Researcher Profile: Zali Fung

Water contestations

Tell us about your research

My research focuses on contests over water related to the Nam Yuam Water Diversion Project in Northern Thailand, near the Thai-Myanmar border. The project is located in the Salween River Basin, a transboundary river basin shared by China, Myanmar and Thailand.

I am particularly interested in the different ways contests over water are manifested, including over the boundaries of the project itself, its impacts and the practices and strategies of resistance used by impacted communities and other actors.

I consider how such contests over water (re)shape fragmented political authority over water resources – competition (or collaboration) between different actors and people to make decisions over the future of the river, and the processes through which this occurs. I position my research within the field of political geography.

Why is this research important?

Water is an incredibly important resource upon which all life depends, and its management is intensely political and contested. This is evident in the Salween River Basin, which is subject to competing visions for the future of the river, and has a long history of conflict and contestation over natural resources.

Political geography research reveals the underlying political processes and forms of power through which decisions over water are made. This form of analysis can enable more effective policy interventions around water resource developments, and ideally contribute to more equitable distribution and sustainable management of water resources.

What has been a highlight of your research to date?

The highlight of my research to date was undertaking fieldwork in Northern Thailand for my Masters thesis in 2016, where I examined the social impacts of multiple small dam projects.

It was a useful and humbling experience to work with a locally-based NGO and communities to understand how water infrastructure projects (re)shape livelihoods and local water management institutions. This experience gave me an understanding of the practicalities of doing qualitative interviews, working with a translator and building research relationships and networks. By sharing my research findings with my partner NGO and co-publishing a paper with them, I hope that my research provided insights on water management to the NGO and communities.

What points of connection do you see between your research and that of other disciplines?

My research, which fits within political geography, will draw on concepts and methods from other related social science disciplines such as political science and anthropology.

I hope my research findings will be broadly relevant to civil society and for water policy and management, particularly in the international development sector.

What would you like to do after your PhD?

There are two possible directions that I see my post-PhD career taking (which are not mutually exclusive). I am interested in pursuing postdoctoral research and pursuing a career in academia. I would also be interested in working with international organisations and NGOs in the water and international development space.

Read Zali's paper 'Mapping the social impacts of small dams: The case of Thailand’s Ing River basin' here.

Zali is a PhD student in the School of Geography.