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Paying heed to Asia’s environmental woes

Updated On: Mar 09, 2007

Asia’s environmental woes are far more in the open now that the region’s appreciation of the extent of the problems and impact are stronger.   

A recent study by US climatologists revealed that changing atmospheric conditions over the north Pacific can be attributed to increasing levels of environmental pollution in Asia, especially with the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation in parts of China and India.

At the annual session of China's Parliament, Premier Wen Jiabao appealed for more efforts to balance China's roaring economy with protecting the environment and bridging the widening gap between rich and poor.

"We should ... avoid seeking only faster growth and competing for faster growth," Mr Wen said, setting the tone for the 12-day session of the National People's Congress. He said more should be done to protect the environment, after China missed its targets to improve energy efficiency and cut pollution emissions last year.

Elsewhere, Indonesia met with criticism by its local NGO, Walhi, whose Executive Director, Chalid Muhammad, said the country is facing an "ecological disaster" because its lacks the political will to stop companies from exploiting its national resources.

According to Chalid, vast amounts of forest land have been converted to palm oil plantations while coastal erosion is occurring in more than 60 locations throughout the country. Currently, only six per cent of the country's total of 60,000 square kilometres of coral reef remains in good condition. Most of the rivers in places like Java, KalimantanSulawesi and Nusa Tenggara are in very critical condition, with a high level of pollution and decreasing volume of water because of the exploitation of water catchment areas.

Mr Chalid believes the current policy, where firms exploit rather than conserve natural resources, has contributed to the damage. Government officials also seem to be lacking in environmental awareness.

A case in point is the country’s battle against the mudflow and haze pollution. In order to repair damaged public infrastructure and compensate those affected by the mudflow, the government has to fork out a total of 7.6 trillion rupiah (approximately US$844 million). Currently, PT Lapindo Brantas has only given around 3.5 trillion rupiah, leaving a compensation gap that has yet to be filled.

Elsewhere, a court in Indonesia has allowed a lawsuit to be taken up against the president and other officials for human rights violations over the slow response to resolving the mud flow problem. Taufik Basari, a lawyer for the Indonesian Consumer Protection Foundation, which is behind the move, said, "this is a welcome ruling. It sets a new precedent that the legal standing of suits filed by organisations or groups ... can now also cover human rights violations.”

At the regional level, the ASEAN member states have endorsed Indonesia’s action plan to fight haze during its environmental ministerial meeting in Brunei Darussalam last week. According to Deputy Minister for Natural Resource Conservation and Environmental Control, Masnellyarti Hilman, each ASEAN country would draft its own proposal – using Indonesia's action plan as an example – that would be absorbed into a regional action plan.

Masnellyarti added that several ASEAN members had individually chosen a province in Indonesia to work in and help the province directly in addressing the problem of haze.  "For instance, Singapore has already committed itself to help fighting haze in Jambi. It could be in the form of financial aid, equipment or technical assistance. Malaysia has said that it would help [especially in Riau province] after learning from Singapore's experience," she said.

Malaysia’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister Azmi Khalid also said that Malaysia and Singapore are advising Indonesian farmers on alternatives to burning trees to clear land. 'Finally, all the talking has ended and the real work is being carried out,' he added.

Sources:

Indonesia 'mud volcano' suit alleges human rights violated (Channel News Asia, 5 March 2007)

Indonesia on the edge of an ecological disaster, says Walhi (Jakarta Post, 5 March 2007)

ASEAN agrees to Indonesian haze action plan (Jakarta Post, 5 March 2007)

KL minister says work to reduce haze has begun (AFP/The Straits Times, 5 March 2007)

'Hands-on' plan to fight Asean haze (The Star, 5 March 2007)

'Indonesia facing ecological disaster' (TODAY, 6 March 2007)

Race for riches may lead to chaos (TODAY, 6 March 2007)

Mudflow could cost govt Rp 7.6t (Jakarta Post, 6 March 2007)

Asian pollution linked to Pacific storm system: Study (AFP/The Straits Times, 6 March 2007)