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Water futures trading: a solution to water scarcity challenges in ASEAN

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By Alex Hong

· 19 min read


Water is a valuable and important resource for both human life and the health of the ecological system. However, as the world's population grows and the economy develops, water shortage is turning into a serious problem. Due to its fast-expanding population, urbanisation, and effects of climate change, ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is a region that is particularly vulnerable to water scarcity. It is essential to look at cutting-edge ways to manage the water shortage in ASEAN as a specialist in water policy and sustainability. Trading in water futures is one approach.

Definition of water futures trading

Trading in water futures is a market-based approach to managing water scarcity. Using this financial tool, investors can purchase and sell water futures contracts, which are arrangements to buy or sell a specific amount of water at a given price and time in the future. The commodities market already makes extensive use of futures trading to control price risks and supply and demand imbalances. Water futures trading, which employs this technology, intends to encourage the effective use and distribution of water resources and to make investments in water infrastructure easier.

Importance of addressing water scarcity in ASEAN

Due to a variety of circumstances, water scarcity is a serious problem in ASEAN. First, urbanisation and population expansion have increased water consumption, straining already-scarce water supplies. Second, the issue has been made worse by droughts and unpredictable rainfall patterns brought on by climate change. Last but not least, improper water management techniques have resulted in pollution and a decline in water quality, further depleting the supply of freshwater.

The World Bank predicts that by 2025, half of the population of ASEAN would reside in water-stressed areas, which has a huge negative impact4. Food security, public health, and regional economic growth are all at risk due to water scarcity. Therefore, it is essential to look into creative alternatives to deal with the problem.

Significance of water futures trading in addressing water scarcity challenges in ASEAN

By encouraging water conservation and investment in water infrastructure, water futures trading has the potential to alleviate the concerns of water scarcity in ASEAN. Futures trading can promote more effective water resource allocation, lowering waste, and promoting conservation by letting market forces set the price of water. The development of new water infrastructure, such as desalination facilities and water recycling systems, can also be funded through the trade of water futures.

Water futures trading has already been adopted by a number of nations, including Australia, California, and Chile. For instance, Chile has used water futures trading to cut down on over-extraction and distribute water to higher-value industries like mining and agriculture.

Concerns exist, nevertheless, about the use of market-based approaches to managing water supplies. Critics contend that access to water is a fundamental human right and should not be viewed as a product that can be purchased and sold. There are also worries that futures trading may result in the privatisation of water resources and a rise in inequality.

A potential solution to the problem of water scarcity that ASEAN is currently confronting is the trade of water futures. While futures trading has advantages and disadvantages, it is essential to look into creative methods to ensure the sustainable management of water resources in ASEAN.

Growing water scarcity in ASEAN

Within the next 40 years, it is anticipated that the demand for water would double as ASEAN's population and industrial activity rise. Water security in the area faces considerable issues as a result of the region's expanding demand and climate change.

Causes of water scarcity in ASEAN

Water scarcity in ASEAN is caused by a number of factors. First, there is the problem of improper management and wasteful usage of water resources. There is a lot of water loss and waste in the region since many of the countries lack the necessary infrastructure for water storage, treatment, and distribution. In addition, the area's growing industry and urbanisation have worsened pollution and the condition of water supplies, rendering them unsafe for human consumption. Last but not least, the frequency and intensity of droughts and floods are increasing due to climate change, which is also affecting rainfall patterns in ASEAN.

Impact of climate change on water resources in ASEAN

The water resources in ASEAN are significantly impacted by climate change. Rivers, lakes, and groundwater sources in particular, which are the region's main supplies of freshwater, are being impacted by rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns. Due to this, there is an increasing amount of water scarcity in the area, and many villages are experiencing water stress or shortage. This is especially worrying for the agricultural industry, which uses a substantial amount of water in the area and is essential to guaranteeing food security in the area.

The development of ASEAN water futures could aid in defending the area from erratic weather patterns and climate change, such as El Nino and La Nina. Water futures could be a tool for managing water scarcity and reducing the effects of droughts and floods because climate change is producing more variability in rainfall patterns and catastrophic weather occurrences.

Stakeholders including governments, investors, and water consumers would have access to a predictable pricing mechanism that might aid in promoting water efficiency and conservation by establishing a water futures market. Investment in water infrastructure and conservation efforts would be encouraged by the market, which would ultimately improve the region's management of its water resources.

Examples of water scarcity in ASEAN

In ASEAN, there are several instances of water scarcity. For instance, water scarcity has become a serious issue in Indonesia, especially in metropolitan areas. The capital city of Jakarta is experiencing acute water shortages, and groundwater supplies are rapidly running out. Similar to this, droughts and water shortages are becoming more frequent in the Philippines, especially in the country's north. Due to droughts and excessive groundwater exploitation, several villages in Thailand are under water stress.

Given the issues posed by rising demand and climate change, water scarcity is a significant concern for ASEAN. Water shortage in the area is mostly caused by poor management and inefficient use of water resources, growing urbanisation and industrialization, and climate change. In order to address these issues and maintain sustainable water management in the area, policymakers and stakeholders must collaborate in order to fulfil the region's increasing water demand and guarantee long-term water security.

Water futures trading: challenges and opportunities for ASEAN governments

A new idea in water management, water futures trading involves buying and selling water rights and permits. Trading in water futures in the ASEAN region offers governments trying to ensure the region's water future both difficulties and opportunities. This part examines the development of ASEAN water futures trading policies, the role of the government in supporting water futures trading, and the difficulties in putting ASEAN water futures trading into practice.

Policy building for water futures trading in ASEAN

The development of water markets needs to be supported by policymakers in order to encourage the trading of water futures in ASEAN. This includes creating organisations to govern water markets, setting up legal frameworks to control water trading, and building out the necessary infrastructure to measure and monitor water use.

The Public Utilities Board of Singapore's Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme, which was established in 2006, is one instance of successful policy development for water futures trading in the area. Through the construction of rain gardens, bio-retention systems, and other types of green infrastructure, this programme seeks to improve Singapore's rivers and establish new water sources. As firms can gain credits by contributing to the programme and trade them with others who must adhere to regulatory restrictions, it has opened up the potential for trading in water futures.

The role of governments in promoting water futures trading

Governments play a critical role in advancing the trade of water futures in ASEAN. They must create regulations that encourage the growth of water markets, such as by offering financial incentives to companies who participate and spend money on water-saving equipment. In order to guarantee the sustainability and equality of water use, governments can also play a role in regulating water trading and enforcing regulations.

One of Thailand's most significant water systems is the Chao Phraya River Basin, which provides water for urban water supply, industrial production, and agriculture. However, the region is experiencing a growing water shortage, which is causing disputes between various consumers of scarce water supplies. A crucial first step in developing a market for water futures, the Thai government has developed a pilot project for selling water licences to address this issue.

The pilot project aims to boost water availability for all users, decrease waste, and encourage water efficiency. The project encourages farmers, industry, and other users to use water more effectively, eliminate waste, and distribute water to its highest value applications by creating a market for water rights and licences. For instance, a farmer who doesn't use all of the water he is allotted may trade the extra water to other users who might need it more, improving water use's overall efficiency.

The government's dedication to sustainable water management is further strengthened by the creation of a national water resources committee. The committee is in charge of monitoring the nation's water management and making sure that water resources are used appropriately. The committee contributes to the development of trust among various stakeholders, which improves the coordination and management of the region's water resources. It does this by encouraging transparency and accountability in water management practices.

Challenges in implementing water futures trading in ASEAN

Trading in water futures may provide certain advantages, but there are a number of issues that need to be resolved as well. The lack of trustworthy data on water availability and consumption is a major issue since it makes it impossible to implement precise pricing and trading mechanisms. To guarantee that water trading is founded on credible data, organisations and governments must invest in the creation of reliable data systems and monitoring technologies.

To avoid speculation, price manipulation, and the concentration of water rights in the hands of a small number of powerful parties, there is also the difficulty of effective regulation and control of the water markets. Governments must construct institutions that can monitor and enforce clear regulations and norms for the trading of water.

For ASEAN nations seeking to safeguard the future of the region's water resources, water futures trading poses both difficulties and opportunities. Policymakers need to foster the growth of water markets in order to encourage the trading of water futures. By creating laws that support the growth of water markets, regulating water trading, and enforcing standards to guarantee the sustainability and equity of water usage, governments must play a critical role in encouraging water futures trading. Despite the difficulties in putting water futures trading into practice, it presents a positive way to deal with the developing water shortage and guarantee a stable water future for the ASEAN region.

Water futures trading: challenges and opportunities for ASEAN businesses

It is anticipated that the demand for water in ASEAN nations would rise dramatically as they continue to expand. Water shortage will become a more pressing problem for the region as a result of climate change, which is predicted to further exacerbate the strains being placed on water resources. Water futures trading has come to light as a potential remedy in light of these difficulties in managing water resources and ensuring future water supply.

Opportunities for businesses in water futures trading

Businesses in ASEAN have the chance to protect themselves from risks associated with water scarcity and assure their future water supply by engaging in water futures trading. Businesses can lock in the price of water for usage in the future by investing in water futures contracts, so eliminating the risks related to water price volatility and shortage. Businesses can also boost the growth of water markets by investing in water futures, which can enable more effective water allocation and promote water conservation and reuse.

Challenges in investing in water futures trading

Despite the potential advantages of trading water futures, there are also considerable obstacles that must be overcome before organisations can make an investment in water futures. The inability of businesses to effectively assess the risks and rewards of investing in water futures is one of the main issues, as is the absence of standardised water futures contracts and pricing procedures. Furthermore, the absence of trustworthy water data in many ASEAN nations makes it challenging to predict water supply and demand with any degree of accuracy, which makes trading in water futures even more challenging.

The role of businesses in promoting water futures trading

In spite of the difficulties, businesses can support the growth of standardised water futures contracts and pricing mechanisms by investing in water futures themselves as well as lobbying for their development. Businesses can also support more effective water allocation and conservation by implementing sustainable water management practices in their operations, like lowering water usage and putting in place water recycling and reuse technologies. Businesses may contribute to ensuring that the future of water in ASEAN countries is secure and sustainable by actively supporting water futures trading and sustainable water management.

For ASEAN firms, trading in water futures offers both benefits and challenges. Businesses can play a crucial role in fostering the development of water markets and sustainable water management practices, which can help to secure a sustainable water future for ASEAN countries. Meanwhile, the lack of standardised contracts and pricing mechanisms, as well as the lack of trustworthy water data, may hinder investment in water futures.

Water futures trading: cooperation and existential issues in ASEAN

Water scarcity has become a major issue for many countries in recent years, and the ASEAN countries are no exception. The issue of water scarcity requires a collective approach because it could have a negative impact on society and the environment. The significance of collaboration amongst ASEAN nations in the trading of water futures is examined in this article along with the effects of water shortage on the environment and society as well as the ethical ramifications of trading water futures.

Importance of cooperation among ASEAN countries in water futures trading

The viability of water futures trading as a viable solution to the water shortage in ASEAN nations rests on the willingness of the participating nations to work together. An illustration of how nations can work together to guarantee their water supply is the diversification of Singapore's water supplies through the Four National Taps, which include local catchment water, imported water, NEWater, and desalinated water. 

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation, were established by the United Nations in 2015. It was reported that 74% of the world's population had access to properly managed drinking water services in 2020, up from 70% in 2015. Even in 2020, two billion people will lack access to securely managed drinking water services, with 1.2 billion of those lacking even the most basic level of service. This shows that there is still much work to be done to guarantee everyone has access to clean water by 2030. 

Agricultural, industrial, and other industries may be severely impacted by water scarcity, which could result in civil unrest, loss of income, and food and energy instability. When the demand for safe, useable water in a specific area exceeds the availability, water stress or shortage results. Agriculture uses the great bulk of the freshwater on the planet—roughly 70%. Countries may feel pressured to take water from their shared rivers when the need for water rises, resulting in friction and conflict. Countries need to work together to come up with a profitable trading plan for water futures in order to prevent this.

Impact of water scarcity on the environment and society

Beyond businesses, the environment and society are also impacted by water scarcity. Water security is significantly hampered by climate change, which exacerbates water scarcity. The supply of freshwater may decrease due to saltwater intrusion caused by the rise in sea levels. Land subsidence and sinkholes, which have an impact on the environment and populated areas, can also be caused by a lack of water.

Marginalised populations, which may not have access to clean drinking water and sanitary facilities, are disproportionately impacted by water scarcity. Water-borne illnesses and other health issues can result from a lack of access to clean drinking water, aggravating poverty and inequality. Conflict, migration, and relocation can all be consequences of a lack of water.

Ethical implications of water futures trading

The privatisation of water, access to water, and the effects of water shortages on disadvantaged groups are only a few of the ethical issues raised by water futures trading. Water is a fundamental human right and a basic human need, and its commodification could leave vulnerable groups without access to it. The privatisation of water supplies might result in the overuse of natural resources and the deterioration of the environment.

Furthermore, trading in water futures could result in the overuse of groundwater, the depletion of natural resources, and damage to the environment. Communities that depend on these resources for survival may also see a change in their way of life as a result of this.

The ASEAN region faces a serious problem with water scarcity, and trading water futures offers a potential solution. But its success hinges on nations' willingness to work together and come up with a profitable trading plan for water. Marginalised groups are disproportionately affected by water scarcity, which has serious effects on the environment and society. As a result, trading in water futures must be done carefully and with respect to any ethical issues that may arise.

Water future trading: possible developments

Trading in water futures can be a useful instrument for maintaining water security for ASEAN nations, as was stated in the previous section. We will look at a few potential advancements in this part that might help with the adoption of trading on water futures.

The need for an ASEAN water distribution network

To enable effective water allocation and management throughout the region, an ASEAN water distribution network is essential. According to the ASEAN Secretariat, some of the major obstacles ASEAN faces in managing its water resources include a lack of infrastructure and the absence of a coordinated water management system. The creation of a network connecting the principal rivers and bodies of water among ASEAN nations can facilitate efficient water allocation and management throughout the region.

The North American Water and Power Alliance is a good illustration of such a network. It was suggested in the 1960s to carry water from the water-rich north-western US to the drier southwestern states. This idea might be applied to the ASEAN region, where countries with abundant water supplies, like Malaysia and Indonesia, could share their supplies with nations with scarce water supplies, like Vietnam and Thailand.

The possibility of the creation of a supranational institution for water trading

The establishment of a supranational water trading institution like the Emission Trading System (ETS) of the European Union is another potential development. The management of water trading and allocation among ASEAN nations will fall under the purview of this organisation. It might serve as a platform for the exchange of water and offer significant assistance in the coordination of policies and rules for water management. Additionally, this organisation might aid in ensuring that ASEAN nations receive an equitable share of the advantages of water trading. The creation of such a facility might completely alter the region's water security situation.

Integration of Water Quality Credit for pollution protection of water bodies

Integration of Water Quality Credit (WQC) can be another beneficial development for the defence of water bodies against pollution. WQC is a method of encouraging the protection of water quality that is based on the market. By enabling the exchange of water pollution credits between polluters and non-polluters, it creates a financial incentive to cut back on pollution. This strategy can be included in the trade of water futures and can encourage sustainable methods of water management, improving the standard of available water supplies.

Pilot projects in ASEAN

The implementation and efficacy of trading in water futures can be better understood via the lens of pilot initiatives in ASEAN. Pilot projects can assist in identifying the difficulties and possibilities associated with water trade in the area. They can also offer useful information for developing efficient water management plans and rules. The Mekong River Commission's Basin Development Plan (since 1995) and the ASEAN Integrated Water Resource Management Project (IWRM – established framework in 2009) are two examples of the many pilot projects that are already in progress in the area. The creation of regional water trading systems can be informed by these projects and assisted in identifying opportunities and obstacles.

The introduction of water futures trading in ASEAN has the potential to be extremely important in maintaining water security in the area. The ASEAN nations must cooperate and coordinate their efforts in managing their water resources if they are to achieve this. In the area, effective and sustainable water management strategies may be facilitated by the creation of an ASEAN water distribution network, a supranational agency for water trade, the incorporation of WQC for pollution prevention, and pilot projects.


With population increase, urbanisation, and climate change aggravating the problems already faced by the region, water shortage is a significant concern in ASEAN. By encouraging sustainable water use, enhancing water infrastructure, and fostering the development of new technologies, water futures trading is one potential option that could help address these issues.

The potential of water futures trading in addressing water scarcity challenges in ASEAN

There are several potential advantages to implementing water futures trading in ASEAN, even if there are undoubtedly some difficulties, such as the requirement for a well-functioning water market and regulatory environment. Futures trading can promote investment in water infrastructure and technology, resulting in better water access and quality, by creating a transparent and trustworthy market for water. Futures trading can also enhance water resource conservation by promoting water-efficient agricultural and industrial practices.

The need for government and business collaboration in promoting water futures trading

Governments and businesses must collaborate to encourage water futures trading in ASEAN in order to reap these benefits. To guarantee that all players have the information and abilities required to participate effectively in the market, this will require a commitment to transparency, collaboration, and long-term planning, as well as investment in education and capacity-building programmes.

Water security for everyone, both now and in the future, should be the ultimate goal of ASEAN's water futures trading. We can contribute to the development of a more prosperous and resilient future for the area and a better world for future generations by tackling the problems associated with water scarcity and encouraging sustainable water use.

Call to action - towards water security in ASEAN

It is evident that water scarcity is a serious problem in ASEAN, with far-reaching effects on social stability, economic growth, and environmental sustainability. Governments, corporations, and civil society must collaborate in order to advance water futures trading, enhance water infrastructure and governance, and assist the creation of innovative technologies and methods for managing water.

By implementing water-efficient practices in our homes and workplaces, encouraging conservation efforts, and lobbying for laws and financial investments that place a high priority on sustainable water usage, every one of us individually can contribute to the promotion of water security in ASEAN. Together, we can make sure that upcoming generations have access to the water resources they require to live healthy, prosperous lives.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Hong is a Director at AEIR (Singapore), part of Sync Neural Genesis AG, spearheading innovations in wireless energy. He serves as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia for the Global Blockchain Business Council and chairs blockchain initiatives at the Global Sustainability Foundation Network. Appointed as LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) since 2022, Alex is a leading ESG thought leader. Additionally, he is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator at YNBC, advisory board member for the Green Computing Foundation and the European Carbon Offset Tokenization Association (ECOTA) Expert.


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