This year, Continental Southeast Asia was hit hard by El Nino. In Cambodia, over 60 tons of fish and some cattle died across the country, amidst the worst drought in 50 years. In Vietnam, 60-90% of planted crops have been affected by the drought, with 1.75 million people having their incomes significantly reduced and 2 million people still struggling with important water shortages. In Thailand, The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC) estimated the total losses from the drought at 120 billion THB ($3.4 billion), amounting to nearly 0.85% of the GDP.

According to the Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) – the largest Thai bank – the agricultural sector is always the most vulnerable to droughts. Rice paddies that are dependent on reservoirs in the Chao Phraya Basin (the largest and most important river basin in Thailand) were most at risk, with four of the major reservoirs only able to sustain domestic and ecosystem use of water. The Oxford Business Group recently reported that ‘in January Thai authorities revised rice export projections for 2016 due to the extended drought from 10m tonnes to 9m tonnes’. Salinity intrusion in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta – ‘Southeast Asia’s rice bowl’ – was chiefly responsible for a 10.2% fall in the winter-spring rice output and a predicted 4.45% dip in total rice exports for 2016.

Despite the significant ‘costs’ of this year’s droughts, issues of water security and climate resilience remained mostly absent from the agenda of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) World Economic Forum (WEF), held on June, 1st and 2nd. We may wonder whether the coming of the rainy season induced a generalised case of ‘amnesia’. But, that would be ignoring the fact that Greater Mekong region, which has historically been a water abundant region, has never had to deal with recurring issues of water scarcity. In the face of new challenges government and industry need to have a more proactive attitude towards freshwater resources.

To that end, the Alliance for Water Stewardship and the AWS Standard encourages water users to understand their water risk, take responsibility for their water use, and drive action that will benefit them, other water users within the catchment, and the environment. Adopting this holistic and integrated approach ultimately leads to greater mitigation of shared water risk and collective resilience to major water issues. By taking meaningful measures to become better water stewards, major water users in the Greater Mekong could avoid situations in which scarce water resources put their principal activities on the line.

Reported by Noam Obermeister – Researcher & Research Assistant at Water Stewardship Asia Pacific.

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