Asia Had Better Go Green

Water, ,including the annual monsoons, has traditionally been vital to the ebb and flow of life in Southeast Asia. Indeed, it’s a vital aspect of the culture of the region: witness the manifold references to the importance of rain in Malaysian literature or Indonesian folklore. All of these ultimately stressed the need for Man to live in harmony with Nature.

Region-wide trade and agriculture would be impossible without the wind and rain. Furthermore, Southeast Asia’s rivers like the Musi, Mekong and Irrawaddy were the cradles of great kingdoms.

Lately however, this balance has been broken. Thanks to climate change, nature has become more erratic and extreme. We no longer have the certainty that our ancestors did when counting the seasons.

Much of this has been our own doing. We have become disrespectful of nature in the rush to reshape the landscape for houses, roads and factories, regardless of the consequences.

The recent deluge in Thailand is hence a wake-up call. Similar floods or natural disasters have hit Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and even Singapore in the past few years. These incidents underline the vulnerability of our densely-populated, low-lying littoral and coastal areas.

Indonesia has not been immune either: people there are already bracing for the inevitable flooding the November rainy season brings. Indeed, South Jakarta has already affected, with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono demanding that the capital’s Governor Fauzi Bowo take address the problem immediately.

All this begs the question: Have our leaders got things wrong? For many years, Asean governments presented the economy and environment as exclusives: You can have one or the other. They railed against the hypocrisy of the West, which lectured developing nations while they continued to pollute.

I was admittedly one of the sceptics initially. The whole “green” thing seemed fickle compared with developing nations’ need for economic progress. Nevertheless, the recent spate of flooding has forced me to reconsider my views. A similar transition is taking place across the region.

The Thais have been intensely debating the cause of the current tragedy. Was it the insistence on storing water in the up-country dams despite unexpectedly heavy rains? Was it rampant overbuilding in the lowlands or deforestation? A failure to anticipate a sudden change in rainfall patterns?

Whatever the cause, it’s undeniable that the scale of human activity taking place across Asia has made dealing with natural disasters costlier. Poor environmental management is economically destructive.

Damage from Thailand’s floods could amount to more than US$16 billion, and the country’s GDP growth this year may be slashed by more than 3 percent. The bill for Cambodia may be as much as US$400 million.

Furthermore, the floods also mean serious disruptions to the regional food supply: Thailand is after all the world’s largest rice exporter. The kingdom’s rice exports could fall by a third in 2012, and this may have serious ramifications for their major customers like Indonesia and the Philippines.

Environmental issues can also heighten political risk. The floods and politicization of the response effort have exacerbated the still-raw wounds of Thailand’s divided society.

Natural disasters have also made ordinary people increasingly wary of development. This in turn is strengthening the regional “green movement,” including further afield in still-authoritarian China.

A 12,000-strong demonstration in Dalian last August forced the closure of an unpopular chemical plant in the heavily industrialized, normally investor-friendly city. The political implications of such environmental protests cannot be exaggerated.

Indeed, environmental disasters often suggest a failure on the part of governments to manage the resources under their stewardship. Let us not forget also that environmental causes are often convenient stalking horses for political dissidents: this was certainly the case in Indonesia during Suharto’s New Order.

Similarly, corporations are finding that their activities are under increased scrutiny. It is no longer acceptable for lives to be ruined in the pursuit of profit.

The days of apathy toward green issues are obviously over in the East. As the Filipino academic turned politician Walden Bello wrote in 2007, it’s wrong to assume “The Asian masses are inert elements that uncritically accept the environmentally damaging high-growth, export-oriented industrialization models promoted by their governing elites. It is increasingly clear to ordinary people throughout Asia that the model has wrecked agriculture, widened income inequalities, led to increased poverty after the Asian financial crises and wreaked environmental damage everywhere.”

Southeast Asia’s growing prosperity will be pointless if it is not also accompanied by environmental protection. We have a duty to conserve the wealth that has been presented to us for future generations and we shouldn’t let it be squandered due to greed or misplaced priorities.

Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.

(Karim Raslan is a columnist for the Jakarta Globe, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement. He divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.)