Time to treat environmental issues as paramount


YESTERDAY was Earth Day, and it happened during the Covid-19 pandemic when the world economy has been put on hold and lockdowns are in place in most countries to counter the devastating health impacts of the disease.

While the world is in lockdown, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution levels have come down. This has not been possible before.

As a March 14 editorial in the Guardian newspaper (UK) revealed, “the brakes placed on economic activities of many kinds worldwide have led to carbon emission cuts that would previously have been unthinkable: 18% in China between February and March; between 40% and 60% over recent weeks in Europe.”

We have also seen reports and videos of clearer and cleaner skies, seas, rivers and waterways, and urban spaces seeing the return of animals and birds as human traffic and noise have been drastically reduced.

In Malaysia, the new Environment and Water Minister, Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, is reported as saying that the Air Pollutant Index (API) levels dropped 14% to record a “clean index” while 28% of 29 automatic water monitoring stations’ readings showed a real time improvement in water quality during the Movement Control Order (MCO) period from March 18 to April 14.

The improved API reading has been attributed to a drastic reduction in emissions from vehicles, industrial stacks and open burning.

Studies also show that land surface temperatures in cities have come down as a result of the restrictions on human activities.

All of these positive effects are the unintended consequences of measures that have been initiated to prevent the spread of Covid-19. What many governments have not been able to do in the past to address environmental problems has been made possible through their responses to the major health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus.

The virus itself is believed to have emerged from environmental mishandling, namely the trade and consumption of wildlife by humans.

Major landmark reports from the United Nations have previously warned about the emergence or re-emergence of infectious diseases due mainly to increasing human encroachments on natural environments such as land clearing and habitat fragmentation, reduction in biodiversity (including loss of natural predators of organisms that transmit disease), current practices in livestock and poultry production and wildlife trade.

Clearly, what this reveals is that our current economic and development model continues to be unsustainable, resulting in negative consequences that threaten not only our quality of life but also our continued existence on earth.

We must correct the course as we plan our exit strategies from the movement control order and economic recovery.

Indeed, the Covid-19 health crisis has overwhelmed the mainstream objective of economic growth. In addition, some of the environmental “side effects” can be expected to do the same if we do not deal with them urgently and seriously.

Among these issues is water scarcity, which is a persistent problem in many parts of the country. Currently, the situation is dire in the northern states like Kedah where farmers are suffering, and there will be grave consequences on Malaysia’s rice bowl. In Penang, the authorities are praying for rain to replenish the very low water levels in the state's dams.

The water crisis is compounded by climate change, with impacts that will be catastrophic not only for our economy but to human lives as well.

Recent scientific reports have provided enough warning that coastal communities worldwide must prepare themselves for more difficult futures due to the melting of major ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic.

Yet, what is most startling is the apparent lack of sufficient preparedness in many cities and countries around the world, including Malaysia, in addressing these possible climate impacts. More cities around the world are already noticing the effects of climate change, from more heatwaves to worsening flooding, but few have effective plans in place to deal with the threats.

For far too long, we have heard the mantra “We will have economic growth without adversely affecting the environment, and will pursue sustainable development”, but in reality, much remains to be done to correct the current course.

What is needed are transformative commitments through paradigm shifts in our existing irrational production systems and consumption patterns. These shifts should be grounded on genuine sustainable development measures that meet the economic, environmental and social imperatives.

Economic development, job creation, and etc. are important but have to be balanced and re-oriented, with environmental concerns and quality of life being at the centre of decision-making.

Sadly, even as we are witnessing a global economic downturn, we are still seeing the promotion of business-as-usual approaches such as the continuation of mega-projects.

The business-as-usual approach has to change.

First, we must tackle climate change head on. We are aware that the previous government had started various initiatives such as setting up a climate change council and climate change centre, enabling climate legislation as well as devising a national adaptation plan. These positive initiatives should not be stymied by the new government.

Second, we need to urgently tackle issues related to forest and soil conservation, river management, flood prevention and mitigation, and to ensure enough water supply in an integrated manner. Forests and trees are the foundation of ecology, water supply and management, and biodiversity. The conversion of forests, especially on hills, for logging, plantations or other commercial projects, should be stopped or drastically reduced.

Surely no commercial activity can be more important than conserving the forests and protecting our soils. They help to prevent floods, which cost millions to clean up and rehabilitate. Flood prevention must also include turning our urban areas into “sponge cities” by significantly increasing the means for rainwater to penetrate underground rather than being swept into overflowing rivers, thus causing flash floods.

These measures can include increasing the number of fields and parks, planting trees, and making pavements and roads permeable so that water can be absorbed into the ground. The rainwater can also be collected in large storage tanks underground for later use. These green measures and infrastructure will cost money, but investing in them would be money well spent and there are international funds available for the purpose.

It is regrettable that too much emphasis is given on constructing highways and concrete buildings. What is now needed are investments in rehabilitating damaged hillsides and forests, conserving watersheds, and building green infrastructure to prevent floods, save and store water and build climate resilience.

The third aspect is control of pollution and toxic products, chemicals and wastes. The Sungai Kim Kim case is a grim reminder of what toxins in the environment can do to the health of the public.

We have done much to reduce our use and import of plastic, but we cannot afford to slow down now. We must step up to ensure that the gains made thus far are not wasted.

The Environmental Quality Act and regulations thereunder are supposed to be under review. We need an improved Environmental Protection Act which addresses the weaknesses of the previous legislation, including regulations on environmental impact assessments.

Also critical are issues such as energy (the need to switch to more renewable energy); replacing polluting technologies with environmentally sound technologies; protecting the marine environment and wetlands; conserving biodiversity, fauna and flora; and replacing chemical-based agriculture with sustainable agriculture. These are huge challenges that have not been given the necessary attention and resources in the past.

We can no longer view the environment and ecology as side issues if we want to prevent future calamities that result in catastrophic economic and health impacts.

MEENAKSHI RAMAN

President

Sahabat Alam Malaysia

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