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Deltas face the brunt of unsustainable development and climate impacts – we must move beyond concrete to shore them up

Asian mega deltas are home to more than 400 million people,  and provide food and economic security beyond this population, as well serving as biodiversity hotspots. They are, however, facing severe challenges such as shrinking and sinking, due to climate change and unsustainable development. New governance mechanisms and the knowledge and insights of local communities, civil society and the private sector must be part of the solution.

Major river deltas in Asia. Map: Karthi Matheswaran / SEI . Data Source: Rebecca L. Caldwell

Karthikeyan Matheswaran, Leonie Pearson / Published on 18 October 2019

As the transition zones between the land and ocean, river deltas face the brunt of climate change impacts, especially in Asia.

Asian mega deltas are home to more than 400 million people, and for many countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam and China, food and economic security hinges on activities in these mega deltas.

For example, the world’s largest urban and industrial agglomeration is in the Pearl River Delta, the Mekong delta provides enough water and nutrients to harvest rice crops seven times within two years, and the Ganges–Meghna–Brahmaputra delta hosts 60% of Bangladesh’s geographical area. These deltas are also biodiversity hotspots, hosting endangered species such as the Bengal tiger and the Ayeyarwady dolphin.

Furthermore, economic activity and investment in infrastructure in these deltas are expanding at a rapid pace, a case in point being the expansion of aquaculture in Ayeyarwady delta.

Given their economic vitality and importance, we might expect that measures have been put in place to ensure that these deltas are resilient in the face of mounting risks. But the reality is stark: countries in Asia are unprepared for the challenges of sinking land, sea level rise, increasing groundwater extraction, coastal erosion, and unplanned expansion.

Everyone agrees that the combined risk from these threats will be amplified by climate change in unpredictable ways, and that Asian countries are not ready to face it.

Where action is taken, the answer to the problem tends to be “more concrete”: for some time, governments have turned to infrastructure solutions such as sea walls, dykes and large bridges in the face of acute risks.

However, this narrow perspective has neglected the knowledge and insights of local communities, civil society and the private sector – groups that have so far been under-represented in the delta management discourse.

There is a need for a change in mindset towards solutions that engage these groups more fully in managing deltas. New governance mechanisms should enable multiple stakeholders to have a say, with a focus on outcomes such as secure livelihoods, biodiversity conservation and reducing poverty. But new mechanisms require transformative frameworks, innovative knowledge tools, and inclusive, collaborative partnerships. Promising examples of these are emerging.

Transformative frameworks need to address the complex links between land, water, delta, estuary, coast, nearshore and ocean ecosystems. The Source to Sea approach, for example, expands management beyond rivers to include deltas and the ocean, recognizing interconnected bio-physical and social pathways.

New knowledge tools are being developed to support multi-stakeholder delta governance mechanisms. The big data platforms that use satellite data to monitor deltas offer tremendous opportunities for informed decision making. These big data platforms, for example the recently launched Dancing Rivers platform, extend information delivery systems beyond the government and private sector and place them in the hands of the citizens and civil society.

Collaborative partnerships that include civil society, government and private industry as equal and empowered decision makers are being put into practice. Emerging “rights for nature” legislation across Asia in countries such as Bangladesh and India are providing a powerful voice in decision making for safeguarding ecosystems. And in the Pearl River Delta, NGOs are leading collaborative partnerships for inclusive delta management.

The Building Resilient Asian Deltas forum, convened by WWF from 16 – 18 October, 2019 looks to generate further momentum for new governance mechanisms. The forum will address the future of the Asia’s great Deltas by bringing together over 140 experts in Bangkok. More needs to be done to deliver on-the-ground action in delta management, and the forum will serve as an important step on that road.

Building Resilient Asian Deltas is part of the by Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA)’s Strategic Collaborative Fund (SCF) Phase 2,  administered by SEI.

Written by

Leonie Pearson

SEI Affiliated Researcher

SEI Asia

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