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Southeast Asia’s growing environmental stranglehold*

Updated On: Aug 04, 2006

Southeast Asia is appearing to be in worrisome predicament according to recent environmental reports.

Hydropower ambitions from the north and persistent institutional incapacity in dealing with transboundary haze pollution in the south are having a stranglehold on the region.

To fuel economic growth, energy-hungry Mekong River states such as ChinaThailandMyanmar and Laos have dominated the headlines recently with a controversial trade-off between multi-billion dollar hydropower development projects and irreversible socio-ecological distress.

Cash-strapped Laos and Myanmar are eager to quench Thailand’s energy thirst. The damming of the Mekong tributary, Nam Theun, (dubbed the Nam Theun 2 dam), funded by both the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, will bring in an estimated $2 billion for the Laotian government.

Elsewhere, the Myanmese junta has forged a one-billion dollar with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and a six-billion-dollar deal with Thai energy firm MDX Group to develop the Salween River, the longest undammed river in Southeast Asia.

At what price are the damming projects forged? According to International Herald Tribune (June 26), the Nam Theun 2 may displace about 6,000 people on the Nakai Plateau, which will be partly flooded, and affect at least 100,000 more downstream. Environmentalists such as Greenpeace, have argued that damming will destroy the Salween River’s rich ecosystem of 7,000 species of plants and 80 rare or endangered animals and fish.

While sustainable development uncertainties pervade the downstream alliances, Chinese engineers are blasting away rocky rapids upstream to pave the way for eight hydroelectric dams – called the Lancang – along the Mekong in China. Even as China hails the benefits for both upstream and downstream inhabitants, the International Rivers Network has provided a more sombre account of forced displacement numbering 50,000 and livelihood disruption to millions in China,MyanmarLaos and Thailand.

The irony facing the fate of the Mekong River states is heightened further with a recent pact signed between four member countries – two of which are Laos andThailand – of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) on June 22. The pact requires the member states to forge greater cooperation towards maintaining acceptable monthly flows during the dry and wet seasons, and marks a watershed moment in the plan to fully implement the 1995 Mekong Agreement. Yet current hydropower ambitions by ChinaMyanmarLaos and Thailand will certainly reverse such a trend and may even incite conflict.

Further down south of the region, another battle is waged and has not been won since its inception some five months ago. The haze continues to blanket Sumatra and has affected Malaysia and Thailand as well, inducing health risks, disrupting inbound and outbound flights, and straining national economies. Thousands have been forced to don face masks and postpone air travel.

In the last few days, Indonesian local officials have detected more than 130 hot spots in Riau province, affecting some 3,000ha of land, including one protected forest. Jakarta Post (Aug 1) reported more dismal results last week of Sumatra island recording almost 2,000 hot spots, and another 1,000 in Kalimantan.

The ‘seasonal phenomena,’ brought on by slash-and-burn practices of logging and plantation companies to develop oil palm and rubber plantations, have persisted in spite of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s declaration of a “war against haze” on International Earth Day (April 22).

Efforts to bring logging and plantation companies to task have thus far been discouraging, especially if based on last year’s record, and even though the Riau provincial administration has made a move to seize land that has been cleared by burning to track the culprits.

The usual practice of governments trading blame may continue as well. Indonesian Forestry Minister M.S. Kaban has argued against the claim that Indonesia is the source of the haze pollution, as “Malaysia also has hot spots, so it would be unfair to put the blame solely on us.” However, a senior official for the ASEAN Secretariat's environmental unit has said that their satellite images demonstrate that “the wind carries the haze from Sumatra to the Malacca Strait.”

Southeast Asia’s current environmental stranglehold, if left unaddressed, may attain catastrophic dimensions that will destabilise the region’s economic, political and environmental security.

*This report follows from the July 21 SEAPSNet report titled “Vanishing skyline, vanishing forest and vanishing mangroves: Hazy days ahead for Southeast Asia’s environment”.

Sources:

Yudhoyono wants to declare war on haze (Jakarta Post, 24 April 2006)

Mekong region ministers sign pact to maintain river levels (Vietnam News Service, 23 June 2006)

A Massive Dam, Under Way in Laos, Generates Worries (New York Times/IHT, 26 June 2006)

Thai hunger for cheap energy throws lifeline to Myanmar (Myanmar Times, 2 July 2006)

Indonesia, Malaysia step up measures to contain spread of haze (Bloomberg, 26 July 2006)

Riau Governor Orders Efforts To End Forest Fires (Bernama, 29 July 2006)

China's hydropower projects slammed for impact on own, neighbours' environments (BBC News, 31 July 2006)

Three hot spots detected in Riau (Antara, 31 July 2006)

Riau administration seizes burned land (Jakarta Post, 1 August 2006)

Malaysia and Thailand hit by haze as Sumatra battles forest fires (Jakarta Post, 1 August 2006)