New approach outlined to halt Asia’s rapid environmental decline

A new report by the Asian Development Bank says that environmental degradation is pervasive, accelerating, and unabated, putting at risk people’s health and livelihood and hampering the economic growth needed to reduce the level of poverty in the region.

Asian Environment Outlook 2001 (AEO), released on 18 June by the multilateral development agency, follows the United Nation’s recent devastating report on the Asia-Pacific environment (see related story), but also offers what is a blueprint for halting the decline and reducing poverty.

Asia’s economic development over the past few decades has come at a high environmental cost, according to the AEO. The region has already lost up to 90% of its original wildlife habitat to agriculture, infrastructure, deforestation, and land degradation, with the most severe losses in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. However, new systems, such as one applied in the Philippines, where a policy of community-based forest management has given over 2,000 square miles (5,000 sq km) of forest to local peoples, are having limited success. Some 75% of the region’s protected marine areas are under high threat from coastal development, the report says.

Because of a rapid population explosion, with the urban population tripling to over a billion in 2020 from 360 million in 1990, there has been further strain on an already inadequate infrastructure for water supply, housing, and sanitation across the continent. Across the region the faecal coliform level is three times the world average and 50 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit and more than 500,000 children die annually from poor sanitation and dirty water. The problem is most acute in South and Southeast Asia, where half the population has no access to sanitation services and only 10% of sewage is treated to primary levels. In addition, 39% of the region’s population, or 1.3 billion people, live in drought or desertification-prone areas.

The region is also expected to replace the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries as the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015. Asian cities account for 13 of the top 15 cities in the world with the highest levels of particulate matter and four to five million Asian children die from acute respiratory affection attributed to indoor burning of biomass for heat and cooking.

Declining environmental quality and continued dependence on natural resources are constraining the economic growth that is needed to reduce poverty in the region over the next 20 years, the report says. With only a few exceptions, Asia’s “grow now, clean up later approach” has resulted in a long list of institutional, policy, and governance failures, says AEO, with the separation of economic growth from environmental concerns leading to:

  • excessive reliance on centralised, top-down approaches;
  • inadequate participation of civil society in environmental decisions;
  • weak enforcement of existing legislation;
  • absence of political will;
  • corruption;
  • market distortions; and
  • limited funding for environmental management.

Yet, as AEO points out, economic productivity and environmental improvement are not mutually exclusive, but can go hand-in-hand, with significant improvements achievable at low cost. The costs of remedying policy failures can be relatively low, while at the same time can produce major environmental benefits.

The report identifies three core elements of a new approach to meet ADB’s vision of a region where consumption is based on services rather than ownership or assets, ecosystems and biodiversity are valued and protected, and environmental management is decentralised, participatory and effective:

  • environmental and development policies must be integrated at national and regional level, with a stand-alone agency currently usually responsible for environmental protection but often lacks the necessary authority;
  • urban and industrial development should be guided according to publicly accepted and integrated environmental and economic development plans; and
  • a strong political will is essential to translate environmental rhetoric into actions, meaning a minimum level of environmental compliance, adequate budget and human resources, access to information and public participation as well as eliminating subsidies that aggravate resource degradation.

“As the region’s capacity to support human activity becomes increasingly stressed, policy makers and leaders will discover that integrated solutions that transcend traditional disciplines and approaches are clearly more effective than parochial solutions that divide regions, institutions, infrastructure, and technology,” the report concludes. AEO 2001 is the first in a biennial series and will be followed by background reports on various environmental themes and reports on issues facing individual countries.

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