Wed, Dec 24, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Asia's economic development comes at a cost

Six of the world's 15 most polluted cities are in Asia and the region generates a third of the world's carbon dioxide emissions

REUTERS , Singapore

Security guards stand in front of Malaysia's landmark Putra Mosque, shrouded in smog in Putrajaya.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Every two years, Indonesia loses about four million hectares of forest, an area roughly the size of Switzerland, to rapacious logging.

Skies in northern China glow orange in sandstorms that cross the Pacific and lay dust on the western US. In Hong Kong, raw sewage bobs in its pearl-blue harbor.

From inner Mongolia to the Indian subcontinent and tropical Southeast Asia, says one senior UN environmental official, the region's ecology and environment is deteriorating as its factories and economies boom.

Although governments are rolling out unprecedented initiatives to tackle Asian pollution -- underscored by a meeting of Southeast Asian environment ministers in mid-December in Myanmar -- the policies are often badly enforced, the official adds.

"Things could get worse before they get better," said Ravi Sawhney, director of the environment and sustainable development division of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for the Asia-Pacific, or UNESCAP.

Sawhney is studying Asia's environment for the UN "State of the Environment Report" released every five years. Although the next report is not due until next year, Sawhney said indications point to a broad-based worsening in environmental conditions.

"There are policy initiatives that have been taken and laws enacted and so on. But the problem is the actual implementation," he said.

As if to highlight what he says, landslips and mudslides as recently as November and mid-December in corners of Indonesia and the Philippines plagued by illegal logging swept away or buried alive whole families.

WINDS OF CHANGE

Six of the world's 15 most polluted cities are in Asia, and the region generates a third of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. In Asia's developing regions, around 785 million people lack regular access to safe water, UN statistics show.

Even so, there are pockets of improvement.

The air quality in notoriously polluted Bangkok, Dhaka, New Delhi and several Chinese cities is healthier after most of Asia, except for Indonesia, phased out lead from gasoline, said Cornie Huizenga of the Asian Development Bank's Clean Air Initiative.

Bangladesh, which is spending US$30 million over two years to bring natural gas to 100 petrol stations, is replacing high-polluting two-stroke engines in its rickshaw taxis in the capital Dhaka with cleaner-burning natural gas power.

"It's an unequal picture. There are cities where the situation is getting better," said Huizenga, adding that a growing number of cities have put up air monitoring systems.

Thailand's "tuk tuk" taxis now run on liquefied petroleum gas, while buses and taxis in New Delhi and Bombay are phasing out diesel and running instead on compressed natural gas. "This is very much the story of the future," he said.

Huizenga and other environmental experts helped the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) draw up an anti-pollution plan as rising wealth brings demands for better urban conditions after decades of squalor in some countries.

Southeast Asian Environment Ministers meeting in Myanmar approved a non-binding "framework" which calls on ASEAN to develop stronger urban anti-polluting strategies beginning with a series of workshops next year.

"Due to rapid growth, you're getting overlapping problems -- water, air, land -- on top of each other, making a very complex situation," said Peter Marcotullio, a researcher in the Institute of Advanced Studies at the United Nations University in Tokyo.

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