Asia's environmental woes take a hard hit

Updated On: Mar 16, 2007

The word is out: Asian countries will take the hardest hit as global warming continues.

A leaked copy of the second international report on the impact of climate change has reported that massive water shortages and floods from rising temperatures and sea levels will plague Asia. By 2050 for example, the report predicted that more than one billion people in Asia could face water shortages. Thirty years after that, hundreds of millions of people could face starvation, as tropical diseases such as malaria, spread.

To make matters worse, several startling environmental reports have recently emerged in various parts of Asia, all centering around river pollution. Thailand's Chao Phraya River has witnessed the sudden deaths of hundreds of thousands of fish, as a possible result of a sunken ship leaking 650 tonnes of raw sugar, or waste from a nearby monosodium glutamate factory. Authorities are now scrambling to flush the contaminant out to sea.

A similar case can be seen in China's waterways, especially the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. The country's 21,000 chemical plants are turning the rivers `cancerous,' as the Yangtze absorbs more than 40 per cent of China's waste water (80 per cent of it untreated), and 60 per cent of the Yellow River is undrinkable.  The amount of waste being dumped into it is rising by 88 million tonnes a year. Such a situation has serious implications for the booming city populations along the river's banks, especially amid predictions that the mainland will use up to 89 per cent - if not all - of its available water resources by 2030.

According to Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, 'China has made a lot of effort, both top-down and bottom-up. 'The government and non-governmental organisations have tried very hard, but the trend is very hard to change overnight.'

Elsewhere, India's infamously polluted Ganges has reached its ultimate threshold when the sadhus, or Hindu holy men, refused to lead the ritual at the recent Ardh Kumbh religious fair in January, and have rallied to file a court case against the state government of Uttar Pradesh for not keeping the Ganges clean.

According to Shankaracharya Vasudvanand Saraswati, who heads the main Hindu monastery in Allahabad, 'the water is so dirty no one can take a dip. It is dark red whereas the Ganga used to be bluish- green.' According to the latest report of India's Central Pollution Control Board, more than half of the 8,250 million litres of sewage generated every day in the Ganga basin ends up entering the river untreated.

Besides river pollution, Southeast Asia's problem with haze pollution has attained new proportions with thick smoke from forest fires blanketing parts of northern Thailand.

According to an official from the Thai Forest Fire Control Division, about half the smoke affecting the region was probably from Myanmar - making the problem harder for Thailand to control. 'Some of the smoke is from forest fires, and some from farmers burning their fields to clear them,' he said. 'The wind changes direction almost every day, so we can't tell when it will stop bringing smoke across the border.' Thailand's pollution control department on March 12 said the haze level was at 274, close to the 'dangerous' air quality level of 300, and well above both the 'normal' level of less than 50 and the 'acceptable' level of up to 100.

Similar gloom has been cast over the progress of transboundary haze prevention talks in Indonesia, as the parliamentary approval process for ratifying the ASEAN haze agreement resumed after a three-month break. During the meeting, Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar reportedly urged the special committee of legislators to give its approval to the pact.

According to the Jakarta Post, Minister Witoelar said, 'ratifying the agreement will have a more positive impact on Indonesia because trans-boundary haze pollution has affected not only locals and the domestic economy, but also foreign countries. It will also help preserve the environment…Otherwise, the government will remain the subject of blame, not only by foreign countries, but also by locals affected by the annual haze pollution.'

But Minister Witoelar's remarks met with criticism at the meeting as several legislators from the commission for defence and foreign affairs signalled that the approval might not go smoothly. According to the Jakarta Post, they 'condemned the agreement, which they said placed all responsibility for the haze on Indonesia', and wanted Jakarta to 'ratify the agreement with reservations'.

Additionally, Dr Sonny Keraf, the deputy chairman of the commission for the environment, told The Straits Times on March 12 that he was not confident the ratification would be completed in time for the haze-producing dry season, which kicks in around July. He noted that the Indonesian Parliament would be due for a month-long recess beginning March 31, adding that the different commissions would need time to hold their own discussions.

Indicating the current state of politicking over the use of resources in the region, Dr Sonny added: 'It is not that we do not want to ratify the pact, as we value it as a symbol of Asean solidarity in handling environmental issues. 'But we would like to see this solidarity extended to addressing other regional environmental issues which affect Indonesia, such as the impact of the past sale of sand to Singapore or Malaysian businessmen profiting from timber logged illegally in Indonesia.'

Unless the affected states can come together to openly discuss their concerns about the use of resources with the aim of resolving them in the spirit of environmental cooperation, the existing problems may worsen, and even generate new ones.  (15 March 2007)


Asians among hardest hit by global warming: Panel (AP/The Straits Times, 12 March 2007)

How climate change will hit our daily lives (The Straits Times, 12 March 2007)

Worst haze in 14 years blankets north Thailand (The Straits Times, 12 March 2007)

Thais investigate mass fish deaths in river farms (Reuters/The Straits Times, 14 March 2007)

THE YANGTZE: Untreated waste choking China's longest waterway (The Straits Times, 14 March 2007)

THE GANGES: India's holy river now a health hazard (The Straits Times, 14 March 2007)

Jakarta making slow progress on haze pact (The Straits Times, 14 March 2007)