Saving the Mekong with Science
When Palamy Changleuxay was a kid in Vientiane, the Mekong river was one of her playgrounds. "I lived close by," she explains. "A group of us would come down here to pick river weed, or wade out to the islands. We'd play with the sand." She smiles at the memory. "It was a good time."
Since then, the Vientiane river front has changed a lot. When Palamy was a child more than twenty years ago, the river was bordered by forests. "It smelled like a river, everything was a lot more green."
But it was also largely inaccessible. There were a few "bar" boats where men and backpackers could drink Beer Laos, eat cheap food and smoke. Today, there are berms protecting the banks, and a well-tended public walkway stretches as far as the eye can see. In the evenings, families come out to walk or bike. Young couples sit together, laugh and take selfies. Hundreds of people do aerobics as the sun sets. "I prefer it today," says Palamy, who comes down to the river to exercise or meet friends.
But Palamy is also acutely aware of the importance of the river to her nation. "Lao people are absolutely dependent on the Mekong. We're a landlocked country," she explains. "The Mekong and its many channels provide water and irrigation, huge biodiversity, food, transport, and with the newer bridges, a trade gateway to neighbouring countries."
She's also aware of how the dual pressures of damming and climate change are affecting the Mekong. And she wants to do something about it. "I plan to study disaster management with a focus on flooding," she says. "This is going to be a big issue for the future."
Palamy is in a great position to help. She's one of a small minority of Lao women of her generation to graduate university with a science background. "When I was young I wanted to be a doctor. Then an architect," she remembers. "But then I received a grant to study geography in university, so I did that."
Now, at age 26, Palamy is teaching geography - to university students at the National University of Lao. "I'm definitely the youngest person in my department." She teaches subjects most of us don't know much about - like remote sensing, geographic information systems and aerial imagery. She's done such a good job, she's been asked to help work on a USAID/NASA project aimed mapping changes on the Mekong and seeking future solutions. It's called SERVIR-Mekong, and gives universities in the Mekong region access to satellite imagery and software to analyse it, together with the chance to coordinate with researchers across borders.
"It's also a great teaching tool," says Palamy. "Students will need to know how to access and use this data to help the country." The data sets and maps can point to interdisciplinary solutions for agriculture, fisheries, forestry, human health, and of course, the environment and climate change.
Now, Palamy has another exciting chance. Just last week at the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, she sat with 30 other Lao students - two-thirds of them women - who were granted scholarships to complete a Master's degree in Australia. Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian Prime Minister, personally met with the students. "I was so excited to learn I'd won this scholarship," says Palamy. Foreign scholarships are in high demand in Lao, and many Lao academics study abroad, then return home to conduct research and teach. Palamy will spend the next ten months preparing for her Australian studies, and will likely be on a campus in South Australia next year.
"I'm very focussed on my studies," she says. She's got no immediate plans to take the more traditional route, get married and have children. "Now I want to do what I want to do."
Where does her drive come from? She says her mother has been a huge influence. "After having children when she was 40, she wanted to go back to university and finish her own degree," says Palamy. "And she did. She finished her Bachelor's degree at age 42." Both her parents grew up relatively poor in families who farmed rice. "My mom didn't want to farm," says Palamy. She told herself "what I can do is try to study. It will help me and the next generation."
"Both my parents really encourage me and inspire me," she says. Her dad works in telecommunications, and her mom is a nurse.
She also receives lots of encouragement from her supervisor, Dr. Somkhith at the University. "It's wonderful for Palamy to have the chance to study abroad," Dr. Somkhith says. "She really deserves this." (Dr. Somkhith has her own story and I'll write about that more in a future post.)
"Now I also try to inspire younger students, and of course, my own brothers and sisters. I want to be a role model for them," says Palamy.
When Palamy is finished her Master's degree, she plans to get her PhD. "My dream is to help Laos people mitigate the impact of flooding on the Mekong," she says. "All women need dreams."
Palamy is on her way.
With thanks to David Ganz at SERVIR-Mekong who explained this important project and helped me to meet Palamy.
Some facts about higher education in Lao PDR:
(see more in this UNESCO report on higher education in Asia):
- Participation is increasing, but fewer than 10% of young Lao people enrol for a Bachelor's degree, and fewer still complete their studies.
- About 36% of those who obtain a Bacherlor's degree are women.
- 8 of every 100,000 Lao people go on to complete a Master's degree.
- Of those who are working on a Master's degree, under 5% study science.
- About 23% of researchers in Lao PDR are women.
- This is also improving, but the most recently published data show that only about 4 of 10 Lao adolescent girls enrol in upper secondary school (for more see Unicef).