Mekong River: China’s Release of Water Reflects A Greater Environmental Crisis

A Lotus News Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne

Singapore, 24March 2016: China would like to project its release of Mekong River waters from its dams this month to “assist” drought-stricken farmers and fisheries further downstream, especially in Vietnam, as a magnanimous gesture from a friendly neighbour, but, behind it is a reflection of a greater environmental and political crisis that is brewing in the region. Continue reading “Mekong River: China’s Release of Water Reflects A Greater Environmental Crisis”


ENVIRONMENT: Pacific Islands Get Climate Change to Water Summit

By Kalinga Seneviratne and Evelyn Agato

BEPPU, Japan, 4 Dec 2007 (IPS) – It could have been a Pacific Islands summit on climate change. Of the nine heads of state attending the first Asia Pacific Water Summit (APWS), underway in this Japanese town, seven are from the islands and more concerned with global warming than anything else.

Hideaki Ode, spokesman for the first APWS, explained that 49 countries were invited for the summit but top representation came only from Kiribati, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau and Tuvalu. The others made do with lower-rung ministers or officials.

It was thus that the concerns of the small Pacific Island nations, particularly climate change issues, took centre stage during a session set aside for Asia Pacific leaders, on Monday, as the summit took off.

Coincidentally, the water summit is running parallel to a major 11-day, United Nations conference, convened to device fresh approaches to global warming and climate change, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, that also began Monday.

“Past conferences on water-related disasters used to focus on water shortages, but the situation is changing in recent years because of global warming,” observed Japanese Prime Minister Yasuao Fukuda at Beppu, famed for its hot springs and health spas.

Small Pacific Islands are especially vulnerable to climate change, and President Emmanuel Mori of Micronesia said in his address to the APWS that “there is no longer doubt in anyone’s mind that the adverse impacts of climate change are real and already happening.”

Niue’s Prime Minister Young Vivian encouraged the countries that are still to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to do so now. He explained that it is the only means “to address the adverse impact of climate change on small island states and the low lying coastal areas of most developing countries.”
Kiribati President Anote Tong said that he was personally affected when rising sea water pushed in through a wall he had built around his compound. “Sea water was coming into one of our buildings so I had to move and live a little bit higher,” he explained. “Let’s discuss the long term issues but we have to get into action to address problems right now.’’

Water and sanitation issues were equally pressing for the small island states. A special session had a Pacific Island minister taking part in a TV show-style debate on water FINANCING, organised by the Asian Development Bank with Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands on the panel and the crown prince of Japan in the audience.

The Pacific Island leaders made the point that the issues were real and solutions were urgent with the deteriorating conditions of the region’s freshwater resources due to impacts of global warming on fragile island eco-systems.

President Tommy Esang Remengesau of Palau reiterated that no matter how large or small a country is its existence and livelihood depend on the availability of freshwater. “We simply cannot count on freshwater literally falling from the sky and solving our water management problems,’’ he said.

“Most of our water comes from groundwater because most of our people don’t have the roofing to catch rainwater. So they cannot store the rainwater,” Kiribati’s Tong told IPS in an interview.

“(Our groundwater supply) is impacted by coastal erosion because as the land mass becomes narrower (due to rising sea levels) the ability to retain groundwater will be substantially reduced,” he added, explaining how his country of low-lying islands, nine of them narrow atolls in the Pacific ocean, almost had to transport water from overseas recently. ‘’If there is no groundwater and rain does not fall, there is no water,” Tong said.

Nauru’s concerns were reported by its President Ludwig Scotty. His country is a frequent host to water shortages due to droughts. While initiatives and strategies to improve water resources management and protection of groundwater are going on, a lot more has to be done, particularly in the area of adaptation to climate change.

Latu Kupa, of the Pacific Water Association, addressing the small islands forum session complained that very often leaders in the region get together and say they cannot implement recommended policies because there is no political will.

Kupa said the Pacific Island leaders need to be applauded because it was for the first time that a majority of them has decided to attend an international meeting outside their own region to discuss environmental problems.

Kuniyoshi Takeuchi, director of the International Centre for Water Hazard and Risk Management, argued that Pacific Islands’ problem is also the problem of the international community, but warned against foreign remedies imposed on them.

He pointed out, for example, that the introduction of septic tanks has made groundwater unfit for drinking in the vulnerable island environment. Similarly, a Japanese company that planted pumpkins in a Pacific Island country, replacing traditional taro cultivation, ended up contaminating river water with fertilisers that killed coral reefs.

The leaders of Tuvalu and Palau used the opportunity to urge the international community to act with a sense of urgency to assist Pacific Island countries find solutions to their pressing environmental problems.

“We cannot stop natural phenomena but we can prepare to reduce its impact,’’ argued Salvano Briceno, director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. His solutions were available within the regions, but international FINANCIAL assistance was needed to help implement them. “What is also important is people’s awareness and their education on ways to respond to climate change.”

Fiji’s finance minister Mahendra Chaudhry, speaking during a panel discussion on water financing issues, noted that in 2003 the South Pacific nations had adopted a water governance programme in response to rising sea levels, but implementing them has been a problem due to lack of financial resources. “We are starved of resources in terms of knowledge, governance and financing. I appeal to the FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS to consider soft loan options to the small island nations.”

DEVELOPMENT-WATER: Lack of Water, Lack of Education

  • This story was done as part of a consultancy I did for Asian Development Bank. I went to do a story about provision of drinking water to slum dwellers and the story turned out to be one of empowering girls in the community through education.

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGALORE, 7 Oct 2007 (IPS) – While social taboos may hinder the education of girls in India’s poor communities, the experience in some slum communities in this southern Indian city indicates that the lack of access to water could be just as responsible.

“Women used to travel two to three miles to fetch water. Girls and women used to do this work. To wash clothes on certain days we had to go to the road at 1 (a.m.) and do without sleep. We were not able to send our children to school because they had to come with us to fetch water,” said Muniamma, a 40-year-old mother of two living in MRS Palya, a slum community near a large Muslim cemetery.


Muniamma with her pipe-borne water tap at home

“There was no peace in this community those days. They had to wait in a queue all night to get a bowl of water. Some young girls who go there get molested,” said Rahat Begum, a community organiser and coordinator of the non-government organisation Association for Volunteer Action and Services (AVAS) where she has worked for 34 years among the slums of Bangalore.

This city is known as India’s information technology capital. In some areas, slums have given way to spanking new buildings of high-tech companies – local and foreign – employing thousands of graduates from India’s elite technological institutions, servicing global markets from the United States to Japan.

A stone’s throw away is a reminder of another India – the slums housing the so-called untouchables shunned by the rest of the community. Bangalore has about 365 slums, which are home to a fifth of the city’s 6.5 million population and most lack water and sanitation services.

Salma Sadhika, a social development specialist with the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), observed: “The contrast between the two only serves to reinforce the enormous difficulties faced by the urban poor and the urgent need for new initiatives to address the situation.”

Public service utilities like the Bangalore water and sewerage board could not give water and sanitation connections to the informal settlements because the latter do not have land titles. Years of lobbying by community-based organisations like AVAS finally persuaded public authorities to find a way around this legal requirement.

At Sundamnagar, for a community of around 300 households, mostly involved in casual labour and the service industry, AVAS was able to collectively buy land and work out a land title. AVAS also gave collateral to the bank so each family could borrow up to 20,000 rupees (500 US dollars) to build a house.

“We’re building people before building houses,” explained M. Nagarajaiah, a community organiser at AVAS. “We have to build, empower, organise and educate them.”

AVAS gave emphasis to educating women, particularly in water and health management, by setting up a water and sanitation (WATSAN) committee in each community. Most committee members are women.

At MRS Palya, Begum said, it is the women who maintain the system. “If the water doesn’t come and leakages happen, they immediately take it up (with those concerned),” she said. “Most of the men watch TV at home all day, and those who work spend most of their money on alcohol.”

Sundamnagar was supposed to be the pilot project of the partnership between the Bangalore water board and the slum communities in creating water connectivity. “Today it is a collapsed project,” said Nagarajaiah. “Water is not coming to the homes and people are refusing to pay.”

The women in the WATSAN committee, with the support of AVAS, took the case to the chairman of the Bangalore water board. The problem, they said, was that water was being diverted to other communities and water pressure was not enough to bring water into their home taps. They had to dig pits in front of their homes to get water from the pipes at ground level.

“Monthly meter readings are also not being made, and we refuse to pay bills for a service we are not receiving as promised,” said Josephine, a water and sanitation committee member and community health coordinator. “(But) water is essential for us, so we are trying to work out a solution.”

In MRS Palya, the residents regularly get two hours of water a day. “That is more than enough for each family,” says Begum. “They have time to sleep, take a bath and do all the housework.”

The community is clean because there are toilets inside the houses and they have adequate water supply.
“Before, we could not send our children to school because they had to fetch water at midnight,” said Muniamma. “Today, the children go to school regularly and they are doing well.”

“Society thinks that we are a poor slum class and we will not get our children educated and we will allow them to just roam around the community,” said Vanitha, whose husband died 20 years ago. Their two children have completed high school.

“We are proud to say that since we got this water facility our children have been doing well. Many of them are going to pre-university college, technical education. All the residents are happy,” she said.

“The environment is very clean, there is no pollution in the slums. We used to get many diseases, now we are getting trained in computers, in management, and many are getting degrees. I’m very happy,” said Murthy, a youth leader at MRS Palya who has already completed one year of a hotel management diploma.

“Politicians used to think that people are too poor to pay for water services, so they put up taps in the streets,” said Begum. “We have shown that by organising and motivating the community, informing them about the norms, rules and regulations, they will not only pay but will also help maintain the systems properly”.


(*This story is being distributed by IPS Asia-Pacific under a communication agreement with the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, in Singapore, which produced it.”)

Cambodia: Life ebbs, flows on the Tonle Sap

Published by Asian Water Wire (IPS) 2007

Residents of this floating village at the northern end of Cambodia’s great lake, the Tonle Sap, life based on the water levels of the lake is filled with hardships and vulnerability, not only from water but also from corrupt government officials and commercial fisheries.

With a total population of over 5000 living in 700 households most of which are wooden houses on stills or floating homes, their livelihood is dependent on fishing. Recognising this, since 1999, the Cambodian governments has allocated thousands of hectares in the lake for community fisheries, where community management units made up of local villagers and stakeholders manage fisheries activities in the waters.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2003 gave a grant of $ 997,000 to development these fisheries activities and environmental condition, yet, all these are being undermined by commercial fisheries which use illegal fishing methods and bribe corrupt fisheries and law enforcement officials, claims local community leaders.

“(Commercial fishing) use electric nets or use boats to chase fish from one or two kilometres away towards their nets. We lobby fisheries department officials to catch these people, (but) we have no power to stop them giving money to officials” a community fisherwoman told IPS. She added that as a result of inaction by officials some of the community people go and cut their nets and that creates conflict in the community.

“We have no money to pay officials. Because commercial fishermen have money they pay officials and get away by illegally fishing in our waters” she complained.

Bangkok’s Asian Institute of Technology researcher Bernadette Resurreccion found in a study done last year that there is a strong interconnection between livelihood and management of water resources in the community, and local community people have been threatened or shot at – when they approached commercial fishing activity areas – by guards (employed to protect the commercial lots) or by para-military personnel. “These guards also threaten illegal poachers and guarded lots even when lot owners had illegally extended their boundaries” she noted in a report published in the Water Resources Development journal recently.

Though the living conditions here are far from hygienic, especially during the wet season when the whole community lives on water, with no sewage facilities or pipe-born water, yet, even though the provincial Governor has offered them land on the mountains overlooking the lake, locals are not willing to move.

“This is the place of my birth. We don’t know how to change” said Poeu-Sareon a community fisherman in his 50s during a community discussion with IPS. “We don’t want to move, we like to fish”.

But added, Chim Tek another senior member of the community: “(There is) not enough fish to make a living now. So people change to construction and go and work in construction (sites in Siep Reap city 12 kilometers away) or work in ships (transporting goods to Phnom Penh and back)”.

Though they live on water during the wet season, under a decree issued by the Governor, if they have lived there before 1979 they own the land underneath their houses and if the government want to take it for development they need to be financially compensated.

“(Because of ) increased population in the village, fish has got less and this leads to illegal fishing. So people want to change jobs” says Mao Sophea, a young fisherwoman who is about to marry a man from the mountains and move over there.

To regenerate fishing stocks there is ban on any fishing in the lake from August to October, but, this is ignored by commercial fishermen, who bribe officials to turn a blind eye, says Minh Bunly, field coordinator for the local NGO ‘Fishereies Action Coalition Team (FACT).

Chong Kneas is the closest Tonle Sap lake community to Siem Reap city which is facing a tourism boom due to its proximity to the world famous Angkor Wat Buddhist monuments. This community surrounds the ferry terminal, which is the major landing point for cargo, passengers and fuel bound for Siem Reap from Phnom Penh. Thus, its easy access to Siem Reap has resulted in many tour companies running boat cruises through the waters of the community for foreign tourist.

Locals complain that they have become subjects for photography (for foreign tourists) and they are not gaining anything from these tours because they have no capacity to provide any services or goods to the tourists.

“We sit and watch all these people with money going around” laments senior community member Sok Hour. “We can’t build big boats to take them, no money (for it), and we don’t make souvenirs”.

“We would like to set up a small business (to serve the tourists) but the banks will not give us money ” complains Doueng Tha, a young woman with an ambition to become a businesswoman. “They want to fist come and see your job and if you have license for land. They want us to put that in the bank to get small credit”.

Bunly believes that NGOs should play a role in helping the community build up livelihoods and raise awareness within the community of big businesses who come here to take over the resources, not to help the community.

“While there is a local fisheries management committee, it is the fisheries department officials who have the power to make decisions not the community” he added. “We see the answer to reducing poverty in giving more power to the local management committees .. and equip them with skills to better lobby the Governor’s and Fisheries Departments (to protect their resources)”.


Brunei: Life on the water’s just fine

Published in Asian Water Wire of IPS 2007

Right across the river just two minutes by spear-shaped speed boat is a marble floored three storey upmarket shopping complex manned by mainly Filipino shop assistants; and as you go further a field you pass through modern apartment blocks and bungalows with lush green gardens with all modern amenities, yet, most people living in the Brunei’s “water village” here known as Kampong Ayer are not willing to move to land accommodation, even when free housing is available from a generous government flushed with petro-dollars.

“For four hundred years from generation to generation we have lived here. This is our heritage, we own the houses and we will not let this community to die” said Mokti bin Salleh, headman of Kampong Ramoi, one of the village units which make up the historic Kampong Ayer community, where over 25,000 people live on houses built over water on stills.

The history of Kampong Ayer goes back to at least the 16th century where written documents have been found of an Italian traveller describing a village of 25,000 people living on water. This community for many centuries is believed to have been the centre of a thriving community of people who ruled much of the region trading in many goods.

Built on the part of the Brunei River which expands into a virtual lake at this point, Kampong Ayer is the world’s largest silted water village or perhaps more precisely a city – with 28 separate kampongs (village units) complete with schools, medical clinics, mosques, shops, petrol stations and markets. There are even waterborne police and fire services, as well as garbage collectors.

Speaking to IPS seated in his air conditioned living room of the wooden house built on top of the water and adorned with pictures of dignitaries who have visited his house, such as former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, Philippines President Gloria Arroyo and former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamed, Salleh said that he has 11 children and 30 grand children, some of whom now live on land. One of his sons even works with the Brunei Investment Agency in London. Yet, the aging headman believes that Kampong Ayer is not going to be deserted by the younger generation, and he is keen to build a museum here to educate them about its rich history, as well as encourage the government to build more modern housing in the river community.

“Before the discovery of oil in 1929, Bruneians were involved in trading, fishing and other marine activities and settlements and were confined to ‘water villages’, which were compatible with these activities” observed Zarina Abu Adenan, Head of the valuation section of the Lands Department in a recent paper.

“ Back then, Bruneian did not own land. They owned rivers where certain classes of people have rights to collect revenues from land near these rivers or from inhabitants along the rivers. Some of the rivers can be passed down to heirs and some people living near the rivers became slaves, as they were considered part and parcel of the land” she added.

Today, people who live in the houses built on stills over water and connected by snaking timber walkways do not own the river, but they own the houses they live on. “How can we own water which is flowing underneath?” asked a local resident who gave her name as Liza, and looked to be in her late 30s, when IPS put the question of ownership to her. Another resident, 22 year old office worker Fatima added while crossing the river on boat from her workplace to the home, “even though we can become landowners (if we shift), we prefer to live here among our friends and relatives”.

Many residents here even own cars, but what is parked underneath their houses are boats, which they use to cross the river, where the cars are parked along parking spaces allocated to them along the river bank. They then drive their cars to work and for shopping in the city.

Salleh explained that when they have many children and they grow up, they used to build another house (on stills) next to their’s, and they did not have to get anyone’s permission to do so. Once it is built they own the house. But today, there are laws, which governs the building of new houses on water.

“Now we have to get the permission of the government and for that we have to get five neighbours to support our building application” he said. “They have to sign a form obtained from the district office”.

Since the 1960s, the government has been providing infrastructure facilities to the water villages such as piped water, sanitation and sewerage facilities for which they have to pay a fee – for B$ 15 (US$ 9.50) a month, the government now provides a daily garbage collection for which the residents have to go and place the garbage at a certain point in the village. Yet, many residents have been used to throwing the garbage through the windows to the river, which at high tide deposits on the river banks.

In the olden days when most rubbish was organic this did not create such a health risk as now, where most rubbish are of plastic or polystyrene which are not the diet of the monkeys on the banks and fish in the river. Thus, the authorities are now cracking down on the practice while ensuring that the sub-contractors commissioned to keep their river clean do their job properly.

In recent years, there have also been a number of major fires – one government officials said at least 8 in the past 10 years – which have destroyed many wooden houses. “ Since many people in Brunei still prefer to live on water, the government has decided to build them concrete kampongs” he told IPS.

Three such communities have been built since 1994 funded under the country’s ruling family’s Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Foundation programme to build housing for indigenous people. These kampongs, namely Kampung Bolkiah ‘A’, Kampung Bolkiah ‘B’ and Kampung Sungai Bunga are paved with concrete pathways and the houses are built on concrete stills and brick walls. Vacuum sewerage system with secondary sewage treatment plants have been installed on all houses.

As Brunei embarks on developing a tourist industry to reap in revenue once its oil resources begins to deplete – according to estimates from 2020 onwards- Kampong Ayer is seen as potentially a major tourist attraction in the region. Thus, next year the government is planning to introduce a major redevelopment scheme to “beautify” the community, which according to the government official will include constructing concrete pathways to replace the crickety wooden ones and “fire-breakers” in the building planning policy to avoid future fires, which on more than three occasions in the last decade has threatened to destroy Brunei’s important heritage.

Meanwhile for the aging community leaders like Salleh, the challenge is to keep their grand children in the community. “Most young people want to live on land. They are no more making a living fishing, they work in government offices” he pointed out. “ For them taking a boat (which have no roofs) on a rainy day to work is a problem. If they live on land they can go to work by car”.