Surviving Climate Change in Southeast Asia Will Require New and Ancient Technologies

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A surge in the number of dams along the Mekong, like this one in Thailand, is expected to alter the river’s flow in the years ahead, potentially making some areas less habitable. Jack Kurtz/Zuma

Keo Yeun nods at the two metal rods, then at a small hole nearby, full of brown water. “It’s not magic,” he says, shrugging. “I’m experimenting with water, to survive.”

Keo lives on a small farm near Cambodia’s ancient Angkor Wat temple complex, and what he is doing is equally venerable: dowsing, or divining for water, to help his family get through Southeast Asia’s most brutal drought in decades.

He paces across his dry patch of land with the rods held loosely at one end, close to his chest, waiting for the opposite ends to start moving apart, indicating (he hopes) the presence of moisture. When this happens, he drills into the ground at the indicated spot. If he finds water—and Keo says he often does—he’ll use it for his crops. Two weeks ago, he says, a Korean nongovernmental organization trained him in the method. There’s no real science behind water dowsing, however, and most experts are not convinced that it’s the answer to Asia’s water crisis. “My auntie used to swear by it, but I’m not sure it’s better than just drilling five holes,” says Jeremy Bird, director-general of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). “You’ll find water in lots of places, but the main thing is how long it will last, and no diviner can tell you that.”

The situation is dire: The 2015-2016 drought has hit nearly 100,000 households in rural Cambodia, along with many millions more people in nearby countries, including Vietnam. A particularly strong El Niño pattern that wreaked havoc across the globe caused this past year’s extreme weather, but climate scientists say the Mekong region in particular (including parts of China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos) faces an uncertain future: more intense dry seasons, wetter monsoons, floods, storms and rising sea levels. It is “among the most seriously imperiled regions on the planet,” says Virginia Burkett, the U.S. Geological Survey’s chief scientist for climate and land use change.

Moreover, the mighty Mekong and its environs are facing challenges beyond climate change. The river has also seen an explosion of dam building, first upstream in China and now along its length, as countries scrabble to harness the river’s power for energy. The potential impact of the dams is not understood yet. “It is hard to know how and to what extent the Mekong Delta may remain habitable or productive in the future, but [with] the current pace of climate change and hydropower development, it will be altered beyond recognition,” says Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia director of the river protection group International Rivers. These changes will affect the flow of the river and the fish within it—shallower rivers make it harder for fish to survive, and there are fears dams will block migration routes altogether, threatening the survival of a number of species. This could make life much harder for the 60 million people who live in the area and rely on the Mekong for water, food and their livelihoods.

What exactly should be done also remains unclear, in large part because experts don’t yet have even the most basic information about the situation, says Yasmin Siddiqi, Asian Development Bank’s principal water resources specialist in the region. “We have just done some work, and the preliminary findings are that three-quarters of this region will face water shortages unless we move into better water management,” she says. “One of the first steps to take is to start measuring how much water is actually being used and by whom. This is really a black hole to us.”

The bank has funded a project using satellites to monitor water usage in pilot countries, including Vietnam and Cambodia. At a macro level, the project will measure water use across the entire country. But, says Siddiqi, the most exciting implications are more localized. “Historically, we have not been able to measure how much rice we can grow with a cubic meter of water,” she says. “Now, using satellite technology, we can start to look at individual farmers’ plots and see across an irrigation system which farmer is growing the most out of one unit of water. Then we can find out what that farmer is doing differently and use him as a kind of change agent to help us work with other farmers.” The potential impact is massive: Across Asia, about 80 percent of water is used in agriculture, often inefficiently.

Satellite monitoring is modern science, but many of the other techniques now being promoted in the region to improve water use involve new twists on methods as ancient as dowsing. For example, digging wells to capture excess water during floods can both reduce the impact of the flood and save water for dry season. And there are some simple ways to use water more efficiently year-round by considering all aspects of the water cycle, including human waste—specifically, urine. “Wastewater is rich in nutrients and can produce fish feed,” says Pay Drechsel, resource recovery lead at the IWMI. Drechsel is working on a number of climate mitigation projects that center around recycling human urine. The most intriguing, he says, is to implement a system utilizing duckweed, one of the fastest-growing plants in the world and a lover of urine. It floats on the surface and transforms nutrients in urine, like nitrogen and potassium, to protein. This cleans the water, and the plant itself grows into valuable feed for fish and other animals.

Fish could be one key to helping the region adapt. The U.S. Agency for International Development, working with WorldFish, has spent $2 million in Cambodia helping communities diversify from growing rice to catching fish in their rice fields when they are flooded in rainy season. This is nothing new, but modern techniques used to improve “community fish refuge ponds”—small bodies of water protected by the community, designed to provide sanctuaries for fish in rice fields even during dry season—bumped up fish biomass by 30 percent over two years. That’s enough of an improvement that farmers can now survive, if severe flooding damages their crop, by catching fish.

In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, rice remains king, and it is here where innovations could deliver what the IWMI’s Bird says is a game changer. Until recently, the area boasted perfect conditions, combining long, warm, dry seasons with wet seasons that keep the rice moist without drowning it. These Goldilocks environs have helped Vietnam become one of the top three rice exporters in the world. But the cash crop is now threatened by drought, flood and a phenomenon known as saline intrusion, when seawater penetrates the fertile delta as a result of rising sea levels combined with drought-lowered rivers.

In response, researchers have developed strains of rice resistant to these threats and are now working with farmers to plant them. “This has been a paradigm shift,” says Reiner Wassmann, head of the climate change division at the International Rice Research Institute. “We have now developed rice varieties that can cope with complete submergence, for something in the range of two to three weeks.” On the flip side, the team has also developed rice varieties that are resistant to drought and salinity. “We are not introducing a new variety that farmers are not used to, where people don’t like the taste,” says Wassmann. “We are just taking varieties that are popular in any given place and then, through precision breeding, adding a very specific trait.”

Of course, this being 2016, there’s an app for that too: The Rice Crop Manager cellphone application provides recommendations to farmers on things like fertilizer, and researchers are working on including warnings about salinity levels.

And there’s a final, perhaps unexpected 21st-century development that could have a huge effect on the Mekong region’s future: equal rights for women. “We are chasing technology [and] innovation, but women’s inclusion is critical,” says Siddiqi. Forty percent of the farmers in Asia are women, but governments and local agencies often do not recognize their position, and as a result these farming women struggle to get access to training and even fertilizer. If women were properly involved in these programs, annual food yields in the region could jump by up to 30 percent, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates.

So if it really is all hands to the pump to cope with the Mekong’s uncertain future, it is essential that some of those hands belong to female farmers, like Thong Throm, who lives near Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Supported by Plan International, an NGO traditionally focused on alleviating child poverty, Throm is trying out a host of new techniques to help her crops during dry season. These include cultivating vegetables in grow bags, similar to the ones used in gardens throughout North America and Europe. Plan International has distributed them in 200 villages to help farmers grow vegetables using less water.

“My husband is a resource, but I am the leader of our group,” she says decisively, showing me around her farm. Throm says women like her have to be at the head of the charge toward new technologies because they are more closely connected to feeding their families than men. But she knows she needs to be a pioneer. “I have to educate the other mothers and wives to grow like me,” Throm says, “because I’m worried that things are going to get worse and worse.”