4. Water infrastructure resilient to natural disasters and COVID-19

Natural disasters can slow development by destroying infrastructure and other forms of physical capital (OECD, 2019[1]). Loss of life, population displacement and interruption in economic activity are inevitable when the magnitude of disaster is large enough to threaten livelihoods. The impact of natural disasters on water infrastructure can drive communities back into difficulties. Damage to water infrastructure stemming from natural hazards may contaminate water and disrupt service provision, leaving communities with unsafe and unreliable water supplies. Besides the socio-economic impact, lack of water supply can increase exposure of communities to water-borne disease. This threat is particularly significant during flood events.

Risk of exposure to natural disasters may increase due to climate change, rapid population growth and urbanisation, and environmental degradation (ASEAN, 2017[2]). For instance, climate change is likely increasing the variability of rainfall patterns and intensity, which may bring serious consequences such as floods and drought. Moreover, higher water temperatures could also reduce the self-purifying capacity of freshwater bodies, thereby increasing the risks of water pollution and pathogenic contamination (UNESCO, UN-WATER, 2020[3]).

This chapter discusses several policy responses to cope with natural disasters, beginning with an overview of natural disasters in Mekong countries. It then explores how multi-purpose infrastructure, including nature-based solutions, may help improve resilience against natural hazards while offering other benefits. Next, it focuses on challenges faced by the Mekong region with regard to community-based disaster risk management and the use of digital tools for early warning. Finally, the chapter examines how water infrastructure became crucial during the recent COVID-19 outbreak and how water infrastructure problems affect the most vulnerable populations living in disaster-prone areas.

Located in one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world, Mekong countries are particularly vulnerable to water-related disasters. Hydro-meteorological hazards such as floods and storms are the most frequent events. In all, 86 floods and 46 storms were recorded over the last decade. Among the five countries, Viet Nam had the highest exposure to these events, with 33 floods and 31 storms occurring over the same period (Figure ‎4.1). Drought, earthquakes, landslides and epidemics are also common in Mekong countries. In Thailand, drought and storms occur with the same frequency, while landslides are a major concern in Myanmar.

Droughts, flash floods, riverine floods and tropical cyclones occurred more frequently than other natural hazards in Mekong countries. Flash floods may happen during a short heavy rainfall or thunderstorm, while riverine flood occurs when a river exceeds its capacity due to excessive rainfall for a relatively long period. Among the four types of water-related disasters, riverine floods occur most frequently and have caused the most damage. Despite their frequency, tropical cyclones have caused relatively little damage (Figure ‎4.2).

Over the last decade, riverine floods have been the most damaging water-related disasters in Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. Riverine floods affected Cambodia in 2011, Myanmar in 2015 and Thailand in 2011. Total estimated damages were USD 521 million (4.1% of gross domestic product, GDP), USD 119 million (0.2% of GDP) and USD 40 billion (10.8% of GDP), respectively (CRED, 2020[4]). In Lao PDR, the most damaging event over the last decade was a tropical cyclone in 2018. Estimated total damage from the event totalled USD 225 million (1.3% of GDP). Drought may also become a serious concern for Mekong countries. It occurs relatively infrequently, but, when it does occur, the damage is typically high (Figure ‎4.2). For instance, the Viet Nam drought in 2015 caused an estimated USD 6.75 billion in damage, representing 3.5% of GDP. This represented the most damage from a water-related disaster in the country. Thailand is the most drought-prone in the region and it suffered a loss of USD 3.3 billion (0.8% of GDP) from the 2015 drought.

The high degree of loss from a disaster may depend on either the magnitude of the disaster itself, capacity to mitigate the impact, or both. Improving water infrastructure towards more disaster resilience, especially against riverine flood and drought, may help Mekong countries minimise damages from water-related hazards.

With the increasing risk of exposure to natural disasters, conventional water infrastructure is growing more vulnerable to natural hazards. This type of infrastructure is often single-purpose and might have limited capacity to mitigate disasters. It may also incur increasingly high costs or adverse societal and environmental impacts (UNESCO, UN-WATER, 2020[3]). Conversely, multi-purpose water infrastructure projects may help meet the challenges of rising vulnerability. This type of infrastructure refers to any type of constructed water system intended to serve more than one purpose for economic, social and environmental activities (Table ‎4.1). This could include dams, dykes, reservoirs, irrigation canals and water supply networks. For instance, while storing water during the dry period is often a dam’s main function, its capacity can be increased to cope with floods during the wet season (UNESCO, UN-WATER, 2020[3]).

About 30% of large dams globally are considered to be designed as multi-purpose (OECD, 2017[6]), but they are far less common in the Mekong basin countries. Multi-purpose dams account for only 1% of total dams in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam (Figure ‎4.3). Most dams are built for hydropower or irrigation. This is particularly the case in Lao PDR, where 96% of dams are for hydropower, and Thailand, where 95% of dams are for irrigation (Figure ‎4.3).

Single-purpose dams are often more financially attractive for private investors, particularly for hydropower, as they have lower risks and secure financial returns on the energy produced. Conversely, financing for multi-purpose dams often comes from public resources as attracting private investors remains challenging. Multi-purpose dams require capacity to deal with multiple stakeholders. They also need sustainable business models for financing, including operation and maintenance, and contingency for risks and negative externalities (OECD, 2017[6]). In practice, many single-purpose water infrastructures have evolved into multi-purpose ones. However, when dams are designed to be multi-purpose from inception, they may optimise the economic benefits.

Another challenge related to resilient water infrastructure development in the Mekong region is the lack of joint planning between border provinces (MRC, 2017[8]). Infrastructure development in one country can aim to lower the impact of disaster, but it can also have unintended transboundary effects. Infrastructure projects often affect water flow, contributing to flooding or drought in the neighbouring country. In the Mekong delta region, for instance, the development of a canal system for flood control and irrigation in Viet Nam increases water levels in Cambodia during the flood period. For its part, infrastructure development in the Cambodian floodplain has affected Viet Nam through changes in hydrological regimes and flood characteristics of the delta. This highlights the need for strategic planning that addresses transboundary issues between countries and improves infrastructure development. Such development is limited to national interests, and needs to properly account for its cross-border impacts.

Nature-based solutions (NBS) encompass interventions in ecosystems inspired and supported by nature. They have often been considered to complement, or even substitute, grey or conventional infrastructure. This concept may offer effective and low-cost solutions to increase resilience, while delivering other benefits such as biodiversity, air quality or even recreation. Examples of NBS include forest restoration to improve soil quality and biodiversity, or mangrove reforestation to reduce the impact of waves, storm surges and coastal erosion. NBS can also help achieve water-related objectives, such as wetlands restoration for improving water resources management and boosting resilience against water-related hazards.

Within the urban landscape, NBS includes water-sensitive urban design (WSUD). This integrates water flows into urban landscaping and considers all aspects of the urban water cycle as a valuable resource (ADB, 2019[9]). WSUD tools include vegetated swales, cleansing biotopes, wetlands, rain gardens and green roofs, among others. WSUD is a relatively new approach in developing Asian cities, especially in the Mekong region. However, the concept may gain importance as cities become more vulnerable to climate change-induced disasters and environmental degradation. Fast-growing urbanisation has often disrupted natural urban drainage, leading to increased risk of flooding, waterlogging and water quality degradation. As important drivers of economic performance, cities must face these challenges by improving their resilience or suffer significant socio-economic consequences. WSUD tools can be easily integrated into any type of urban development, such as building units, parks and other open spaces with waterways. The concept may thus offer solutions for cities to become more resilient and liveable, while providing vibrant spaces for community by attracting people closer to water.

The application of WSUD in Mekong countries is limited and still at an early stage. An example of initiative is the proposal for Go Vap Cultural Park in Ho Chi Minh City to be developed as an attractive river park for the community, as well as a floodplain park that could help lower flood levels during storm events (ADB, 2019[9]). Other initiatives are the Sen Pond in Hue City, Viet Nam, which aim to open spaces for community gathering on steps, platforms and boardwalks at different points along the waterfront. Moreover, the integration of WSUD tools such as wetlands for the Sen Pond will create a low-cost water circulation system that could help improve water quality. As WSUD is relatively new for most developing cities in Mekong countries, strong commitment and political leadership, as well as community engagement, may be needed to embrace the concept (ADB, 2019[9]). Countries may also learn from other initiatives around the world that have successfully delivered the benefits of WSUD, such as the Bishan – Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore (Box ‎4.1).

Resilience against natural hazards may also depend on the institutional capacity to prepare for disaster effectively. Fragmented sectoral approaches and institutional arrangements could lead to difficulty in implementing disaster risk management at the local level. For instance, co-ordination bodies in Viet Nam have overlapping mandates related to disaster risk management, climate change and water resources management, and can lack authority to act. As a result, many actions developed under inter-ministerial committees are not implemented (World Bank, 2017[12]).

Lack of information and technical skills to put plans into practice also hinder disaster preparedness. Engaging community members may help meet the challenge since they may possess more information about their localities. Through a community-based project, civil society and community-based groups are involved in preparing for disasters, such as collecting and verifying data on local conditions and identifying challenges. In some Mekong countries, they are also involved in decision making. By making use of local knowledge, community-led co-ordinating mechanisms are often cost-effective since they allow local needs and circumstances to be addressed properly (OECD, 2019[1]). This section will discuss country-specific challenges related to community-based disaster risk management, covering examples of community engagement projects for disaster risk resilience in the five Mekong countries.

The National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM) is the main government structure for co-ordinating disaster risk reduction (DRR). It consists of various government bodies and representatives of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, the Civil Aviation Authority and the key actor of community-based actions – the Cambodian Red Cross (CFE-DMHA, 2017[13]). The country has implemented several community-based programmes; however, limited resources and information sharing with all levels of government may hinder their effectiveness on broader scales.

The Takeo project for flood risk reduction is an example of a community-based solution. The Takeo province of Cambodia is located in a shallow low-lying area in the Mekong Delta. This makes it prone to flooding from Bassac River, Mekong River and canals that link the two. Due to tidal effects, high water levels from both rivers cannot drain easily to the sea. This has caused substantial damage to houses and infrastructure. Flood characteristics have also become more irregular since the completion of a Vietnamese dam downstream. The water could rise faster, stay longer and recede more slowly following water movement at the dam. Besides damage to houses and infrastructure, water levels that remain high could also affect rice production, leaving paddies submerged and unavailable for planting (Pinkaew and Glass, 2007[14]).

To tackle the issue, local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) carried out a project to reduce flood risk with the NCDM and the Provincial Committee for Disaster Management. Their roles are mainly to provide the community with information, training, financial and technical assistance. A Village Committee for Disaster Management, which consists of five women and men elected by their communities, implements the project. One activity helps the most vulnerable families to build elevated houses since small bamboo homes are prone to damage by heavy rains, flooding and strong winds. The project involves 13 of the most remote and vulnerable villages and covers 416 families chosen by villagers based on their economic situation and needs. In addition to being involved in decision making, the villagers were also instructed how to raise their homesteads by two to three metres using dirt to elevate the ground above flood level (Pinkaew and Glass, 2007[14]).

This example demonstrates that community-based projects may offer an effective way for training and capacity building at the community level. By strengthening co-ordination between national, provincial and district agencies, the limited implementation of community-based programmes in Cambodia can be expanded to other vulnerable communities.

Community-based DRR programmes in Lao PDR are implemented through the Village Disaster Prevention Units (VDPU) and the Village Disaster Prevention and Control Committees (VDPCC). These institutions aim to increase awareness among local communities. They offer education for community members to learn actions to be taken before, during and after disasters. However, these practices are limited since many villages still do not have VDPU or VDPCC in place (CFE-DMHA, 2017[15]).

The School Flood Safety Programme is another example of a local-level DRR in Lao PDR. It aims to enhance the capacity of communities to cope with floods by empowering young people to take a leadership role as informal communicators. At selected schools, teachers are trained about risk management through workshops organised by the district education offices, and then pass this knowledge on to their students. The programme develops and distributes materials such as booklets and posters. In addition, schools are used as a focal point for activities related to communal training, which also involves parents, women’s groups and older community members.

Throughout the implementation process, the Secretariat of the Provincial Disaster Management Committees helps disseminate educational posters, booklets and flood information kits to District Disaster Management Committee members (ADPC, 2015[16]). In other districts, similar programmes use participatory approaches to promote awareness of DRR. Within this programme, teachers underwent an orientation that allowed them to give feedback on pilot modules and learning materials. In this way, teachers’ input allowed modules to be revised before potential use in other schools and target locations.

The capacity to manage the risk of disasters varies at the local level due to uneven implementation of the DRR strategy. Some communities are more developed, while others might lag behind. Improving co-ordination and resource allocation from the central level may help meet the challenge.

The Myanmar 2017 Action Plan on Disaster Risk Reduction acknowledges community-based disaster resilience as one of its priority actions (MoSWRR, 2017[17]). The plan highlights the role of civil society organisations, foundations and volunteers as key stakeholders to reach the community. Since the concept of DRR is relatively new in Myanmar, community-based programmes are still limited. Moreover, inadequate financial resources along with a lack of institutional arrangements at district or village level have contributed to uneven distribution of these programmes. The relief and resettlement department is limited to the state or division level, making it difficult to reach the village level (CFE-DMHA, 2020[18]). This suggests that developing community-level institutions might help the country strengthen the implementation of its DRR plan.

Drought-resilient farming in the dry zone of Myanmar is an example of the country’s few community-based programmes. The dry zone in central Myanmar is a lowland located between the Shan Highlands, the Rakhine Yoma and the Chin Hills. The Ayeyarwady River crosses the region, making it possible to irrigate cultivation alongside the river. A large proportion of the population engages in subsistence rain-fed agriculture or livestock rearing. However, the area has annual rainfall of less than 1 000 millimetres and high evaporation during the dry season due to high temperatures (UNDP, 2019[19]). To strengthen the resilience of subsistence agriculture in this area, Myanmar introduced a participatory rice varietal selection project in 2014. The United Nations Development Programme implemented the project with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.

Throughout the project, farmers helped identify high yielding and acceptable rice cultivars for heat tolerance, drought, short duration and salt tolerance. Indeed, farmers’ participation may allow better crop selection. They possess experiential knowledge related to the variety of crops such as expected yield, labour availability, seed prices and availability, climatic and soil conditions, and available surface flow (UNDP, 2014[20]). Access to a wider variety of drought-resilient crops is made possible thanks to the establishment of community-level seed banks. The project also assists volunteer farmers in establishing a demonstration plot. This enables them to observe the practicalities and performance of certain varieties before purchasing their preferred seeds from seed banks.

According to the 2015 National Disaster Risk Management Plan of Thailand, community-based disaster risk management is a strategic focus to improve preparedness capacity against natural hazard events (DDPM, 2015[21]). The Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation develops and carries out community-based programmes. This national-level government agency delivers education and shares knowledge related to disaster management through the national training institution for disaster management and the community-based volunteer training programme, among others. The agency has also developed the Civil Defence Volunteer network programme, consisting of more than 1 million trained community-based volunteers who are on stand-by to assist government officials during disaster events (Thiprut, 2016[22]).

DRR strategy has been implemented relatively well at the national, provincial and community levels. However, the lack of risk information and data sharing has created challenges for the government to act on DRR measures (Paojinda, 2017[23]). Strengthening the capacity of government officials, community members and other stakeholders to use technology may offer a solution for better data collection and information sharing.

Several community-based measures, whose mechanisms rely on information and data sharing through technology, have been developed at different locations. One example is the innovative water solutions of the Limthong community. Extreme drought during the dry season and severe floods during the rainy season affected Limthong villages repeatedly for 40 years until 2007, damaging houses, roads and agricultural production (Utokapat, 2016[24]). Indeed, the main source of food and income for the community comes from rain-fed agriculture. Since the disasters continually lowered productivity in agriculture, villagers experienced more household debt and migration.

To cope with such an unfavourable situation, the Hydro and Agro Informatics Institute, under the Ministry of Science and Technology Thailand, in partnership with a local NGO, introduced Community Water Resource Management (CWRM). The project allows knowledge and technology transfers between villagers and other stakeholders, enabling them to better analyse, develop and implement CWRM solutions. Throughout implementation, local villagers are first trained to learn and understand new technologies to carry out surveys, collect data and undertake important analysis related to water resources and water balance. The new technologies employed include Global Positioning System, receiver, a telemetering station and satellite images. Moreover, the project promotes traditional knowledge. For instance, elderly people provide information concerning past rainfall and water use, thus helping the community to better understand their water shortage.

According to detailed information collected by villagers, innovative water solutions are developed jointly with expert stakeholders. Considering the geo-social condition of the village, the solutions consisted of pond network system and canal streets. The pond network system aims to reduce flood and increase water storage during the two different seasons. Meanwhile, the canal streets are used as a waterway and distribution system that delivers floodwater to the ponds. The network is maintained by a CWRM Committee, which has local members and operates under the local government.

The 42.2 kilometres of canals that connect with a network of more than 100 ponds can increase water storage by 1.16 million cubic metres (MCM), enough to supply 68% of agricultural land in the area (Utokapat, 2016[24]). In addition, the system allows full protection from flood and drought for an area of 11.76 km2 and reduces the risk of both disasters in another 21.34 km2. With such benefits, other communities expanded the network significantly in less than ten years. More than 2 200 households in an area of 278.25 km2 currently benefit from the system, compared to the 15 households in an area of 5.9 km2 that participated at its initial stage (Utokapat, 2016[24]).

In Viet Nam, the government has tried to improve community-based disaster risk management (CBDRM) through laws and national strategies. For instance, the law on natural disaster prevention and control took effect in May 2014. It outlines regulations for natural disaster prevention at national, local and community levels, and defines roles and responsibilities of relevant bodies (CFE-DMHA, 2018[25]). Programmes related to CBDRM fall under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Some projects that adopt top-down approaches might not be able to bolster local resilience effectively. Indeed, several past experiences demonstrated that bottom-up approaches of CBDRM have been effective at increasing community awareness. Community-based mangrove management in Da Loc and Nga Thuy communes in Thanh Hoa province are two examples of the positive outcomes of CBDRM. For local residents, the degradation could increase the risk of exposure to more serious storms and tidal floods. For instance, after Typhoon Damrey (in 2005) brought tidal waves and upstream floods, damaging 100 houses, destroying shrimp farms and 500 hectares of crops and contaminating soils with salt water (CARE, 2016[26]), many projects took place in the area, aiming to restore the mangrove forest. However, local participation was limited. In particular, private contractors or local authorities often managed the planting, maintenance and protection phases (CARE, 2016[26]). This resulted in reduced awareness among local communities, and a low survival rate of mangroves due to inappropriate planting.

In 2007, a community-based approach for strengthening coastal resilience was introduced. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), private actors and the government joined forces in a partnership to implement the project. The Community-Based Mangrove Management Boards (CMMB) was formed, composed of representatives elected from the Commune People’s Committee and mass organisations. Its main role consists of steering planning and decision making for the planting, maintenance and protection of young mangrove forests. Moreover, the project provides training for village-level facilitators, which could enable them to support assessments of vulnerabilities and to develop disaster preparedness plans.

With strong support from the local government, CMMB has mobilised community members to contribute their time, knowledge and labour to mangrove restoration and disaster preparedness planning. Since 2007, trained local facilitators have developed disaster preparedness plans in 28 villages. They are revised annually with help from community members (CARE, 2016[26]). In addition, 458 hectares of mangrove forests have been planted. These forests have a survival rate of 70-90%, a significantly higher rate compared to previous projects in the same area where survival rates ranged from 10% to 50%. Participation of community members throughout all phases of restoration activities has also strengthened their sense of responsibility. For instance, in 2011, community members immediately reported the mangrove encroachment by clam farmers to local authorities (CARE, 2016[26]). This example highlights that community participation may help ensure the sustainability of community-based projects.

Advancements in technology, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, Big Data and drones create new possibilities to develop low-cost digital tools for early warning systems. These tools could offer better quality and timeliness in transferring information, analysing, monitoring, assessing risk and forecasting. This, in turn, would allow for better awareness and preparedness against disasters. However, large technological gaps remain between early warning systems used in developing and developed countries (OECD, 2019[1]).

Among digital tools for early warning systems, mobile phone use has gained importance in developing countries. In the Mekong region, mobile-cellular telephone subscriptions have increased significantly. As of 2018, the number of mobile-telephone subscriptions exceeded the number of inhabitants for all Mekong countries except for Lao PDR (Figure ‎4.4). This presents an opportunity to use mobile phones as key components of early warning systems.

Each country in the Mekong region has developed its own early warning phone service. For instance, the EWS1294 introduced in 2013 allows Cambodians to receive early warning messages from the NCDM. Users can simply dial 1294 to register, which indicates their location. In an emergency, such as floods or storms, users in the affected area receive an audio message. It warns them about potential risks and advises them on the steps to take to protect themselves. These steps can include evacuation to the nearest safe site, staying indoors or securing their livestock (UNDP, 2019[28]).

While Lao PDR’s SMS warning system is still in its initial stages, a pilot project was launched in early 2019. Four Laotian private telecommunications companies contributed to the project by sending SMS (text) messages related to weather conditions. This information is provided by the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (UNDP, 2019[29]). In Myanmar, the government-owned mobile phone application, Disaster Alert Notification (DAN), sends disaster-related information to smartphone users. The application’s features include news and early warning notifications, updates on DRR activities, emergency contact numbers, advice, and direct links to a government website for real-time weather forecasts (MoSWRR, 2016[30]).

In Thailand, the Warning Volunteer Networking, or Mr. Warning, contributes to rapid dissemination of warning messages among villagers through mobile phones. Mr. Warning is a warning team at local or community level trained to monitor the situation, warn the public, and co-ordinate evacuation. Locals and officials set up a group chat to communicate with each other. By exchanging information with local networks, officials can better estimate the risks and identify potential damages (ADPC, 2015[31]). As of 2017, there are nearly 28 000 members of Mr. Warning in 3 340 risk-prone villages (DDPM, 2017[32]).

Similar early warning systems can be found in the coastal provinces of Thua Thien Hue, Quang Nam and Da Nang, Viet Nam. In the past, village leaders would disseminate disaster-related information through loudspeakers in public spaces or door-to-door (SCI, 2016[33]). However, such methods are inadequate due to power cuts or limited coverage of the loudspeaker systems. In 2016, the free SMS early warning system was introduced. This allowed volunteers, who are household heads and members of community disaster action teams, to share information with the government regarding floodwater levels they monitor in their neighbourhoods. This mechanism enables government to improve data collection, mapping and decision making. In case of emergency, anyone registered with the system receives SMS warnings and advice to protect themselves.

Despite improved early warning systems, messages often do not reach across the country, especially to remote vulnerable areas that are often most at risk. Rapid development of new dams by upstream countries in the Mekong region often affects water availability and quantity in downstream nations. Indeed, water level at downstream locations is controlled by the storage, withdrawal and release decisions of upstream nations. When a disaster affecting a dam occurs in one country, the impact can be transboundary. For instance, the 2018 dam collapse in southern Lao PDR brought extensive flooding to Cambodia. Widespread damage was inevitable since Cambodia did not have access to real-time information about the increased risk of flooding (Hossain et al., 2019[34]).

Efforts have been made to address concerns regarding the transboundary nature of disasters affecting dams. Viet Nam recently launched a satellite-based operational system. With support from international partners, the system was developed to improve timely access to upstream reservoir information in transboundary river basins of the Red and Mekong rivers. The satellite data allow users to calculate storage volume change of a reservoir. They can also get information on how a dam operates within any month thanks to the record of average storage volume (UNOOSA, 2019[35]). More can be done to make use of these satellite data and transform them into accessible tools for an improved transboundary early warning system.

More recently, COVID-19 has been rapidly spreading across the globe, creating a much bigger external shock than natural disasters that disrupt various sectors (OECD, 2020[36]). The outbreak highlights the importance of safe and reliable water supply since frequent handwashing is one of the most recommended measures to minimise the spread of the virus. However, as of 2017, nearly 40% of the world’s population lack access to basic handwashing. Among the five Mekong countries, Lao PDR lags behind with around 50% of its population lacking adequate access to handwashing with soap and water (Figure ‎4.5).

In addition to the lack of basic handwashing facilities, the Mekong countries need to improve access to safe drinking water. This is especially the case for Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar, where some population groups still rely on unimproved sources of drinking water or collect surface water (Figure ‎4.6). Summer droughts may exacerbate the lack of access to safe and reliable water during the COVID-19 pandemic, posing serious threats to domestic water use. For instance, in Viet Nam, the 2019-20 drought and saltwater intrusion greatly affected people living in the coastal districts of Tran De, Long Phu and Vinh Chau. In particular, these events affected those not connected to the centralised water supply works. Saltwater intrusion has affected surface water and the depleted groundwater is unable to meet water needs, resulting in more than 26 500 households lacking water for domestic use (MARD, 2020[38]). In Sittwe township of Rakhine State, Myanmar, summer drought has led to acute water shortages, leaving individuals with a lack of access to adequate water. This, in turn, makes it difficult for them to practise the most basic measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Shwe, Pru and Prasad, 2020[39]).

Where communities live far away from piped water, people tend to purchase fresh water. During episodes of summer drought, however, price increases reflect increased scarcity. Due to water scarcity, as well as a lack of appropriate facilities, people tend to reduce the frequency of basic hygiene and sanitation practices or abandon them altogether. This increases the risk of exposure to pathogens. In Viet Nam, local authorities have responded to these hazards by purchasing and transporting water to people affected by drought, drilling more wells, and building more public faucets and tanks to provide water for domestic use (MARD, 2020[41]).

Within urban settings, people living in densely populated areas, especially informal settlements, can also be at greater risk during the coronavirus outbreak. Physical distancing is nearly impossible. Moreover, these settlements are often not connected to basic municipal services, particularly piped water, sanitation facilities, and drainage and treatment networks. For instance, in Yangon, Myanmar, slums often depend on ponds or public tube wells for water supply. Water extracted from these sources is prone to high levels of pollution due to the flow of waste (UN HABITAT, 2020[42]). People also rely on private and informal water providers, whose services are often expensive and unreliable. During the pandemic, many slum residents lost their jobs. Their limited household budgets make it difficult to afford safe water. Moreover, sanitation facilities are mostly limited to open pit latrines. By relying on communal water points and sanitation facilities, people queuing for access in close proximity to others makes physical distancing hard to implement.

Besides water and sanitation challenges, informal settlements are susceptible to risk of flooding on a near daily basis since they are located along rivers, on swamp land or on the riverbed (UN HABITAT, 2020[42]). Disaster preparedness and response plans are often absent, making slums more vulnerable when disaster strikes. Living conditions, along with daily flooding and other natural hazards, could increase the prevalence of vector- and water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, dysentery, malaria and tuberculosis. This, in turn, may lead to low immunity and increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Indeed, the share of urban slum population is positively correlated with the mortality rate caused by unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services (Figure ‎4.7). This should alarm policy makers and prompt them to address unequal access to water, particularly in densely populated urban areas and to consider integrating the previously discussed WSUD for better disaster resilience.

The COVID-19 outbreak has affected large-scale infrastructure projects, especially hydropower dam projects along the Mekong River and its tributaries. These projects are at risk of delays and shutdowns due to lockdown, movement restrictions and fear of contagion. For instance, in Lao PDR, the government temporarily halted all hydropower construction following the positive test of a mining company worker for COVID-19 (Board, 2020[44]). Consultations on the major Luang Prabang dam have also been postponed. In Viet Nam, energy projects are at risk of delay due to travel bans that prevent executives, engineers and planners from foreign oil and gas companies from visiting. These delays may cause further blackouts across the country since Viet Nam is already facing growing electricity outages due to lack of new power generation plants (Daiss, 2020[45]). Given the interrelationship between water and electricity, it could be challenging for Viet Nam to supply water if the crisis persists. Indeed, electricity is needed for the pumping, treatment and distribution of water, as well as for the collection, treatment and discharge of wastewater (Copeland and Carter, 2017[46]). As of 22 May 2020, the Vietnamese government was reportedly strengthening campaigns to raise awareness on water and energy conservation in response to droughts and water shortages that might occur more often (VNS, 2020[47]).

As large-scale infrastructure projects are at risk of delays, small-scale projects with dual objectives are emerging. Such projects aim to increase resilience when disaster occurs, while dealing with the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. For instance, in Thailand, people who lost their jobs during the pandemic have been hired to develop irrigation systems and other water infrastructure. In so doing, they are helping farmers deal with the water crisis, while maintaining incomes. Around 500 workers, who are paid about the same as their normal wage, will develop 103 water projects in three drought-stricken provinces (Theparat and Charoensuthipan, 2020[48]).

Apart from dealing with infrastructure, governments need to ensure hygiene guidelines reach all layers of communities, especially those not connected to pipe systems, who therefore need to buy water. In rural Cambodia, for instance, many households are burdened with self-collection and self-treatment of their own drinking water, relying on water kiosks to buy drinking water. However, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, water kiosk clients are reluctant to leave their homes to buy water, and kiosk staff are insecure about safety in their jobs (Highton, 2020[49]). To ensure continuity in water distribution, Cambodia is raising communities’ awareness about COVID-19 prevention. These initiatives include promoting measures such as maintaining physical distance, wearing masks and using hand sanitiser. The role of community leaders may also be important to strengthen compliance with basic prevention measures for activities that require close contact between people.

Mobile phones can also play an important part in raising community awareness about COVID-19. During this difficult period, some countries in the Mekong region have developed mobile applications to help fight the pandemic. For instance, the Ministry of Information and Communications and the Health Ministry of Viet Nam developed Ncovi. This application serves as a channel for delivering all formal medical notices and announcements to citizens, allowing them to adjust their activities accordingly. Another Vietnamese innovation is the Bluezone application that uses Bluetooth Low Energy technology to pinpoint the location of a mobile phone within two metres. If the phone’s owner tests positive for COVID-19, the Bluezone will use the contact history of the infected person to deliver warnings to other users who have high risk of coming into contact with them (MIC, 2020[50]). Thailand has developed the Mor Chana mobile app, which uses GPS and Bluetooth technology to track locations of people who test positive for COVID-19. It can also help health authorities identify those who have been in close contact with infected people (Silva, 2020[51]).

The vulnerability of the Mekong region to natural hazards has required strengthening disaster preparedness to minimise damage and avoid reversing the development gains. Efforts can take two complementary approaches. Promoting multi-purpose and nature-based solutions can improve hard infrastructure, while institutional collaboration and community engagement can strengthen soft infrastructure. Joint planning between countries and cross-country initiatives are needed since the impact of water-related hazards is often transboundary. There is scope for improving the use of technology for better disaster risk resilience, especially to prevent transboundary disasters.

The COVID-19 outbreak has brought to light the need for integrated disaster risk reduction plans for pandemics, as well as for natural hazards. During pandemics, more handwashing might increase demand for water. As countries may face future natural disasters and pandemics, the important role played by proper hygiene in slowing the spread of COVID-19 provides a critical lesson. Countries need to accelerate the development of resilient and sustainable water infrastructure and improve its availability. Indeed, this should be a priority in order to ensure that reliable and safe water remains accessible and widespread even during challenging times.

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