the different organisations and infrastructure and how Vietnam operates. That was a ‘very steep learning curve’. Even then, before I could be of any use, I needed to understand what the project was trying to do. That was a problem for me because I thought their design was not very modern and was actually typically a canal design rather than a pipeline design … so what should I do? The AWP had been invited just to help a little bit, a feasibility study, but it seemed to me that the fundamental design could perhaps be improved substantially. Should I speak up, or just sit there and say nothing? How should I handle this?

It turned out that the Vietnamese were already clearly over-budget at that stage, and were looking for ways to save money. I could see how they could cut some costs out of the system through some design changes, and those changes would also improve the level of service and mean that the proposal had much more in common with a modernised system. Then the next challenge was how to present that fundamental shift in the design in a way that they might accept the changes.

I found out — what’s fascinating about Vietnam — they have a thirst for information; they have policies and theories, but they want the practical, not more theory. So they responded well and said, “Can you actually do a bit of revised design and give us some ideas?”. I was booked to fly out in two days’ time and so I changed my flight and stayed another week. If I hadn’t responded then and there, there wouldn’t have been another chance. Vietnam is developing quickly and continuously, and there are only occasional opportunities to make useful inputs. You could think of it as like a train: you have to be at the right ‘station’, at the right time, and be prepared to jump on or off.

[My involvement in WEIDAP] was possible because of the strength and flexibility of AWP. AWP has expertise and can respond. Our inputs are not big. Instead, they are strategic and practical.

Tell us about your experience of working in Vietnam.

Relationships are important in Vietnam. I have to keep reminding myself that in Vietnam, and in Asia as a whole, you start with the relationship. If the relationship is good, they then might let you talk about the technical area. Then if the technical area looks useful you might talk about a contract. It’s the opposite of the Australian approach. Here we often focus on the contract first, then we think about the technical content, and then if there’s any time left over we might develop a relationship.

Much of what AWP does in Asia is focused on building relationships and links with individuals. That’s both a strength and a challenge. If someone moves jobs, and of course when they are promoted, you can lose that link. In our case, one person we have built a good relationship with has been promoted to a senior role and that has strengthened the relationship in a very good way. It may be that this person, Cho, who did his PhD in New Zealand, is able to understand us Australians a little bit better. On the other hand, one of our contacts in the Asian Development Bank, Yasmin, has moved on elsewhere, and that’s changed relationships. It is fluid. Yes, relationships are very important in Asia — and really everywhere in the world. We ‘westerners’ sometimes forget that.

If you want to work on water-development in Vietnam, I’d like to make these suggestions.

  • First, to work in the water industry anywhere, you need to have a sense of irrigation in its entirety from governance to water resource planning to water delivery systems to entitlements, to allocations and then right to the farm level. You need to have a framework and an understanding — a holistic understanding — so that you are giving your help as a practitioner with a broad background.
  • Also, you must try and listen and find out what the particular problem is, and use that understanding as your starting point. The Vietnamese understand, very clearly, what they want to be addressed; they don’t always understand perhaps what’s needed to address it. I’ve found an incredible thirst for knowledge in Vietnam. It’s a country that’s definitely ‘on the move’. For example, since the Vietnam War (the American War as they call it), they’ve had a program to lift their rice production to the point where they are now exporting rice. Now they’re looking at high-value agriculture and they are very clear about what they want. They understand the principles and the theory, and they are just looking for practical leg-ups to get them on the right path.
  • An important realisation for me was that other countries are on a journey of evolution in water development, as Australia has been for 150 years. So to work overseas, it is useful to know a bit about Australian history and evolution, right back to Alfred Deakin and the Federation Drought around 1900. Some of the initiatives Deakin brought in in Australia are more relevant overseas perhaps than some of our recent water reforms: older initiatives such as water measurement and entitlements and water resource and water sharing. In Vietnam, they’re jumping ahead very quickly in some aspects of water development while in other aspects they are following the Australian journey. For example, in Vietnam, they’re working at the national level now in water charging, in full cost recovery of charges. Younger people in Australia won’t remember that we went through that process — in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It’s useful to have that broader understanding of what went on here, in order to work there.
  • Another aspect is that one often needs to go back to first principles. Someone will ask “Why do you do it that way?”, and you give them the Australian answer and they still say “Why?”. It keeps you thinking, and you need to be able to go back to the basics.
  • You also need to try and be practical, and flexible and respond to the stage of development the host country is at while also having your own holistic framework to work from.
  • And remember, building relationships is vitally important, not only with the people in the country but also with the many agencies working in Vietnam: ACIAR (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research), University of Canberra, IceWarm, International Water Centre, Australian Water Association, and others. These Australian organisations need to work together, and in an Australian way. On top of that, there are a number of international organisations involved, as well as the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) which has offices in the country, connecting it into trade. It’s critical to understand all the different players and broader relationships and network with them, and at the same time deliver something practical.

I have found it fascinating to learn that there are other ways of doing things and that the Australian way is not necessarily the best. There are all sorts of little cultural differences in the way things are done, and seeing them broadens my outlook.

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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