A review led by the University of Adelaide into the impact of urban megaprojects on water justice in South East Asia has revealed that urban megaprojects are having a negative impact on local water systems and deprive local communities of water-related human rights.

The research, conducted by Dr Scott Hawken from the university’s School of Architecture and Built Environment, found that the funders and sponsors of megaprojects have little accountability for the impact of these projects on local water systems.

The study focussed on the Phu My Hung project in Vietnam, the Amarapura project in Myanmar and Boeung Kak Lake in Cambodia, and is the result of Dr Hawken’s engagement with recent calls from the United Nations for greater accountability in megaprojects globally.

Hawken says the effects of these megaprojects are extremely impactful on the environment.

“Urban megaprojects have severe implications for environmental processes,” he says.

“They have a major impact on hydrological systems and during all phases of development affect water security and human rights.

“As well as interrupting urban water flows and waste removal, they cause biodiversity degradation and loss of arable landscapes, and increase pollution and change the flood regimes of rivers.”

Urban megaprojects account for between three and fourteen percent of GDP invested in South East Asia, and eight percent globally. Urban regeneration schemes, transport and energy infrastructure, industrial corridors, city clusters, new towns, innovation districts, science and technology parks and sports infrastructure all fall within the urban megaproject category.

Hawken says the selected projects were chosen due to their geographical location.

“The projects we looked at are typical of most major cities in Southeast Asia in that they are located near coasts or major rivers which exposes people who live there to extreme weather events such as floods and erosion,” he says.

“At every stage of these projects there needs to be a more systematic approach to sustainability especially when assessing their impact on water security. The community needs to be more involved and funders and sponsors need to be more accountable for the impact.

“Wealthier residents tend to benefit from these urban enclaves while they dramatically displace and disrupt existing economics and social relations. Poor socio-economic urban residents are disproportionately adversely affected.”

Megaprojects are often publicly positioned as economic benefactors for cities with governments and developers framing them as delivering wealth and new technologies to urban regions, without making the public aware of the environmental pitfalls.

“Considering the prominence of this development model, it is unacceptable that there is so little information or recourse when these projects do not deliver on their promises,” he says.

“Existing urban issues are rarely solved by these projects so a new approach is needed to better engage with communities and their socio-ecological relationships with natural water systems. Considering where they are built such projects also expose cities to future climate related disasters such as sea-level rise and flooding.

“Our findings and recommendations are relevant to cities around the world which are in semi-aquatic, delta environments and sensitive water catchment areas.

“Developers need to be accountable for such projects now and into the future.”

The review has been published in the journal Cities. To view the review, click here.