Tony Weber interview: reflections on supporting river basin planning efforts in China, India, and Myanmar

An interview with Tony Weber from Alluvium where he talks about working on water modelling projects in China, India and Myanmar, river basin planning efforts, and water governance in the developing world and how they can be supported.

Tony is one of Australia’s leading practitioners in the catchment modelling and water quality field. Tony has over 27 years’ experience in the water industry delivering a range of catchment modelling, water sensitive urban design, integrated water management, water quality and stormwater management projects.

Tony was also a member of the MUSIC urban stormwater model development team and is a leading proponent of the Source modelling framework in Australia. In recognition of his efforts in promoting modelling, Tony was awarded the 2012 Fellowship for the Modelling and Simulation Society of Australia and New Zealand. Tony has been the lead author in numerous research papers and presented his research both nationally and internationally.

In 2009, Tony was invited to become a Visiting Fellow at the iCAM unit, part of the Fenner School in Australian National University and is a member of the Urban Water and Catchment Source Scientific Expert Panels for Healthy Waterways. He was also nominated as one of the top 10 Water Leaders in Australia by WME Magazine in 2013.

Interview Topics

  • About Tony Weber
  • Reflections on his work in China on sponge cities
  • Reflections on water basin governance in India
  • About Alluvium’s work in Myanmar
  • Reflections on the governance of Ayeyarwady basin in Myanmar
  • General observations about the three countries
  • Where and how people can learn more about the complexity of river basin planning

Tell us about yourself and your work in China with Alluvium

My name’s Tony Weber. I am National Lead for water modelling in Alluvium Consulting in Australia. I’m also a visiting scientist at CSIRO in the Basin Futures Team, and a visiting Fellow at the Australian National University in their Integrated Catchment Assessment & Management Centre (iCAM). I’ve been working in the water industry for nearly 30 years, mostly focused in south-east Queensland but doing a lot of work across Australia and overseas in the UK, France, China, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea and Malaysia.

In China, I’ve been involved in looking at the management of their river basins, especially in relation to the application of technologies such as basin modelling and water resource modelling. We work with them on their general management planning: deciding on the right strategic approaches to take, and how to integrate data and tools into the decision processes. We explore with them the lessons to be learnt from other countries, especially Australia and the US and some parts of Europe. It’s quite an interesting environment in which to work.

In China, people are very keen to absorb information. They also want to apply that information themselves. While they like to have foreign advice, they often want to be seen to be the ones doing the work, which is very important. I find them extremely smart and I really enjoy their ability to take what they learn and very quickly apply it and come up with new and innovative approaches.

For example, I’ve been working with a couple of research and design institutes — they are like a government-owned consulting agency but typically associated with universities and academia. We started looking at urban stormwater management and how to incorporate low impact design approaches — which we in Australia call ‘water sensitive urban design’. They quickly saw that they had some technologies that would allow them to build models by developing drones that could fly over urban areas and map them and define their catchments. That came about because I’d been showing them how the computer models worked and how we subdivided areas into hydrologic sub-catchments, and they then came up with this new technological approach that defines sub-catchments a lot more quickly.

The other main work I’m involved in China is the ‘sponge city’ approach, in the south-central region in Funan Province. Flooding is a significant issue there, rather than water quality or sustainability. They’ve had rampant development with very little control and now they are experiencing flash flooding and so on, and so they have to come up with more radical approaches in order to address that. I think they really relish that challenge! They can see how they’ve got to that situation and they can also see how they can get out of it. Whether their approach succeeds or not, I’ll be very interested. The Chinese are excellent at engineering. One problem they have is the range of inconsistent approaches being used across the city, so I think they’ll need to improve their integration of land and water management to be able to apply some of these sponge city technologies. However, they have a lot of money to use on the problem, and plenty of intellectual horsepower, so if this approach is going to work anywhere, it’ll be there.

If you want to really apply the sponge city approach it’s got to be considered as a system. You have to think about the whole urban system as an ‘ecosystem’. There are a lot of feedback loops, with the uses of water and wastewater and the management of stormwater all affecting each other because they are all interrelated. I think the team will be successful if they can bring the infrastructure and planning together across all those aspects. But the Chinese hierarchy of governance is quite strong, and knowledge is power, which means that sharing information and having people working together is going to be challenging. I think they have the ability to succeed if they want to.

Can you comment, in general, on governance in China and how you see it affecting the success of these projects?

There is a range of governance levels in China. The national government has been very good at setting fairly clear directions. For instance, Xi Jinping has approved the concept of ‘sponge cities’, and he’s committed a lot of resources to that approach. I think now the struggle is at the next level, ensuring that the provincial governments have the ability and the skills to take that direction and put it into practice. The provincial governments seem very similar to State agencies here in Australia. Then they need to roll that direction down to the city-level governance, by which I mean the city-level structures that are in place to implement these things. It seems to me that the people who are at these various levels need a lot of support and I’m not sure whether that support is there for them all the time. For example, the design institutes provide some support, but it is my observation that the staff of these design institutes are fairly junior — very skilled, but probably lacking enough experience to know how to influence some of these areas of governance.

Then there is the community level. Our concept in Australia, or in a democratic country, is that you have to seek ‘buy-in’ from the community for initiatives that affect them, and we actively do that. In China, being a communist country, there is much less of that occurring. Instead, you see community angst, community complaints and so on, because they’ve not been part of the process. I don’t know how that fits with the national government’s thinking but at some stage, I think there needs to be better engagement with the people who are going to be affected by decisions around sponge cities –and around better water resource management in other ways as well.

I’m fascinated that, in China, if the authorities want to do something they just do it. Unlike here, they don’t have to take account of objections from people who say ‘NIMBY’ and ‘NOTE’ (i.e. ‘not in my back yard’ and ‘not over there either’). Sometimes, I see the authoritative way as being very efficient and wish that we had it in our society. But then I remember that in China they may not have the freedoms we have in Australia and the ability to preserve a particular way of life.

What is interesting in China, I think, is that most peoples’ lifestyles have improved markedly over the last 15 to 20 years and therefore I think many people are quite happy and satisfied with what’s happened so far. But I wonder if that will change as they gain more disposable income and more leisure time. What will happen when the community has the time to think more about where they are in their societies and what they might want to do, and whether they’re happy with the way their cities are being managed and with the situations caused by previous developments, for example? So getting community ‘buy-in’ might be a very good way of managing that.

Can we hear about your work in India with Alluvium?

My work in India has been relatively limited: I am part of Alluvium’s team in a river basin planning project with the Australian Water Partnership.

India is a very bureaucratic country and the hierarchies of governance are important. The levels of state, national, and local governments are quite set, and the way people progress through them is well-established. The structures may be a relic of British colonial rule but Indian people have excelled in setting up layers of government or governance in order to protect the powers of both the state agencies and the city governments. That also helps ensure that in many of the government agencies there’s pretty much a job for everyone — and they’re jobs for life. With their huge population, and this is something I see in China too, there’s a lot of job creation — a lot of different levels of jobs that we probably don’t have in Australia because we have much lower population densities I suppose.

The system is heavily based on seniority and perhaps less on merit and the decision-making organisations appear to be protective of their knowledge and their power. It is difficult to see them cooperating for the common good. Instead, they tend to cooperate to maximise the benefits to their agency or their state or their city. I am curious to see how well cross-jurisdictional planning can work in India unless there is a paradigm shift to some extent. I wonder how government at all levels is going to be able to move from a system that is so entrenched in bureaucracy and staff seniority to one that is a bit more dynamic and flexible and able to make decisions quickly.

On the other hand, I’ve been very impressed, in India, with their ability to embrace technology and get it implemented very quickly. They have set up a range of structures and programs for data collection, largely funded by the World Bank. However, when we were there we observed and were told that it is a struggle to keep these going and that some people are focusing more on the money available than on delivering high-quality data. Therefore, I think that in India there will be a problem in making technology work for them, rather than in embracing technology itself.

Australia is giving a lot of support for developing the computer models for the Indian agencies, through eWater and other groups including Alluvium and I think that’s important in helping build system understanding in India. But I must admit I am worried that there is now a focus on the tools themselves rather than on how they fit into a broader planning process — that is, how you convert the outputs of the modelling into forms and functions that can help improve decision making.

Models are only tools and you have to understand what questions you want to answer with these tools before you can see how best to set them up. You need to know what data the models need, how often they need to be improved, and who needs to have custodianship of them. I don’t think all that has been thought about. The teams in India have made some fairly big advances in setting up the models and now I think our role is going to be in showing them what to do next: how to use them in the best way; and who is best to ensure the tools are good enough to support decision-making.

So far, India seems to me to be a very chaotic environment in which to work. It is difficult to organise and plan something out in advance. Timeframes change regularly. Staff change regularly. I think it will be a headache getting continuity for a while. That could change if a central agency could be set up that has not only the responsibility for ensuring that inter-jurisdictional basin planning occurs but also the power to implement decisions.

I think there needs to be a body that makes sure there’s no duplication of effort and that the work of all the contributing parties is integrated so that an end result is a well-coordinated approach for managing their natural resources. At the moment, it seems there are as many as 20 to 40 countries wanting to be good global citizens and help India and all of them have teams in India setting up their own arrangements and so on. Even within Australia, we are finding coordination to be difficult. For example, recently two different Australian programs were trying to timetable workshops for the same Indian group at the same time, but one workshop was to be in India and one in Australia! India is so huge, so populated, and there is so much going on across such a geographically diverse country.

Another fundamental issue is that water is so contentious between states. The use and management of water is a very political issue; it’s always in the newspaper. So I think it would be quite difficult to have one organisation to handle all aspects of water. We had similar issues here in Australia with each of the Murray-Darling Basin states wanting to manage their part of that one system in their own way. That situation only changed when the single Murray-Darling Basin Authority was set up to manage the whole basin as one, and coordinate all its aspects.

I think India’s still got a long way to go, though I think there are plenty of opportunities to do some really good work. They are very astute at using and applying technology. On the other hand, there long inbred cultural norms around access to and use of water, as well as religious and other cultural influences on governance. I think it will take a global effort to see how you could work through that. Although the Indian people themselves can to it, we can support them by showing what we have learnt through our mistakes, in the hope they can avoid some of them.

What have you and the Alluvium team been doing in Myanmar?

In Myanmar, I was involved initially in a fairly large concerted data collection and collation effort. We were pulling together the data that had been collected over some time in a range of monitoring programs. It needed to be put into forms that could be used by the basin planners, managers and modellers. That’s led on to some work setting up models and some planning approaches.

Recently, Alluvium staff were in Myanmar on another Australian Water Partnership project exploring how to evaluate the river basin’s ecosystem services. We use the information and modelling as a basis for considering how the Ayeyarwady River basin system functions in providing resources, for growing food and fuel, for example. Many people in the basin use timber for fuel and for cooking and heating and we are looking at how that type of lifestyle fits with an approach focused on the productivity of water resources and market-based thinking. So we have been looking at both ends of the scale of water use — which is fascinating, especially since this river basin occupies 70% or 80% of the country.

The aim of this ecosystem services valuation is to understand the value of the waters of the Ayeyarwady Basin to Myanmar as a whole: their value to the people who live in the basin, to the states, to the cities that are on the river banks, and to the country if it stays as it is or if it changes in the future. For instance, as the country develops there’s going to be greater demand for energy. Where does that energy come from? If they develop hydropower on the river, what happens to agricultural production and river-fisheries, which currently provide a subsistence living for people? In other words, the ecosystem service valuation approach reveals how the basin provides value to a whole range of different people who depend on it.

Is this the right time to be exploring that question? I don’t know. Once you have uncovered that range of values, what do you do with that information? How do you use it in a way that maintains each of those values, or improves them? Now they have the information and the tools, they can think about that. Are they putting the cart before the horse? Maybe, but there are no rules around this. The whole idea of trying to understand the value of a system is relatively new science.

What would we in Australia have done if we had applied ecosystem service valuation 100 years ago when we were starting down the pathway of basin management? Would or could our approaches have been different? Probably.

It will be interesting to see how we can use this information in a way that improves the ability to manage a river basin — and I think there’s a lot of opportunities to do that. We probably have the right information, and there’s good coordination between some of the sources of international aid. And the Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management (AIRBM) team is in a good position to use the information, with support from various agencies around the world. But I don’t know if anyone has thought about how the approach could be implemented within the culture and the political environment of Myanmar.

How is Myanmar governing and managing the waters of the Ayeyarwady River basin?

Myanmar has a single agency to manage or to do basin planning or basin management, for the whole of the Ayeyarwady system. They have a fresh approach to thinking about some of the issues, which may have been helped by the relatively recent change to their political environment — from quite a military regime. The new governance structures are giving them the opportunity to do something different. It is very encouraging.

In working with the people of Myanmar and travelling in that country I’ve observed that all of a sudden the world has opened up to them. There is a build-up of western influence. You see the occasional McDonald’s sign, or advertising for jeans or mobile phones, for example. I noted the same thing in parts of China where a relative backwater opened up and western countries suddenly saw a new market for their goods. But Myanmar also has so much heritage left from the old British colonial rule. You see it in the architecture and perhaps in some of the governance structures and some of the cultural norms that are in the country.

I think they can see that where they are now is a result of the country formerly having a fairly uncoordinated or non-integrated basin planning approach. Perhaps Myanmar now can take the opportunity to understand the values the river basin could provide, and to form a clear vision around what they want to achieve and perhaps a pathway to reach that. They are gathering the tools, the understanding, the information to allow them to map out that pathway. However, having a clear vision is what is missing almost everywhere I go around the world actually.

Talking with people in Myanmar, I see that it’s a very spiritual country. That is possibly one of the advantages there — people understand the connections to the river and they’re willing to recognise them. Dr Ni Ni Thien, who is in charge, has a strong passion around the cultural and spiritual connections of people to the river and the basin. However, I don’t know enough about the political structures to understand whether she and people like her have the amount of positional power they need in order to get the planning to occur in the way that it needs to. In our environment, when we consider taking an integrated approach we need to understand the social and political environment well so that we can design programs that are going to work, but I think we don’t yet understand enough about that in Myanmar. I’m sure there are others who do.

For instance, how do you integrate the knowledge of cultural connections into a government management system and how do you engage people in that discussion when for years they’ve been excluded from it? Getting people engaged in that process is not a cultural norm, and she will need to find new thinking to get that to occur.

Nevertheless, I think we can give Myanmar plenty of help and support, but we need to be careful that we don’t walk away when the aid money disappears, as I’ve seen happen in other countries such as India, China and Thailand. How do we give ongoing support? How do we set up communities of practice so that we can learn from each other, even when the aid money is scarce?

Also, we cannot go in there and make the decisions for them. We need to understand their context, their priorities, and tailor our understanding to their needs, rather than simply bringing in our paradigms and our context around basin management and water resource management.

Have you any general observations about basin management in the three countries?

In Myanmar, as in India, I was fascinated to see that the Dutch and the Danish and Australia and the US all are there and starting to, I suppose, try to sell their knowledge. I just hope that we can do it in a coordinated fashion and think about the bigger picture in Myanmar, rather than just spending some money and hoping that will solve everything. We need to think seriously around how to offer the best help in this country, which is just starting to look at how to set up a sustainable future for the good of its people.

I’ve found it fascinating to work in each of China, India and Myanmar, mainly because of good experiences with the people, particularly in China and Myanmar where I’ve spent a long time. To me, it seems that the most fundamental thing we can do in these countries is to work with the people and try to understand what drives them to want to make a change, what motivates them, why they want something different. We should not just aim to bring in our technologies, our knowledge, assuming that it’s somehow better than what they’ve already got. What we can do is aim to show what we’ve learnt about managing a basin system by using our tools, by having this knowledge. Maybe we can show people good ways to negotiate around some of those problems that we’ve identified and how to build their resilience to deal with inevitable mismanagement or wrong information and so on. To achieve a positive outcome.

Everywhere that I’ve been involved in modelling, in management, planning, strategic direction setting, the projects that have been most successful are the ones where people have a very clear direction to where they want to be, but have been willing to listen and to learn from what has gone before.

I’ve worked with some really fantastic people in all of these countries. Ultimately, I find the more I can understand them and learn from them and the more I can help them understand the knowledge I’ve accumulated over my 30 years in the industry, the more I can support them. And I really want to keep doing that, and helping them in any way I can.

Are there any resources people can draw on to help in basin planning and basin understanding?

Yes, there are a few. At the moment Alluvium is working on a planning guide to build on the knowledge that we’ve gained through 100 years of basin planning in Australia. We aim to distil that into a relatively simple user guide, to be published early in 2018.

This guide is being developed for India, based on our Australian experience. However, it will be quite useful for anyone to understand the path that we’ve followed. It acknowledges that we have made some fairly big mistakes and shows that we have learnt from those. The guide should help readers understand how to walk through that journey: what was important and what you need to look out for.

A great deal of what I have learnt, and understood, overall, has come from observing the system that I am working with. Asking: how does that system function? do I understand its complexities? do I understand its nuances? do I understand how people are interacting with it, and how it could change in the future through development, through climate, through productivity, through changing governments and so on?

That resource is there for everyone. You need to be observant and then try and understand why the system is behaving in that way. If you are thinking at the catchment scale, have a look at a river when you fly over it and try to understand how complex that system is and how you might build a model to capture its response. And then once you start to understand that complexity, you start to appreciate how that system is going to work and you can build that understanding further.

To me, that’s the most important resource you can use.

Get out there when it’s raining. Get out there when there’s a flood. Understand how that is affecting people, and what information you would need to manage that better. I tell all my staff to get out there and ‘kick the dirt’. If you’re going to build a model of a catchment, drive through it; talk to the people in it; understand how it’s working. You can’t get that information from sitting at a desk and building a model or compiling data. You need to get out there, touch it, feel it, experience it, to start to build an understanding. And even then, the understanding that you gain is only a small proportion of what is actually needed. You really have to work with others to get a better appreciation and a better understanding of how the system is going to work.

About Tony Weber

Tony is the national lead for water modelling, with Alluvium in Australia. He is a visiting scientist at CSIRO for the Basin Futures Team and a visiting fellow at Australian National University at their Integrated Catchment Assessment and Management Centre.

Tony has been involved in the water industry for over 30 years, working extensively across Australia focusing mainly on Southeast Australia. Internationally, he has worked in China, UK, France, Thailand, Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia. He is involved in the development of a guide on river basin planning in Australia. being prepared for India.

About working in China

Tony has been involved in a number of projects in China — including the modelling and management of their river basins, especially the application of technologies like basin modelling, water resource modelling, and also management planning, strategic approaches on integrating data, and the tools to support the decision-making process.

Another project has involved identifying and implementing lessons learned from Australia, USA, and Europe in implementing integrated urban water management in the Chinese context. He feels the Chinese water professionals enjoy and appreciate foreign experience guidance, but prefer to implement this knowledge themselves. Tony is fascinated by the intellectual horsepower in China and their ability to learn and come up with new and innovative approaches. He gives the example of research and design institutes he has worked with that learned about using computer models to map sub-catchments and came up with the idea of using a drone to map catchment characteristics, very quickly.

The ‘sponge city’ concept

Tony was involved in working on the evolution of the sponge city concept in south-central parts of China, mostly in Funan province. He feels a driving force for this approach is frequent flooding which is a result of rapid, largely uncontrolled urban development.

However, he says that it is important to recognise that the sponge city approach is applied to an urban ecology context and has many feedback loops, requiring water, wastewater, and stormwater management to be considered in an interrelated manner to be successful. He suggests that the hierarchy of governance in China could prove to be a challenge since knowledge is power and sharing of information has proven challenging across different governance levels.

He suggests that the national government is good at setting clear directions and gives the example of Chinese President Xi Jinping directing resources towards the sponge city approach once it had been decided that was the way to go. However, the greater challenge lies with the provincial and city governments and their capacity to implement the decisions in an integrated way

Tony also reflects that being a communist country, the concept of community engagement is not a part of the culture and this may lead to community complaints and dissatisfaction. He suggests that better engagement with communities would serve to strengthen the success of the sponge city approach. He adds that although people’s life in China has improved in the past 15-20 years, he wonders whether people will be happy with the trade-offs previous development once they have more disposable income..

Working in India

Tony is involved in a river basin planning project with the AWP and talks about governance in India, which has a heavy emphasis on bureaucracy. He feels there is a lack of cross-jurisdictional planning due to the lack of knowledge sharing. He suggests that the Government in India tends to be protective of their knowledge Tony wonders in the future if a more dynamic and flexible approach to decision making may one day prevail.

Tony says he is impressed with India’s ability to embrace technology and get it implemented quickly. He adds that there are many data collection programmes and a lot of data collection activities going on funded by World Bank. Through this, Indian agencies are getting a lot of support from eWater and other agencies from Australia to develop hydrological models. T

He discusses some of the challenges of working in India, describing chaotic ever-changing time frames and staff and how this may affect inter-jurisdictional basin planning. He suggests that there needs to be a central agency taking responsibility, with the power to implement initiatives. Water in India is very contentious and is a political issue and one organization handling all of it would be very difficult. Tony reflects that Australia had a similar situation until authority was set up to bring the whole system together to coordinate with the states for a whole-of-basin approach.

He also highlights that India has challenges with access to water and prevalent cultural norms surrounding water, such as religious and cultural influences that contribute to water governance challenges.

Working in Myanmar

Tony hopes that the lessons learned in Myanmar can be applied to India. Myanmar has established one managing basin planning body for the Ayeyarwady system, even though, the country has experienced political turmoil.

Tony was involved in undertaking data collection, monitoring programmes, and collating data available for use by basin managers and modellers. He is also involved in an AWP project setting up models, river basin planning, and applying an ecosystem service valuation approach bringing together all the information in a way that allows it to be accounted for in management.

Using an ecosystem valuation approach gives decision-makers an understanding of the value of the basin from the perspective of the people who live in the basin. Tony admits that the whole idea of understanding the value of a system is very new so there are no set rules on how it can be applied to the basin. He feels there is enough information and aid available in Myanmar to apply this approach, through the Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Modelling (AIRBM) project.

Tony describes the connections of spirituality to water.in Myanmar. He talks about the passion of Dr Ni Ni Thien who leads to AIRBM project about the cultural and spiritual connection of people to the river and the basin and is also the subject of an interview with the AWP. He strongly believes that for an integrated approach to occur that the political and social environment needs to be understood well.

Tony suggests that it is important not to go in there when there is funding available and disappear when it is not and that ongoing support should be ensured. He refers to work being conducted to support Myanmar includes that of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum and the Water Land and Ecosystems (WLE) Greater Mekong Forum. 

 

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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