"It began with passion and learning. When I was young, I wanted to be an engineer and then I wanted to teach. Putting these two interests together, I became a university teacher specialized in water resources engineering." This is how Dr. Khin Ni Ni Thein's professional journey with water started. Now, 42 years later and many experiences richer, she shares her career story in celebration of International Women's Day (IWD2020).


Source: Global Water Partnership - It was not an overnight achievement. It took five years, from 1978 to 1983, to become an instructor in the Rangoon Institute of Technology, which is now the Yangon Technological University. After obtaining a Bachelor degree in Civil Engineering, I worked as a trainee engineer in the township water and sanitation office under the township Assistant Engineer in Gyogone, Insein. I used to supervise a small team of plumbers who go around government quarters in that township to ensure that each house/apartment gets regular water supply, both water and sewage pipes are not blocked, no leakage, no broken links, etc. My office was under the Ministry of Construction. From that experience I have learned how important water is for each and every citizen and I was proud of being an engineer and wanting to learn more about water.

Therefore, I enrolled myself in a master's class to learn Water Resources Planning, Development and Management. After the course work, during the thesis writing period, I joined the irrigation department dam construction team in Pyinmana. This job was under the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation. I was one of the Assistant Engineers who built Ngalaik Dam near Nay Pyi Taw. After that I moved to Sittang Valley Project design office and became an Assistant Design Engineer. At that time Sittang Valley Project was supported by the World Bank. So, I was so lucky to have that experience and started to see the international water world from the keyhole through the Sittang Valley Project.

My passion for water and teaching grew after a few years of experience and in the meantime I obtained a Master's of Water Resources Planning Development and Management Engineering degree. It enabled me to join the Rangoon Institute of Technology as an Instructor in the Civil Engineering Department and I was gradually promoted to a lecturer position. After that I got the Netherlands scholarship and studied in Delft for postgraduate degrees, Dip. H.E. (Computational Hydraulics), M.Sc. (Computational Hydraulics specialized in sediment transport modeling), and Ph.D. (Hydroinformatics).

First to have a Ph.D in Hydroinformatics

I was the first Ph.D. of the Hydroinformatics subject as well as that of the Institute, IHE Delft. What have a learnt from this journey is that we need to learn a more holistic way of water engineering and promotion of new technology, new approaches and new philosophy to solve water issues on Earth. Hydroinformatics is the name of a new way of applying knowledge as this knowledge is utilized in the world of the water. This new way of applying knowledge, which is developing generally within our present-day societies, is concerned with ways to access and employ electronically encapsulated information, which itself becomes knowledge just to the extent that it is genuinely accessed and authentically employed. The knowledge of how to apply knowledge in the new way is thus itself a certain kind of 'metaknowledge'.

From the Hydroinformatics points of view, we can clearly see that we cannot solve the water problems by technological means alone. Thus, Hydroinformatics is the means to solve water problems by socio-technological means.

Since then - it was around 1994 - I started to learn other aspects of water, such as social inclusiveness and how to gather the voices of the voiceless and streamline them into decision support system. Other activities such as gender and water, spiritual transformation to implement Integrated Water Resources Management, Conflict Prevention in water sharing etc.

Receiving the Maria-Gouppe-Meyer Award

Due to proactive contributions in the area of Water Education and Technology as engineering Teacher, I was awarded the Maria-Gouppe-Meyer award for outstanding professional woman in the field of Technological Education (2002- 2004) by the German Government, and I got a visiting professorship at Suderburg University, Germany.

After that I joined UNEP and worked as Senior Advisor to Dams and Development Project, enriching me with Dam Debates and facilitating the 120 member strong DDP Forum where all relevant stakeholders in Dam Business and Dam affected peoples, national governments, international organisations, donors, multilateral banks, and indigenous groups of the land where they were originally born and owned. All these 120 members were clustered into 13 stakeholders' group and one representative from each group sit at the 13-person steering group to have a serious dialogue on improved decision making, dialogue, planning and management of dams and their alternatives. It was around 2002-2004.

Based on that experience I moved on to UNESCO to work as Chief of the Sustainable Water Management Section where I was responsible for the International Flood Initiative, International Sediment Initiative, supervision of the PCCP (Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential) and other sustainable water management issues, including representing UNESCO at UN Water and UN Intergovernmental Group on Gender and Water.

Just before moving to UNESCO I was also selected to join the International Conference on Conflict Resolution in IWRM by religions. After my UNESCO time I worked as the Vice President for Development and Resources at the Asian Institute of Technology, where I could learn and practice the Institution advancement and fund raising for the Institute from 2005 to 2010.

Returning to Myanmar

In 2011 the government in Myanmar announced that it will devote itself to Clean Government and Good Governance. Hence, I went back to Yangon, Myanmar and devoted myself full time to the Myanmar Water Sector Reform.

We have accomplished to so much from 2013 to present. The National Water Resources Committee was established, almost all longest serving water professionals from Myanmar joined the Advisory Group of NWRC. Together we published National Water policy, Myanmar National Water Framework Directive, Many Public Consultation Meetings, got the World Bank 100 million USD interest free loan to empower the NWRC to implement IWRM and Myanmar water sector reform with all necessary tools and public support through navigation enhancement and Hydro-Met Data system integrator.

Moreover, we were able to facilitate the Multistakeholders Forum of the Ayeyarwady River Basin. These strategic and visionary steps could not be made at the right time with right dosage and right support from strategic development partners like the World Bank, the Netherlands and Australian Governments.

42 Years

My water journey has been going on for 42 years since my first job as water and sanitation engineer in Yangon. I have lived in Europe for 25 years and worked for UN and WB, having to experience all aspects of water resources management and financial aspects including trust building. I am deeply indebted to all my teachers and colleagues and supervisors who went through this journey together with me. We were honored by all four development partners. With the support of the World Bank we have established the Hydroinformatics Centre, which is the water operation centre of the NWRC, its decision support system, advice serving system, and engine room. Recently we established the Myanmar Water Academy with the initial financial support from Australia.

During my water journey, I must say I was extremely lucky to have met water professionals and affected peoples from all walks of life from more than 50 countries around the globe.

If we look up the top layer of the social strata, I have met and sat together with a few Presidents and Prime Ministers, numerous Ministers, and Heads of UN organisations and Heads of Giant Charity Foundations and High Level Government Officials and Army Chiefs - one person to emphasize is Pope John Paul II during the 2004 UNESCO conference on conflict resolution in IWRM, convened by selected religious leaders and senior water professionals in the Vatican City. I also have met and taken photos together with the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands during the 13 years of his leadership in the International Water Arena. I have met the His Imperial Highness of Japan three times as well while I was spearheading for the Myanmar Water Sector reform. Two times in conference like settings, but I was invited to have an audience - one extraordinary occasion was at the bilateral meeting between Myanmar Delegation and HIH in UN HQ in NYC - I was even asked to suggest what kind of support Myanmar would appreciate. My answer was "capacity development".

Water-related Capacity Building or Capacity Development has three stages. The first is individual capacity development and the second is institutional capacity development and the third is Nation Building or National Identity related to Water. We are doing it with the highest level of seriousness. So that we can build much needed trust among different ethnic groups in Myanmar by means of fair water sharing and good water governance. From fairness and transparency to trust and trust to peace and then sustainable development is on the horizon. Therefore, I am now working on the "360 degree Capacity Development" and "Water and Peace Initiative".

Simple, day-to-day exercises can empower women

I think that in order to empower all women and girls we need simple, day-to-day life-touching, easy-to-deal-with exercises - for example implementing integrated water resources management starting from the household level, to the village tract, to the township - then spiral up.

Also to introduce implementing integrated water resources management at the classroom level and school level - then increase it to neighbourhood - interact between students and community.

All these activities should be done by all but promote the spirit of leadership in female members of the activity. Then these female leaders should be trained to be active agents of the "360 degree Capacity Development" approach.

We need to base in water activity not only teaching and explaining, but also with self-initiated implementation. Once the spirit is up, of course, relevant authorities, school principals and community chiefs, state and regional government, ministries and government departments have to supply necessary resources.

Photo: Dr. Khin Ni Ni Thein speaking at a High Level Round Table on Water Security and the SDGs in Myanmar, May 2016.