The Asian Voice

China needs 'sponge' cities and smoke-free zones, cracks in India's BJP

Commentaries and insights from newspapers from the Asia News Network (ANN).

1. Creating 'sponge' cities in China
Finding solutions to water problems within a city gains importance  

By Qiu Baoxing
China Daily/ANN 

Students walk on a makeshift bridge as they enter their dormitory building which is partially submerged by floodwater after heavy rainfall hit Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China, June 28, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Water as a resource is irreplaceable. 

Yet heavy rainfall can become a disaster even in modern cities if rainwater is not drained out in time.

This was recently evident in Shanghai, Nanjing and some other cities, especially in southern China, where streets looked more like the canals of Venice.

The idea of a "sponge city", which emerged in the West and is gradually gaining popularity in China, will hopefully solve this problem.

Following the philosophy of "solving a city's problems with its own resources", it aims at storing rainwater, especially during heavy rainfall, to prevent floods and release it for the benefit of residents during dry  times. This will also ease a city's water shortage.

The water distributive system has three main parts. First, it encourages the cultivation of "wetlands" and "meadows" in urban gardens, which will help collect water in pools, enable trees and plants to hold water, and replenish the underground water table.

In case of water shortage, the water in the pools can be used directly, while more plants mean higher humidity and evaporation which will eventually lead to higher precipitation levels.

Second, buildings can collect rainwater, recycle it and save it in tanks or underground reservoirs.

Data show that if all the prominent buildings in a city install a system to recycle and save rainfall, the rate of water flowing to the ground during heavy rainfall and thunderstorms could drop by 80 percent.

And third, a sponge community will combine pools, urban "meadows" and "wetlands", and sponge buildings within one whole system.

This is a particularly beneficial idea for China which has a tradition of living with nature - gardens are considered an indispensable part of traditional Chinese architecture. 

Pools, open green spaces and trees are key elements of traditional Chinese compounds, all of which help save water.

Sponge cities save water and, therefore, are more environmentally friendly. Some cities in foreign countries have not only adopted the idea of sponge gardens, but also built sponge squares.

Unlike metaled squares that prevent water from replenishing the underground water table, these sponge squares have plants and well-designed pipelines that help store large volumes of water under the Earth's surface. Chinese cities too can benefit by changing its metaled or tile-bedded squares to sponge squares.

Sponge cities will also reduce pollution.

Studies show that rainwater flow in the first 30 minutes is exceptionally muddy because it carries the dust from buildings and roads. The mud, considered a waste by humans, is good nutrition for plants and meadows.

Trees, plants and grass filter absorb the mud and thus filter the water that flows to the underground water table. And good rainfall helps cities save piped water that they use to clean the streets.

In more ways than one a sponge city will be a smart city. Urban management officials can install devices across a city to collect real data on rainfall, ground and underground flow of water, and amount of pollutants, which they can use to deal with emergencies.

A sponge city follows the philosophy of innovation: that a city can solve water problems instead of creating them. In the long run, sponge cities will reduce carbon emission cities and help fight climate change. The idea of green cities will rule in the future and sponge cities will be part of it.

The author is counselor of the State Council and former vice-minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. This is an excerpt from a speech he delivered at the recent International Low Carbon City forum in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.

2. Hope for cleaner air in Beijing with new law 
Beijing's new smoking law, implemented on June 1, is off to a great start    

By Bernhard Schwartlander 
China Daily/ANN 

A staff from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Monitoring Center works at its monitoring room of the air quality forecast and warning center in Beijing, China, May 21, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

June was a great month in Beijing. The weather was warm, the flowers in full bloom, and there were plenty of crystal clear days outside - with blue sky and lovely white clouds. I've loved being out and about, just soaking it all up. And all the more so since indoor public places across the city - including restaurants, cafes, bars, and hotels - are now smoke-free.

On June 1, Beijing's new smoking control law came into effect. The Beijing law is the toughest tobacco control law in China to date. Smoking is prohibited in all indoor public places, and many outdoor public places such as kindergartens and schools. There are tough penalties for owners and managers of establishments who don't comply.

The Beijing government's work to enforce the law is off to a great start. The health inspectors have been out and about in force, supported by thousands of community volunteers. If you break the law, you will pay a fine - dozens of businesses have been issued fines in the last couple of weeks alone. 

Beijing's residents are actively engaging in the enforcement effort too: several thousand complaints have been made to the 12320 hotline.

Alongside the official enforcement effort, I've been especially pleased to see various venues supporting implementation of the law: like the local bar near my house which used to allow smoking, where I saw the fuwuyuan (waitress) firmly explaining to her patrons that smoking indoors is no longer allowed. Or the big, buzzing Chinese restaurant I took some visiting colleagues, where, when the staff discovered we were from the World Health Organization, told us how pleased they were not to have to breathe their customers' second-hand smoke anymore.

It's also been great to see Beijing Capital International Airport join the leading modern airports in the world, like London Heathrow and Los Angeles International, by making indoor smoking rooms a thing of the past.

I think even those who doubted whether the law could or would be effectively enforced would have to admit to being pleasantly surprised.

Of course, there will continue to be naysayers - those who say that it will never work, or never last. This happens all over the world. But with a tough law, accompanied by continued strong enforcement, there is no reason to think that Beijing will be any different to other great cities in the world like New York, London, and Sydney - where "smoke-free" is now the unquestioned norm.

I'm confident of this, because we know that there is strong public support in Beijing for public places being smoke-free. And the international experience suggests that public support will increase over time, even among smokers themselves, as the public comes to realize the benefits of the law.

And with good reason: the benefits of smoke-free laws are substantial. Exposure to second-hand smoke is deadly. 

There is no safe level of exposure. Most people don't realize that second-hand smoke causes dangerously high levels of indoor air pollution. The PM2.5 reading when just three people are smoking in a restaurant is likely to be around 600; five smokers, and the reading is likely to top 1,200 - far worse than the outdoor air pollution on even a heavily polluted day.

The war against outdoor air pollution is a complex, long-term task. Fixing indoor air pollution caused by second-hand smoke can happen overnight by making public places 100 percent smoke-free. 

Beijing has now taken its place alongside other great cities around the world in doing this - and the residents of Beijing are now breathing easier for that.

The author is World Health Organization representative in China.

3. Early signs of differences within ruling party in support for Modi? 
The PM is being compared to his predecessor given his propensity to remain silent 

Seema Mustafa
The Statesman/ANN

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while addressing the gathering during the launch of "Digital India Week" in New Delhi, India, July 1, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

There are so many wheels within wheels in both the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) that it becomes difficult to make an exact political assessment at times. 

Suddenly what appeared to be a well oiled machinery, in which the government, the party, and the mentor were working closely together seems to have vanished and in its place is a machine with nuts and bolts falling off, the hinges creaking, and the first signs of rust visible at the edges.

What has happened? How is it that in just over a year what was seen as a strong, solid, cohesive, decisive dispensation at the centre is now appearing as the exact opposite, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi even being compared to his silent and indecisive predecessor Manmohan Singh? 

In the former's book - judging from his campaign and comments since - there could not be a worse comparison. And even so he is doing little to get out of the wall of silence he has imposed around himself and speak out on the big corruption scandal that has hit his government, and seems set to snowball with unending ramifications.

Well it is for the PM to decide what to do and when, or whether to do anything at all. But the current controversy in which the former IPL commissioner Lalit Modi is bang in the centre, seems to be exposing fissures in the government, in the BJP and between the RSS and the BJP. Five RSS organisations have appeared before the joint parliamentary committee on the Land Acquisition Bill; not to support PM Modi’s amendments to the Bill but to oppose these.

The organisations include the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and ideologue Govindacharya and his organisations. 

The last two have come out openly in interviews after the Lalit Modi crisis hit the government, criticising the government on its economic policies and corruption respectively.

The point is that clearly the Prime Minister does not enjoy the full support of the RSS and the BJP, and that party president Amit Shah has been unable to bludgeon at least the BJP into shape.

The manner in which Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje has been able to cock a snook at the party bosses, and stay on in power despite the many charges against her is indicative of this.

Or if not, the PM's silence is certainly not helping him, and in fact enhancing her stature as a leader with considerable support in the party. In fact the speculation is that  the Rajasthan BJP is behind her, as is a section of the RSS.

By ignoring the crisis and the many allegations against his Ministers and leaders that are surfacing on a daily basis, the Prime Minister is certainly not adding to the image he had so carefully built. 

Given his loud promises during the election campaign, his silence does not appear to be characteristic and hence the questions about his own popularity and support within the party. Veteran LK Advani’s comments first on the Emergency, and then again on how he had resigned when faced with the hawala charges, have certainly not helped. 

As these have added to the speculation of growing dissent within the BJP, and the coming together in an amorphous kind of way - as yet - of the old guard that really still remains the core of the party. 

Shah tried to bring in his own people, like Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra, but this has further alienated the majority of BJP members who have been sidelined in most of the states. The list includes Uttar Pradesh.

Action against Minister Sushma Swaraj and CM Raje at the onset would have in fact, reinforced the image that the Prime Minister had spent millions of rupees trying to create. 

He would have been seen as a decisive, strong PM with indeed ‘zero tolerance’(whatever that phrase means) for corruption, and a leader who cannot be messed around with. Instead he has fallen into complete silence that even his ‘man ki baat’ on radio did not break. 

And his reluctance strengthens the perception that he cannot act as he does not have the support of the party he leads. Or worse, action might open a Pandora’s box of consequences so that he is keen to keep the lid on at this stage. Or at least that is the current direction of speculation.

In between this the stories about Fadnavis, and now a junior Minister at the Centre, of holding up flights, of de-planing bonafide passengers to make room for them and their staff certainly does not help. 

And instead of the top brass taking note of this, silence again has become golden. Instead party spokespersons are being fielded to defend the indefensible as even BJP supporters outside the party look on aghast.

The BJP under candidate Narendra Modi had swept the election as it had been able to actually present itself as the alternative, the party with a difference with a leader who would ensure that the difference remained. In that it would battle corruption, it would answer the aspirations of the poor, it would build a corporate friendly environment, and unlike the Congress that had sunk into a vortex of corruption and silence, it would be transparent, honest, decisive, and disciplined. 

Where has it all gone?

4. Up close and personal with trash 
Come September, mandatory household waste separation begins in six states. Is Malaysia ready for it?

June Wong 

The recycling centre at Marian Bay Sands where items including metal, plastic and glass are sorted before being sent for recycling. PHOTO: ST FILE

Until recently, I smugly considered myself a conscientious and knowledgeable greenie. Two months ago, our maid returned home on an emergency and the family has had to do all the household chores. 

That includes clearing the huge laundry basket, which acts as our recycling bin where we put our plastic, paper and glass discards.

When the maid was doing it, I assumed she knew how to separate the items and place them in different bags for the garbage collectors to take for recycling.

Now that I am sorting the trash, I have discovered how difficult it is to separate the waste intelligently. For example, are all plastics recyclable? I search for the recycling symbol and often it can’t be found. So do I send such stuff for recycling or not?

As for glass bottles, do I remove the caps and labels? Paper and cardboard may seem straightforward enough but not if they are coated or have bits of plastic attached like tissue boxes. Do I rip them off first? Do I wash out my milk cartons? And what do I do with polystyrene and foam boxes?

I also started thinking about where my separated waste would actually end up – do the garbage collectors take it to recycling centres or to landfills after all?

Landfills. In less wasteful times, burying our garbage seemed like a good idea. Not anymore. Landfills are ugly, stinking eyesores that produce global-warming methane gas and leach toxins into the soil, which can contaminate ground water. 

Many countries realised that long ago and started solid waste management systems to cut down on the amount of waste generated and recycle as much as possible.

So it is good that our Government is finally enforcing the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007, although I don’t understand why there was a delay of eight years.

Solid Waste and Solid Cleansing Management Corp (SWCorp) chief executive Ab Rahim Md Noor said that compulsory waste separation would start in September in six states: the Federal Territory comprising Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur, Pahang, Malacca, Negri Sembilan, Kedah and Perlis.

That’s just two months away and according to him, “every family member should know how to do it and dispose of household waste properly”.

SWCorp is all set to go. It has appointed a company to collect garbage in the six states whose workers would observe and note down households that failed to comply, according to Ab Rahim, who also warned that non-compliance could get offenders fined up to RM1,000.

Fines will only begin on Jan 1, 2016, said Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Deputy Minister Datuk Halimah Mohamed Sadique, to give time to “increase public awareness on the implementation of the Act”. What offenders will get are warning letters.

Well, if the law puts the onus on citizens to sort properly, then it’s imperative that they know what they are in for. They must be given good, clear information on how to do it, which is not impossible as the Swedes, Japanese, South Koreans and Taiwanese have shown.

In Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, refuse sorting is an exact science and the municipal councils in charge take great pains to inform residents on what can be recycled. Nagoya’s Guide to Sorting Recyclables and Garbage has nine categories, while Yokohama distributes a 16-page booklet listing 10 categories covering more than 500 items. 
(This information is available online.)

They separate food waste from recyclables and enforce a volume-based trash collection fee. Fines, public shaming and civic responsibility are used very effectively to ensure compliance.

To be fair, these countries started decades ago using a combination of factors to create what Japanese environmental consultant Kanji Tamamushi described as a “closed loop economy”, where the primary aim is to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills and reuse materials in new products. 

They did it through legislation, education, efficient collection of sorted waste products and by investing in state-of-the-art facilities to reuse and recycle, and clean incinerator technology to burn instead of burying the rest.

I doubt we are anywhere near a closed loop but rather at the beginning of a loose string. So far, we have a law which needs mass education and awareness for it to work – which is sorely lacking.

Even if we are starting out “simple” – by sorting according to the Ministry’s categories of plastic, paper, cardboard, glass, metal, food waste, lump waste and farm waste – based on my own limited experience, there is still a lot to learn to get it right. (I have no idea what lump waste is and only a vague idea about farm waste.)

Halimah said there was more information on her ministry’s website ( I decided to look there, thinking there would be a Nagoya or Yokohama kind of guide.

But no, there is nothing there, although there is detailed information on the ministry’s staff dress code down to what shoes, jewellery and handbag size are permitted. Oh, and no exposed midriffs, so saris are a definite no-no.

There was a link from the ministry’s website to SWCorp’s site and from there, I finally landed on What I found left me near speechless.

There is a very poor attempt to explain what the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) are. I can’t bring myself to call it “information” because they are mere one-liners of gobbledygook trying to pass off as English. 

The tagline is: “Lets Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – It’s Worth!”

Why is it worth it? Well, under the “Reduce” topic we are told: “Waste reduction can be started at home with a very simple way, the modifications to the way we shop. Little change can have a real impact on reducing waste posoitif and how our lives.”

Under “Recycle”, you get “advice” like “Many different ways based on recycling material. Most item can be recylce such as paper, plastics and glass. Items such as furniture, electrical appliances, building materials, vehicles can also be recycled by type and specific process”. 

And here’s some really useful stuff: “Provide recycle container. Provide container to put item that can be recycle. Ensure that the container can be seen easily.”

Is this for real? Most households don’t even own a tong sampah (rubbish bin) and many even hang their trash bags on nearby branches. Now they need to provide their own recycling containers?

Does SWCorp really think sorting out household waste is that easy and straightforward? Does every family member really know how to do it and dispose of household waste properly, as claimed by Ab Rahim? Did I miss something? Maybe I did. After all, I live in Selangor.