Water Security and Water Resource Management in Southeast Asia

By Cronin, Richard | Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, October 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Water Security and Water Resource Management in Southeast Asia


Cronin, Richard, Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly


Richard P. Cronin is Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC. Dr. Cronin briefed the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations during its Hearing on Challenges to Water and Security in Southeast Asia on September 23, 2010.

Comparatively speaking, 30 percent of the world's fresh water is in Asia but it is very unevenly distributed. The South of China is well-watered but the north and west are extremely dry, as is Central Asia. Southeast Asia generally has ample water resources but with two important caveats: First, most of the region's rainfall occurs during the monsoon or wet season, which can be unreliable. Second, in the Mekong Basin a large portion of water available during the dry season comes from the spring and summer melting of the winter snow cap in Tibet. Nonetheless, the adaptation of flora and fauna to the extremes of wet and dry are the main reasons for the river's rich bounty and they are gravely threatened by hydropower dams, especially on the main stream and major tributaries. The conditions have made the Greater Mekong Region Subregion (GMS) a major wet rice growing region, with Thailand and Vietnam the world's first and second rice exporters.

Government policies and standards in Southeast Asia that address population growth, pollution, and industrial activity, and the impact on the region's water use and management

Most but not all Southeast Asian governments have generally done a better job of reducing population growth rates than protecting their forests from rampant destruction and rivers, estuaries and other water resources from pollution and the unsustainable use of ground water. Most large coastal cities in Southeast Asia are sinking from the depletion of their aquifers, even as the threat of rising sea levels and exceptionally severe storms caused by climate change are beginning to be felt. Jakarta, Bangkok, Manila, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are frequently flooded even by storms of common and predictable strength.

Unsustainable population growth remains an underlying cause of environmental degradation as well as political instability in some parts of the Mekong Basin, especially in upland areas which already are suffering from excessive exploitation. The comparatively youthfulness of most of the Mekong country populations ensures considerable growth momentum for some time after fertility rates decline to replacement level.

In Mekong Southeast Asia the population of Laos was growing at an estimated 2.73 percent per year as of 2007, with a very young age structure 41.2 percent of the population aged 14 years and under. Cambodia is growing more slowly at 1.73 percent per year, but Cambodians 14 and under still account for 34 percent of the population. The relevant figures for Vietnam are 1.04 percent growth and 26.3 percent of the population at 14 or under. The Thai population is growing at well under one percent per year and only 21 percent of the population is 14 years or younger. Myanmar's growth rate has fallen from 2.5 percent in the mid-1970s to below 1.0 percent in 2008, no doubt due in part to the dim economic prospects for a population with a comparatively high level of literacy but forced to live under the misrule of the military junta.

Because of the still largely young populations of the Lower Mekong countries besides Thailand demographers estimate that the population of the Mekong Basin will increase from 73 million at present to about 120 million by 2025, an increase of 65 percent. Moreover, some areas are growing far more rapidly and unsustainably. For instance, the population around Cambodia's Tonle Sap Great Lake is growing three times faster than the rest of the Cambodian population. Incomes of people living around and even on the Tonle Sap not surprisingly are one-third of those of Phnom Penh and poverty is four times as high. Certainly rapid population growth is a major factor in poverty but so are development policies that unsustainable exploit the resources of the poorest citizens for the benefit of more politically important urbanites.

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