Eye on Asia

“Sustainability is not a straight line from A to B, otherwise rivers would be straight” For today, World Water Week has been divided into regional sessions. In the “Eye on Asia” workshop, the focus was on rivers. If you get river flows right, you can address a lot of other water issues, including flooding, water quality and water for food security.  But, as highlighted by Yolanda Kakabadse, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), in the above quote, rivers do not follow straight lines. Nor do they follow political boundaries. Today’s sessions considered five issues in particular: mountains, hydropower, urban issues, healthy rivers and the private sector.

Firstly, rivers begin in mountains. Mountains cover around a quarter of the globe, and the water they provide serves around half of the world’s population. They provide livelihoods for mountain dwellers who keep livestock, engage in agriculture, guide tourists and collect herbs with high medicinal value. And they have huge cultural and spiritual value. But the services provided by mountains have been insufficiently recognized, and as mountain ecoysystems are degraded, the consequences include biodiversity loss, destruction of livelihoods and resulting migration, glacier hazards, floods and sedimentation of lowlands.

Meanwhile, there is growing pressure to build dams to generate electricity. Speakers suggested that hydropower dams could indeed potentially provide a source of sustainable energy, but that it was a question of building “the right dam in the right place”. Constructive solutions included mapping rivers to identify where dams could be built without affecting ecosystems, or conversely where new nature reserves could be built to compensate for dams. Whilst this is tricky in practice, particularly when combined with often highly politicised realities on the ground, speakers demonstrated successful case studies where both dams and rivers had been managed in environmentally sustainable ways.

Then there are the pressures of urbanization. In 1950, less than 20% of the Asian population lived in urban areas. It’s now about 45% and by 2050, at this rate, it will be 65%. Panellists suggested that cities need to be planned in “greener” ways for the future, but stressed that there was a difference between “inclusive” and “sustainable” cities. Increasingly sophisticated “green cities” are not justifiable if part of the population still lacks access to basic services. Finally, the discussion centred on the role of the private sector, with Felix Ockborn from H&M making the point that they could not be a “clean fish in a dirty pond”. This indicates that the private sector will welcome environmental standards that create a level playing field.


Photography: GMB Akash; Sathkira District, Bangladesh