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Urban water-related environmental transitions in Southeast Asia

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This article reviews water-related urban environmental conditions in Southeast Asia. It argues that the development of urban environmental challenges in the region follows a unique pattern compared with those experienced in the now developed world. The new pattern is defined by the so called time–space telescoping of the development process. The process of time–space telescoping reduces the levels of income at which environmental challenges emerge and forces their appearance in a simultaneous fashion, as sets of problems. During previous eras, cities experienced sequential environmental transitions. Urban water-related environmental burdens emerged on local scales and expanded geographically and temporally in impact, with growing levels of affluence. Moreover, certain environmental challenges appeared later in economic growth because the technologies and practices that induced these problems emerged at higher levels of income. The article has two main findings. First, except for wealthy urban centers, for example Singapore, cities in the region are experiencing multi-scaled water burdens simultaneously. Second, low-income and middle-income cities are experiencing burdens at lower levels of income than did their contemporaries in the north.

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  1. Estimates of the number of people living in slums in Southeast Asia are as high as 56.7 million or 28% of the total urban population in the region (UN-HABITAT 2003a).

  2. Twenty liters per day per person is regarded as essential and between 50 and 60 liters per person per day is needed for such domestic needs as washing, food preparation, cooking, cleaning laundry and personal hygiene (more would be needed if flush toilets were being used) (UN-HABITAT 2003b). According to the World Commission on Dams (2000), in 1990, over a billion people had access to less than 50 liters of water a day.

  3. Cybriwsky and Ford (2001) estimate that approximately half of Jakarta’s residencies lack toilet facilities. Hadiwinoto and Lietmann (1994) suggest that among the lowest-income quintile of the city only 6% have piped-in water and 64% share toilets.

  4. Diarrheal diseases are still a primary cause of infant and child death for large sections of the world’s urban population.

  5. See

  6. For further information see the GEMS/Water Digital Atlas of Water Quality at

  7. Paradoxically, although human activities increase sediment flows in rivers by approximately 20%, reservoirs and water diversion projects prevent approximately 30% of sediments from reaching the oceans, resulting in a total net reduction of sediment delivery to coasts of approximately 10% (Agardy et al. 2005; Vorosmarty et al. 2003). In Southeast Asia, dam building began in the 1950s. In 2000, Thailand had the most dams (204) followed by Indonesia (96), Malaysia (59), the Philippines (15), Myanmar (5), Vietnam (3), Singapore (3), Brunei (2) and Cambodia (2) (World Commission on Dams, 2000). Recent evidence suggests that globally both water and energy demand may require more dams and hence dam building may increase from 2000 to 2050 (ICOLD-CICB 2006). Several nations in Southeast Asia are considering building new large dams, including some on the Mekong River (Dore and Yu 2004) (see below). Projected increases in dam building in the region may ultimately reduce the amount of sediment reaching the oceans.

  8. See EM-DAT: The OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database, - Université catholique de Louvain - Brussels, Belgium.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Haughton and Hunter (1994) write that in the UK one toilet flush is 10 L, a shower is 30 L, a bath 80 L, one dishwasher cycle 50 L and one cycle in a clothes washing machine can be 100 L. Simply leaving the tap running while teeth brushing wastes between 25 and 45 L.

  11. Another term is physical water scarcity when the primary water supply of a country exceeds 60% of its potentially utilizable water resources (ASEAN 2005). In physical terms, Singapore suffers from water scarcity.

  12. It should be noted that water scarcity has little to do with access to water. As pointed out by UN-HABITAT (2003b) many countries that have a water scarcity have high percentage access and those that are located in water-rich areas have low access. Hence, although many cities in the region have a significant population without access and water within many cities is provided for a limited number of hours a day, availability of water for drinking is not physically scarce. This global or “green” issue should not be confused with the local or brown issue. Importantly, increasing access to water for the poor bears little relationship to creating water scarcity.

  13. See also

  14. Lebel (2002) points out that a 1-m rise in sea level could lead to loss of 34,000 km2 of land in Indonesia, 7,000 km2 in Malaysia, and 5,000 km2 in Vietnam (in the Red River Delta), and 15,000–20,000 km2 of land could be threatened in the Mekong Delta.


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This article was written as part of a project funded by the Asian Pacific Network for Global Environmental Change Research (# APN2006-02CMY), the UNU-IAS, the Asian Institute of Technology, and the ASEAN Secretariat. The staff of Sustainability Science has demonstrated patience and courteousness during the production of the piece. Two anonymous reviewers provided valuable comments and criticisms. The viewpoints expressed are not those of the funding institutions, but rather, like the mistakes and misinterpretations remaining in the article, the responsibility of the author.

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Marcotullio, P.J. Urban water-related environmental transitions in Southeast Asia. Sustain Sci 2, 27–54 (2007).

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