Water management in Southeast Asia poses multiple challenges related to geography, climate, population growth and economic development.
For example, the significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the consequent rise in temperatures in recent decades means the region is highly vulnerable to climate change.
Moreover, Asia hosts 60 per cent of the world’s population, primarily in cities that release more heat and spread. Building new constructions on flood plains obstructs the natural course of waterways and increases the risk of flooding. Urban growth also increases water stress. In fact, in 2015, the Asian Development Bank estimated that by 2030, there will be a 40 per cent shortfall between water supply and demand in the region.
According to Victor Lorente, Client Solution Architect at Idrica, “It is essential to understand and tackle water management challenges in Southeast Asia to safeguard the region’s sustainability and growth from a social, economic and industrial point of view”.
This situation is driving an urgent need to address water management issues in the region. In this regard, Martin Shaw, NRW Solution Architect at Xylem, based in Malaysia, points to technology as a key player in this area.
“In an area with a burgeoning economy, technology becomes a lever for change to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation services for all.”
Major water management challenges for the region
Some of the region’s major water management challenges are:
The availability of freshwater in Southeast Asia is limited and unevenly distributed. According to the Asian Development Bank, urban centres are the main areas this scarcity affects. However, they are not the only ones. Many countries in the region face water shortages, especially during drought, which affects the population, agriculture and industry. In the opinion of Idrica’s specialist, Víctor Lorente, one of the main challenges lies in “how to optimise the management of this scarce resource throughout the entire water cycle, from catchment to potential reuse. Moreover, all stakeholders in this cycle must be aligned to ensure fairer, more efficient water distribution.”
A study by the United Nations Environmental Program highlighted that 80 per cent of river water in the Asia-Pacific region is polluted. Rapid industrial and urban development in some Southeast Asian countries has brought water pollution from chemicals, industrial waste and untreated sewage. This affects water quality and the health of water-dependent communities.
During the rainy season, Southeast Asia has to cope with severe floods that affect millions of people and cause significant property damage. The lack of sound infrastructure and efficient flood management systems exacerbates this problem.
Cross-border water resource management
Many rivers and river basins in Southeast Asia are shared by multiple countries, which can lead to disputes over the use and management of cross-border water resources.
Rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns due to climate change significantly impact water availability and the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as droughts and floods.
Balancing economic development and environmental conservation is a major challenge for water management in the region. The economic development experienced by Southeast Asia in the last ten years has led to increased demand for water, exacerbating water scarcity and pollution problems.
In some areas, excessive groundwater extraction for irrigation and domestic use leads to aquifer depletion and saltwater intrusion, making water unsuitable for drinking and agriculture. Additional measures are essential in these locations, including programs to improve non-conventional water sources, surface water storage, and demand management.
Many parts of the region lack good water infrastructure, such as water treatment facilities, distribution networks and drainage systems, which affects access to safe drinking water and increases flood vulnerability. “Countries in this region must urgently improve water management with strong leadership and provide solutions in the most affected areas,” stated Martin Shaw. In addition, Asia accounts for about half of the world’s bottled water market, a further factor discouraging investment in public infrastructure.
According to the United Nations, approximately three out of every five people live in Asia, representing 60 per cent of the global population. The increase in population and economic activities in cities, combined with rapid urban development, puts added pressure on water resources as the demand for water increases. Additionally, yields from irrigated agriculture need to be increased, with 70 per cent of water resources being used for this type of agriculture, causing greater water scarcity.
Water governance and policies
Inconsistent water governance, lack of integrated water management and the overlap in responsibilities between various agencies often hinder the effectiveness of water management strategies. Environmental policies cannot be taken locally but must be wide-ranging and consider the complexity of ecological systems.
South East Asia and water management
Southeast Asian countries need to adopt comprehensive water management approaches that include implementing sustainable policies, strengthening water infrastructure, promoting water conservation, efficient water use, and regional cooperation to manage cross-border water resources jointly and fairly if they are to tackle these challenges. In addition, public awareness of the importance of water and the active participation of local communities is also crucial to achieving more effective, sustainable water management in the region.
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