LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News Vol 1 no 4 Summer 1993   ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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Tigers Under a Cloud

by Louise Williams

When more than one hundred people were rushed to hospital after breathing toxic fumes from a battery acid factory in a Bangkok suburb last week residents nearby assumed the plant had caught fire.

In fact, all that had occurred was a seasonal shift in the weather pattern which held the same poisonous fumes, normally dispersed upwards into the air, down like a blanket of fog over their homes. Thousands of people were reported to have run for open spaces, many of them vomiting and passing out along the roads.

In much of Asia the environmental debate is not about terrifying future scenarios. The evidence is already in. Rapid economic growth plus the pressure of supporting more than half the world's population have devastated the natural environment to the point that contaminated air, water and land have become a daily reality for hundreds of millions of people.

While much of the developed world has lauded the remarkable economic achievements of Asia's rapidly growing economies, and even hitched their own economic future to Asian growth, less attention is being paid to the consequences of industrialisation in the most densely populated region in the world.

Those consequences are not just local. It is of immense concern globally, and particularly for Australia and New Zealand, that China has opened twelve factories to manufacture ozone depleting CFC’s for refrigerators for an estimated 250 million households, according to a United Nations' report released in Bangkok last week. India, the report said, is expected to have built about 300 million refrigerators by the end of the century, using similar out-dated CFC technology.

Right across Asia increasing affluence has pushed up energy demands by fifty per cent, most of it coming from both non renewable and polluting sources such as coal burning. Logging in the past decade has reduced natural forest cover to about 10 per cent of the land in most nations, and erosion, pollution, and pesticide overuse affects between 17 and 50 per cent of China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.

Even Malaysia, with its relatively small and prosperous population and well developed infrastructure, is reported to have poisoned forty-two rivers with palm oil and rubber effluents and other industrial waste to the extent they are now classified as ecologically "dead".

The growth of the Asian economies must force a rethinking of the environmental debate in both the West and within the region itself. Economic growth has never previously occurred at such a rapid pace or on such a vast scale. According to Rafeeuddin Ahmed, executive secretary of the UN's Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the damage to and depletion of the region's natural resources will eventually destroy that economic growth.

With such overwhelming evidence of disregard for human health and sustainability on the part of businesses and governments in the Asian region it would be easy for Western environmentalists to continue to call for various boycotts and bans on products such as tropical timber.

But that approach has already widened the gap between East and West. Within Asia criticism from the West on environmental issues is widely seen for the hypocrisy it is. Malaysia's Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir 

Mohamad, has effectively articulated the view that the developed world cannot ask Asia to sacrifice its own path to affluence for the sake of the global environment, when Western nations wreaked all kinds of havoc in the process of enriching themselves.

It is a normal aspiration to want a refrigerator or a motorcycle or TV in India or China. Nor should it be surprising that both India and China are burning more and more coal to meet their energy needs.

At the same time much of the investment across Asia is coming from the developed world, and to a lesser extent from Japan and Taiwan, directly fuelling the process of environmental degradation.

Lax controls by Asian governments desperate to attract foreign investment have also been blamed for appalling safety and environmental standards in many industries. But the truth is that many foreign companies willingly exploit this weakness and operate far below the minimum standards of their own nations with full knowledge of the consequences.

Instead of criticising, developed nations have a responsibility to transfer technology. Clean coal technology, now used in many Western power stations, might also reduce air pollution right across the region immediately. Equally, it is not technically necessary to produce new CFC' s for refrigeration.

The issue of technology transfer is fraught with commercial problems. Much of the most sophisticated pollution control technology is within the private sector and not available to be given away by the United Nations or international donors as aid. But, it is a proposal which goes part of the way towards bridging the impasse between the East and the West over who is ruining our world.

At the same time it is important to note that people living under poisonous clouds do not necessarily consider such disasters an acceptable price to pay for economic development. In some parts of Asia the local environmental movement is restricted by political authoritarianism. But there were two positive developments this week.

In Bangkok a former Prime Minister, Anand Panyarachun, launched a high-powered council of business leaders committed to sustainable development, and in Pakistan the environment was on the political agenda during the election campaign for the first time.

(First appeared in Sydney Morning Herald, October 11, 1993.
 Reprinted with kind permission of Louise Williams.)

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