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Living sustainably, Asian-style

By Darryl D'Monte

Japan has introduced the 3R approach to waste management, China has introduced the Circular Economy and Green Growth, and Thailand's Magic Eye drive coaxes children not to waste. What exactly has India done to promote sustainable development?

Sustainable development is a catchphrase that was coined by the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, in 1987. She later became the prime minister of Norway. The term gained currency during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. A decade later, when the UN and other multilateral organisations wanted to take stock of the progress, or lack of it, we had the conference in Johannesburg that was known as the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Two decades ago, the World Commission published a seminal report titled 'Our Common Future'that outlined critical environment and development challenges of the decade and provided a blueprint to meet the needs and aspirations of people without compromising those of future generations.

This was the first report that drew links between the environment and economic and social concerns, and called for a marriage of ecology and economy -- a strategy that unites development and the environment.

Sustainable development, like so many other such phrases, means many things to many people. Business, for instance, would like to see it as guaranteeing a certain level of profits even while the company 'goes green'. Hence a proactive World Business Council for Sustainable Development in Geneva that showcases the achievements of some of the most efficient and energy-conscious multinational and other companies.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has a regional office for Asia and the Pacific, in Bangkok, which recently organised a workshop for Asian journalists to sensitise them to the concept of sustainability and examine advances made in this direction, in the region.

What has been the progress in Asia, which has the two most populous countries in the world, since those heady days for the 'greens' in the late-'80s? Have countries embraced sustainable development or are their goals to lift people out of poverty and raise living standards in discord with the concept? What has been the experience in the Asia-Pacific, a region that has experienced exponential growth, some of the highest in the world, but remains beset with poverty, deprivation and environmental degradation?

Six out of 10 people on this earth are Asians. Although these countries account for 40% of the world's GDP, they also harbour 70% of its poor -- a staggering 700 million. If 'Garibistan' in Asia were a country in its own right, it would figure as the third most populous country on earth. The Asia-Pacific has the lowest water per capita use in the world, among many other indices of environmental stress. The Aral Sea in Central Asia is now a quarter of its original size and the volume of water has shrunk by 80%.

The Asia-Pacific region is the most vulnerable when it comes to water-related disasters, of which the Asian tsunami was, of course, the most devastating. Between 1960 and 2006, such disasters exacted a toll of 600,000 deaths -- 80% of the world total, Hurricane Katrina included.

At the same time, global food prices have risen 83% in the last three years, and 520 million people are undernourished. The demand for food is estimated to rise by 3.8% per year over the next decade, due to increasing population growth, urbanisation and modern lifestyles. The explosion in the visual media also has a lot to do with rising aspirations, and the shift to more energy- and resource-intensive living patterns. Meat consumption has shot up from 20 kg per capita in 1960, to 50 kg last year. As much as 1,000-2,000 litres of water are required to produce 1 kg of rice, Asia's food staple, which is why food experts have suggested a shift to wheat and even potatoes.

Asia, far from 'shining', is in utter darkness for the large part, with as many as 1 billion people living without access to electricity. By 2030, it is estimated that half the global demand for (commercial) energy will come from this region. Although it has major possibilities for renewable energy -- 40% of the world's hydroelectric potential and a third of its solar and geothermal potential -- these resources contribute less than 2% of the (paid for) energy mix today.

As was pointed out in this column last month, the bulk of people in developing economies still rely on biomass for their basic energy needs, a fact that is largely ignored by energy experts and economists alike. No fewer than 1.7 billion people in Asia rely on wood, farm waste and other such resources for their cooking and heating. Cooking on chulhas (wood stoves) accounts for around 400,000 deaths each in India and China every year, caused by housewives and children inhaling toxic fumes.

At the Bangkok conference to explain the concept of sustainable development to Asian journalists, the UNEP's Subrato Sinha detailed how the programme had launched a National Sub-regional Sustainable Development Strategy and Action Plan with the objective of helping 17 countries and three sub-regions develop national and sub-regional development strategies. For example, a partnership was forged with the Asian Development Bank to help countries in the Greater Mekong sub-region -- Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the like.

Sinha cited energy efficiency improvements in India as part of such innovations. Thus, appliances that use electricity now have comparative starred labels (like hotels!): these include fluorescent tube lights, air conditioners and transformers. There is an Energy Conservation Building Code which has reduced demand for energy by half in certain very select cases. Worldwide, cities account for three-quarters of carbon dioxide emissions and half of this total is contributed by buildings (which use energy for lighting, heating and cooling).

However, India has not officially been part of this scheme -- presumably it feels that it is not in the same league as our supposedly less endowed Asian neighbours and others. The UNEP takes the view, diplomatically, that it "doesn't want to impose on anyone". But India's attitude is ostrich-like: although the middle class is bigger than the populations of most countries in the world, its poor number the largest in the world. One has only to recall the recent Arjun Sengupta Committee's findings, that nearly 80% of Indians spend no more than Rs 20 a day. And it doesn't take a foreign-trained economist or multilateral institution expert to conclude that India's economic growth is far from sustainable and takes a terrible toll of the environment.

Dr Aida Karazhanova stressed how the success of this broad-based strategy depends on a holistic approach towards development. Fortunately, Asia has innumerable examples of this -- from the sufficient economy of Thailand, the Gross National Happiness Index of Bhutan, Japan's 3R approach to waste management ('recycle', 'renew', 'reuse'), the Circular Economy of China, Green Growth in China and the Philippines and -- believe it or not -- the National Knowledge Economy, coined in 2005, in our very own country. If truth be told, however, this last concept is honoured more in the breach than in its observance, considering that information on so many facets of public life is denied to the public.

Thailand's Magic Eye drive, pioneered in 1984, coaxes children not to waste: "Magic Eye is watching you!" they are admonished, and it works. Journalists at the workshop, in the sessions involving the media and how it can report sustainable development, cited how personal experience often had the biggest impact. For instance, Nirmal Ghosh, who is the Bangkok correspondent for the Straits Times in Singapore and a hardboiled political journalist (although a veteran wildlife enthusiast in his home country), reported how when he had once mentioned in a column how he delayed washing his jeans to save water and energy, it drew a far greater response than learned treatises on the environment!

Nurlan Yeskendirov, who represents the Central Asian Sustainability Partnership in Kazakhstan, elaborated on the destruction of the Aral Sea -- "one of the world's biggest environmental disasters". The Aral Sea was one of three great lakes in Central Asia, and the fourth biggest in the world. However, it inherited the natural resource problems of the Soviet Union. Work on irrigation schemes began in the 1930s and peaked in the 1960s. Due to the diversion of water to grow cotton in the region, Uzbekistan became rich. The Soviets built 300,000 km of canals from the Aral Sea, but only a fifth were lined, leading to widespread leakage.

River flows may change due to this massive diversion of water. Indeed, the Aral Sea isn't stable: just 1,500 years ago the lake didn't even exist. This may well prove to be an ecological nightmare in a region where 80% of the groundwater is pumped for irrigation.

Marty Bergoffen, an American from an NGO in Chiang Mai, north Thailand, cited a good example of sustainable development for some of the most marginalised people in the region -- in this case, people living in a conflict zone. He represents the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, or KESAN. The Karen are a Burmese tribe which opposed the military junta and are refugees in Thailand. They number around 100,000 and live along the Salween river. Bergoffen alleged that the Salween basin is one of the most endangered due to diversion for irrigation, with five dams in the pipeline.

As a footnote, it may be relevant to recall that E F Schumacher, the British economist who coined the concept 'Small is beautiful' was invited by Pandit Nehru to advise the Planning Commission in the 1950s. He later visited Burma and was so overcome by the pacifist nature of that society that he spoke about "Buddhist economics," implying the preservation of natural resources in the process of development -- the very embodiment of sustainability.

Dr Chaiyod Bunyasgidj from the Thailand Environment Institute mentioned a few instances of CSR -- corporate social responsibility -- in his country. He began by contrasting how the turnover of several multinationals was far greater than the tax revenue of some countries: Thailand's, for example, was around $ 245,818 million while Wal-Mart registered sales of $ 378,800 million, implying that their potential for doing good in the community was substantial.

It is a moot point whether most MNCs have actually put their money where their mouths are. Bunyasgidj illustrated the point by referring to the Bangchak Petroleum Company in Thailand which sold 120,000 barrels a day. It has coined the slogan, 'A better life for all Thais', advocating the use of gasohol and bio-diesel. However, these are extremely contentious initiatives that have attracted a lot of criticism for diverting land away from food and towards fuel.

A local example of good corporate social responsibility was the experience of TESCO Lotus, the multinational supermarket (or hypermarket) chain. Dr Darmp Sukontasap, Senior Vice President, believed that "TESCO Lotus must take responsibility for addressing global warming and promoting energy-saving measures". All departments in the chain were evaluated on this basis. It recycled 100% of its packaging, which is a huge operation considering that it has 35,000 products on its shelves at any given time.

The company was working to improve the supply chain and had registered an increase in efficiency of 30% by reducing the time taken from farm to store, from three to two days (thereby saving on transport, storage and other energy-consuming activities). This also meant the produce was fresher and cheaper. It was developing Green Stores, the first of which was built in 2003 in Bangkok. It used solar panels and recycled sewage. The second store, under construction, would employ wind turbines and use solar energy for cooling.

TESCO Lotus was also planting 9 million trees in Thai national parks, with the cooperation of the UNEP. This is the most intensive reforestation project in Thailand. This year, some 3.7 million trees -- all local species -- have already been planted. It was also promoting reusable shopping bags which, Dr Darmp was quick to emphasise, wasn't just a PR gimmick. The whole objective, he said, was "to break the link between growth and climate change and environmental destruction".

InfoChange News & Features, November 2008