By Jane Lawton, Head of Communications, IUCN Asia.

The word ‘dialogue’ may be somewhat overused in our development lexicon, but the recent meeting of the Mekong Water Dialogues I attended in Siem Reap, Cambodia provided a powerful example of what we really mean by effective dialogue in action.

The meeting brought together national teams from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to plan activities for the Mekong Water Dialogues (MWD) project for the year ahead. A project coordinated by IUCN, MWD works on improving water governance in the Mekong Region countries by promoting transparent and inclusive decision-making that will protect water resources while also improving people’s livelihoods and ensuring the health of ecosystems.

I came to the meeting having read all the documents and reports about MWD but with only a vague sense of what the project actually did. That was until the dialogue began.

First to strike me was the wide range of activities, each tailored to the local context, but all working towards common goals. In addition to project-related action around wetland protection and supporting community livelihoods, in all the countries there has been significant progress made toward enacting new legislation that will protect water resources. In Thailand this has been achieved through community meetings – ‘waterlogues’ – that are contributing to recommendations to government. In Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, through more direct interaction with the policy process.

I was also struck by the nature of the project structure, and how MWD is as much about the process of dialogue and sharing information as it is about the outcomes. Each country has a National Working Group (NWG) that includes representatives of government and civil society. The NWGs work with IUCN staff in each country to determine the priorities for MWD and to advance the project’s goals.

At the meeting in Siem Reap the staff and NWG members put their heads together to plot out their work plans, but they also worked across countries, learning from each other’s experiences and making new connections that will promote better water governance, both inside and outside the project.

The real highlight for me, though, was definitely the visit to nearby Tonle Sap. This is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and an extraordinarily dynamic environment – growing from 2,500 square kilometers in the dry season to 12,000 square kilometers in the wet season. We were visiting at the end of the wet season, so a large part of our visit was through what is called ‘the flooded forest’, an almost surreal landscape of what appears to be a lake, with the tops of trees just emerging from the water, providing homes in their submerged lower branches for fish to spawn, and in their treetops for colonies of birds to nest. In the dry season this reverts to shrublands and forests. This totally natural phenomenon is driven by the power of the nearby Mekong River, which actually reverses the Tonle Sap river flow in the wet season, flooding vast areas around the lake, and then reverses again in October so the lake can drain back into the Mekong.

It is this seasonal flooding that allows for the incredible ecological richness and biodiversity of the Tonle Sap, which is home to one of the world’s top freshwater fisheries and the largest colonies of endangered waterbirds in Southeast Asia. It has also given rise to an amazing resilience and adaptability in its people – many of whom live in floating villages that move from season to season, some of them shifting their homes more than eight to 10 times per year.

Of course, the Tonle Sap also has its conservation challenges. Although it is now a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the park rangers still face an uphill battle. Local communities are engaged in illegal fishing, clearing of the flooded forest and poaching of endangered species. Most importantly, the unique properties of this particular ecosystem depend on the uninterrupted flow of the Mekong which may well be impacted by the series of dams currently under construction on the river.

But progress is being made. Through the Mekong Water Dialogues IUCN is supporting the efforts of the hard-working rangers who patrol this forest, and who proudly showed us the six Siamese Crocodiles they had confiscated from villagers recently, and who would soon be returned to nature. The bird colonies that make their home in the flooded forests have increased dramatically in recent years, and slowly but surely, the conversations being undertaken with communities are beginning to make a difference.

As we traversed the lake in our small boats, I think we were all moved by the beauty and vastness of this strange landscape, and by this real-life demonstration of how dialogue, when done right, can lead to action.