Prosperity, Planet, Asia Pacific, Inclusive Growth

Managing water for the future: Can web-based river basin assessments show the way forward?

Stockholm Environment Institute | Mar 15, 2019

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This article was originally published by Stockholm Environment Institute and is republished with permission.

An innovative web-based platform combines hydrological modelling and stakeholder input to create a part tool, part game to improve management of river basins in Southeast Asia: Supporting Water Resources Management (SWARM).

Economic growth is seen as a pathway to lift millions of people out of poverty in Southeast Asia. However, as the pace of this development accelerates, the biophysical landscape suffers significant damage, and this is already evident across the region. The lives and livelihoods of more than 100 million smallholder farmers in Southeast Asia are bound with land and water resource management at multiple scales. These interdependencies are further complicated by climate change uncertainties.

Land and water resource management in this region is therefore critical to the current economic development narrative. Adoption of a path for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can transform this narrative from a “break it now and fix it later” approach to one that nurtures new pathways for managing socioeconomic and environmental systems. This, in turn, will have a profound effect on planning and management of the river basins by balancing the need for economic development with environmental sustenance. Managing water resources in a river basin is a complex challenge. Management needs to meet the objectives of the broadest spectrum of uses – and users – and to consider the reality of highly uncertain future conditions.

Heightened efforts are needed to build tools that support decision makers to ensure sustainability is integrated in future water resource planning. To secure widespread usability, the SWARM tool is easily accessible, uses commonly understood terminology and maintains the technical integrity of the water resources model to which it is applied. This tool provides decision makers with deeper insights into alternative development pathways for catchments – insights that include future climate possibilities.

The SERVIR-Mekong project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is developing the SWARM platform to support sustainable management of water resources in the Lower Mekong region. As part of the SWARM platform, SERVIR-Mekong is informing the development of two catchment case studies in Vietnam (the Ca and Srepok catchments) with future plans to expand to Huai Sai Bat in Thailand and Chindwin in Myanmar. The SERVIR-Mekong consortium, which includes the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center and the Stockholm Environment Institute, is co-developing a Srepok catchment tool with the Vietnam National Center for Water Resources Planning and Investigation (NAWAPI). NAWAPI will use the platform to assess different water allocation scenarios to inform their overall basin development strategies.

Based on the Water Evaluation and Planning (WEAP) software, the SWARM platform offers users access to a simplified interface that can display a 3D map of the catchment area and future basin options. To customize for the region, country stakeholders are consulted to select the options embedded into the model. SERVIR-Mekong works with stakeholders to develop the WEAP model for catchments considered to be hotspots. The model also considers future development plans and climate projections. The SERVIR-Mekong approach ensures that stakeholders play a major role in tool development and eventual ownership, which in turn promotes long-term stability and progress.

SERVIR-Mekong conducted a needs assessment workshop in partnership with NAWAPI on 3 July 2018 that demonstrated the prototype tool for the Ca River basin shown below. Stakeholders from different Vietnam government agencies participated in the event.

The novelty of the tool lies in the fact that it can be used by technical and non-technical stakeholders who have no modelling experience. The key applications of the platform include:

  • Tool outputs feed directly into NAWAPI’s basin development plans.
  • The tool enables country stakeholders such as NAWAPI to actively engage the broadest spectrum of stakeholders for river basin planning.
  • The tool simplifies the complex system represented in the model for an easy to understand interface.
  • Provincial water managers and decision makers can use the tool to assess planned basin management decisions and receive feedback on the results of those decisions.
  • By representing multi-sectoral allocation and demands, the tool provides a basis for implementing integrated water resources management and supports transboundary water cooperation, contributing to the achievement of SDG 6 that calls for clean water and sanitation.

Developing a web-based tool, however, is not an end in itself. It can provide a multitude of benefits, but it will eventually need key enabling conditions to be useful for operationalizing basin development plans. SERVIR-Mekong plans to organize a series of capacity-building trainings in Vietnam through their partnership with NAWAPI to ensure tool sustainability. Efforts are currently under way to add the Srepok catchment to the platform, in addition to building a host of web-features such as translation into relevant local or national languages. SERVIR-Mekong intends to make SWARM a repository for WEAP-based catchment models within the Lower Mekong region, with a simplified user interface to assess future biophysical and uncertain hydro-meteorological conditions of water availability and allocation.

The SWARM prototype can be accessed here.

The WEAP tool can be accessed here.

Visit the SERVIR-Mekong project here.

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