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Wetlands and Wastewater in Southeast Asia

Posted: November 29, 2010
Kim Irvine, professor of geography and planning, continues to make significant contributions to the effort to ensure that the people of Southeast Asia have adequate, safe drinking water.

The July 2010 issue of Asian Journal of Water, Environment, and Pollution features a guest editorial that Irvine coauthored. The article discusses a topic that has concerned Irvine for much of his career: the treatment and disposal of wastewater and sewage. Irvine also coauthored four of the articles in the journal.

With Thammarat Koottatep of the School of Environment, Resources, and Development at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Irvine makes a strong case for using wetlands as an effective way to treat wastewater, citing the example of naturally occurring wetlands near Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“Too often,” he said, “developed countries want developing nations to build the kind of infrastructure to which we are accustomed. However, building wastewater treatment plants is expensive, and not always appropriate to the cultural and economic realities of developing countries.”

Wetlands, whether naturally occurring or constructed, are cost-effective ways to remove pollutants, in part or completely, from wastewater. The studies in which Irvine participated demonstrate that Boeng Cheung Ek, a naturally occurring wetland that is the main water treatment resource for the city of Phnom Penh, reduces the occurrence of various pollutants by a range of 44 percent to as much as 99.97 percent.

Irvine has involved several Buffalo State students in his work in Southeast Asia. One project, conducted with Stephen Vermette, professor of geography and planning, has been to present and develop workshops with government scientists as well as students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Four different workshops, conducted in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2009 respectively, have centered on evaluating and improving water quality.

“Some NGOs [non-governmental organizations] say there’s no value in workshops, but we’ve learned you can develop models that do work,” said Irvine. “It’s important to present participant-centered learning that helps students in the workshop take ownership of the material.”

Irvine, with Vermette and Vida Vanchan, assistant professor of geography and planning, established the Center for Southeast Asia Environment and Sustainable Development to centralize Buffalo State's efforts in Southeast Asia. The center also provides Buffalo State students with extraordinary opportunities to conduct research abroad.

When he offered an intersemester field course in Thailand, scheduled for January 2011, 21 students applied for the ten spaces in the 16-day course. “By going to Southeast Asia,” Irvine said, “students learn how challenging it is to do science in developing countries. They also learn how to work with colleagues whose cultural frame of reference is very different from ours.”

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