Go With The Flow: Can ASEAN Balance Development & Water Usage?

Despite being “the blue planet”, our relationship with water is becoming increasingly tumultuous. Urbanization, pollution, and farming have changed how water flows through Southeast Asia and potentially limited our access to this critical resource.

The Mekong River Delta is just one example of this imminent crisis. Since the 1980s, approximately 1 million wells have been drilled along the delta to produce water for drinking. In the same region, shrimp farmers are using the ground water to make their brackish ponds. Levees along the delta are additionally preventing sediment from being redistributed, as it would be without any human interference. Together, this development has caused the 55,000 square kilometer delta to sink nearly 5 meters. Today, the delta sits a mere 2 meters above sea-level with salty sea water moving further and further inland as the land continues to descend. In response, Vietnamese researchers are now working closely with Dutch scientists to reverse this process so that Vietnam does not end up below sea level like Holland. Over the next five years, they will pour $1 million dollars into research to better understand the evolving structure of the delta and to develop strategies to reverse it.

Vietnam is not alone in this crisis. Increasing populations elsewhere in ASEAN have also pushed the limits of water use in the region. A United Nations survey of ASEAN water security revealed that eight of the ten member states are moderately insecure, whereas Cambodia and Vietnam are facing severe challenges. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) analysis of clean water and sanitation access since 1990 and their projections for this year are not bright for Southeast Asia. Of the ASEAN Member States surveyed, only Myanmar is expected to reach the WHO targets for access to safe water in 2015. Comparison of access rates from 1990 to 2002 sadly shows a decrease in access to safe water in urban environments in Indonesia and in rural areas in the Philippines. While this does not necessarily indicate that water safety and sanitation have not improved overall, it does indicate that the population is increasing at a faster pace than access to safe water.

Sunset Over the Mekong Delta. “Vietnam 08 – 154 – sunset over the delta (3186479787)” by McKay Savage from London, UK – Vietnam ’08 – 154 – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Altering the water landscape in the region is not only a direct threat our wellbeing through access to clean drinking water. Rather, these changes have put ASEAN in a position where our environment is also working against us. Now, one-third of agricultural land in susceptible to flooding whereas other regions are prone to drought. On the regional level, these threats have already come to the forefront of discussion and are highlighted in the ASEAN Strategic Plan On Water Resources Management. Three steps are consistently proposed for dealing with this environmental challenge. First, more research needs to be done to classify and understand the changes that have already taken place and to categorize the severity of environmental damage. Second, actions need to be taken to limit the damage that has already been done. Where possible, structural changes such as river basin development, reforestation, and waste management should be implemented to reverse the deleterious changes threatening the region. Where reversing the landscape is no longer possible, adaption is necessary. Warning systems and emergency management protocols need to be established to support areas that may prone to extreme conditions for areas vulnerable to floods, droughts, and other natural disasters.

To accomplish all three of these stages, governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals will need to educate themselves on how to responsibly use and care for the water sources around them.


About the Author: Holly Lauridsen is a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Yale University, where she is conducting research on inflammation and vascular health. She is participating in the United States Virtual Foreign Service internship with the US Mission to ASEAN. She is originally from Portland, Oregon. Follow Holly on Twitter @HollysSciFinds to learn more about exciting new science!