Flying above the incredible Nha Trang coastline, I had no doubt that development in this area will have significant impacts on this beautiful stretch of Southern Vietnam. The need to review and understand the impacts of river and marine natural resource management was vital here, and upon landing, I was about to find out why.

From its rugged mountains to its shimmering sea, Nha Trang is welcoming in every way. With a burgeoning population of users of its natural resources, it also has ever increasing risks and needs, whether from dam construction for renewable energy (with its associated impacts on river morphology, sedimentation and nutrients flows and fisheries), to industrial needs (not only factories, but fish farming in rivers and estuaries and the impacts this can have on ecosystems) and the swelling and increasingly heavy footprint of over five million tourists a year.

These many risks and needs create many challenges, and I realised quite simply that we cannot solve these problems one at a time. If this spectacular corner of tropical Southeast Asia is to develop sustainably, we need to take a step back to see how we can integrate a holistic river basin management approach that can help us understand the big picture. What are the follow-on impacts? How do we assess downstream issues, coordinate management approaches, and support one another to create sustainable resource use, while also supporting and enhancing overall ecosystem services and benefits to the people and towns along these local rivers and coasts?

Fortunately, I was not alone in pondering these questions, and my travel partners, including the Swedish Ambassador to Vietnam, Sweden’s Climate Ambassador, and representatives from Swedish organisations, include the Swedish Agency for Water and Marine Management and Swedish International Water Institute, agreed that a “Source to Sea” approach is one answer. Source to Sea, often referred to as “Ridge to Reef” (and in one meeting during my trip an interesting new title “H2O” or “Hydropower to Oceans”) would help us take this holistic approach and ensure that we protect the very resources we rely on while supporting sustainable development and a green growth pathway.

It will not be easy. Just counting the ample array of partners we met during this week was daunting – from the incredible teams in Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to water experts of all sorts, and our vital partners in the Vietnam Oceanography institute, along with representatives of the People’s Congress of Nha Trang, who pulled out all the stops to learn from and share with us.  And though this is only a sliver of the people and organizations that would need to be involved, their innovative approaches to the challenges they face, and the excitement of trying to link our institutions with theirs to find international and sustainable solutions to our work, was both encouraging and inspirational.

It was clear we all wanted to find solutions and work together to create a better future, but aligning social needs, and ensuring ecosystem services remain intact to protect and regulate our climate, water, and air, in addition to providing the private sector the resources they require for sustainable economic growth, are going to demand innovation, commitment and resolute alliances. Assuring these communities growth is green so that all can benefit demands finding the right balance – a complex puzzle that will need considerable investment from all sectors in a coordinated, evidence-based, and policy-regulated manner.

As I left behind the sparkling blue waters and palm-fringed beaches of Nha Trang for the honking sprawl of Hanoi, I felt that all the partners and communities I met during this trip had grasped that source to sea thinking and management will go a long way toward protecting the resources we need to build such a future. SEI has been listening to these partners, and can be a key player in this by bringing on board our research and policy advice. Before our departure, our Nha Trang hosts left us with one more challenge to ponder: a goal for the city and surrounding region to attract 20 million tourists annually. The inevitable increased demands for energy, increased risks from pollution, and increased threat of coastal erosion that will come with that growth mean now is the time to get it right. I hope SEI can be a part of that solution.