The View From Asia

Asia needs to change habits that harm environment

Whether it's trash in the Gulf of Thailand, smog in north China or flooding in the Philippines, the toll of unsustainable practices is all around, as highlighted by Asia News Network commentators. Here are excerpts:

Let's get serious on plastic trash

Editorial
The Nation, Thailand

The recent sighting of a kilometres-long tangle of floating trash in the Gulf of Thailand was, to say the least, shocking. We know about the massive garbage "island" being carried around the Pacific Ocean on prevailing currents, but to discover a mess like this in our own backyard is worrying indeed - if not at all surprising.

Thailand's 300-tonne version of the swirling Pacific trash monster is believed to comprise mainly litter swept into the sea by this year's southern floods. But the source matters little compared to the biting fact it represents: Thais are simply creating too much waste.

On a per-capita basis, Thais are among the world's top users of disposable plastic bags. Thanks to our carelessness, our country has become a major contributor to the garbage that fouls the oceans - one of five nations collectively responsible for 60 per cent of the plastic found at sea, according to a 2015 report by US-based advocacy group Ocean Conservancy. (Sharing in our guilt are China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.)

No one has to go on a cruise around the gulf to understand the problem. We have to ask why the local authorities too often allow piles of trash to go uncollected, though the bulk of the blame rests firmly on the shoulders of citizens.


Smog blankets a lake in Beijing in January. Despite the Chinese government's stringent rules on pollution control and emissions, improvement in air quality continues to fall short of public expectations, especially in the north of the country, which is often smothered by heavy smog. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

We have every purchase wrapped in plastic without ever challenging the practice, and then we toss the bags aside once emptied, heedless of the cumulative damage they cause to the environment. Meanwhile, Thailand welcomes many millions of tourists every year and does little or nothing to tackle the huge garbage problem that is generated.

Environmentalists have suggested sustainable solutions that need to start with every individual and extend to government policy and enforcement.

Greenpeace South-east Asia campaign director Tara Buakamsri notes that most of the flotsam came from the land, washed into rivers and thence to the sea. Slow to break down, the plastic poses a grave hazard to marine life, both from toxic components and the potential to choke sea creatures when it's swallowed. And food fish that eat this junk will pass the toxins on to us.

"We are all generating too much trash every day," Tara says. "If we want to solve this problem we have to change our behaviour."

We should be recycling the plastic we do use, along with other types of "waste" that needn't be waste. Tara believes government restrictions on the use of plastic are needed, possibly including a surcharge for every plastic bag handed out at supermarkets. Households that recycle refuse should be rewarded, he says, suggesting free garbage collection.

These ideas are common practice in most developed countries, where consumers have come to abhor the overuse of plastic. Shoppers at malls who ask that their goods be placed in plastic bags have to pay extra - a fine of sorts for being environmentally unfriendly.

It is not too much to expect Thais to gradually become just as intolerant of wastage. We need an integrated approach to tackle the issue. Let's get serious about recycling and reuse. Let's kick the plastic habit.

Officials face smog test

Editorial
China Daily, China

Despite the central government's stringent rules on pollution control and emissions, improvement in air quality nationwide continues to fall short of public expectations, especially in the north of the country which is often smothered by heavy smog.

Part of the reason is that some local officials are reluctant to go all out to enforce those rules for fear they may have a detrimental effect on the local economy, hurting jobs and lowering the revenues that go to the local coffers, which will reflect badly on their performance.

Some even resort to cheating, according to reports, by fabricating air pollution data so that polluting enterprises can carry on production despite the restrictions. By doing so, these officials are putting their own interests before those of the nation, at the expense of public health.

The recent inspection of 18 cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and neighbouring areas by the Ministry of Environmental Protection has uncovered further proof of how the central government's efforts to clean up the air are being compromised.

Yet punishing the officials alone will not solve the problem of air pollution. The more challenging task is how to upgrade the region's industrial structure that is currently heavily dependent on coal, the root cause of smog.

The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, although covering only 2.2 per cent of China's total area, accounts for more than 10 per cent of the country's GDP. Behind its mammoth economic might are heavily polluting industries such as steel, cement and chemical enterprises, with coal as the main energy source.

Coal consumption in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region plus Shandong province totals about 1 billion tonnes a year, one-quarter of the country's total use.

It will take 20 or even 30 years at the present rate to change such an energy mix by increasing the use of clean energy and upgrading the industrial structure to phase out heavily polluting enterprises, according to scientists.

How to accelerate industrial upgrading and the transition to less polluting industries so as to promote the local economy while protecting the environment is the test of their governance ability, which officials now have to pass.

Reforest now

Meliton Juanico
Philippine Daily Inquirer,

The Philippines The past few weeks have seen disastrous flooding in parts of Mindanao due to rain brought by the north-east monsoon. Of course, along with the floods came damage to infrastructure and crops which, in the Caraga region alone, amounted to 254 million pesos (S$7 million). What is unusual and worrisome is that typhoons and heavy monsoon rain are now hitting Mindanao when, in the past, these phenomena occurred more frequently in the Visayas and Luzon areas. These events indicate that climate change is really upon us - causing disasters that are more frequent and intense.

And, as in Russian roulette, we are on tenterhooks wondering who will be hit next. The impact of the floods has alarmed President Rodrigo Duterte to the point of declaring a need to dredge the rivers in the four major river basins of the country and to impose a total log ban nationwide.

Dredging and flood control infrastructures, such as the ongoing public works projects, are necessary but they should be complemented with vegetative measures.

An example of a cheap parallel move needed to substantially minimise flooding all over the country was demonstrated recently in the Mount Magdiwata watershed in Agusan del Sur.

Amid the flooding occurring in northern Mindanao, the fully forested mountains of the watershed were able to prevent flooding in the lowland area.

The government should initiate a single-minded move to reforest the denuded mountains as an effective but cheap vegetative solution.

People should know that reforestation does not only prevent floods but also has myriad benefits: It allows the regulated flow of groundwater to the lowlands; protects soil erosion and the concomitant siltation of rivers; prevents landslides and other forms of mass wasting; moderates the local climate; creates biodiversity that also stabilises the oxygen and carbon dioxide cycle of the ecosystem; provides forest products that can be harvested; and, of course, prevents the loss of lives and property.


  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 news media entities. For more, see www.asianews.network
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2017, with the headline 'Asia needs to change habits that harm environment'. Print Edition | Subscribe