Farmers planting rice in a field in Vietnam. Photo: Marc Hastenteufel / Unsplash

Most of the countries in Asia have shown impressive economic growth over the last few decades, and, to a significant extent, made gains in tackling poverty. The region is also a key centre of innovation and technological excellence.

But the dark side of Asia’s economic success story is equally well known.

Natural ecosystems are being degraded or threatened by the expansion of infrastructure ranging from roads to dams. Biodiversity losses on land and in rivers and oceans are occurring at a frightening pace. Asia’s cities offer jobs and employment to millions but their burgeoning populations also contribute to waste and pollution. A shroud of black haze caused by vehicle pollution and the burning of farm waste blankets many parts of Asia for as much as four months per year.

Behind the impressive growth figures and rising incomes, a rising income gap between the rich and poor is posing a profound challenge to societal well-being. Inequality is affecting Asian countries’ ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the region falling behind on almost all of the SDG targets. The concern is that if inequality is not addressed, Asia may not achieve the 2030 Agenda.

Core areas of work

SEI Asia’s Strategy seeks to address these complex challenges through science and policy engagement and building partnerships across countries focusing on five key areas of work: gender, environment and development; water resources management; climate change, disasters and development; urban; and policy engagement.

Gender, environment and development

SEI Asia’s work on gender emphasizes the interplay between gender and social equity concerns, placing both at the core of scientific research by identifying “the drivers of inequality and the underlying causes of poverty through social research that uses intersectional feminist framework”. Building upon a decade of work in gender equity, SEI Asia seeks to strengthen collaboration among vibrant networks of gender and social justice professionals through building “new knowledge and methodologies that contribute to the growth of gender and development theories and practice”.

Water resource management

SEI Asia seeks to achieve “safe and secure water for all”, one of the key SDGs. We aim to achieve this through transdisciplinary research that integrates natural and social science with innovative technical, institutional and policy solutions. Our work in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady and Chindwin River Basins, for instance, used water resource modelling and publicly available satellite data for river basin planning and biodiversity conservation.

SEI Asia’s focus in the Mekong Region, and especially Myanmar, is key to our strategy in the region. The Sustainable Mekong Research network (SUMERNET—the largest programme of SEI’s work in the Mekong Region—has built a transboundary network of academics, state and non-state agencies, thinktanks, civil society and media that will focus on “reducing water insecurities for all” over the coming years. SUMERNET provides grants and capacity building to support research and policy efforts in themes related to water insecurity.

Climate change, disasters and development

Climate change is already causing severe impacts—storms, droughts, flooding of agriculture, and disruptions to coastal and river ecosystems that most of the region’s poor depend upon for their livelihoods—for countries in Asia and small island states in the Pacific. The 2011 flooding in Thailand and the 2014 Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in the Philippines are just two examples that had immense impacts in the region, mainly on poorer populations.

In SEI Asia’s climate work, the strategy is to empower marginalized and at-risk people “through enhanced capacities and engagement in decision-making processes”. The work on disaster risk reduction (DRR) will be driven by the International Centre of Excellence on Transforming Development and Disaster Risk (ICoE-TDDR), and climate engagement through a diversity of networks across Asia.

Resilient, healthy and livable cities

With more than half of Asia’s population living in urban areas, the region’s continually expanding cities are a source of income, employment and creative opportunities but also a source of unsustainable consumption, pollution and waste. The strategy seeks to build resilient, healthy and livable cities through providing actionable knowledge across different levels, ranging from national and municipal decision-makers to community-based organizations.

Evolving areas of work

Supporting these core areas, the strategy will also expand our work in new and innovative areas of work over the coming years. These include building work on: emerging technologies and artificial intelligence, a centre for financing sustainability in SEI Asia, integrating ecological economics into policy decision making, nature-based solutions and ecosystem services, and the environment and human health nexus.

Implementing the strategy: Strong partnerships, innovative outreach

The strategy will only work with the cooperation and collaboration of a wide range of people and groups. We will bring together critical knowledge from key actors in various areas of work: research and academia, policymakers, civil society, media and the private sector. Fortunately, SEI Asia already has more than a decade of experience in building partnerships in Asia, which this strategy will further strengthen and revitalize.

From SEI Asia's Centre Director Niall O'Connor:

“It will be through stronger partnerships with government, academia, civil society, the media and private sector, where we can truly co-develop solutions so that we can be trusted locally, and globally, to help solve the multiple interconnect crisis we face today. With a people-centered approach, building on years of experience in the region, and by developing new and innovative research, we will generate the new knowledge needed to find the appropriate solutions. We will ensure this supports policymakers to make informed choices that protect the people and the environment, and help bring about a prosperous future for all.”