Environmental management is a sensitive issue, as some recent discussions on New Mandala have indicated. This is especially the case in relation to the management of “watersheds.” Relatively pristine upland forests often seen as the key to the sustainability of downstream water supplies. There is no bigger watershed in southeast Asia than the Mekong, and discussions about the Mekong’s future often rely heavily on selective reporting, anecdote and popular perception rather than on good quality environmental data. A recent paper by Ian Campbell is a good illustration [cambell.pdf]. Examing a series of environmental indicators for the Mekong River he found that there were common mismatches popular perceptions and environmental data. Here is the abstract of his paper:

Workshops to identify transboundary and basin-wide environmental issues and a diagnostic study by consultants identified priority environmental concerns of resource managers in the lower Mekong River basin. The issues identified, in priority order, were water quality, reduction in dry season flows, sedimentation, fisheries decline, wetland degradation, and flooding. An analysis of the available data found no evidence that water quality was poor except in the delta, where nutrient levels were high and increasing. Dry season flows have not decreased, and in the immediate future they are more likely to increase. Suspended sediment levels in the river are not high, and there is no indication that sediment loads are substantially increasing. Fish catch per unit effort has declined over the past decades, as have catches of large fish, but total fish catch has increased. Flooding does not appear to have increased in frequency or extent. There is no reliable quantitative information available on changes in wetland extent or condition, although it is reasonable to assume that both have declined. Reasons for the mismatch between perceptions and the data may include a failure by management agencies to analyze and publish data and provide adequate responses to issues raised in the popular press. This results from a lack of capacity in many government agencies and the Mekong River Commission, where there are high staff turnover rates and a dependence on short-term experts with limited experience in the basin.

Campbell’s findings certainly don’t accord with popular narratives of environmental degradation and many will rush to dismiss his arguments. But his contribution to the ongoing discussion about the role of perceptions (rather than data) in shaping environmental policy is well worth reading.