Student projects reveal Mekong innovation in river monitoring

Apr 5, 2023 | PRESS RELEASES

Vientiane, Lao PDR, Apr 5, 2023

Vientiane, Lao PDR, 5 April 2023 – The Mekong River Commission (MRC) on Monday announced the winners of its first-ever River Monitoring Technology Competition for Mekong university students, as part of its broader effort to pursue innovative technologies that help protect Southeast Asia’s largest river – and simultaneously promote the region’s technological self-reliance.

As some say: “Mekong solutions for Mekong challenges.” To that end, the MRC recently achieved that aim through a unique event in which teams of Cambodian, Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese students competed to develop telemetry sensor technology that can measure and monitor water level, rainfall, soil moisture or water quality.

As one highlight of the landmark 4th MRC Summit, a panel of international judges awarded top prizes of USD 5,000 each to four separate teams: three from Cambodian universities and one from Lao PDR. Plus, USD 1,000 to the four Honorable Mentions.

In awarding the prizes at a ceremony in Vientiane, the MRC competition organizers praised all the finalists as “role models” for their peers, as the competition’s objective was both practical and symbolic. Indeed, Santi Baran, the MRC Chief Strategy and Partnerships Officer, said they were providing an invaluable contribution to Mekong society. The Mekong mainstream and its tributaries lack sufficient sensor equipment in some parts, while elsewhere, they may be relying on equipment that is pricey to maintain.

“When we first embarked on this journey, we had one equation in mind: how to reduce monitoring costs,” Baran told the audience. “If we want to stay in the business of monitoring, we have to start reinventing and to embrace change. And that change comes with innovation.”

Baran then addressed the students directly: “We knew it had to be the youth that’s empowered with all the innovations in their hands that can really make a difference — if we give them an opportunity. And no one can do a better job than the youth that are here today. You showed that Mekong people can do this technology ourselves, here on Mekong soil.”

In the category of how to measure and monitor Water Level, the 1st Place went to the Cambodia Academy of Digital Technology, while Thuyloi University of Viet Nam earned Honorable Mention; in the Water Quality category, the 1st Place went to the National Polytechnic Institute of Cambodia, with Honorable Mention to the National University of Laos; in the Rainfall category, the 1st Place went to the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, with Honorable Mention to the Soutsaka Institute of Technology in Laos; and in the Soil Moisture category, the 1st Place went to the National University of Laos, with Honorable Mention to Can Tho University of Viet Nam.

One Cambodian student from a winning team described it as an eye-opening experience.

“After joining this competition, we realized that no one else can help us if we’re not helping ourselves,” said Solita Pon, from the Cambodian Academy of Digital Technology. “This competition is a great opportunity for Mekong youths to step up and take on challenges that the Mekong River faces. It allows us to express our innovative ideas as well as our feelings – that we not only care about our River, but care about our world.”

The competition originated as a way to develop cutting-edge, cost-effective and sustainable tools as viable alternatives to river monitoring technology that the MRC already maintains along the Mekong and its tributaries. Some 250 stations track issues like hydrology, rainfall, water quality, ecological health, fisheries and drought. Yet the equipment is often foreign-made, expensive and challenging to maintain.

With that in mind, the MRC formally launched the competition in early October, as teams from 15 pre-selected Mekong universities were required to work under the tutelage of their professors as advisors. The most promising projects also received modest grants of USD 800 to develop their concept.

As such sensory technology is usually installed on riverbanks or in farming areas, the goal for students was to design technology suitable for its own terrain, location, weather and functions; operable via solar power; and capable of collecting and sending telemetry data from station to server, in real time.

The student-finalists were then brought from across the region to MRC headquarters in Vientiane, to present their projects on March 30 and 31 to a panel of neutral, foreign experts. They judged the projects according to their accuracy, durability, cost-effectiveness and innovation.

In evaluating the projects, the judges said they were also struck by the diversity within the teams, in terms of both gender and majors. Among the 70 undergraduates were 34 women and 36 men. The 10 different sensors built were developed and tested by students from the disciplines of physics, mathematics, hydrology, chemistry, gaming, information technology, biology, environmental science, oceanography and meteorology.

“They worked in multi-disciplinary teams and presented at the highest possible standards,” said one of the three judges, Dr Wayne Robinson, Senior Research Fellow at Australia’s Charles Sturt University. Moreover: “The presentations were delivered in their non-native language. The judges could not have been more impressed!”

Read this news in Khmer, Lao, Thai or Vietnamese.

Note to Editors:

The MRC is an intergovernmental organization established in 1995 to boost regional dialogue and cooperation in the Lower Mekong River Basin. Based on the Mekong Agreement among Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam, the MRC serves as both a regional platform for water diplomacy and a knowledge hub – to manage water resources and support sustainable development of the region.