Addressing Water Insecurity in Southeast Asia: Causes & Solutions

water insecurity in southeast asia

A United Nations report indicates that around 2 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. One of the regions faring the worst is Southeast Asia. Research suggests that 110 million people are facing water insecurity in Southeast Asia despite progress in the regions water sector.

Singapore, for instance, is often considered a positive example of what’s possible. The country can use recycled water to meet up to 40% of its water demand, and all of its population has access to drinking water and sanitation. Still, despite these advances in Singapore, the progress has not been enough for other Southeast Asian countries to change their trajectory. However, the fault for the water shortage issues is not easy to place because the causes of water insecurity in the region are complex and interconnected.

Main Causes of Water Insecurity in Southeast Asia

One of the primary causes of water shortages in Southeast Asia has to do with a critical water source in the region: the Mekong River. In 2019, the Mekong River Commission recognized that fluctuating water levels in the waterway — which 65 million people in mainland Southeast Asia rely on — were resulting from climate change. This contributing factor is so significant that it’s viewed as a “threat multiplier” because it’s exacerbating various problems like erosion, sediment loss, and salinity. However, climate change isn’t the only thing working against the water levels in the Mekong River.

Dam construction is another factor fueling the water crisis, as China has already built more than ten dams on the Mekong River. Additionally, hundreds of smaller dams exist on the waterway for farming, irrigation, and water distribution, but they reportedly hold back 50% of sediment. This issue, along with insufficient water to flush the river clean and sand dredging, has increased the Mekong River’s saltiness.

Together, industrial growth and rapid urbanization along with climatic changes have caused the Mekong River to experience poor water quality. Severe droughts have significantly impacted agriculture and people’s livelihoods. In February 2022, the waterway entered its fourth year of drought and was in the worst conditions in 60 years.

Unfortunately, it will be challenging to get things back on track. Despite the Mekong River Commission asking its members — Thailand, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar — to mitigate the crisis, there has been little coordination. Dams are still being constructed despite their negative effects on the waterway. Population growth and rapid urbanization are also worsening the situation.

These two elements are already causes of water insecurity in Southeast Asia. As water demand grows to match increasing populations and energy needs, the Mekong River’s drought has the potential to stretch even longer.

Countries Most Affected by the Water Crisis

While Southeast Asia is marked by a water shortage, there are two countries getting hit particularly hard. One is Indonesia. According to Water.Org, Indonesia is home to 273 million people and the largest economy in Southeast Asia. However, many families have little access to clean, safe water. Most water sources are contaminated, distant, and expensive. Consequently, 18 million Indonesians are water insecure, and 20 million lack access to good sanitation.

The Philippines is another Southeast Asian country experiencing a water shortage. In 2023, the Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said the country was facing a water crisis, given that some 11 million families lacked access to clean, safe water. Currently, the Philippines is heavily reliant on underground aquifers, but rapid economic and population growth is putting a strain on the available water supply — and surface water and groundwater are not clean enough to be alternative solutions. Those water sources are contaminated because of black water, open defecation, and improper disposal and management of human excrement.

Fortunately, the Philippines and Indonesia want to mitigate the water crisis in their countries. The Philippines’ president openly acknowledged that filtration systems need to improve to manage surface water effectively and provide access to potable water. In Indonesia, there is also a growing urgency to meet national goals to improve sanitation and access to safe water.

The desire for improvement is a sign that Southeast Asian countries are open to solutions that will mitigate the region’s water insecurity challenges. If you are an official, engineer consultant, or plant manager who is a part of the call for change, there are multiple solutions you can implement.

Addressing Water Insecurity in Southeast Asia

The causes of water insecurity in Southeast Asia fall into one of two categories: economic water insecurity and physical water insecurity. The former refers to water shortages arising from institutional issues, including little investment, poor infrastructure, and lack of planning. The latter, however, refers to water shortages resulting from climate change, droughts, and fluctuating weather patterns. Overcoming the water crisis in Southeast Asia will require you to address both of these overarching challenges — but you can do so effectively with the right methods.

For example, consider economic water scarcity. Addressing the issues affecting the Mekong River could require a significant amount of money. In some countries, the amount may seem to be out of reach. However, if both industries and communities alike work with the right technical partners, these can be cost-efficient and beneficial.

At Genesis Water Technologies, for instance, we work with development banks and organizations with the capabilities to finance treatment solutions to mitigate water scarcity. These partnerships enable our qualified clients to afford advanced wastewater and water treatment technologies that lead to clean, safe, and sustainable water sources. So, if you work with our team of water experts or someone else with funding partners, you can address economic water insecurity challenges reasonably.

Additionally, you can address physical water scarcity effectively by implementing treatment solutions like desalination, water reuse, flocculation, and ultrafiltration. For clarity, we have included insight into how each of these methods works:

  • Desalination: This treatment solution is great for coastal areas in Southeast Asia. With reverse osmosis desalination, you can remove salt, trace metals, and nutrients to enhance water quality. Even industries in Southeast Asia can use this technique in their tertiary water treatment processes to improve water quality and enable water reuse initiatives while also complying with stricter regulations.

  • Water reuse: Sustainability and versatility are two major benefits of water reuse. This method will allow communities in Southeast Asia to reuse water that’s been collected and adequately treated, opening the door to a reliable water source. Also, recycled water can serve various purposes, including groundwater replenishment, irrigation, agriculture, industrial processes, potable water supplies, and environmental aquifer restoration.

  • Flocculation: Our team of water experts developed the GWT Zeoturb, a non-toxic, sustainable flocculant. This NSF internationally certified bio-organic solution ensures the flocculation and clarification of wastewater, process water, and potable water applications. It is also suitable for the treatment of surface water contaminated with variable suspended solids, as it removes contaminants more efficiently than conventional metals salt and synthetic polymer solutions.

  • Ultrafiltration: This modular membrane system solution is available alongside our GWT NatZeo Filtration Media.  This system is an advanced filtration system that decreases sediment levels while optimizing backwash efficiency and frequency. GWT UF system technology is specifically designed to help with tertiary wastewater reclamation, drinking water filtration, and process water requirements.

The great thing about these methods is that they are not just capable of improving access to clean, safe, and reliable water in Southeast Asia. They are also cost-effective innovations — the development banks and organizations we partner with can help in fund these treatment solutions for qualified organizations. In this way, more industries and communities in Southeast Asia will have access to the water they need.

Making A Difference Starts Now

As Southeast Asia grapples with water insecurity, the time for decisive action is now. The causes are complex, from Mekong River challenges to specific country impacts, but viable solutions exist. Genesis Water Technologies stands ready to play a crucial role in addressing both economic and physical water scarcity. With cost-effective innovations in desalination, water reuse, flocculation, and ultrafiltration, we aim to provide clean, safe, and reliable water sources for industry and communities.

Act now to make a difference—implementing sustainable solutions is a collective responsibility. For tailored wastewater and water treatment solutions in Southeast Asia, contact our Philippine office or email us at Let’s create a water-secure future together.