Source: The Guardian Weekly 26 August 1999, page 6.
No one is surprised any longer when Hong Kong is shrouded in smog, turning the famous view of the harbour from the island’s Peak district into a noxious blur. Hong Kongers are skilled at adapting to a hostile urban environment. They soon learn to avoid the pavements most blighted by traffic congestion, making long detours through shopping mall walkways and metro access tunnels. When record air pollution levels were recorded on August 20, the figures on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) were well above 100 in most of the city. That is the level at which people with heart problems or breathing difficulties are advised to stay indoors. At least Hong Kongers were able to discover what the readings showed. Malaysians have been kept in the dark since early August, when the government ordered the air monitoring stations not to publish the figures. The reason, the environment minister explained, was so as “not to drive away the tourists”. Besides, there was no real problem: levels were said to be lower than in 1997 and 1998.
This did not match the experience at street level, where people have been choking and sneezing. Even the twin Petronas towers, the world’s tallest buildings, have been obscured in the dim light. But Malaysians just have to take the government’s word that the PSI is “less than 100”. The rest of Asia is less than reassured. The environment ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) brought forward a meeting planned to tackle the smog. The striking feature of Asia’s environmental crisis is that people continue to turn a blind eye to its principal cause – a maximum rate of urbanisation with minimum controls on energy consumption. Most of the pollution in Asian cities comes from the internal combustion engine. Temperature levels are also raised by exhaust from air conditioners and by the furnace effect of urban environments that have been denuded of green space. The smog that perturbs Singa poreans and Malaysians has been exacerbated by forest fires on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Indonesian pledges of action to deter illegal burning and forest clearance after the 1997 disaster have had little effect. The Asean environment ministers agreed at their last meeting on an anti-pollution plan, including education, fire prevention, firefighting and surveillance techniques. None of this goes to the economic roots of the problem. Big plantation and logging companies, with close links to the government, clear the land for profit; small farmers clear the land to scrape a living. Yet it is still unclear what proportion of the haze is caused by Indonesian forest fires and how much is generated by local pollution. Anyone who has tried to walk 500 metres in Kuala Lumpur through the pulsating heat emissions of its dense traffic will suspect that not all the pollution comes from Kalimantan. Every Asian nation needs to think through the implications of urbanisation.
Each day in Asia, according to the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the urban population increases by the equivalent of one city of 140,000 people. East Asia already includes seven mega-cities of at least 10m people: Beijing, Jakarta, Osaka, Seoul, Shanghai, Tianjin and Tokyo. By 2025 they will be joined by Bangkok, Manila, Rangoon and Shenyang. Yet the pressure of urbanisation is felt as much, if not more, in the medium-sized cities with populations of 1m or more: there are 56 of them in East Asia, including 38 in China. East Asia’s urban population as a whole will have doubled from 1990 levels in the next quarter of a century. These figures pose a challenge to the development model that has been taken largely for granted since the Asian economies took off in the 1980s. Few restraints have been observed and little effort made to learn from the negative environmental example of the West. Cities have developed extensively, colonising the neighbouring countryside, and intensively, building to absurd heights in city centres. The motor vehicle is given precedence, leading to high levels of airborne pollutants and the sort of urban blight being created by Shanghai’s expanding network of overhead motorways. The new high-rise shopping malls, banks and offices rarely give priority to energy-efficient materials. They also create concrete canyons that become colonised by marginal immigrants, while settled communities are forced out. Public transport is rarely an integral part of development plans; subways and monorails have to be spliced into the system rather than forming its core. The haze and smog will abate whenever monsoon rains clear the air, allowing life to seem tolerable again. Except that acid rain – once regarded as a problem only in Europe and North America – has become significant in Southeast Asia too, where it is one of China’s hidden exports. The main problems of the region, says the United Nations Environmental Programme, are land degradation, deforestation, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, degradation of marine and coastal resources, as well as air pollution and acid rain. That is a considerable list. Governments can no longer afford to be complacent, and most are beginning to make gestures in the right direction. But if the Asian economies are picking up again, the authorities will be disinclined to apply more than a token touch of the brakes. Perhaps Asia will, after all, assume its predicted role of economic dynamo, but it could also become the new century’s greatest environmental disaster.