The WLE 2015 Greater Mekong Forum, held in October 2015, was the largest event in the Mekong Region to address the confluence of water, food and energy. It brought together roughly 400 regional water, food and energy professionals and thinkers to explore new and emerging ideas in water, its development and its exploitation.

ICEM – International Centre for Environmental Management,  IWMI – International Water Management Institute, together with MIID – Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development and ECCDI – Ecosystem Conservation and Community Development Initiative, are conducting two healthy rivers projects under the WLE umbrella MK23, which focuses on the health of the Salween, and MK24, which focuses on the health of the Ayeyarwady.

Team members from both projects came together to facilitate a working session on ecosystems services and communities in the four major rivers of the Greater Mekong Subregion. The objective of the Healthy Rivers working session was to, for the first time, bring together a wide range of GMS stakeholders to undertake a participatory review of ecosystems services in each river and identify those that were most important. This report brings together and analyses the results of that session.

For an in depth discussion on the four rivers studied in the working session, see the Ecosystems Services Report.


The workshop was comprised of practitioners and inhabitants from all four basins. Environmentalists with decades of experience, law-makers, and other advocates and professionals contributed their insights and data.

Working Session

Working session participants spanned a wide variety of project affiliations, technical backgrounds, and geography. The room was arranged into four areas with each area representing one of the four target basins. As participants entered, they were seated at the river that was most meaningful to them, either because it was the focus of their work or because they live in the basin.

These groups would form the basis of the rest of the working session. The groups moved through the working session’s steps in order to generate discussion and insight into how ecosystems services are distributed and used across each basin.


Key Questions helped to generate discussion:

  1. How does the use of ecosystem services vary between the landscapes of each basin of the GMS.
  2. What kinds of development pressures are degrading ecosystem services in each basin?
  3. How does the importance and use of ecosystem services vary between the four great basins of the GMS?
  4. Are there similar patterns and mixes of development pressures between the 4 GMS basins?
  5. Are there similarities between similar landscapes in different basin, either in terms of ecosystem services and also development pressures?

Determining Top Ecosystems Services

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment defined Ecosystem Services as “the benefits people derive from ecosystems”. Participants were asked to use ballots provided to select the most important cultural, provisioning, regulating, and supporting ecosystem service in their basin (derived from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2006):


  • Recreation and mental and physical health
  • Tourism
  • Aesthetic appreciation and inspiration for culture, art and design
  • Spiritual experience and sense of place


  • Food: Fish & Other Aquatic Products – wild capture
  • Food: Aquaculture (Inn and cage)
  • Food: wild collection of riverine vegetation
  • Fresh water supply – domestic
  • Fresh water supply – irrigation
  • Fresh water for livestock
  • Raw materials: sand and clay for building etc
  • Raw materials: Timber, grasses, bamboo
  • Medicine


  • Flood moderation: Transfer of water, sediments or nutrients
  • Flooding: Soil fertility, nutrients in water, fish breeding, overbank habitat
  • Carbon sequestration: Mangroves and riparian forests; peatlands
  • Water quality regulation: Dilution, dispersal, and treatment
  • Groundwater recharge
  • Local climate and air quality regulation
  • Biological control of pests and diseases
  • Moderation of extreme events
  • Soil


  • Habitat: Supports provisioning, cultural and regulating services
  • Migration and dispersal: Seed dispersal, fish migration
  • Maintenance of genetic diversity
  • Habitats for species
  • Maintenance of floodplain environments (e.g. soils, riparian forest/grassland etc.)
  • Maintenance of estuarine environments (e.g. salinity gradients, sediment deposition etc.)


Exploring Top Ecosystems Services

Equipped with the top ecosystem service in each category, basin groups were then tasked with filling out the ESS use cards.

Participants discussed around their tables the following questions:

  1. How do communities use the ecosystem service?
  2. Who in the basin uses the ecosystem service?
  3. Why do communities value the use?
  4. What kinds of pressures are being placed on the ecosystem service?
  5. How does this pressure impact on the ability of communities to use the ecosystem service?
  6. How are these pressures changing over time?

To delve more deeply into each ecosystem service, basin groups were asked to fill out one card per ecosystem service per landscape, thus totalling twelve cards per basin. So, for example, the top provisioning service in the Salween basin would produce three cards: one for how it is used in the uplands, one for plateaus and plains, and one for floodplains and deltas. This way, basin groups could explore not only the service itself, but how its use changes over the course of the river.

Classing Responses

To better investigate and visualise participant responses, those responses were classed according to their subject matter. The full list of classes is available in the Ecosystems Services Report.

Data Summary

The exercise set out to determine if and how ecosystems services are valued and used differently across landscapes; resulting data indicates that aside from a few exceptions, ecosystems services are valued similarly and face similar pressures across landscapes and rivers.

Please note: no Supporting responses were submitted by the Ayeyarwady working group, resulting in a gap in available data.

The ballots distributed to participants contained between four and nine ecosystem service options under each of the four ESS Types: Cultural, Provisioning, Regulating, and Supporting. Groups were asked to determine which of these ecosystems systems services was most important to their basin according to each ESS Type and then track how that ESS is used and valued along the length of the basin. Ostensibly, given that there are four rivers under consideration and four ESS types, there could have been up to 16 different ecosystems services ranked as most important and tracked across its respective basin. Once ballots were submitted for review, however, it became clear that aside from some outliers, most rivers share topmost ecosystems services in most ESS Types.

The data, classed and collated, is presented in Sankey diagrams below. For an in depth investigation into how ecosystems services are used and valued across landscapes and basins, see the Ecosystems Services Report.


Who uses which ecosystems services, and why are those services valued?


Who uses which ecosystems services, and why are those services valued?



What kinds of pressures are being exerted on ecosystems services, and what are the impacts?


What kinds of pressures are being exerted on ecosystems services, and what are the impacts?


The rivers of the Greater Mekong Region support millions of inhabitants, most of whom live in communities that take their sustenance, livelihood, and sense of identity from the rivers they call home.

Though they may live thousands of kilometres apart and speak different languages, the benefits they enjoy from ecosystems services provided by these rivers are largely the same. So, too, are the pressures exerted on these systems.

The data presented was sourced from a small but dedicated group of practitioners from the region. With more in depth facilitation, this exercise could be used to glean deep insight into each of these rivers and landscapes if conducted with local communities. A sampling from urban dwellers will differ from those who live in rural communities; commercial interests will differ from those of ethnic minority communities. The strength of this exercise and the means of presenting resulting data, though, is that it can help make sense of these differences and help reveal similarities.

Visit WLE Mekong for more information on those who make the Myanmar Healthy Rivers projects possible.