Toxic industrial waste has created havoc for the water sector in the Southeast Asia (SEA) region. Many rivers, which are the main sources of drinking water in SEA countries, are being contaminated with industrial effluent and chemicals. Governments are struggling to address the problem through their waste and water management systems. Some of the important rivers that face massive pollution include the Marilao river, which flows through the metro city of Manila in the Philippines, the Citarum river, which flows through the Indonesian province of West Java, the Chao Phraya river in Thailand, and the Kinabatangan river in Malaysia. They are contaminated with dangerously high levels of arsenic and adversely affect the health of humans, animals and aquatic life.

Severe effects

An example of a highly polluted river is the Mekong river, which passes through Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar in SEA. It sustains major parts of its population and also has the richest biodiversity in the world. Apart from the impact of massive construction activities, growing plastic pollution and adverse effects of climate change, the discharge of chemicals from industries has led to high levels of toxic pesticide, heavy metals such as mercury, and organic pollutants in the river. As per Vietnam’s Environmental Agency under the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment of Vietnam, the expansion of rice fields and the resultant increased use of fertilisers and pesticides have raised the content of E.coli bacteria from two to five times the permissible levels. The heightened contamination adversely affects aquatic life and due to this catches of migratory freshwater fish species have been declining. It has also brought the Irrawaddy dolphins in the river to the brink of extinction, with traces of toxic levels of pesticides found in dead dolphins. Indonesia has been tackling water pollution as one of the major issues related to public utility services.

According to the World Bank, the majority of its population is exposed to water pollution and 7 per cent of its groundwater exceeds safe pollutant thresholds. The Citarum river, Indonesia’s largest reservoir, which provides water to around 9 million people in the country, is used for the production of electricity and provides irrigation to 5 per cent of the country’s rice crops. Industries like agriculture, textiles, paper/pulp, petrochemicals, mining, and oil and gas are major sources of river pollution. Due to the nearby agricultural industries, the concentrations of aluminium, iron and manganese have crossed four times the recommended levels while mercury is at 100 times the safe level. The pollution caused by industrial waste and other sources has resulted in the water quality of the country’s major rivers like the Sunter, Garang and Bedadung falling below permissible standards for drinking water. Vietnam’s water sector has also suffered as a result of rampant industrialisation in recent years. Reportedly, 40 per cent of the country’s industrial parks lack centralised wastewater treatment plants and the remaining often discharge untreated wastewater to reduce their plants’ operation costs.

As per the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Vietnam, the wastewater from its industrial parks, which is about for 0.24 million cubic metres per day, is released untreated into the environment. Similarly, wastewater froms industrial as well as residential areas form one of the major sources of pollution in Thailand. The increased tariff by the Thai government on discharge of untreated water directly into rivers has motivated factories to reuse it for secondary purposes although excess water is still released into waterbodies.

Response to pollution

The dismal condition of these rivers in the SEA region and its countries demands immediate intervention. The Mekong river has been under the purview of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but with negligible effect. Due to a shared basin boundary with China, geopolitical complexities and low stream of investments, little has been done to deal with the pollution problem. Other international bilateral and multilateral frameworks have been formed in relation to this cause, and Hanoi’s leadership in Vietnam has been lately trying to include this issue in the ASEAN’s agenda, although it has met with resistance from other SEA states. The Indonesian government has initiated a seven-year river revitalisation programme after several failed attempts to prevent the Citarum river from becoming the world’s most polluted river and to make the river water fit for drinking. The initiative is being supported by the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank.

On November 18, 2022, the central and local governments signed an agreement to implement an action plan for waste management in the Citarum river basin area for 2022- 2025. The action plan includes 159 subactivities, comprising 80 activities linked to community empowerment and stakeholders, 38 related to technical affairs and infrastructure, 33 activities associated with policies and regulations, and eight pertaining to institutions and organisations. It is expected to cost IDR 5.4 trillion to be funded from different sources.

Meanwhile, some of the SEA countries are also making efforts to enlarge and improve their wastewater treatment and waste-to-energy (WtE) plants to address the issue of river pollution. The Thai government has made national waste disposal and management policy one of the main components of its national agenda and master plan under which many WtE projects have been started. Bac Ninh province in Thailand generates over 1,000 tonnes of solid waste every day, the main sources of which are 16 of its industrial parks and municipal waste.

As part of remedial measures, the International Finance Corporation will invest $30 million to clean up the rivers, including a financial package for the development of a modern WtE plant in Thuan Thanh district of the region by T&J Green Energy Company Limited. It is expected to incinerate 500 tonnes of industrial solid waste every day, while generating clean energy and will begin operations in 2024. Singapore is spearheading the adoption of best practices by coming up with innovative solutions for waste and water management in the country. Its Public Utilities Board is responsible for the country’s water supply, water catchment and used water. It has been awarded SGD 51 million by the National Research Foundation to support water research in the country and come up with feasible solutions to extract chemicals from contaminated water and reduce their impact on the country’s water resources. It is also working on technologies to extract rare metals like lithium and barium from brine, which is dangerous to release into rivers, in its desalination plants.

In sum

The problem of pollution of water sources in the SEA region is enormous, given its deleterious effects on the environment and on human health. The polluter-pays principle undoubtedly needs adoption along with strict regulation and surveillance by government authorities. It is also necessary for research and regulatory agencies to come up with measures to both minimise industrial waste discharge into water sources and to develop technologies to enable reuse of treated wastewater.