Vulnerable Deltas in Southeast Asia: Climate Change, Water Pollution, and Socio-Economic Transformation


East-West Center researchers, with support from the Henry Luce Foundation, recently launched a project to address the multidimensional vulnerabilities facing three major deltas in Southeast Asia. These include the Chao Phraya Delta in Bangkok to Suphan Buri, Thailand; the Mekong Delta in An Giang Province, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and the Mahakam Delta in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. In collaboration with the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum (CEF), Chulalongkorn, Srinakharinwirot, Khon Kaen, Gadjah Mada, An Giang Universities, the Asian Vision Institute, and other local partners in Southeast Asia we will expand and deepen existing research networks to explore climate, environmental, social and infrastructure threats to deltas.

Southeast Asia (SEA) is culturally and ecologically defined by its relation to water, and its fluctuating scarcity and overabundance, especially in delta environments. In this interdisciplinary, multi-sited research and multimedia education initiative, we will investigate the inter-related socio-economic vulnerabilities and environmental degradation occurring across resource sectors from climate change and rapid development in the three deltas. Focusing on deltas allows us to link upstream processes of land use and riverine changes with the dynamics of increasing infrastructural connectivity and conflict, and flows of water, waste, labor, and human migration. Deltas are productive not only biologically but also economically, where the seasonal deposit of sediment in these saturated terrains have given rise to dynamic sociocultural and material wealth. Delta environments, especially those in SEA, are at the center of urban expansion driven by economic growth and infrastructure development, and yet are listed as some of the world’s most vulnerable cities and ecological habitats due to the impacts of climate change.

SEA cities are embedded in delta geographies and must be understood as integral to far-flung rural farming landscapes, forested watersheds, and riverine habitats, which have been undergoing rapid land-use-and-land-cover change. The agricultural productivity and ecological integrity of SEA deltas are increasingly threatened by the combined effects of natural and human-induced changes, including upstream hydropower development, irrigation and urban development, regional infrastructural linkages, waste pollution, and slow-onset environmental change. Disruptions to the hydrology and sediment flow at the transboundary level alongside local land-use changes have many consequences for delta environments and inhabitants who are already encountering increasing riverbank erosion, land subsidence, and salinization. The projected effects of climate change and weak domestic and transboundary land and water governance are expected to worsen these issues, with critical implications for food security, farming livelihoods, and rural-to-urban migration in this region.

EWC and CEF will collaborate with our in-country SEA partners to study the multidimensional vulnerabilities and socio-ecological transformations of SEA deltas. Despite the well-documented vulnerabilities to climate change “where land meets water”, delta cities continue to be inundated with major physical infrastructure networks, waste pollution, economic development packages, and rural-to-urban in-migration. Our multidisciplinary team of academics and practitioner, stitches together a bottom-up effort that stretches across the three deltas in mainland and insular SEA. We will engage in capacity-building learning activities, build co-teaching modules and multimedia outreach capacities for producing applied knowledge on the sociocultural and biophysical transformations needed to protect these deltas. We will also build bridges between China and SEA by focusing on China’s direct investment into the region and its social environmental impacts on delta environments, including plastic waste.

Principal Investigator:
Jefferson M. Fox, Senior Fellow and Acting Director of Research, EWC

Co-Principal Investigator:
Jennifer Turner, Director, Wilson Center China Environment Forum, Washington DC.

Micah R. Fisher, Fellow, EWC conducts research on the human-dimensions of environmental change such as deforestation, land rights, and tenure policies in Indonesia  disaster risk, vulnerability, and water insecurity in G Jakarta; agrarian change and livelihoods in Sulawesi; and technologies of participation.

Kevin Woods, Fellow, EWC conducts research on the politics of land use change, resource extraction, and environmental conservation; resources and armed conflict dynamics;  environmental peace building; Chinese investment in Southeast Asia; mainland Southeast Asia, with focus on Burma/Myanmar.

Phanwin Yokying, Fellow, EWC studies development and gender issues affecting the livelihoods and well-being of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in Asia  Her research areas of interest include time use, migration, remittance, land rights, rural food security, informal employment, child labor, and domestic violence.

Ming Li Yong, Fellow, EWC focuses on issues around transboundary water governance and hydropower development in the Mekong River Basin, particularly in relation to livelihoods, community-based natural resource management, civil society movements, institutional arrangements, and public participation.

Projects with Southeast Asia Partners

  1. Capital Transformation in the Mahakam Delta Region: Land-use, Climate Change, Mobility, and Financing Indonesia’s New Political Center (led by Dr. Micah Fisher)
    • Dr. Dwi Laraswati, Research Assistant, Sebijak Institute, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia
    • Dr. Ahmad Maryudi, Professor, Sebijak Institute, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia
    • Dr. Rodd Myers, Senior Research Associate, Dala Institute, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia
    • Mr. Peng Ren, Manager of Overseas Investment, Trade and the Environment Program,  Global Environmental Institute, China
  2. Heterogeneous impacts of climate shocks on time use in the Chao Phraya Delta from Bangkok to Suphan Buri, Thailand (led by Dr. Phanwin Yokying)
    • Dr. Bui Thi Minh Tam, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Economics, Srinakharinwirot University, Thailand
    • Dr. Arunee Promkhambut, Lecturer, Systems Approaches in Agricultural Development, Khon Kaen University, Thailand
  3. The Political Ecology of Mobility and Vulnerability from Burma to Bangkok (led by Dr. Kevin Woods)
    • Dr. Carl Middleton, Director of the Center for Social Development, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand
    • Dr. Bhanubhatra Jittang, Director, Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy Program in International Development Studies (MAIDS-GRID) (International Program), Chulalongkorn University, Thailand
  4. Between Vulnerability and Resilience: Hydrosocial and Agrarian Transitions in the Mekong Delta from An Giang Province, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia (led by Dr. Ming Li Yong)
    • Dr. Keo Piseth, Vice President and Director of Center for Sustainable Development Studies, Asian Vision Institute, Cambodia
    • Dr. Sok Serey, Deputy Director of Centre for Culture and Peace Studies, Asian Vision Institute, Cambodia
    • Dr. Thong Anh Tran, Researcher, Research Centre for Rural Development, An Giang University, Vietnam
  5. Turning the Tide on Plastic Waste in Asian Deltas (Led by Dr. Jennifer Turner)
    • Tiza Mafira, Director Indonesian Plastic Bag Diet, Jakarta, Indonesia
    • Xuan Quatch, Director Vietnam Zero Waste Alliance, Vietnam & Senior Associate Pacific Environment
    • Dr. Karen M. Mancl, Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering, The Ohio State University


See all current East-West Center Research Projects.