The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Improving the Environmental Standards of China’s Growing Overseas Investment

China’s rapid economic growth and its growing demand for resources have increased its investment footprints across the world. Its outbound direct investment (ODI) was estimated at USD115 billion in 2012 and is projected to reach USD172 billion by 2017, making the country the second-largest overseas direct investor after the US.  However, China’s overseas investment in mega-projects such as hydropower dams, an estimated 308 dam projects in 70 countries as of August 2012, is not without problems. In some cases, such projects have aggravated armed conflicts. Myanmar offers an apt example. Hydroelectric dam projects in provinces like Kachin State has escalated tensions in 2011 between the Myanmar Army and the armed opposition group, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Construction of these dams often proceeded under questionable circumstances such as lack of consultation of ethnic minorities inhabiting the areas and lack of transparency on the potential environmental and social impacts. The Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division offers another example. Operated jointly by China’s Wanbao Mining Limited and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL), the project was subjected to mass protest in August 2012 due to environmental pollution, forced removals and unfair compensation. Subsequent crackdown injured nearly 100 villagers.

The lack of environmental regulations of China’s overseas investment is hardly surprising because such regulations continue to  remain weak within China itself. Issues related to environmental pollution are often characterised by official apathy, opacity, cover-ups, and outright denial. For instance, Beijing-based lawyer Dong Zhengwei’s request on 30 January 2013 for full disclosure of the findings of a comprehensive study of land pollution conducted by relevant government ministries from 2006 to 2010 was rejected because it is a “state secret”. Also, after decades of official apathy, the Chinese government finally admitted in February 2013 of the existence of a new phenomenon of “cancer villages”, more than a decade after more than 400 such villages have been identified.

China can no longer afford to ignore the environmental and societal impacts of its overseas investment. Absent strict environmental standards, such investments could inflame tensions in countries with histories of internal armed conflicts such as Myanmar and parts of Africa, another region with huge Chinese investments. In a positive sign, China’s Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Environmental Protection jointly issued the ‘Guidelines for Environmental Protection in Foreign Investment and Cooperation’ on 18 February 2013. The Guidelines aim to “direct enterprises in China to further regularize their environmental protection behaviours in foreign investment and cooperation, guide them to actively perform their social responsibilities of environmental protection, and promote the sustainable development of foreign investment and cooperation”. The issuance of the Guidelines is timely. However it is a voluntary guideline meaning companies are not required by law to abide by them. It is imperative that such guidelines be made mandatory for all Chinese companies venturing abroad so China’s overseas investments can result in a win-win solution that balances economic development and environmental protection.

This blog post has been written by Mr PK Hangzo. He is Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU)).

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Waste picking to waste managing in Asian cities

In a recent NTS Alert on urban vulnerabilities, it was noted that the informal economic sector plays a significant role in supporting the formal economic sector and thus deserves greater attention in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction initiatives. Waste-pickers make up one such section in the informal sector and are commonly found in cities of developing countries.

Similar to other members of the informal sector, many waste-pickers have moved from rural to urban areas in search of employment, but have largely ended up living in slum areas or even in garbage landfills. These individuals make a living from collecting items such as used plastic cups, bottles and scrap steel from the landfills to sell to recycling plants.

However, such a practice is not sustainable in the long run. First, the practice does little to get waste-pickers out of the poverty cycle and the social and health risks associated with it. A vivid example of this would be the landslide that occurred in the Payatas landfill in Philippines in 2000. Secondly,  it is not an optimal use of energy as a substantial proportion of the trash (up to 40 per cent in the case of Jakarta) collected cannot be recycled as it is contaminated with other waste. Third, the practice does not tackle the root causes of waste management, which include the lack of proper recycling and composting facilities, ineffective coordination of waste disposal companies and limited public awareness and action on reducing waste.

As such, while landfills will continue to be a necessity for many of these developing Asian cities in the short to medium term, there is a need to complement it with other waste management solutions namely recycling measures and – more recently – converting waste into biogas as a source of energy.  Not only will this reduce dependency on conventional sources of energy but also reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills, potentially engage waste-pickers to manage the process and reduce electricity bills for the poor. More importantly, governments such as in Indonesia and the Philippines have already began the process of giving more attention to waste management at the policy level.

While these developments are commendable, there is still a long way to go in empowering waste-pickers to secure better health and social welfare. So far, much of the social and health needs of waste-pickers are also currently being met by NGOs. Some have created social enterprises that produce upcycled bags and accessories from the trash collected by the waste-pickers. Others have sought to take on a more advocacy role in lobbying governments for better workers’ rights, such as the Alliance for Indian Waster-pickers’ efforts that has recently voiced their requests to have waste-pickers registered so as to be applicable for state welfare benefits.

Given the immense task at hand, such incremental change must be sustained for the long term, rather than just based on donor project funding. More must also be done in introducing waste-pickers to attaining new skills to be able to have alternative economic livelihood options. An inability to progress to this level would likely leave this informal sector workers to continue to be doing (literally) the dirty work that no one else wants to do.

This blog post has been written by Sofiah JamilSofiah is an Adjunct Research Associate at the RSIS Centre for Non—Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, and a PhD candidate at the Australian National University.

Is Religious Environmentalism Sustainable?

Faith-based organisations (FBOs) are increasingly acknowledged as important partners in implementing policies and initiatives at the community level.  Such community-based policies or initiatives have to date, covered a range of themes including social problems (eg. crime and drug abuse), meeting basic developmental needs (eg. healthcare, education and livelihood options) and more recently,  disaster management and environmental issues. As a follow-up to a previous blog post on the role of FBOs in disaster preparedness, this blog post will focus on FBOs participation in environmental protection.

There are two primary ways in which FBOs play a significant role in addressing environmental issues. First, religious leaders serve as important mediums in highlighting environmental principles from a religious perspective, and thereby, influence their congregations. Secondly, FBOs are important mobilisers, through which their members participate in environmental activities and also serve to further disseminate information to wider society.

Effective FBO participation in environmental issues, however, faces several challenges. One main challenge is the lack of buy-in or opposition from within some sections of the religious communities themselves, which is contributed by various factors. First, there are theological debates in some religious communities on the extent to which environmental protection is espoused in the religion. In Christianity, for instance, there has been vigorous debate over religious text that emphasise man’s responsibility towards nature versus man’s dominance over nature. A second factor contributing to the lack of buy-in is  the limited emphasis of environmental principles in conventional religious education, where the emphasis on rituals over-rides a more holistic understanding of human’s relationship with God that incorporates nature. As such, many religious environmental initiatives have yet to gain a substantial level of institutional praxis, whereby environmental principles are mainstreamed into the religious communities’ operations and processes.

A second challenge would be the lack of financial and organisational capacities in FBOs. Long-term financial capacity is a major concern, as many of these initiatives are ad-hoc projects that depend on short-term donor funding. In addition to this, effective leadership and management of these environmental initiatives is crucial. Such limitations have also been cited in existing non-religious environmental initiatives.

This issue of lack of funds is also linked to a third challenge, which is the fact that has not been fully examined in current discourses on religious environmentalism is the extent to which economic/material motivations are significant in facilitating these environmental activities. An example of this would be the increasing utilisation of wakaf land (i.e. endowments made under Islamic law) in Indonesia for tree-planting activities, as a means of supporting reforestation efforts. What is particularly interesting is the fact that the type of trees chosen to be planted are highly commercially-valued trees such as teak, which after 5 to 7 years, would be chopped down to be sold.

On the one hand, some degree of economic incentive is needed to finance and sustain these tree-planting activities. On the other hand, there may be the possibility that such material motivations outweigh the spiritual motivations for environmental protection. Should the latter occur, it would potentially reflect a case of green washing, but this time in the name of God. Not only would such an outcome demonstrate the lack of effective environmental education, but also affect the credibility of religious institutions.

This blog post has been written by Sofiah JamilSofiah is an Adjunct Research Associate at the RSIS Centre for Non—Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, and a PhD candidate at the Australian National University.

Asia, the Millennium Development Goals, and the post-2015 development agenda

As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) period draws to a close, the global community is reflecting on their outcomes and looking ahead to the post-2015 development agenda. Significant progress has been made on some of the eight MDGs since they were established in the year 2000, but this has been uneven geographically. For example, the World Bank estimated that the goal to halve the incidence of extreme poverty (MDG1) was achieved globally in 2010, but Sub-Saharan Africa has only made moderate progress towards this goal[1].

Assessing the outcomes of the MDGs has highlighted strengths and weaknesses of the goals themselves. In terms of its successes, the MDGs boldly strived to attain progress in a broad range of critical issue areas which were unevenly prioritised across the world. The goals were simplified so that they could be understood by the masses. Simultaneously, the MDGs provided a platform for comprehensive partnerships between a range of stakeholders including NGOs, companies and governments in countries in various stages of development.

Nonetheless, the MDGs were not without their shortcomings. A widely-held criticism is the lack of participation in the formation of the goals, which led to an agenda driven by the UN and donor countries. It was argued that some countries and regions were inherently disadvantaged by their capacity to respond to MDG priority areas and indeed measure their progress. The UN was also criticised for not adequately addressing climate change in the MDG targets.

Asia made significant progress in the area of poverty reduction, with remarkable success in industrialising countries such as China and India boosting the global average. Nonetheless, the region is still home to the largest proportion of world’s poor and fragile countries will still require substantial aid to progress in coming years. Progress towards the goal of eradicating hunger and malnutrition was less apparent and remains a major challenge. In terms of education, Asia made some progress in terms of the number of enrolments and the completion of schooling, but did not quite meet the target. The region is not on track to meet the target on child mortality, and there is significant room for improvements in terms of maternal health.

As the MDGs draw to a close and consultations for the post-2015 development agenda take place in 2013, Asian stakeholders should consider key factors to facilitate continued progress. Given the differing stages of development in the region, universal goals should allow for individual states to address their most pressing challenges within the broader issue areas. Asia’s worrying expansion of inequality in terms of income and access to public services needs to be accounted for in the region’s development agenda. Finally, sustainability goals in the post-2015 agenda will need to find a delicate balance in the need for resource consumption to pursue economic growth and protecting the Asia’s fragile environment.


[1] Note that Sub-Saharan Africa needed a growth rate 28 times its historical average during the MDG period to achieve the target of halving poverty.

Empowering Southeast Asia’s informal sector in times of disaster

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on March 20, 2013
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The recent Jakarta floods are yet another testament of the vulnerabilities faced by Southeast Asia’s megacities in recent years. Storms and deluges have destroyed infrastructure and property in centres of economic activity while disrupting the livelihoods of many of their inhabitants.

Such disasters pose a threat to the economies of Southeast Asia and to ASEAN-level initiatives to promote growth, given the heavy economic losses. Damage from the 2011 floods around Bangkok resulted in only 0.1 per cent annual growth for Thailand, while the recent Jakarta floods, according to Indonesia’s central bank, could potentially raise inflation by about 0.2 per cent.

The attention given to the economic ramifications of disasters has, however, not extended to the informal sector. Not only are people from the informal sector among the worst affected by floods, they also play an important role in supporting economic development. They form an integral element of the economies of those cities by making up 50–60 per cent of the workforce in many Southeast Asian cities and provide a range of products and services that support urban economies including affordable food and transportation. Megacities therefore face the challenge of mitigating urban disaster risks more generally and the vulnerabilities faced by the informal sector and the urban poor more specifically.

There are three primary challenges worth noting. Firstly, funding is a major setback, particularly with latest estimates suggesting that the Asia Pacific would need around US$40 billion per year up until 2050 for climate change adaptation (CCA) measures.

Secondly, while most plans currently provide for immediate disaster relief, not enough support is given to longer-term rehabilitation efforts. This is exacerbated by the fact that floods may take a considerable amount of time to subside. In the case of the floods in Thailand in July 2011 the waters did not fully subside until January 2012.

Thirdly, despite the establishment of comprehensive national policies, there are bureaucratic delays, such as at middle management levels of the civil service, which play an important role in implementing policies, but have perhaps not yet been accustomed to changes in the approaches of addressing long-standing issues related to poverty.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) play an important role in providing solutions and taking up tasks that national or local governments have not been able to implement. By first gaining the trust of poor communities, CSOs have been able to integrate the needs of the poor – namely healthcare, housing and employment – into CCA programmes. In Manila and Jakarta, CSOs have supported community recycling projects that provide waste-pickers with jobs and simultaneously address improper waste disposal that clogs drainage systems and in turn, increases the impact of flooding.

Effective mitigation of disasters in Southeast Asia’s megacities therefore requires not only better protection, but also empowerment of citizens involved in the urban informal sector. The failure to adopt a well-coordinated combination of technical, socio-economic and political capabilities will not only increase urban vulnerabilities but also result in lost opportunities to build national economies and, in turn, an economically strong Southeast Asia.

*A longer version of this blog post can be found  here.

Natural Catastrophes and Resilience

The increasing interconnection of evolving risks parallels the increasing fragility of systems and will prove to test the resiliency not only of sectors, but also of countries and entire regions. In a recent Workshop on Socio-economic Factors of Natural Catastrophe held last 21 February 2013 and organised by the NTU Institute of Catastrophe Risk Management (ICRM), it was apparent how important the meeting of different disciplines can shed light in understanding catastrophes. There are three key points that I took away from the workshop:

First, the workshop highlighted the importance of systematic categorization and evaluation of threats to assist in the design of resilient systems and inform the costs and benefits of mitigation. Focusing on macro-threats, a ‘threat taxonomy’ is a pragmatic tool to look at geopolitical conflict, political violence, natural, climatic, environmental and technological catastrophes, disease outbreaks, humanitarian crisis and externalities (which include space catastrophes). In addition, history, hypothetical scenarios and understanding exposures are three key elements to understanding system shocks that can be of practical use for both the business and government sectors.

Second, the workshop stressed on the significance of communicating risk that can spur individuals and organisations to focus on more localized data and high risk zones, assess risks and provide impetus for action.

Third, from a social science perspective, natural catastrophes can aggravate conflicts between groups by looking at national and ethnic identities that shape attitudes (such as prejudice) towards natural catastrophes. Policy makers need to be increasingly aware of such intergroup processes that can defy popular notions and theories on the natural tendency to empathize with victims of natural disasters. Policy makers also need to be aware of ‘sociotechnical vulnerability”- “the condition of continuous dissonance and frailty” derived from the interplay between technology and interactions in society.

The workshop and lessons from it were helpful in informing the knowledge structure on building resilience and must be shared and used to designing projects for climate change mitigation and adaptation, from the community to the national level.

The January weather extremes: A new normal?

By J. Jackson Ewing and Sally Trethewie.

January 2013 saw countries across the globe affected by environmental extremes, including unprecedented hot and cold temperatures, heavy rains and acute haze events. Do these events signal the arrival of a ‘new normal’?

The recent weather extremes have been distressing for many. Australia suffered its hottest average temperatures on record, approaching 50 degrees Celsius in some locations. These temperatures, combined with high winds, contributed to devastating fires in several states.

For areas of Australia’s eastern coastline, heatwaves were followed by heavy rains that led to the second ‘hundred year flood’ in two years. Jakarta also experienced flooding, from which even the presidential palace was not spared.

Meanwhile areas of North and South America continued to battle through some of the worst droughts of the past century, threatening the livelihoods of farmers as well as domestic and international food supply.

On the other end of the spectrum, China recorded its coldest temperatures in 28 years and temperatures in western Russia have been roughly 6 degrees Celsius below average. Abnormally cold conditions also hit South Asia, contributing to over 200 deaths in northern India and at least 80 in Bangladesh.

The usually dry and mild-wintered Middle East also had a difficult January, having to deal with an atypical spate of snowstorms and heavy precipitation that led to flooding.

Beyond weather events, industrial and human activities led to further extreme environmental conditions, most notably in China – where Beijing experienced haze so extreme as to be described as ‘beyond index’.

While these events occurred concurrently, it would be misleading to group them under a single umbrella. Each had unique local characteristics and drivers.

Nevertheless, global climatic changes are more measureable, and human activities having more of an impact on climate and weather than ever before. In the words of leading climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, ‘the answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be’.

Outside of climate change, human impacts on environmental systems are accelerating, with often laudable developments such as industrialisation and urbanisation fomenting disruptive environmental challenges.

The events of January overwhelmed many physical and social systems that support everyday human activities. However, different locales showed varying levels of resilience.

Fluidity proved essential. Cities and countries whose physical infrastructure had built-in redundancies, and were equipped to adapt to more variables, were more able to cope.

Social infrastructure also proved important, and tools that equipped communities to respond cohesively were invaluable. Communications technologies such as mobile phones and social media platforms made a difference. These avenues for connectivity helped communities, governments and other responding parties to work cooperatively, a fundamental step in successfully adapting to abrupt or unpredicted environmental changes.

Such social efforts must proceed in tandem with greater physical preparedness to effectively confront the formidable environmental conditions likely to define the ‘new normal’ of the coming decades.

Transboundary haze: regional efforts may help, but the solution lies with Indonesia

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on September 28, 2012
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The National Environmental Agency has recently announced that it will implement a range of new measures to improve national air quality standards by 2020. These measures largely concern domestic sources of air pollution but will also address international causes of poor air quality; with a specific focus upon transboundary (TB) haze. This new policy is a step in the right direction, creating more effective ways of monitoring and measuring haze levels. Despite this progress, the extent to which Singapore can impact the trajectory of the haze is limited, and the crux of efforts to combat TB haze remains with Indonesia. In light of possibility that the fires and haze may worsen over time, and considering the difficulties Indonesia faces in addressing this problem, Singapore should amplify involvement in regional efforts to facilitate action in Indonesia.

The source of TB haze in the region is primarily forest fires in Indonesia, generally deliberately lit for the purposes of land clearing and soil rejuvenation for agriculture. Environmental conditions (including El Nino) impact the scale of the fires and the spread of the haze, notably the strength and direction of winds, and the incidence of rain. Research is currently being conducted to determine how climate change may affect the incidence and scale of fires in Indonesia. Although it is too early to determine exactly what these effects may be, it is likely that warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns will exacerbate fires and increase haze levels. There is also evidence to suggest that climate change may influence the frequency and severity of the El Nino effect (although understanding of this relationship is immature).

As experienced in Singapore, repercussions of the haze include public health issues, tensions in diplomatic relations, and economic losses. Singapore has attempted to engage with Indonesia on this issue, notably through efforts in Jambi province, but success has been limited. ASEAN has also responded to this problem, developing various measures to address the problem. Despite bilateral and regional efforts, however, the haze continues to plague Singapore and the wider region almost annually. This is due to a combination of ASEAN’s limited organisational capacity to enforce policies, and Indonesia’s lack of capacity and will to address the root sources of the problem on a national level, or with regional or bilateral assistance. Factors that limit Indonesia’s will or capacity to address the problem include:

  • Growing demand for cash crops that are typically grown on deforested land, and make a significant contribution to Indonesia’s GDP
  • Difficulties in measuring externalities created by this type of agriculture, leading to the perception that the benefits of forest burning outweigh the incentives to stop
  • Geographical context, including the size of forested areas, and difficulties in monitoring forestry activities from the ground
  • Insufficient legal frameworks to create and enforce forestry policies on national and local levels
These assessments suggest that forest burning and the resultant haze are likely to continue and potentially worsen. Considering these projections, and the scale and scope of problems resulting from fires and haze, Singapore should redouble engagement efforts both regionally and with Indonesia directly.

Environmental Decision Making: Thinking alternatively in the face of inaction

In order to have a better world for us to live in and our descendants to enjoy, we need proactive environmental policymaking that can stop global environmental catastrophes. Although some renowned economists and climate skeptics talk in favor of “business-as-usual” strategies that undermine climate science, a more hands on approach is needed. Frank Ackerman’s Can We Afford the Future? The Economics of a Warming World analyzes this issue, and lays out the argument for a proactive approach in lucid style.

Ackerman strongly criticizes the stance taken by conventional economists and climate skeptics. He notes the need to “identify mistaken assumptions” on environmental decision making and offers an “alternative understanding of climate economics.” Despite being an economist, Ackerman looks ahead of his discipline and takes a skeptical look at approaches like Cost-benefit analysis, Market equilibrium, Free Market, Laissez-faire policies which has developed on a utopian ideal rather than real world. In addition, he criticizes some renowned economists, for their arbitrary statements in favor of “business-as-usual” strategies, such as William Nordhaus, Sheila Olmstead, Robert Stavins, Robert Haln, Paul Joskow, Richard Schmalensee and Milton Friedman. He also criticizes Bjorn Lomborg, Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, and a writer against active climate policies. According to Ackerman, Lomborg’s limitations are “questions of accuracy, bias, and authority; cost-benefit analysis of climate change versus other priorities; and understanding of economics.”

In terms of climate policy making, Ackerman notes that ethical and political judgments are also vital in complementing economic modeling. He offers four guiding principles on climate economics for the future: “Your grandchildren’s lives are important”; “We need to buy insurance for the planet”; “Climate damages are too valuable to have prices”; “Some costs are better that others”. Ackerman also criticizes the long process of developing better frameworks at the global level. Rather than wasting more time on negotiations and criticism, Ackerman proposes, we can start with one existing policy proposal.

This approach urges us to consider the costs associated with climate policies in a holistic manner, rather than only the present cost of the climate policy. We should think differently: like the way we think about giving high premium to the insurance company with a high interest rate or in case of early start to a destination to avoid delay and other uncertainties on the road or in case of investing in the financial market.

Ackerman’s style is thought provoking, and although he does not offer any revolutionary insight into the issue of climate change and society, his argument is forceful and easy to understand. He scores on the point that climate change is not value neutral and we ultimately have to pay for it in ways that are poorly understood by our economists. Although this informative book is to some extent US-centric, it will be enlightening for general readers as well as policy makers, policy advocates and climates skeptics. This book will also be an interesting read to non-specialists like students and people who are curious or interested in debates on climate change.

Rethinking Waste Management in Singapore

Singapore shines as a model for urban sustainable development. As the venue for three major international conferences related to sustainable development in early July 2012, Singapore’s commitment to sustainable urban development took on even more meaning given the events’ timing soon after the lacklustre outcome of the Rio+20 conference. That said, however, an emphasis on infrastructural development is only part of the solution. Addressing social apathy during the implementation of sustainable development policies at the grassroots level remains difficult.

One area where this is most evident in Singapore is the issue of waste management. While Singapore has been commended for its technological advances in waste water management, solid waste management, particularly in terms of recycling – has had several challenges. Although the rate of recycling has increased from 40% to 59% from 2000 to 2011, analysis of the breakdown of different types of waste indicates that much of the waste that is recycled comes from the industrial sector. Moreover, despite being among the top 5 wastes generated in Singapore, the recycling rate of plastics and food waste is still low. As such, while efforts to regulate recycling in industrial sectors have been successful, measures to improve recycling efforts amongst the mass public has been limited.

The Singapore government is investigating the paucity of environmental action in the public sphere but there are already some evident factors. Firstly, and most prominently, is the poor awareness on the specific conditions for recycling, such as the fact that items that are to be recycled cannot be contaminated with food waste. This has resulted in a proportion of items found in recycle bins are not recyclable.

Secondly, a culture of convenience creates a degree of complacency in recycling pro-actively. This is reflected in wide use of plastic utensils, which are still the preferred economic choice for Singapore food vendors, and the design of Singapore’s public housing, in which a single rubbish chute has made it easier for people to dispose of their waste, rather than separate recyclables from organic waste.

Finally, certain types of recycling have yet to find traction in some commercial sectors. For instance, composting of food waste has yet to take root in Singapore, whether at the household level, or in the hospitality/catering industry. Moreover, the lack of buy-in from the public has even driven some small pioneering companies out of business. As for plastics, they are not as lucrative as other recyclables like paper and tin cans.

These above mentioned factors thus contribute to inefficient recycling efforts in Singapore. It could be suggested that creating legislation to enforce a system of separating recyclables from organic waste, such as in Japan, would be the best option. Till then, environmental efforts in Singapore will continue to be, by and large, jaded by the culture of convenience and profitability.

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In Climate Change Negotiations, Less Is More

For a “once-in-a-generation opportunity”, the Rio+20 Conference suffers from a lack of expectations. The anticipated non-attendance of prominent heads of state, vague conference themes and painfully slow pace of negotiations have contributed to the prevalent view that most positive outcomes will emerge outside of state-level delegations. There is tacit acceptance that little progress will be made on climate change; hence the increased emphasis on sustainable development. This sacrifices both ambition and the possibility of meaningful consensus.

Despite strengthening evidence on the perils of climate change and benefits from sustainable development, achieving international consensus on specific goals has been difficult. An extremely comprehensive document – Agenda 21 – resulted from Rio ’92. However, the UNFCCC and the Convention on Biological Diversity, specific legal instruments aimed at achieving the Agenda 21 aspirations, have largely failed to do so. Rio+20, by aiming for another comprehensive document, is re-treading a well-worn path.

Avoiding difficult fracture points on climate change is not a solution if it results in another weak consensus. A whole chapter of Agenda 21 is devoted to addressing climate change, making it an important part of the sustainable development paradigm. The enormous benefits of binding international agreements are crucial to ensure political, private sector and civil society commitment to mitigating climate change. Considering the limited results achieved at recent Conferences of the Parties to the UNFCCC, a new approach is needed to change the form, without changing the substance, of climate change negotiation. Rio+20 should be the laboratory to test that new approach.

There are positive signs. Energy use – the dominant cause of climate change – is a Critical Issue at Rio+20. The conference, through the concept of green economy, emphasises energy efficiency over emission reduction. The voluntary commitments made by prominent developing economies at Copenhagen and Cancun were made in terms of carbon intensity, indicating that energy efficiency would be a far more acceptable parameter in climate change discussions. Apart from supply-side management, controlling fossil fuel consumption is recognised, even by industry, as necessary. Renewable energy requires the restructuring of energy infrastructure, creating negotiating roadblocks. Negotiating better energy utilisation within carbon-committed economies is more likely to yield results.

Rio+20 has highlighted low-carbon transport as a focus area. This focus on a particular sector of an economy is extremely important since it replaces the holistic aspirations of climate change negotiations with an incremental alternative. The benefits of such an approach include increased participation in negotiations, more flexibility and clarity in defining mitigation parameters, better monitoring of target realization, the space to focus on critical sectors and the reduction of sector-based protectionism. It must be extended to identify other sectors which are suited to sector-specific agreements.

Rio+20 should be used as an opportunity to create focused but binding commitments on nations (as the UNEP recommended). In the ever-broadening areas of climate change and sustainable development, the devil remains in the details. A measured approach to resolving some of those details would make this conference as worthwhile as its landmark predecessor.

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Changing Gears for Effective (Climate) Change

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on January 31, 2012
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In her fiery speech at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban in late 2011 (video above), youth leader Ms Anjali Appadurai, expressed the critical importance for Conference delegates to deliver a legally binding document with substantial limits on carbon emissions and sufficient funds for climate adaptation. Similar to previous UNFCCC meetings, such optimism by representatives of environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs) is often dampened by the incremental progress in the negotiating process.

Given the fact that it is highly unlikely that such a rate of incremental change will vary in the near future, ENGOs must reconsider their many approaches in influencing efforts to address climate change. Three main shifts in approaches must be considered:

The first shift for ENGOs to make is to recognise the fact that their role in the UNFCCC process is limited. While ENGOs have been able to increase their visibility and influence in the UNFCCC process over the years, they have been circumscribed by structural challenges within the UNFCCC process, where governments are ultimately the change-makers. Moreover, government actions in UNFCCC are limited by the some level of pragmatism as well as an unwillingness to commit finances and resources in the long term.

The second shift is to channel efforts in global level to the national and local level. To its credit, the UNFCCC process as seen positive moves in building adaptive capacity at the local level with the introduction of the Adaptation Hub – a forum to support the operationalisation of the Cancun Adaptation Framework at local and national levels. This is further strengthened by inter-city-led initiatives such as the Durban Adaptation Charter for Local Governments, and initiatives that highlight the importance of traditional/local knowledge in solutions for addressing climate change. In this regard, there are several avenues in which ENGOs can make solid and immediate change and progress to the lives of communities most vulnerable to environmental change.

The final shift is the need to explore other avenues for progress beyond the UNFCCC process. With funding issues being a major impediment to facilitating ENGOs’ work and upscaling small-scale initiatives, ENGOs should therefore devote more time to engaging and working with private corporations to support these efforts, rather than be opposed to them. In addition to this, ENGOs must be well equipped to integrate climate change issues with existing socio-economic concerns. In a recent ranking of NGOs,  NGOs that made it to the top 10 such as Care International and Oxfam have been able to demonstrate how their initiatives integrate and support concerns related to climate change. In doing so, ENGOs would be in a better position to inform and enhance other global environment-related initiatives, such as the upcoming Rio+20 (also known as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development) in June 2012.

Such strategies should therefore be considered seriously by ENGOs to ensure effective progress in climate governance.

*This blog post is an adapted version of the January 2012 edition of NTS Alert on ENGOs’ Bitter Pill: Adapting to Incremental Climate (Governance) Change.

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Non-Communicable Diseases: Beyond International Health (I)

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on September 16, 2011
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The global non-communicable disease (NCD) burden has taken centre stage on this year’s international health agenda. According to a recent UN Secretary-General’s report, 36 million people die annually from NCDs, amounting to 63 per cent of global deaths. Of those, nine million people die before the age of 60, and 90 per cent of deaths occur in developing countries. Such trends have socio-economic implications and pose prominent challenges to human security worldwide.

It appears that this year, the UN and its partner agencies are seeking to raise the profile of the NCD burden. So far, we have witnessed twomajor international events focused on NCDs: the WHO Global Forum on NCDs, the First Global Ministerial Conference on Healthy Lifestyles and Noncommunicable Disease Control in Moscow. Additionally, the UN High-level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases set to take place in New York from 19 – 20 September.  It is interesting to note that this is only the second time in the UN’s history that the General Assembly and heads of state and government have come together to discuss what has been touted “an emerging health issue with a major socio-economic impact” – the first was on HIV/AIDS a decade ago.

However, these efforts have also received their share of criticism. The draft statement on NCDs issued by the High-level Meeting was labelled weak and disappointing by the NCD Alliance, an international organisation comprising 2,000 health groups. They argued that the draft offered no new targets or commitments towards combating the four most common types of NCDs – cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory diseases, or their four main risk factors – tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol.

Furthermore, the tackling of NCD risk factors raises many questions related to the balance between trade and public health interests, particularly tobacco trade and consumption. Tobacco, a leading risk factor for almost all NCDs, is considered responsible for more than two-thirds of lung cancers, 40 per cent of chronic respiratory disease, and 10 per cent of cardiovascular disease.

Managing the tobacco issue is proving especially tricky for the United States, which is expected to uphold its credibility on global health while being the world’s largest tobacco exporter and seeking to maintain and enlarge foreign markets for their products. Diatribe in response has been aggressive:  some within the medical and political community have called to exclude tobacco from trade agreements altogether. Tobacco companies have also defended their interests, calling to eliminate tobacco tariffs, block large health warning labels on cigarette packs, and expand markets in low- and middle-income countries.

Although at first glance the NCD issue comes across as purely a health concern, upon closer inspection, a myriad of connected challenges, especially those related to trade, render the international management of NCDs a far more ambitious project than it appears. It remains questionable as to whether the optimistically-worded Moscow Declaration on NCDs, product of the Global Ministerial Conference, will pave the way to effective action. My next blog entry will assess the outcomes of the High-level Meeting within the context outlined here.

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Enhancing Early Warning Systems for Disaster Management in Indonesia

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on September 2, 2011
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A recent report by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) noted that Indonesia faces the highest risk from tsunamis worldwide. The evaluation of this report was based on the number of areas and residents exposed to active tectonic faults. The data also highlights the importance of disaster preparedness. In terms of physical vulnerability, Indonesia is less vulnerable than Japan. However, due to the lack of effective disaster mitigation and contingency measures, Indonesia’s level of risk is higher than Japan’s.

This recent report serves to further validate previous reports that highlight Indonesia’s vulnerability to disasters. These include reports by the Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF), World Bank, World Economic Forum and the United Nations’ Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. The reports note that Indonesia’s lack of preparedness has partly been due to the difficulties it faces in implementing disaster preparedness mechanisms. For tsunamis, despite strong advocacy for the critical need of early warning systems particularly after the 2004 Asian tsunami, this still remains a work in progress. Installing apparatuses on the ground for the Indonesian Tsunami Warning system, for instance, was hampered by geographical constraints and vandalism especially in remote areas like the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra.

A new scientific discovery may provide a solution to these constraints. Scientists in Brazil, France and the US have discovered the possibility of creating a global remote sensing system for tsunamis via monitoring the ionsphere the sea surface level or the pressure of the water near the seabed. This system would therefore mean that early warning equipment are not required to be erected on the ground, as the tsunamis can be monitored by the use of satellites. This development thus has the potential for enhancing existing early warning systems in the future, and would contribute to more effective disaster preparedness mechanisms in Indonesia.

That said, technological advancements in early warning systems are only one part of ensuring effective disaster preparedness mechanisms. A culture of preparedness must also be cultivated within state institutions as well as communities. This is to ensure that immediate and effective responses in times of disasters extend to various levels of society. This would include the need for proper social safety nets for communities in the event that they have to leave behind sources of economic livelihoods. As seen during the Mount Merapi eruption in 2010, despite early evacuation warnings to communities living close to Mount Merapi, there was little sense of urgency amongst residents, many of whom did not want to leave their properties behind. As such, effective awareness amongst residents, as well as guarantees or insurances for lost livelihoods, must complement early warning systems to ensure better coordinated responses to disasters.

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Faith-Based Organisations’ role in Disaster Preparedness

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on August 8, 2011
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Literature on disaster preparedness has highlighted the importance of ensuring effective and coordinated responses amongst various stakeholders. The role played by civil society organisations (CSOs) complements governmental efforts in disaster management. Moreover, faith-based organisations (FBOs), which constitute a segment of CSOs, are  playa significant role in addressing NTS related issues, such as poverty alleviation, social development, health and migration. There have also been efforts by some FBOs in providing assistance in disaster relief, as they are often the first to respond and the last to leave in disaster response situations.

While this is commendable, there has also been an increasing trend for FBOs to play a greater role in disaster preparedness rather than just disaster relief. Indeed, disaster preparedness has increasingly been emphasised in international discussions as an important phase in the disaster management cycle; so as to reduce the risks when a disaster strikes. Moreover, FBOs facilitate the implementation of disaster preparedness policies amongst communities and thus fill in the gaps which often exist in translating policies at the local level.

Southeast Asia, which is highly vulnerable to disasters, has and continues to benefit from increasing engagement of FBOs in disaster management. Indonesia provides many examples of this, especially since the 2004 Asian Tsunami, after which both local and international FBOs rendered assistance.

Engagement with FBOs has primarily been a means of creating greater awareness and precipitating action amongst local communities when disaster strikes. For instance, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU – one of the country’s two major Muslim organisations) has since 2004 sought to address flooding and landslides as a result of deforestation by setting up a community-based disaster risk management body. NU has also worked with the Australian Government via AusAID to enhance disaster awareness and preparedness amongst children and teachers in NU Boarding schools, as well as strengthen cooperation between community and local authorities on disaster management. In recent developments, NU has formalised its working relation with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in environmental protection, which includes community measures of adapting to flooding and the effects of climate change.

A primary factor leading to the success of such FBO initiatives is that the FBOs’ support and membership base puts them in a good position of influence to reach out to various sections of society. These NU initiatives, as well as other faith-based projects, have gained traction to the point that even Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment has recently initiated its own faith-based environmental program. There is clearly a growing role for FBOs and their influence on local communities should not be underestimated.

That said, however, two important factors must be considered to ensure that such initiatives are fed into national disaster management efforts. Firstly, these initiatives need to be up-scaled and sustained overtime so as to be accessible to wider section of society. Secondly, such local initiatives must be mapped and incorporated into governmental policies, so as to fortify collaboration across various stakeholders in disaster management. Through such two-pronged approaches, FBOs would be better able to influence policy and improve the lives of communities.

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The Real Price of Hydro-Power Dams

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on July 5, 2011
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As one of the world’s economic powerhouses, China’s electricity consumption has been increasing in tandem with its economic growth, recording a new high of over 4.19 trillion kwh in 2010. In recent years, China has repeatedly faced severe electricity shortages as the demand for electricity surges during the summer time. Consequently, the Chinese government has sought to diversify its sources of electricity. Moreover, international pressures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions forces China to focus more on the development of clean energy, such as hydropower.

Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has invested over 23 billion US dollars on building the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River – the largest hydropower station in the world in terms of installed capacity. The Dam is now fully operational with the total installed capacity of 18,200 MW and the annual generation capacity of 84.7 billion KWH. It is expected to provide powerful support for China’s fast-growing economy and tame the mother river of the Chinese nation.

However, the debate over the dam has never ceased since its embryonic stage. Despite the economic benefits from operating the dam, experts opposed to the project have warned that the construction of the dam would disrupt the water system of the Yangtze River and consequently cause environmental degradation via pollution, soil erosion, landslides, etc. The controversies have been fuelled by the dramatic weather conditions in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River this year – severe drought in April and May and later floods in June, which have been China’s largest in 50 years. Some have blamed the dam as the cause of  more frequent  disasters. This has even been acknowledged by the Chinese government recently,  in which the dam is facing some urgent problems that need to be solved as soon as possible.

In addition to environmental and geologic disasters, the project has also caused negative social impacts, such as the displacement of local communities. It is estimated that over one million people have been displaced by the reservoir of the Dam, but the resettlement project has not been satisfactory. For instance, the farmers who account for 40% of the total displaced population do not have enough arable land in their new place.

The Three Gorges Dam has certainly benefited China’s economic development and efforts to curb climate change by providing a clean source of energy. However, it should be noted that the negative impacts of artificially regulating nature could be much higher than we have anticipated. The Three Gorges Dam is not a unique case, but rather the pros and cons of hydroelectric dams have always been a theme of academic and policy debate. For instance, the Aswan High Dam in Egypt has also faced similar problems as the Three Gorges. The proposal of building dams on the Mekong River is a source of dispute between countries along the river. Hydropower is clean, but it is also important to ensure that solutions to problems associated with hydropower projects are green.

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Protection of Domestic Workers in Malaysia: One step forward, two steps backward?

On 30 May 2011, Malaysia and Indonesia, after two years of negotiation, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on domestic workers in Bandung, Indonesia. The agreement is an improvement over the one signed in 2006 as it provides some forms of protection to migrant Indonesian domestic workers who encountered a wide range of abuses including long hours of work without overtime pay; no rest days; incomplete and irregular payment of wages; psychological, physical, and sexual abuse; and poor living conditions. The most extreme cases of such abuses have resulted in the death of domestic workers at the hands of their employers. In addressing these problems, the 2011 MOU allows migrant Indonesian domestic workers to keep their passports instead of having to surrender to their employers and guarantees them a weekly day off. It also requires salaries of domestic workers to be paid using bank transfers so that evidence of payment can be verified through bank statements.

However, the agreement fell critically short of addressing the rights of domestic workers comprehensively. For example, although the MOU recognises some of the rights of migrant Indonesian domestic workers, they still do not enjoy the full range of rights accorded to other migrant workers by Malaysia’s labour laws such as the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1952 and the Employment Act 1955. As a result, Indonesian domestic workers remain vulnerable to abuse and exploitation despite the signing of an MOU. A recent case of the death of an Indonesian domestic worker at the hands of her employer on 5 June 2011 is testament to the fact that the MOU will not significantly improve their situations.

The MOU also fell short of addressing one of the pertinent issues of establishing minimum wages. In the absence of a minimum wage, migrant domestic workers are paid on the basis of their countries of origin.  As a result Indonesian (and Cambodian) domestic workers earn between USD133 to 200 a month whereas their Filipina counterpart earn USD400. Even as Indonesia and Malaysia failed to improve the wages of domestic workers, they agreed to cap recruitment fees at USD1500. Employers are required to pay the entire amount up-front and are permitted to reclaim up to USD600 by cutting several months of the domestic worker’s salary. Although the agreement stipulates that no more than 50 per cent of the worker’s salary can be deducted each month, such deductions from domestic worker’s already meagre salaries constitutes economic exploitation that may result in debt bondages thereby perpetuating the cycle of abuse and exploitation. The two countries could have reduced recruitment fees further or prohibit the practice of extolling recruitment fees from domestic workers altogether.

It would be a mistake for Malaysia and Indonesia to think of the MOU as a solution to issues afflicting migrant domestic workers. They should consider the MOU not as an end but as a means towards a more comprehensive agreement in the future.

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Many Questions, Difficult Answers on Forest Governance

Two weeks ago, the Business 4 Environment Global Summit was held in Jakarta, Indonesia. During this Summit, government and business actors were urged to collaborate in achieving the goal of zero net deforestation and forest degradation (ZNDD) by 2020. ‘Zero net’ does not mean that there will be no deforestation and forest degradation at all. Rather, the approach allows “changes in the configuration of the land-use mosaic, provided the net quantity, quality and carbon density of forests is maintained”. ZNDD also aims to preserve the remaining forest and reduce forest-based greenhouse gas emissions

The Summit was also taken as an opportunity for WWF to publish the Living Forests Report. The Report does not provide answers or impose solutions on forest managers. Rather it attempts to create rooms for conversations to seek a recipe for achieving forest preservation while maintaining socio-economic development. Moreover, it identifies five crosscutting issues that are important to achieve ZNDD and one of them is governance. Good governance in this case refers to secure land tenure, effective law enforcement and empowered local communities, and implementing these measures requires first understanding of the basic concept of governance.

According to UNESCAP, governance means “the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented)”. It also suggests that good governance requires eight characteristics namely participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law.

Thus, in an attempt to start a conversation on good governance, several questions can be posed on how a conversation should happen:

  • Who is involved in the conversation?
  • How the conversation is conducted?
  • What is the method or approach taken to create genuine and fair conversations?
  • Who moderates the deliberations to manage genuine and fair conversations?

These questions do not necessarily challenge the accuracy of technical matters, but they are crucial for dealing with conflicts of interests and understanding power relations among stakeholders in the forestry sector. These questions may also lead to specific questions on forest governance; including whether key issues identified as important to ZNDD include real issues encountered by local communities, and whether national forest policy is translated into local policy that takes into account complex local realities.

A good example to demonstrate the significance of governance is the criticism on Indonesia’s commitment to stopping forest loss by implementing a forest moratorium to stop issuing logging permits for two years. The moratorium allows Indonesia to improve its land use planning and permitting process, and build their institutional capacity. The moratorium is scheduled to be imposed in early 2011, yet four months have passed and there is still no indication as to when it will be set in motion. Corruption and the hegemony of some actors linger and seem to hamper Indonesia’s effort to halt deforestation and forest degradation. Moreover, environmental activists took the momentum of ASEAN Summit in Jakarta last week to call upon Indonesia to act on the moratorium plan. The delay in implementing the moratorium is seen as poor quality of government’s performance. Thus, the above concerns clearly shed a light on how a country like Indonesia is still struggling to develop good governance particularly in forestry sector. Although rather slow, the moratorium is certainly a significant step to achieve sound forest management.

Shaking the myth of post-disaster looters

The recent disaster in Japan provoked a tsunami of negative stories and commentaries. Some focused on the tragic fate of the thousands of Japanese people killed or otherwise affected by the monstrous earthquake and tsunami. Others presented Hollywood-style horror scenarios about the problems with one Japanese nuclear power plant. There were also those who criticized the scare stories and instead lamented about the pitiful state of contemporary risk-obsessed culture. The most “optimistic” report “expressed “relief” that the earthquake hit very developed and well-prepared Japan rather than some impoverished Third World countries were there would almost certainly be more deaths, chaos and misery than in Japan.

Yet, there was one issue that seemed to attract media audience because of its seemingly positive outlook rather than because of anything scary, sad or worth condemnation – the near absence of looting in at least the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Western commentators and public seemed genuinely shocked by the fact that most of the Japanese people behaved quite orderly instead of robbing, raping and running in amok. After all, we are all familiar with horrid stories from New Orleans, Haiti and even New Zealand. The immediate explanations of this alleged abnormality pointed to the Japanese culture and society that promoted cooperation, discipline and good manners. Other “experts” claimed that there was more to it than just culture of honesty and that one should also look at the Japanese legal system, its massive police force and even the infamous Yakuza in order to understand why the Japanese people did not all become mad criminals. All authors expressed hope that perhaps we too could learn something from the Japanese example.

One could say, that the stories about the predominantly calm, cordial and cooperative atmosphere in post-disaster Japan are very heartening and that its authors should be congratulated for bringing them to public attention. The only problem is that the notion that the case of Japan is qualitatively unique is completely wrong. As Johann Hari noted: “The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organise spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness.” Furthermore, this seems true “across continents and across contexts.” Indeed, in reality the media grossly exaggerated the horror stories of lawlessness in places like New Orleans, Haiti, Chile and New Zealand. Undoubtedly in the cases of Haiti and New Orleans, racist prejudices helped to convince the public already “suspecting” that black people, when not kept an eye on, will certainly run in amok to loot, kill and rape. In fact, the myth of rapes allegedly following disasters has been so powerful that despite no evidence, various newspapers continue mentioning it. Similarly, the commonly held image of the cold and well-mannered Japanese was a fertile ground for the “astonishing” reports of no looting.

What is really surprising about the stories of kindness and cooperation in Japan, is how we were all surprised by reading them. Perhaps it is time we reconsidered scenarios of chaos, lawlessness and violence related to natural disaster?

Health Security Post-Japanese Quake and Tsunami

On 11 March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude  earthquake occurred in the Pacific Ocean just off the northeastern coast of Japan, near the coastal city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture. The National Police Agency said that as of 21 March, the death toll and number of those reported missing came to a combined total of 21,911.

The earthquake and resultant tsunami have had significant health impacts on the Japanese population. Japanese public health officials have struggled with water treatment and distribution systems that have been contaminated by ocean water and oil, gas, pesticides, and decaying bodies carried inland by the waves. There are also worries of cross-contamination of waste water and treated water, escalating fears of the spread of water-borne diseases. Treating trauma, crush wounds and respiratory illnesses in tsunami victims has been identified as a pressing health priority. According to some, rapidly diminishing stocks of medical supplies and the mental health of the tsunami and quake survivors continues to challenge health response systems.

These public health concerns have been exacerbated by fears of health ramifications from exposure to nuclear radiation following explosions at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. Although radiation health risks have been described as low, certain experts have warned that radioactive releases of steam from the plant could last for months. This has prompted widening fears of long-term public health, food security (such as radiation contamination in food from Japan) and environmental ramifications not only for the Japanese, but also for neighbouring countries and across the Pacific.

The post-quake period has seen what some have called a bubbling ‘cauldron of fear’ from the potential health ramifications of the crisis. Countries as far away as Finland have had to reassure their populations. US nuclear plans are in question.  The Philippine and Malaysian governments have publicly urged citizens to stop circulating hoax text messages encouraging rumours of radiation rain.

However, it remains important to recognise that Fukushima rates 5 on a seven-step scale of nuclear incidents. This places it on par with Three Mile Island, which resulted in no deaths and had no impact on the incidence of cancer in the region. It also places two rungs below Chernobyl at 7. Radiation experts have also said that given the nature of the manufacturing industries in Japan, there is little danger of radiation contamination in food reaching harmful levels.

While it remains important to recognise the health security risks and threats that have emerged as a direct consequence of the Japanese tragedy, it is equally important to exercise a measured approach in assessing and analysing them. The overestimation of threat can cause undue fear and panic. Conversely, the underestimation of problems can lead to a lack of commitment to addressing them. This is true to addressing both conventional health challenges as well as any nuclear radiation-related health issues arising from this situation. Ultimately, a moderate and well-informed approach to dealing with health security issues in post-disaster Japan may encourage better direction and strategy in resolving them.

Resilient Cities in a Hazard Sensitive World

Cities are complex living systems. A city is home to many inhabitants and other living organisms that live within a melded natural and built environment. These elements of a city form a dynamic, relationship between humans and their urban environment, which evolves as cities grow. The rapid and multidimensional changes in a city affect the capability of the city to respond to changes. The ability of a city to cope with change is a subject to urban resilience. Resilience has multiple meanings in various contexts, however  the Resilience Alliance has contributed a useful definition which states that resilience refers to the ability of a system to not only absorb disturbances but also to learn from them.

Disturbances driven by rapid population growth, pollution and climate change bring about changes to the urban environment. Additionally, changes occurring in urban socio-ecological systems are crucial as they influence the resilience of the urban environment. Such changes can also cause shocks and vulnerability and lead to declining urban resilience. Thus, the resilience of the urban socio-ecological systems demonstrates its adaptive capacity to respond to the “unexpected or unpredictable shocks”. Resilience can be built, maintained and managed by taking into account uncertainties and complexity in the process. This approach is called adaptive management.

It would seem that the idea of creating a resilient city requires a kind of reinvented governance that embraces a learning process in a changing environment. As cities grow, changes will keep occurring and they are not always predictable. Thus, the method of controlling the driver of change or the change itself seems to be outdated. Cities need to be flexible to changes for which they will have little capacity to pre-empt the causes. Despite a wealth of uncertainties, it is clear that cities should strive to build adaptive capacities and facilitate fluid learning processes that attempt to understand changing conditions.

Recent events that have affected coastal cities have brought these needs to the forefront of global awareness. Some examples of these events are Sumatera earthquake and India Ocean tsunami that lashed coastal areas in Asia and Africa, Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans, USA and the current earthquake and tsunami that hit the east coast of Honshu, Japan. An interesting point to note from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is how the calamities have been discussed as a test of Japan’s resilience. The Japanese resilient spirit has clearly mesmerised the world. Central to their resilience is the human agency that demonstrated through the way governments and wider communities respond to the shocks and behave during the crisis. The resilience is visible in the people’s behaviour, yet it might be too early to claim that the cities are also resilient.

There are three questions to answer in order to prove a city’s resilience, they are:

  1. To what degree the cities have been affected and to what extent that they can still provide basic services?
  2. How soon the affected cities are able to self-reorganize?
  3. How much these cities can learn from and adapt to the changes resulted?

These questions suggest that it will take time to properly examine the resilience of a city as it is measured using both environmental and social perspectives. It is inevitable that disasters have somehow become the tool to test for cities’ resilience. The directly affected cities might be assessed for their ability to provide water, electricity, food and other supplies despite the loss they experience. Disaster preparedness and relief programs are also examined not only whether they are available but also whether they are effective. It is important that such response measures be applied to both the highly affected cities and surrounding cities, as the later might be less affected but crucially play roles with regard to providing support for the highly affected cities. By looking at wide range elements in the social-ecological systems, from city’s environment to city’s governance we could then make a proper and complete assessment of a city’s resilience.

All in all, such a ‘test’ should be for all coastal cities across the world. Taking into account the past, present and future events, cities in the world need to start the learning process.

Japan in Jeopardy? Managing Energy Vulnerabilities Amidst Disaster Response

Japan’s recent earthquake – and the tsunami that followed it – is the strongest on record and has been dubbed to be Japan’s worse crisis since the Second World War. As the country grapples with the ensuing threat of multiple nuclear meltdowns after explosions at 3 Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) reactors in Fukushima, questions are being raised as to the extent of the nuclear crises at hand. As it stands, the death toll is estimated to surpass 10,000 while almost 2 million households are without power supply and 1.4 million are without running water in the colder Northern regions of Japan. Moreover, Japan’s aging population also indicates higher vulnerabilities for a substantial proportion of Japanese society in terms of health and safety.

This situation is likely to get worse with the government’s announcement of starting rolling blackouts in a bid to conserve energy – energy that would be needed to maintain the cooling systems in Japan’s NPPs to avoid nuclear meltdowns. The lack of clean water not only severely impacts public health and sanitation, but is also critical for cooling the nuclear reactors. The blackouts would also affect economic livelihoods as stalled economic activity in the industrial sector would exacerbate an already ailing Japanese economy, let alone the massive costs of damage from the earthquake and tsunami.

On hindsight, more could have been done prior to the earthquake. For instance, it was barely 5 years ago, when the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP experienced a fire and leak as a result of an earthquake measuring 6.8 in magnitude. This was partly because most NPPs in Japan have been designed to withstand earthquakes up to 6.5 in magnitude, hence little improvement has been made to fortify these NPPs since.

A possible reason for the license extension is that 30% of Japan’s energy supply is generated from nuclear energy. While some may be quick to criticise Japan’s substantial dependence on nuclear energy, it is also important to realise that nuclear energy – a clean source of energy – was an attempt to diversify Japan’s energy mix and reduce Japan’s dependence on oil imports from the Middle East that are sold at a higher premium for Asian countries.

Although Japan is Asia’s best example for disaster preparedness and technological advancements for nuclear energy, it is high time to review the processes. The current situation in Japan has even caused policymakers in the US, Switzerland and India to delay future nuclear energy plans. In Southeast Asia, where the demand for energy sources for development is increasingly insatiable, it is vital that ASEAN countries take environmental impact assessments seriously and acknowledge the importance of further enhancing their disaster capabilities to respond to potentially complex emergencies. With the increasing unpredictability and intensity of natural disasters, achieving Japan’s preparedness capabilities is only the very basic benchmark for the less developed East Asian countries if they wish to go nuclear.

This blog is an abridged version of a commentary by Sofiah Jamil and Assoc. Prof Mely Caballero-Anthony.
Click here to read the full version.

Gaps in Greening the Economy

A new report by the United Nations Environment Programme recently noted that the road to achieving a low carbon, resource efficient green economy is possible by just investing two per cent of global GDP into ten key sectors – namely Agriculture, Buildings, Cities, Fisheries, Forests, Industry, Renewable energy, Tourism, Transport, Waste Management and Water. The report asserts that doing so can help  eradicate poverty and promote long-term sustainable development in developing countries.

This report builds on growing calls to streamline environmental concerns with economic needs, in particular means of incentivising businesses to partake in environmental initiatives. The 2008 Financial Crisis precipitated these efforts as politicians perceived greening the economy as a viable means of killing two birds with one stone – i.e. creating jobs in light of a deteriorating economy worldwide while doing their part to mitigate climate change. Discussions on the potential of green economies have been a hot topic in various international meetings such as the World Economic Forum, UNESCAP and the G20. National policies supporting calls for a green economy are steadily underway, as seen in the United States, European Union, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Developing countries have also included aspects of a green economy in their national and regional reports/plans.

While these initiatives are commendable, their full implementation would take longer, regardless of a country’s level of development. Even in  developed/industrialising countries, the issue of costs is significant. For instance, a recent report suggests that switching to renewable energy sources does not create more jobs but rather costs more jobs. In addition, UAE’s ambitious carbon-free city project, Masdar City, has experienced some delays in completing its construction while proposed cap-and-trade policies in Australia and the US have continued to face legislative difficulties. The sustainability of such initiatives is also important and must avoid falling into a green washing trap, where stakeholders such as businesses and policymakers have only made incremental changes that suit their comfort levels and justified their actions with “green” as a pre-fix to their existing activities. Governments must therefore ensure funds are committed to continue existing green projects in the medium and long term, and ensure that green economy can gradueally wean off a dependence on subsidies.

In developing countries, a possible area of concern in the near future would be the extent to which heavily populated regions, such as megacities would be able to balance changes needed for a green economy vis-a-vis existing circumstances, such as growing populations, slum areas, high vulnerability to environmental risks and lack of transparency. In rural regions, it has yet to be seen whether such green economy initiatives would be accessed by poor and remote communities effectively, and bypassing any instances of corruption and inefficiencies.

It is nevertheless encouraging to see that the momentum for a green economy is growing. While sound regional and national policies would be able to set the tone for a country’s sustainability, local efforts and capacities are essential to see the process through.

A Practitioner’s Thoughts on Cancun

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on February 10, 2011
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In a recent public seminar, a climate change negotiator in Southeast Asia gave his thoughts on the UNFCCC meeting in Cancun in late 2010 (COP16). His comprehensive presentation addressed three questions: (1) Why did Cancun succeed? (2) What did Cancun achieve? and (3) What was not done in Cancun?

Why did Cancun succeed?

Compared to the UNFCCC meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP15) which was deemed a failure, COP16 was relative success. While  may COP16 benefitted from the low-expectations on the UNFCC process after the failure in Copenhagen, three factors could be highlighted for COP16’s success. Firstly, Mexico demonstrated skilful chairmanship and leadership at COP16. Secondly, although criticised for being a piecemeal effort, the Copenhagen Accord was nevertheless a political understanding amongst major parties and hence a political framework that COP16 could build on. Finally, ensuring success of the meeting was in the interest of major powers, such as the US and China, as blocking climate negotiations would be detrimental to their image. As such, these major players made the effort to express their concerns without causing further delay in the negotiations.

What did Cancun achieve?

COP16 essentially restored some faith in the multilateral process which was lost due to COP15. There are four significant outcomes of COP16. First, a multi-lateral political decision was made that the to ensure that global temperature increase remains below 2 degrees. Second, the voluntary pledges for carbon emission reductions by countries would be formalised and compiled into a document, thereby creating a ‘soft norm’ for other countries to follow suit. Third, COP16 ensured the adoption of a framework for transparency and accountability for not only developed but also developing countries. This would involve a peer review process known as the International Consultation Analysis (similar to the World Trade Organisation’s Trade Policy Review and the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review). Fourth, a $100 billion Green Climate Fund would be established to provide developing states with the necessary financial assistance they need, particularly in terms of adaptation measures and technology transfer.

What’s next?

While the above mentioned outcomes are a step forward for addressing climate change, two important areas have not been addressed. Firstly, little was said about adopting a global legal binding treaty as embedded in the low expectations for Cancun was the assumption by many policymakers that a legal binding treaty would not be adopted. Second, there was little mention of renewing the Kyoto Protocol since countries such as Russia and Japan have indicated that they are not interested renewing their commitments in the Kyoto Protocol It is unclear whether these issues could be addressed in the next UNFCCC in Durban later this year. Nevertheless, the outcomes of COP16 are commendable in breaking political deadlocks and sustaining the momentum for further international cooperation on climate change.

Friedman: The World Needs a Green Revolution

In a recent lecture in Singapore, Thomas Friedman spoke about climate change and the urgent need for breakthroughs in clean energy research, and drew parallels between two major non-traditional security issues in recent years – the economic crisis of 2008 and the ongoing ecological crisis. According to Friedman, New York Times columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, these two issues are two sides of the same coin, in which unsustainable economic growth patterns are a primary factor. Citing the example of his home country, he noted that America’s growth pattern has been both financially and ecologically unsustainable.

In highlighting the similarities between the economic and ecological crisis, both contexts – market and Mother Nature – have experienced similar accounting practices, primarily the way in which risks have been underpriced, gains privatised and losses socialised. Underpinning these practices has been a short-term mindset, which Friedman observes to have led to a breakdown of sustainable values into situational values. This, he notes, is dangerous because the only way to moderate the market and Mother Nature effectively is by adopting sustainable values.

Friedman also noted that world was becoming increasingly Hot, Flat and Crowded – Hot due to global warming; Flat due to the increasing mobility of people thanks to globalisation; and crowded to due to population increase. There were five pressing problems that have resulted in this situation – (1) increasing demand for energy and natural resources, (2) Petro-dictatorship, which highlights the inverse relationship between the price of oil and freedom, (3) energy poverty, (4) biodiversity loss, and (5) the adverse effects of climate change.

Friedman nevertheless noted that the solution to these five problems is the need to provide abundant cheap clean non-carbon emitting energy. He emphasised that the main drivers of change in this process would not be regulators and policymakers, but rather innovators and engineers. Friedman also noted that while such calls from clean technology and adopting a more green lifestyle have been increasingly reiterated, he cautioned the tendency of green washing, where stakeholders such as businesses and policymakers have only made incremental changes that suit their comfort levels and justified their actions with “green” as a pre-fix to their existing activities. Friedman likened these trends to having a Green Party rather than a Green Revolution. Friedman also noted that effective change will only occur in a Green Revolution, when the term Green disappears. Moreover, similar to revolutions, certain stakeholders of the status quo will have to lose out.

Friedman’s last point here would certainly be a bitter pill for many in policymaking circles, but is nevertheless necessary. The dosage of these pills would certainly be much more for developing countries in Asia, which face a host of developmental and governance issues in addition to  managing their economic growth and as well as the needs of their large populations. The Green Revolution that Friedman calls for would, therefore, perhaps be the most revolutionary in the developing world. Whether stakeholders in the developing world are ready for this remains to be seen.

Disasters’ Damage on Development

Recent media reports on the new wave of floods and landslides around the world have yet again highlighted the critical need for disaster preparedness and contingency plans to address the increasing intensity of weather related disasters. However, what has also played out more significantly in these incidents have been weather-related disasters’ direct adverse implications on sources of energy and economic development.

This was particularly evident in Australia where the flooding of Queensland’s coal mines are predicted to cause an increase in the price of steelmaking coal as high as $500 per tonne , thus affected more than 90 per cent of Australia’s exports. The economic costs of recovering from the floods are also proving to have indirect costs on other aspects of development, where the education and health sectors are expected to bear the flood’s clean up costs. Such costs would, however, only be the tip of the iceberg as other parts of the country are preparing for impending floods.

Given such effects on a developed country such as Australia, one cannot but imagine extensive damage that would occur in developing countries, which also face a range of  pre-existing concerns that include poverty, poor governance and the lack of capacity to address the increasing rate of intense weather related disasters. The recent floods in Sri Lanka for instance have highlighted adverse effects to food security and even possible complications in former conflict regions that have undetonated mines. While the Philippines continues to recover from the massive damage of Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, government officials need to also deal with the effects of weather related disasters in other less developed regions of the country.

The future is not all bleak as several studies have already noted the potential costs and risks of various weather related disasters as well as the necessary solutions available to address these climate vulnerabilities. The Asian Development Bank, for instance, has highlighted Southeast Asia’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change and the various measures can be taken to mitigate these effects, while UNESCAP has examined ways of reducing vulnerability to disasters, building resilience and protecting hard-won development gains.

Despite such policy recommendations, it is still difficult for countries – whether developed or developing – to effectively address these concerns. Difficulties in coordination amongst various levels of governance and strained resources remain to be sore points and to some extent outweigh capacity building measures that only often bear fruit in the long term. It is therefore necessary for states to demonstrate their commitment to working with local and regional communities in formulating long term solutions beyond the realm of disasters. States must ensure that communities play a proactive role  not only in mitigating and preparing for the disasters, but also are at the helm of local development initiatives that would be able to sustain themselves, rather than depend on national/federal inputs.

Malaysia: A Test Case for Water Reform

ON 5 November 2010, the opposition alliance party of Malaysia, Pakatan Rakyat, organised a protest rally over the long-standing issue of water privatisation in the state of Selangor. This event underscores the growing resentment against private sector management of water in Selangor (and elsewhere in Malaysia) where it is seen as benefiting cronies of the ruling federal Barisan Nasional party. The protest also highlights the need to de-politicise water resources in order to sustainably manage it.

Selangor, while under the Barisan Nasional party, gave concessions (ranging up to 30 years) to private companies like the Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd (SYABAS) to supply water to Selangor and the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya under the Concession Agreement of 15 December 2004. The agreement also granted private companies the right to hike water tariffs by 37 per cent in 2009, 25 per cent in 2012, and 20 per cent in 2015.

In the 2008 election campaign, Pakatan Rakyat promised households in Selangor 20 cubic metres of free water each month. Upon winning majority votes, Pakatan Rakyat immediately sought to nullify the Concession Agreement and demanded the takeover of water resource  management in Selangor from private operators and the Federal Government headed by the Barisan Nasional party. Also, in carrying out its election promises, the Pakatan Rakyat administration spent RM13 million each month on water subsidies in Selangor .

An estimated 93 per cent of the Malaysian population has access to water, much of which is subsidised. This is in line with Malaysia’s overall policy of subsidy on items ranging from fuel to food to water. In 2009, subsidy accounts for 15.3 per cent of the Federal Government’s spending budget. This makes Malaysia one of the most subsidised countries in the world and indeed one of the countries with the lowest water rates. Penang, for example, has the cheapest rate in the country at 31 sen (13 Singapore cents) per cubic metre. Singapore’s tariffs in comparison are seven times higher. Household water usage in Penang amounted to 286 litres a day, much more than the United Nation’s 165-litre benchmark. Singapore’s daily domestic usage on the other hand is 158 litres.

Subsidy however has exacted a huge toll on the Federal Government’s budget with deficit hitting a 20-year high of seven per cent of GDP in 2009. At the same time, it also led to poor water conservation owing to its cheap price. It is therefore no wonder that the Federal Government sought to increase the price of water both as a way to reduce water subsidy and also to improve water conservation. Water pricing, if implemented properly, can be an effective water conservation tool as it can reduce water use per unit of output. However, like the elimination of any subsidy, it can be politically complicated.

In Malaysia’s case, it appears that water pricing is driven less by scientific assessment but by politics. The first step to sustainably manage water resources is therefore to delink water from politics.

REDD: Beyond Carbon

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on December 6, 2010
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Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is a programme designed to mitigate carbon emissions by allowing industrialised countries to mobilise funds to forest-rich developing countries to protect their natural forests. REDD also allows developed countries to offset their carbon emissions and earn carbon credits to trade in international carbon markets. However, REDD is not merely a tool to reduce emissions, it also has the potential to reduce poverty, improve forest governance and conserve biodiversity.

Photo Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development (DFID)

For some people, making progress on REDD is the only realisable goal for the ongoing climate change negotiations in Cancun. In reality, there has not been any agreement on REDD architecture under UNFCCC, yet there is a large number of REDD projects undertaken on the ground. There appear to be positive responses in particular from opportunistic carbon trading companies that have recently mushroomed. Their existence is clearly subject to the demands of industrial countries and carbon emitting businesses that seek a quick escape from their responsibility to reduce emissions. For example, the Government of Aceh has voluntarily signed an agreement with Carbon Conservation, an Australian carbon trading company, to protect the forest in Ulu Masen, Aceh. The carbon credits earned from this project will be sold to Rio Tinto Aluminum.

Compared  with the tremendous efforts and struggle by forest conservationists to protect the forest and its biodiversity for years, REDD has forgathered the world’s attention to the issue of saving the world’s forests in a short period of time. In fact, many suggest that REDD can be a fundamental framework for a more effective forest protection efforts.

However, beyond carbon and the trees, there is another element of forestry that is more directly related to non-traditional security (NTS) issues, that is the security of indigenous communities and forest people who live in the forest and in the adjoining areas and whose lives depend on forest resources. For them, forests are not only a natural landscape, but also a cultural landscape. They are reliant on forest resources not only for livelihoods but also for their cultural identity. Thus, any decisions made on the forest might have serious impacts on their identity and well-being.

The prevailing concern is that REDD will keep the forest away from the indigenous people who have, in fact, contributed to forest preservation. They are at risk of being evicted from their land and denied access to the forests as REDD adds more value to the forests. However, the real sources of deforestation are illegal logging and land-based businesses namely pulp and paper, mining, and plantation industries, in addition to other exacerbating issues such as corruption and poor spatial planning.

Reducing carbon emissions to address global warming is indeed an attempt to protect humankind. Although, the challenge remains as to how it can be done without sacrificing the livelihoods of certain groups of people.  In line with NTS framework, a multiple stakeholder engagement in the REDD architecture is crucial and can be achieved through a deep and substantial involvement of the indigenous and forest people.

A Climate for Change

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on November 29, 2010
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“You must be the change you want to see in the world”

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi’s famous saying above implies the notion that change can be made starting at an individual level. However, from a different perspective, similar sentiments are needed in the climate discourse. In fact, conditions surrounding the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico seem to necessitate an urgent change. The prevailing expectations have revolved around pessimism that the conference might not be able to produce significant outcomes.

These pessimistic sentiments reveal that it is necessary to understand the complexity of a problem which may help us create change. The change in the climate change discourse will only be possible if made with all attempts by all stakeholders. Thus, if we want it happen in Cancun at international climate policy regime, we should also take our part in creating change at individual level.

A book, “The Psychology of Environmental Problems”, highlights that it is important to learn about the complexity of problems by expressing counterarguments in order to reach responsible decisions. However, the continuing differing arguments, such as the differences in viewpoints between China and the United States over what actions should be done and who should do it first, have somewhat demonstrated the slow-moving progress as the dialogues between the two countries moves towards divide and tensions rather than shared understanding.

The concerns over the progress of climate change negotiation are relevant as immersing ourselves in extended discussions and debates to find the best way to tackle environmental problems will not keep the earth from warming. A paper in the lead up to the last year’s Copenhagen Conference examines one central issue for negotiation process that is perception on the severity of climate change and its potential damage. The paper also suggests that the differences in perception are considered important to the negotiations as they may help determine the degree of commitment shown by individual stakeholders.

We might feel frustrated by the lack of commitments and incapability of the policy-makers for taking the necessary actions. However, these negative effects of the entire climate change debate on our psychology can actually be addressed by being the change we want to see. Therefore, rather than waiting for someone to make the change for us, we can start making the change ourselves.

The book of The Psychology of Environmental Problems suggests that the size of the change is not crucial, yet the most important thing is we choose to act. Furthermore, it also argues that only by changing our behaviour we can create change. It can be done by taking actions, such as reducing our consumption, choosing energy efficient appliances, taking public transport and other actions that help reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These actions can be small but they are definitely steps to achieving the big goal of creating change in the climate discourse.

Health Dimensions of Natural Disasters: Indonesia’s Mount Merapi Eruptions

Indonesia’s geographical location at the intersection of three of the world’s crustal plates makes it particularly prone to natural disasters.  Although Indonesia’s capacity to cope with natural disasters has been enhanced significantly since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, aid workers still claim that the National Disaster Management Agency remains unprepared to cope with the health consequences of the recent Mount Merapi eruptions.

There are two dimensions of health that require consideration in this context. The first dimension of health in the context of the Mount Merapi eruptions relates to the direct and immediate physical consequences of the disaster itself. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), hot ash, gases, rock and magma cause burns, asphyxiation, conjunctivitis or corneal abrasion, and acute respiratory problems. Ashfall can also cause bronchial asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions in both children and adults. Additionally, inhalation of volcanic ash is a health security hazard because it can cause severe respiratory infections.

The second dimension of health within the aforementioned context is the emergency and humanitarian response dimension: the responses of health systems and aid to ensure the health security of vulnerable populations affected by natural disasters. Health risks after a natural disaster are dependent on size of affected/displaced population, proximity of and access to safe water and functioning latrines, nutritional status of the displaced population, vector control, levels of immunity against vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, management of dead bodies, maternal and child health, public health surveillance systems, and access to healthcare services. Compounded, these problems can cause devastating consequences for the health of affected populations, as seen from Haiti’s post-earthquake cholera outbreak.

Existing response programs have taken these dimensions into account. Indonesia has a National Action Plan for Disaster Risk Reduction and an Emergency Preparedness and Response (EPR) Programme which outline strategic approaches to reducing human vulnerabilities  and health risks during disasters through a variety of measures. These include the establishment of regional crisis centres, increasing capacity building, and strengthening collaboration with the WHO. However, aid workers claim that at ground level, conditions in camps for those affected remain unsanitary, cramped and primed for serious health issues. These shortcomings could be partly due to Indonesia’s low health care expenditure in comparison with its neighbouring countries: Indonesia allocated 2.2 percent of GDP for the health sector in 2007, while the Southeast Asian average stood at 4.1 percent.

While comprehensive national plans and programmes are an integral aspect of health responses to natural disasters, they are best supplemented by similarly comprehensive and concerted efforts on the ground. Legal frameworks, accountability procedures, financial allocation, and organisational structures need to be supported by community plans for risk mitigation, local capacity for emergency provision of essential medical services, supplies, personnel and facilities, and early warning and surveillance systems. If Indonesia can achieve this necessitated level of coordination and facilitation, it will certainly be better equipped to mitigate the health security impact of potential natural disasters in the future.

Ways towards achieving real benefit of Clean Development Mechanism

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on November 1, 2010
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According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is a market-based mechanism which assists more developed countries in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by investing on projects in less developed countries. The UNFCCC suggests that the CDM is designed by taking on the economic value of certified emission reduction credits. This mechanism is actually a smart approach to encourage the private sector to take an active role in reducing  GHG emissions from the source. It also encourages private economic actors to move from business-as-usual to a more environmentally conscious business.

Source: Myclimate

However, an article discussing about CDM in Indonesia argues that the real benefits of CDM projects can be obtained if there are some improvements on the project assessment criteria to allow only the projects which hold genuine sustainable development value. In addition, CDMs have been criticized as being cheap, easy and legal pathways for more developed countries to escape from their obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within their own borders. To put it in another way, CDM has allowed more developed countries to take the ‘not in my backyard’ policy.

Thus, I would suggest that CDM requires reform, which could entail two alternative approaches whereby real benefits of CDM can be genuinely derived. Firstly, the CDM can be devised as an incentive rather than an option for meeting emission reduction targets. More developed countries are allowed to execute CDM if only they have achieved certain level of emission reduction targets within their own country. This approach might seem to apply the command and control policy, but it may encourage more developed countries to make some efforts nationally before making investments to reduce emissions in other countries.

Secondly, CDM projects should be strongly compelled to adopt technology transfers from more developed countries to less developed countries. The current CDM mechanism is also criticised for not promoting renewable projects. The technology transfers can also be paired with a binding requirement for more developed countries with the largest share of historical and current greenhouse gas emissions to provide technological assistance to less developed countries in order to undertake cleaner and greener development.

The current voluntarily-based CDM might be ineffective because it would only involve environmentally conscious companies. It is more defective if they are running the business in less developed countries whose government has little or no commitment in dealing with climate change. Certainly, a genuine solution through CDM should be made whereby real emissions reduction can  be achieved.

The Real Weapons of Mass Destruction – Part 1

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) are primarily associated with “strategic” weapon systems like nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons (NBC). Preoccupations of governments with these systems mean that less attention is paid to the “real weapons of mass destruction”. According to the former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan,

“The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems – and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms, indeed, could well be described as “weapons of mass destruction”.

Small arms and light weapons refer to weapons manufactured to military specifications for use as lethal instruments of war. Small arms such as revolvers, rifles and carbines, sub-machine-guns, assault rifles etc are designed for personal use. Light weapons on the other hand are designed for use by several persons serving as a crew. It includes heavy machine-guns, portable anti-aircraft guns, portable anti-tank guns, portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems etc.

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey estimated the number of people killed each day by small arms at 1,300 people (500,000 people annually). Small arms and its misuse, according to Small Arms Survey, effected human development in two ways. Direct effects include fatal and non-fatal injuries, the cost of treating and rehabilitating firearms casualties etc. Indirect effects include a rise in the incidence and lethality of criminality, a decline in formal and informal economic activities etc. The Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development in a landmark study observed that at least 740,000 people die each year from armed violence, a large majority of them due to small arms.

Despite the destruction inflicted by small arms on individuals and societies, there is no legally binding global treaty to control their spread. Existing frameworks under the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs only facilitates the reporting and registration of global arms transfers. As a result, small arms continue to proliferate. As of 2007, there are at least 875 million firearms worldwide. Civilians owned approximately 650 million (75 per cent); gangs owned around 10 million (just over one per cent) and other non-state armed groups owned roughly 1.4 million altogether (less than 0.2 per cent) of which some 350,000 belong to groups that were actively fighting in 2009. About eight million new small arms, plus 10 to 15 billion rounds of ammunition are manufactured — enough bullets to shoot every person in the world not once, but twice.

There has been an attempt to negotiate a comprehensive legally binding Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) aimed at establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms. The first Preparatory Committee meeting that was held in New York from 12-23 July 2010 confirms the possibility of an Arms Trade Treaty being adopted in the near future, most likely at the 2012 United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty. Whether this would lead to the adoption of a legally binding treaty remains to be seen.

Costs and Communication: Stumbling blocks in addressing Climate Change

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on October 7, 2010
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The effects of climate change can be considered to be a non-traditional security (NTS) issue.  Unlike traditional security (military) issues, the effects of climate change are transnational in nature and threaten the security of individuals and communities. Such issues must be addressed by incorporating a multi-level and multi-stakeholder approach. However, this approach has been difficult to operationalise given the various concerns from different levels and sectors, as seen from the piecemeal outcome of UNFCCC Meeting in Copenhagen (COP15) in 2009. This essentially points to an issue of costs and communication. That said, two other international events could provide some room to facilitate improvement (albeit with their own set of weaknesses) – the recent Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF) and 350.org’s Global Work Party on 10 October 2010. Here are the pros and cons of these events.

Room to Breathe

The main positive contribution from MEF and 350 is that these efforts are geared towards complementing global negotiations on climate change under the UNFCCC’s auspices. Since states had difficulty in agreeing on various clauses during COP15, the MEF – at the very least – could facilitiate better rapport amongst these countries.  The recent MEF meeting – held on the sidelines of the  United Nations General Assembly – was much more inclusive by extending invitations to non-members such  as Barbados, Egypt, Singapore, Spain and the United Nations.

As for 350.org’s Global Work Party, it provides space for civil society organisations (CSOs) to spread awareness and garner support for the issue across various sectors and levels . Disruption of COP15 proceedings by some CSOs did  nothing for their credibility. Rather than attempt to initiate change at an international meeting – where  the agenda has already been set  beforehand – CSOs  would stand a better chance at influencing the agenda back at home.  Hence, CSOs should put more efforts to lobby national governments, with an emphasis on effective collaboration with business communities. The Global Work Party thus provides the opportunity for CSOs to do so  with a transnational spirit, and thereby keeping the momentum up, despite failures at COP15.

Room for Improvement

That said, there are weaknesses. Firstly,  although a useful platform to voice country positions in a frank and tranparent manner, it still remains to be a talk-shop. Participants at the recent MEF could only come to broad agreements in principle, rather than being able to zone into details of how to effectively address climate change, particularly so for the issues of costs (climate financing). Secondly,  while open campaigning has been gaining ground, it still remains to be seen how effective such efforts would be in influencing policy circles, as seen in developments at COP15. It would certainly be a test for the Global Work Party to make in-roads to  negotiations in Cancun, Mexico.

Clearly, ensuring a multi-level and multisector approach is easier said than done. It is nevertheless vital, if we are to make progress on one of the most transnational security issues to date.

Seeking Opportunity 1: Singapore Farmer’s Market

I was trying to figure out what would be the most interesting topic about food when an e-mail flew in to my mailbox. A colleague sent me a flyer about farmer’s market in Singapore! The question immediately came across my mind is if this is the kind of farmer’s market where people sell produce that they grow in their own backyard. If so, then Singapore could be considered as an example of an Asian metropolis where urban agriculture (UA), one way to creating a resilient society, can flourish.

So, off I went to the market. I was surprised when I found the first stall lining in the entrance was full of package food labeled ‘organic’. Even more shocking is the table next to it was full of fruits in boxes labeled ‘imported’. I thought I knew what I was getting into. I went further inside and found a stall that sells fresh vegetables. I eagerly asked, ‘Do you actually grow these vegetables?’ The answer was no and the seller honestly admitted that they the produce are all from suppliers. Although, there was one stall that sells free range eggs and the people said that they are locally produced.

A city like Singapore has an option to diversify its food resources to meet its food demand with locally produced food by harnessing the potentials of UA. In a Food Security Expert Group Meeting last August organized by the RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, UA in Singapore was further explored.  Although UA is not the best recipe to solve the food security conundrum, it allows the city to explore its people’s resilience in dealing with food insecurity, such as price spikes or extreme weather events. People engaged in UA relearn how to produce their own food. Locally produced food also reduces the greenhouse gasses emissions from transporting the food from the field to our kitchen. UA also reconnects people with the living environment and helps to rebuild their sense of community.

Singapore might not have a vast land area for agriculture, but to set an example of UA in Singapore, there is Ivy Singh-Lim who owns 10 acres of organic farm in Kranji, an area only half an hour away from the city centre. She has a farm named after her Indian heritage –  Bollywood Veggies. Although not everyone has the luxury of owning  a plot of land like Ivy, people living in housing blocks – a common sight in Singapore –  might be inspired by community garden movements such as Cultivating Community in Australia or Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens in the UK.

Singapore farmer’s market might not be exactly as I expected. Nevertheless, there is a promising future for it as the Government of Singapore supports the growth of local farming. It has also launched Let’s make Singapore our garden campaign, where people can start their own community gardening projects and grow their own food. I believe Singapore farmer’s market will take shape, and eventually offer locally produced food.

Indonesia going carbon positive?

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on September 17, 2010
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Listed by the World Bank as the third largest carbon emitter after the United States and China in 2007, with peatland degradation and forest fires as the largest contributor to it, Indonesia’s carbon emissions level is projected to increase by 52 percent in 2030 from 2005 level according to a report recently published in September 2010 by the Indonesian National Council on Climate Change (Dewan Nasional Perubahan Iklim/DNPI) − a government agency established in 2008. However, the report also shows that green growth strategy when applied in eight strategic sectors including forestry may bring a 46-percent emissions cut by 2030 from 2005 levels in line with the existing commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2020. Indonesia’s is taking steps to reduce its carbon emissions and positively address climate change − going carbon positive.

Indonesia has been actively involved in the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme as it is one of the first nine UN-REDD Programme pilot countries in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. In early March Indonesia began to review its forest carbon laws namely the forestry department decrees 30, 36 and 68 to support the implementation of REDD. The government is lobbying the Indonesian parliament to ratify the 2002 ASEAN haze agreement to prevent forest fires and trans-boundary haze. However, a national Plan of Action to address haze has successfully reduced the number of hot spots.

Another notable effort this year is the signing of the Letter of Intent (LOI) between the Indonesian and Norwegian government, declaring a two-year moratorium on conversion permits to native forests in return for USD 1 billion from Norway to be implemented in 2011. The LOI also includes three phases of partnership namely preparation, transformation and contributions-for-verified emission reduction over four to six years.

On the one hand, this effort is seen as a concrete step towards reducing carbon emissions and thereby has received positive responses from environmental NGOs. Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia/WALHI) in an open letter to President Yudhoyono agreed that forest moratorium is a viable option to reduce deforestation. However, it argued for further policies to regulate the moratorium to achieve the LOI targets. Other environmental NGOs agreed.

On the other hand, questions over LOI effectiveness have been raised. Chris Lang from REDD-Monitor argues that a two-year logging moratorium is insufficient to achieve the LOI targets. Moreover, he identifies the lack of provisions for the rights of indigenous people (IP) in the LOI who are displaced as a result of deforestation. The rights of IP can be preserved by their participation in the decision making process and LOI implementation enhancing LOI effectiveness. Zulfahmi from Southeast Asia Greenpeace agrees that public education and advocacy is needed (source in Indonesian). Drajad Wibowo, an Indonesian economist, highlights the lack of LOI sanctions (source in Indonesian).The implementation of LOI will face many implementation challenges such as the recent plan to convert forest areas in three districts in Merauke, Papua into a food estate. While the REDD agreement is a positive step forward there remain many challenges ahead.

Disaster Relief Aid: Cash or Food?

Recent news about victims of the recent floods in Pakistan selling their rations have once again ignited the debate over the best approach to  providing disaster assistance…..and development assistance. Are victims better off receiving cash or should relief aid be strictly limited to food items?

Some aid groups have argued that giving money to those recovering from disasters or war is often cheaper, more effective and efficient than giving out  food or other  relief items  such as housing materials, seeds or agricultural tools. The Associated Press quoted one victim who sold part of his rations from a World Food Programme warehouse as saying that he has “other needs” too. “Each time we get just flour and oil and this bunch of tasteless biscuits.”

“We prefer the cash. Because whenever this stuff comes – whether it is food or anything else -the distribution is not very good. Undeserving people get things that other people truly need” said another victim.

Critics argued that it is preferable to give victims food, clothes, and medicine instead of money because it could be misused – that recipients would spend it on cigarettes, alcohol or drugs etc. Cash transfers can also cause inflation and fuel corruption. These concerns are the primary reasons why some humanitarian organisations like the World Food Programme (WFP), the food aid agency of the United Nations, uses food to respond to urgent humanitarian need and to support economic and social development projects.

The ideal response is one that has both food and cash components in it. This, however, would be very expensive. Standardizing responses is much more cost effective than having a variety of responses. However, going by what victims say, it is hard to ignore the cash component of aid. The beauty of cash transfers is that it puts money into the pockets of those who need it most and allow them to prioritise their needs. It also opens up a whole lot more opportunity to victims. In order for the cash to be utilized efficiently, however, part of it should go to female members of a household. Quite simply, money in the hands of women is better utilized than in the hands of men.

This is the idea that sparked the microfinance revolution. The revolution has its roots in the recognition that poor people needed credit and, more importantly, that they could use loans productively and responsibly. When rural women were given the opportunity they proved that poor people were a good risk and efficient users of credit. A book by Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos, and David Hulme titled Just Give Money to the Poor challenges the current approach to doling out aid and made the following proposal:  bypass governments and NGOs, give money to the poor, and let them decide how to use it. This argument was founded on four observations:

  1. Cash programmes are affordable
  2. Recipients use the money well and do not waste it
  3. It is an efficient way to directly reduce current poverty, and
  4. There is the potential to prevent future poverty by facilitating economic growth and promoting human development.

Disaster relief aid must evolve with the times. For far too long, humanitarian aid organizations  have been preoccupied with what they think the victims needed. It is now time to listen to what the victims say they need.

Re-creating Oil: Technological Advances in Recycling Plastic

From oil to plastic and back to oil.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first came across this video of a Japanese scientist discovering a method to convert plastic back into its original raw material source, petroleum. Clearly, as it turns out, this is not an illusion, but rather a sign of sheer innovation.

This invention is apparently not new, as such technology has also been created in the United States. Environ Inc. has created its Environ Oil Generator (EOG), which is said to be able to convert one ton of waste plastic into approximately four 42-gallon barrels of high quality, synthetic light to medium oil. Moreover, as opposed to the cost of USD 70 per barrel for conventional oil, converting plastics into oil is estimated to cost a mere fraction of about USD 10 per barrel.

There are indeed various advantages to such technological advancements:-

Firstly, a primary advantage of this invention is the reduction of waste, particularly with the emergence of “throw-away” consumerism couple with relatively low rates of recycling. In Japan, plastics make up at least 30% of household waste. In 2008, the United States generated 250 million tons of waste, out of which plastics made up 12%. As a result, landfills have been filling up rapidly leaving little space for future waste disposal, causing some countries to resort to sending their waste to neighbouring islands. Furthermore, the invention also gives some hope to addressing some of the most ignored global waste problems, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Secondly, the invention serves to improve access and affordability of oil. While there are efforts to introduce renewable sources of energy, the dependence on oil, is unlikely to change substantially in the short to medium term (especially for much of the developing world). As seen from the video, the invention has been most beneficial to less privileged communities as it provides them with a limited primary source of fuel necessary for development.

This invention also has clear relevance to urban poor communities in cities such as Mumbai and Jakarta. Given the emergence of cheaply mass-produced goods such as the Sachet product industry, the poor have consequently contributed to the growing amount of waste. For instance, instead of buying a big bottle of branded shampoo, less well-to-do folks can buy them in small amounts in plastic sachets. The accumulation of these plastic sachets have contributed to an increased amount of thrash, much of which has been a factor in exacerbating floods. Such an invention would therefore provide an attractive method of reducing waste while alleviating the threat of floods.

Finally, in line with addressing global warming, the invention also serves to assist in reducing the level of carbon emissions. Advocates suggest that burning oil would ultimately have a lower carbon footprint than plastics, which include the process of inceneration and landfilling.

While there are several benefits, this invention does raise the concern that this would possibly increase the demand for plastics. Given the ease of converting plastics into oil, would it be likely that people would purchase more plastic products in a bid to re-produce oil. Such a trend would clearly be against environmental advocacy on the need to adopt lifestyle changes such as reducing consumption and dependence on disposables.

All in all, it is a worthy invention as it provides some solutions for communities worldwide, and thus should be fostered with further investment.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Food Security in Southeast Asia

In recent years, ASEAN has seen a remarkable shift in the ways in which nations, both within the regional grouping and outside, pursue their national food security interests in Southeast Asia. The most notable change has been the large-scale acquisitions of land by foreign companies and sovereign wealth funds for agricultural purposes. We see similar examples in Africa and South America. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the race towards the acquisition of farmlands overseas was triggered by the assessment that the era of guaranteed food security may have passed.

Ryan Clarke

(left: Ryan Clarke) FAO estimates show that the price of staple food items has increased by 17 per cent in real terms compared to previous years. The global food index has also remained high despite the recent international financial crisis. The general sentiment appears to be that this is a reality that is here to stay. If accurate – economists’ views are mixed – this means that households would either spend more money on food or that they will simply eat less and consume less nutritious food. At the same time, the investing nations also believe that there is money to be made from agricultural investments. The FAO world food price index has steadily increased in the last ten years from 90 in 2000 to the present level of 162. The index peaked in 2008 at 191 and in January this year, it recorded the second highest level of 174.

Nur Azha Putra

(right: Nur Azha Putra) Between 2008 and 2009, investors from Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and China have made inroads into ASEAN by reaching land agreements with Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Hanoi has also engaged in this practice by acquiring large chunks of land in Cambodia as well as Laos although this land is officially destined to be used for rubber production. Not surprisingly, given the highly sensitive nature of this issue, combined with at-times opaque conditions surrounding the negotiations, these developments have proven to be controversial.

Several think tanks and other policy institutes have condemned this practice from the outset by claiming that it will inevitably harm the food security of the nations who are leasing out their lands.These research institutes also tend to be those which are protectionist..To be sure, acquisitions have been met with stiff resistance and even political violence in certain parts of Southeast Asia. However, in other parts of the region these developments have received a neutral or even a positive response. Finding a base line in this otherwise noisy and conflicted signal will prove to be a challenge in future analysis but it is important to take a balanced approach to this critical non-traditional security issue.

Implications for ASEAN

No ASEAN governments involved in this practice are in a desperate financial position, are pariah states, nor can any of them be classified as irrational. As such, it can be reasonably assumed that these agreements have been made under relatively normal circumstances with mostly commercial and economic interests in mind. The protests in some ASEAN states could be a measure of the failure of the government in question to adequately consult local constituencies or, conversely, these agreements could indeed be a bad deal that harms long-term national interests.

On the positive end, with large-scale foreign investment should come technology and management expertise while also enhancing food security in Southeast Asia through reducing both supply and price pressure. The companies in question will undoubtedly supply local markets and create employment. These lands would not likely have been sold off in the first place if they were operating at an optimum level. Further, in theory they should also spur competition and innovation, something which is of benefit to all parties involved. However, with land acquisition, even if it is only leased, comes political power and these governments will now have to factor in largely self-interested foreign powers into their domestic policymaking calculations.

It also begs the question of whether this will eventually alter regional understanding of the key concepts associated with sovereignty, namely the ability to develop and implement domestic policies without undue interference from external governments. However, given the highly strategic nature of food security, any future disputes will inevitably involve governments even if the companies are officially operating in a completely private capacity (even more so if they are sovereign wealth funds).

The way in which labour disputes, disagreements over land usage or the types of crops being grown, contract enforcement, or a range of other issues are managed will be crucial in maintaining the current regional understanding of sovereignty or, more controversially, in permanently altering it. 

Time for a Serious Regional Policy Debate

Given the sheer number of nations and hectares involved in a sector which is a basic tenet of every nation’s national security and the overall well-being of its population, a serious and sustained debate with regional policy formation and/or regulation in mind is likely in order. Although new provisions should not be applied ex post facto to agreements that have already been signed (unless they are flagrantly and indisputably exploitative), ASEAN can take meaningful steps to ensure that its interests will be protected and that the human security of its citizenry will not be jeopardised in the future.

However, it is advisable to resist the temptation to strictly regulate the practice right from the outset. Rather, empiricism and a balanced analysis of both the positives and negatives have a much higher probability of leading to sound actions.

Ryan Clarke and Nur Azha Putra are Visiting Research Fellow and Associate Research Fellow, respectively, at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

From Aceh to Chile: Is ASEAN Prepared for Another Disaster?

By Yang Razali Kassim

Yang Razali Kassim

THE LATEST earthquake disaster in Chile is yet another wake-up call for Southeast Asia. The region needs to be constantly ready to face the new phenomenon of increasingly frequent natural calamities; the next one may well be in the neighbourhood, again. The Chilean disaster, which triggered tsunami alerts throughout the Pacific, comes barely weeks after the one in Haiti. How has this heart-stopping trend shaped our humanitarian instincts for the plight of others, and how have public responses influenced relief policies of states?

In January, at the height of the disaster in Haiti, Singapore joined the rest of the world to extend humanitarian assistance to the Caribbean state. In stark contrast to the swift and impressive humanitarian relief extended to Aceh during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the aid to Haiti stood at US$50,000. The paltry size drew gasps of disappointment amongst some Singaporeans. The Straits Times ran no less than two commentaries by its staff writers. The first asked “Is Singapore doing too little for Haiti?” The second article, barely a week later, was headlined “Disaster Relief and the politics of Giving”. The writer characterised the aid as “realist tokenism”.

Reactions in the blogosphere were harsher. Some said they were utterly ashamed at the small figure. Others suggested it would have been better not to give at all. How was it, they asked, that South Korea, being in the same Asian region as Singapore, could send an aid mission to Haiti, and an aid package of US$1 million?

Source: UN Photo/Logan Abassi

The government’s response to the criticisms was swift. Just two days after the first article, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement urging Singapore’s aid to be seen in context. Singapore, the ministry said, did not see itself as a major donor country and, for obvious resource constraints, could not extend the same amount of assistance for every disaster in world. Aid had to be prioritised. That meant some would get more while others less. Where not much could be done by Singapore to make a difference to the global humanitarian relief efforts – due to distance and speed of delivery, for instance – a symbolic show of sympathy would be better than doing nothing, the MFA spokesman said.

This shows how sensitive the government has become to the humanitarian instinct of citizens to tragedies elsewhere. In future, we can expect more of such public pressures on the state to do the right thing. Interestingly, Singapore is not the only country where the state has to react to citizen criticism over humanitarian issues.

In Thailand too, the government was criticised for giving too little aid – US$20,000 – to. The amount was raised twice until it reached at least US$380,000. In addition, Thailand also extended rice aid and dispatched medical teams. Thais felt embarrassed that its government’s aid was less than even Cambodia’s and Indonesia’s. Jakarta, perhaps in gratitude for the world’s assistance to Aceh during the 2004 tsunami, offered a wide-ranging list of humanitarian workers as well as medical supplies.

Other ASEAN countries have also been responsive to the growing trend of global humanitarian relief efforts. The Philippines pledged a medical team while Malaysia set up a special Foreign Ministry Fund to mobilise assistance from Malaysians.

The 2004 tsunami that wreaked havoc in Aceh and other parts of Asia was the first major disaster to test ASEAN’s capacity to deal with humanitarian tragedies. The Chilean disaster would not be the last. We can expect more natural disasters to come that will challenge the humanitarian instincts of governments and the peoples of the region. Is ASEAN prepared to deal with the next major calamity? Has the grouping developed its capacity to deal with such a future? A quick look at the evolution of the region’s disaster preparedness shows that some fundamentals are taking shape.

In July 2005, barely a year after the tsunami off Sumatra, ASEAN foreign ministers met in Vientiane, Laos to sign an Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response. The pact covered the A to Z of disaster management – from disaster risk identification, prevention and mitigation to disaster preparedness and emergency response. Completing the systems-building are institutional arrangements such as setting up “national focal point and competent authorities”. In other words, each member state will have a focal point that acts as the link with ASEAN’s region-wide effort.

In fact, an ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre) has been provisioned for. Presumably it is to coordinate all the national focal points in the 10 member states – to forge a cohesive response to any major disaster in the region. It is no exaggeration to say that the AHA Centre is one of the most important institutions to emerge within ASEAN, given the growing need for humanitarian relief around the world.

Indeed, disaster preparedness is one of the key elements of the ten-year Roadmap for an ASEAN Community by 2015. The roadmap was adopted by ASEAN leaders at their 2009 summit in Cha-Am, Thailand, thus enshrining disaster preparedness as a must-do strategy for the future.

Clearly, ASEAN has been responsive to the urgent need to build a region-wide system and infrastructure to prepare for disasters and tragedies ahead. This system is however work-in-progress. It would not be a surprise if there are gaps in capacities both at the regional as well as national levels. But as the ASEAN states respond to the crisis in Chile, as they do to Haiti and others, it would be timely to see how the AHA Centre – in other words, ASEAN as a group – plays its role in global relief efforts.

When the next disaster strikes anywhere in the region – or elsewhere around the globe –let’s hope ASEAN lives up to its name as an important part of the global community.

Yang Razali Kassim is Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also with the school’s Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies.

Lessons from the Haiti Earthquake: Protecting Small States

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on February 5, 2010
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By Alan Chong

Alan Chong

WITH A population of 10 million and a territorial size of 27,750 square kilometres, Haiti qualifies as a quintessential small state. It is also representative of a small state that has been repeatedly traumatised by a history of anti-colonial struggle, multiple missteps in domestic governance, and the ravages of tropical storms, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. The quake that struck on 12 January 2010 should not only call the world’s attention to a calamitous death toll in excess of 100,000. It is also a lesson in the omissions of governance as well as in how the international community should invest in building a rapid reaction disaster corps on the same level of priority that one would accord politico-military crises.

For nearly four decades, the small state lobby in the Commonwealth had articulated the profile of trauma for small states. Size did matter to the nature of government and internal political dissension. When various groups across the political spectrum cannot cooperate, and ordinary citizens are socially atomised, a civil war will wind a bloody path with mounting casualties within a confined territory. Likewise, size matters when non-traditional security threats posed by Mother Nature in the form of earthquakes and hurricanes strike.

The lack of strategic depth for the population’s refuge, or for the dissipation of the oncoming forces of nature, produces an equally horrendous outcome for the population. The Commonwealth reports by the small state lobby have consistently argued for both the international community as well as small state populations to foster good governance to mitigate crises when they occur. The scale of Haiti’s destruction should not obscure the equally important drama of the political vacuum precipitated by the utter breakdown of law and order. Reports filed by various international news agencies confirmed that the survivors of the quake had to confront the uncertainties of food delivery, the absence of a central information clearing authority, and the visible absence of police forces.

A poor neighbourhood shows the damage after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm, January 12, 2010.

A few voices blamed the Haitian president, Rene Preval, for being non-existent during his people’s hour of need. Concurrently, it was the US military that served as de facto government by securing the airport for aid deliveries that, in any case, quickly degenerated into bottlenecks without pre-existing organisations in place to distribute the materiel efficiently. The sceptic might object that the scale of the disaster was simply overwhelming for any aid effort to cope. But it must surely be acknowledged that small states must prepare organisationally for the contingency of disaster in confined spaces. A rehearsed civil defence plan is indispensable as a first line of defence for any small state.

Small states, as last December’s inconclusive environmental summit in Copenhagen has shown, must still rely in great measure on the magnanimity of the rest of the international community in tackling humanitarian crises arising from natural disasters. One spokesperson of the Alliance of Small Island States had tellingly commented that nobody in their right mind would want to leave their homeland as ‘environmental refugees’. This was not just a technical point but also an emotional one. The nation-states that enjoy large strategic depth in relative terms ought to practise empathy towards their territorially less well-endowed brethren. This is because of the fact of natural geographic interdependence. An earthquake can generate tsunamis that spiral in all directions from the epicentre. No territorial boundary within range of nature’s wrath will be spared. It is thus laudable that countries as diverse as Israel, China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and the United States have been among the first to dispatch recovery and humanitarian teams to Haiti.

In sum, any natural calamity afflicting small states serves as a huge lesson in contingency planning for a world facing increased environmental threats.

Alan Chong is Associate Professor of International Relations at the S. Rajaratanam School of International Studies (RSIS), NanyangTechnologicalUniversity.

Environmental Issues: Challenges or Opportunities for Indonesia?

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on January 5, 2010
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Environmental Issues:
Challenges or Opportunities for
Indonesia?

Eric Frécon
5 January 2010

Even before the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, Indonesia has been one of the world’s largest carbon emitters. Green energy business could offer Jakarta new opportunities to clean its reputation as well as sustain its economic growth.

INDONESIA’S GOOD name is today threatened by a statistical polemic relating to its carbon dioxide emissions. According to a 2007 report sponsored by the World Bank, the country is the world’s third largest emitter. Although Indonesian experts have asserted that the waters of Nusantara (the Indonesian archipelago) absorb more carbon than they release, the country has the highest deforestation rate in the world. According to the Riau Bulletin, about 1.08 million hectares of forest are lost annually to widespread illegal logging (in RiauIslands), farmland conversion and forest fires. In addition, a 2007 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) mentioned that the number of fire hotspots tended to increase in Indonesia in the period 2001-2006. Indeed, rainforest cover has steadily declined from 82% in the 1960s to 53% in 1995, and 49% in 2005 according to the Mongabay website.

Because of the fires that eliminate the forests and because of the disappearance of ‘carbon sinks’ like trees and peat-bogs, Indonesia is seen as a major polluting country. Last year, a WWF-HokkaidoUniversity report explained that the Riau province alone accounted for average annual carbon emissions equivalent to 58% of Australia’s yearly emissions, or 122 percent of the Netherlands’ emissions.

Reconciling Ecology and Economic Development

The puzzle for the Yudhoyono administration is challenging: how to provide energy to 240 million Indonesians as well as investors, without aggravating Indonesia’s image as a major polluter.

On the one hand, development requires bringing connectivity to remote areas, which helps address the problems of separatism, criminality as well as regional grievances. The mission of the president is to protect the human security of his fellow citizens and to unify the 17,508 islands by developing both communication and access to electricity. To meet the president’s goal of sustaining the current dynamic economic growth, there also has to be an increase in the national power grid’s generation capacity, especially in the Batam-Bintan-Karimun Free Trade Zone. Moreover, to attract foreign investments, Indonesian authorities may have been lax in regulating the activities of the oil, mining, paper and palm oil companies operating in the forests.

On the other hand, Yudhoyono must now proceed carefully. The president has to take into consideration the environmental factor if he is to present Indonesia as a model of development on the international scene. To reconcile these national and international interests, he must explore new ways. The following can be considered:

Towards a ‘New Green Deal’ in Indonesia?

In the archipelago, there are several opportunities in the field of renewable energy. These may subsequently also create employment and new opportunities and niches for local and foreign companies.

First of all, wind turbines. Generally, these either ruin the landscape or make excessive noise. The trend is now to plant these turbines at sea. Though this may pose a hazard to merchant vessels and fishermen, Indonesia could place the turbines in territorial waters far from the main Sea Lines of Communication. Nusa Tenggara Timur is the windiest area but it would be much better to invest in waters to the south of Java. In parallel to the plans for setting up solar panels in the Sahara to power Europe, wind turbines in this part of the Indian Ocean could provide electricity to the crowded Indonesian islands.

Secondly, as the Indonesian coastline is 54,716 kilometres long with several straits cutting across the archipelago, tide power could also be an interesting option. In the past, companies have already offered to deploy turbines that could turn the Malacca Straits’ flow velocity of two metres/second into electricity.

Thirdly, government support for geothermal power projects is relevant. The ‘Ring of Fire’ regularly demonstrates its ‘power’ through terrible earthquakes. For example in just one day – 25 October 2009 – six earthquakes with magnitudes ranging from 5.0 to 6.1 hit Indonesia. The Geological Office of the Indonesian Department for Energy lists at least 83 volcanic sites. This geographical context explains why Indonesia has the largest geothermal reserves potential in the world – 40% or 27 GW in sixty fields.

Investment in Geothermal Projects

After the introduction of a Geothermal Law in 2003, the Yudhoyono administration is turning words into action. Following the 10,000 MW power project in 2006, a second 10,000 MW programme has been set up by the state power firm PLN (PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara) and independent private power producers. This later programme should generate 48% of its power from geothermal plants, compared to less than 3% (807 MW) of the energy mix in 2008. PT Pertamina Geothermal Energy was scheduled to spend US$130 million in 2009 to finance development of a number of geothermal power projects.

Foreign countries support these initiatives. Last October, the head for Asia and Oceania of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation said that Japan would invest in sectors like geothermal energy in Indonesia. In 2008, Japan gave US$200 million to Indonesia to reduce its carbon emissions. In July 2009, for the same purpose, Jakarta received a US$300 million loan from the French Agency for the Development (AFD) for the second tranche of the Climate Change Programme Loan. The Global Environment Facility also supports the development of geothermal power in Indonesia.

Thirty-six fields were ready for detailed exploration or exploitation in 2008. Nevertheless, such developments must be safe and sustainable for both the surrounding population and for the investors. For that, local authorities must avoid delays in the implementation of regulations and licensing approval.

Recently, Indonesia has had a peaceful general election for some 100 million voters. It has also successfully encouraged economic growth while containing the problem of terrorism. Now it is ‘green energy’ that is substituting ‘green fundamentalism’ in the country. In the past, Egypt became a major power by canalising the Nile floods which previously had regularly devastated its banks. Perhaps it could be the same destiny for Indonesia — if it is able to harness more advantages than troubles from the earth.

Eric Frécon is a post-doctoral fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, where he serves on the Indonesia Programme.