Despite economic growth, Southeast Asia (SEA) still has substantial issues in terms of water supply and waste management. The region is urbanising rapidly, and its developing cities are struggling to provide water and sanitation facilities to its citizens. Furthermore, the pandemic has exacerbated the difficulties encountered by vulnerable communities, groups and people in countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, who frequently lack access to basic amenities such as water and sanitation.

With respect to sanitation services, only Singapore has universal sanitation coverage, followed by Malaysia (99.7 per cent), Thailand (98.7 per cent) and Vietnam (94 per cent). In smaller economies like Cambodia, Indonesia and Lao PDR, the proportion of the population covered by basic sanitation has improved, but it still falls short of the requirement. To improve this situation, regulatory reforms, deployment of innovative technology and new capacity building programmes have been implemented in SEA countries over the years.

Key developments


The Brunei government is adding low-cost sensors for flash flood detection, pumping station monitoring and water quality monitoring following the adoption of a patented technique for long range, wide area networking (LoRaWAN). River level monitoring until now has been based primarily on telemetry technology or, in cases where this technology is not deployed or is inoperable, manual monitoring that requires significant manpower. In December 2018, the Green Depot was initiated under Green Brunei and supported by the Brunei Shell Petroleum Company (BSP) to contribute to the nation’s goal of moving towards zero waste. Since its establishment, it has collected over 51,000 kg of recyclable items from over 950 users.


The Cambodian government is developing the nation’s water supply infrastructure to expand water supply services in urban areas from an average of about 35 per cent in 2005 to 100 per cent by 2025. Since 2007, the Japanese government has been providing assistance, including technical support, for such infrastructure development in Cambodia. Under urban water supply and sanitation projects, technical assistance (TA) has been provided to support institutional strengthening and capacity development, and to assist the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME) to develop its regulatory functions.

The TA assists MIME to update its current urban water supply policy, prepare an urban water sector development strategy, develop instruments to strengthen economic and technical regulation, establish non-revenue water management departments at provincial waterworks, and commercialise provincial waterworks. Plans are under way to grant provincial waterworks a level of autonomy similar to that afforded to the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority and Siem Reap Water Supply Authority.


In a notable development, the Metropolitan Energy Authority has partnered with private company Newsky Energy Thailand for waste-to-energy (WtE) power plants in the Nong Khaem and On Nut districts of Bangkok. This will help promote the expansion of alternative energy in the metropolitan area and help environmental protection. The government intends to provide running water to 75,032 villages by 2030 as part of the 20-year master water plan as well as improve water resources to raise volume to 27 billion cubic metres for the agricultural sector.


Singapore currently uses reverse osmosis for desalination, which uses about 3.5 kWh/cubic metre of energy to make seawater drinkable. This process produces pure drinking water by pushing seawater through membranes to remove dissolved salts and minerals. The Public Utilities Board (PUB) is constantly exploring ways to reduce the energy required to ensure the sustainability of desalinated water. PUB’s goal is to reduce the energy requirement for desalination from the current 3.5 kWh/cubic metre to 1.5 kWh/cubic metre and then to 1 kWh/cubic metre in the long run. Electro-deionisation is a method that uses an electric field to pull dissolved salts from water. An achievable energy consumption of 1.65 kWh/cubic metre has been demonstrated at a pilot plant. This is less than half the energy required by the conventional seawater reverse osmosis process. Currently, there are four desalination plants in Singapore. One more desalination plant was supposed to be ready by the end of 2021.


Malaysia’s Housing and Local Government Ministry launched a tender for a WtE project in Sungai Udang, Malacca, under a public-private partnership (PPP) model. The project is the second of six proposed WtE projects planned by the ministry. The project involves establishment of new district meter areas (DMAs), re-establishment of existing DMAs and monitoring and maintenance of the meters. The state of Johor aims to reduce its non-revenue water levels to 5 per cent by the year 2025. Indonesia Surabaya is the first city in Indonesia that completes the establishment of an eco friendly WtE plant.The plant was completed in June 2021. The waste management facility located in the western region of Surabaya is now capable of producing 11 MW of electricity because of the collaboration between the Surabaya city government and a private company, PT Sumber Organik, which runs the facility.

Impact of Covid

The outbreak of Covid-19 has raised a global alarm on public health and safety. To curtail widespread transmission, water utilities were at the forefront of ensuring regular water supply provision to communities. However, under-construction projects were affected due to the lockdown restrictions imposed to stem the spread of the virus.


Cambodia has been experiencing a resurgence of Covid-19 cases, which has slowed recovery, especially of the service, construction and real estate sectors. A WtE project in Cambodia is a step closer to becoming a reality, with Green Energy Investment Mekong finalising its incorporation and taxation registration in Cambodia. This particular project is expected to receive technical support from the Asian Development Bank and a private firm, Infrastructure of Asia, Singapore.


With waves of Covid-19 sweeping through Myanmar compounding the crisis, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) signed a loan agreement with the Myanmar government in January 2020. The Yangon Sewerage System Development Project aims to improve wastewater management in the city of Yangon by improving and installing a sewage system and water treatment plants. Water management became more complicated in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, since the mitigation of the virus’s propagation required large quantities of water to raise hygiene levels.

Solidarites International’s (a non-profit organisation) response to the pandemic consisted of setting up hand-washing stations in Pauktaw, water taps and pumps, disinfection of latrines, distribution of hygiene kits and the dissemination of preventive measures in the country. New construction projects, which came to a standstill, slowly gained momentum when the lockdown restrictions were lifted across the world.

Vietnam The demand for water tracks economic growth, and Vietnam, with a consistent growth rate of 6 per cent to 7 per cent and strong handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, is one of the most dynamic economies in Asia. Kobelco Eco Solutions Company Limited and Kobelco Eco Solutions Vietnam Company Limited have jointly secured a contract from the Hong River Surface Water Joint Stock Company for the construction of a water purification plant in Hanoi, Vietnam. Indonesia Despite the far-reaching repercussions of the Covid-19 outbreak, WtE initiatives are expected to contribute to the government’s renewable energy ambitions. Two of the notable projects that are currently in the tendering stage are located in Legok Nangka, West Java, and South Tangerang, Banten. Both projects are expected to have 10-20 MW of capacity.

The timeline for the completion of these plants has been disrupted by the pandemic. However, supported by a number of the recent policy reforms, the prospects of WtE projects in Indonesia are expected to be bright over the long term.


In spite of SEA’s commitment to meeting the sustainable development goals, the region still faces a number of challenges, including macroeconomic instability, conflicts over water sharing, and lack of data and clear medium-term financial goals. There is a growing trend towards the construction of WtE plants. Further, there is an increase in the adoption of digital solutions, which help water utilities to efficiently manage scarce resources by reducing water losses and ensure provision. The use of treated wastewater to meet future demand also presents a great opportunity in the region. Through long-term strategies, appropriate incentivisation, and flexibility and the political will to bear costs, SEA countries can go a long way towards bridging the infrastructure gap. These countries need to increase investments in infrastructure development to provide good quality services.