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  • Writer's pictureDeepa Rao

Perils and conflicts due to water scarcity in Southeast Asia

Water scarcity, along with its deadly effects, is rapidly engulfing the globe. Over two billion people already live in nations with severe water scarcity. According to the United Nations, one out of every four children would face severe water scarcity by 2030-2040, and approximately 750 million people will be displaced due to water constraints. In the second half of this century, water is projected to be one of the primary causes of war, geopolitical tensions, humanitarian, environmental, and economic disasters. We only have so much freshwater available in our closed water system. However, with an ever-increasing global population, an ever-increasing need for water, and the burning of natural resources to accommodate us all, sharing water peacefully and responsibly between governments and those who need it most will be a difficult task.

Southeast Asia under the microscope

Water scarcity will be disproportionately catastrophic for Southeast Asia's economic and human development, with millions of people reliant on a single lake or river. By 2050, more than half of the world's population will live in water-scarce areas, with Asia accounting for 73 percent of those affected. In addition, although utilizing the least quantity of water per capita, Asia withdraws the highest percentage of freshwater sources, at 20%. Furthermore, with agriculture accounting for 80% of this water loss, it is impossible not to raise concerns about the economic vulnerability of some of the less developed countries that are more reliant on crops and farming.

There is water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

'Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink,' applies not only to the miseries of an Ancient Mariner but also to a location afflicted by water scarcity despite being surrounded by oceans. Tensions are unavoidably going to grow in the near future. We don't even have to wait 40 years to see this play out since the seeds of discontent and strife are already there.

The Mekong river basin is a good place to start looking for these issues. The river flows through eight nations, and 60 million people in five countries in the Lower Mekong Basin rely on it for food and income. However, a combination of water politics and more severe drought seasons raises the potential of dependency. For example, in July 2019, the Mekong's water levels were at their lowest in 100 years, putting people in jeopardy and making conditions worse.

ASEAN and a water management system based on rules

Southeast Asia, on the other hand, can still establish a rules-based water management system that facilitates and addresses international discussions, infrastructure funding, and mounting conflicts. ASEAN appears to be the best prospect for this position. The shared idea of "one identity, one vision" is the ideal reason for collaboration among the Mekong river states. If tensions are to be reduced, the ASEAN-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation, which had been dormant for more than two decades prior to the Asian Financial Crisis, must be injected with strategic vision and financing as soon as possible.

To be sure, this can only happen if the BDC, or a revamped version of it, has an executive with equal representation for all states, particularly an equal platform for the region's least developed countries. In the long run, however, a structured and sustainably used river basin will benefit all states in the region, ensuring future development, trade, and security.

Transfers and technological innovations

As a result of new ASEAN initiatives, more developed countries in the region may be able to provide money and technological transfer. Singapore is a good example. The state has developed ways to obtain a regular supply of freshwater and becomes less reliant on Malaysia for its water through technological advances such as installing desalination plants and storage of treated sewage water. Our natural environment does not have to constrain us in our hunt for water sources in our technological age. As a result, the current murky hydro-politics can be avoided. However, when we consider how the Chinese government has provided no indication that it is willing to negotiate joint control of the Mekong, this becomes far-fetched thinking. Without China accepting that the Mekong is not theirs to maintain, solutions will continue to be based on scholarly, journalistic, and individual speculation.

The governments of Southeast Asia are well aware of the intertwined concerns of water security and disaster management. The Kuala Lumpur Declaration on ASEAN 2025 forging ahead together and the building resilience for sustainable ASEAN from water-related disasters project indicate the importance member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have on this dual objective.

However, the frameworks and actions for dealing with water – too little, too much, or polluted – in these two areas are still not as integrated as they should be. How ASEAN member states work together to ensure appropriate access to clean, potable water and alleviate the effects of water-related disasters? Defining and solving the issue of water security Using a disaster governance perspective to secure water and improve resilience might open up new avenues for pooling resources, building political will, averting conflicts, and fostering transboundary collaboration.

Integrating water-security priorities into broader disaster governance aims is one strategy to achieve this goal at the regional level. The work program of the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) provides a starting point. The AADMER is more than just a framework for regional collaboration in disaster loss reduction and emergency response. It is also the first legally binding instrument of its sort. A normative entity like ASEAN has an advantage in gaining committed and sustained political, financial, and administrative backing over competing for regional agendas.

Water shortage and stress solutions and contingency plans can assist ASEAN to make tangible progress toward more proactive and adaptive drought-risk management by including them into disaster-risk assessments, early warning systems, response mechanisms, needs assessments, and risk financing. Similarly, adopting people-centered disaster governance mechanisms, such as community-based approaches for dealing with periodic droughts, can help meet a growing population's water needs while not leaving vulnerable people behind. It can also help to motivate local participation in water-rationing exercises to reduce abuse of water resources, which is especially important in large urban areas.

Another stage would be to combine structural water-security measures for reducing water pollution and flooding with non-structural ways for dealing with the compound risks of water-related calamities. Waterborne disease outbreaks can be reduced by prioritizing the provision of a secure, reliable water supply as part of disaster preparedness. Adopting technologies to monitor structural faults and water levels in reservoirs can help with system redundancy and disaster response for rising dangers such as dam breakdowns.

Non-structural disaster governance measures, meanwhile, can improve the effectiveness of water security technologies. In water security planning, catastrophe risk-informed development frameworks can highlight trade-offs of investment initiatives. Installing floodwalls, for example, can improve the protection of metropolitan areas. However, it exposes nearby rural areas to floods in different ways.

Finally, inequalities are at the root of many water-related issues. To address these, we need to engage in participatory discourse and action that takes into account the interests and capabilities of local actors as well as the business sector. Water security is threatened by social marginalization, politicized commercialization, environmental racism, and unregulated privatization. Disaster governance crowd-sourcing networks that are diverse and inclusive can be excellent venues for multi-stakeholder collaboration. Putting these strategies in place under AADMER would help guarantee that ASEAN's joint efforts to secure water and create resilience continue to get funding, direction, and support.

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