SE ASIA – Despite being home to an abundance of rich natural resources, poor air quality and vast environmental degradation continue to be an issue faced by South-East Asian countries.
A rising population leads to an increase in consumption of resources and waste generation, and as member countries push for rapid economic growth, it can also lead to unsustainable development.
To address such problems, ASEAN members have cooperated closely in promoting environmental cooperation since 1977, in an ASEAN strategic plan with seven priorities, including nature conservation and biodiversity, coastal and marine environment, water resources management and environmentally sustainable cities.
There are also inclusions of climate change, chemicals and waste, and environmental education and sustainable consumption and production.
Among the strategic issues in the environmental preservation efforts carried out by ASEAN members, one focus is on ensuring the presence of clean air for its citizens.
Poor air quality and haze can have an impact on people’s livelihood. There are many risks of physical diseases directly linked to air pollution, especially respiratory problems such as obstructive chronic lung diseases and upper respiratory tract infection.
Aside from the evident physical impact, poor air quality also harms mental health, as the Environmental Health Perspectives journal recently revealed that air pollution can contribute to depression and anxiety, as well as other mental issues for young people.
In the middle of October, four country representatives to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) from Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand endorsed a statement from the Commission, urging ASEAN member countries to fully and effectively implement the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP) to address poor air quality in the region.
The Commission pushed for more collaborative efforts to not only fully implement the agreement, but also to tackle the issue of transboundary haze which is said to have an “adverse effect on the basic rights of people throughout South-East Asia.”
“Poor air quality affects the quality of life of the individuals living in the ASEAN region. It also impinges upon the enjoyment of a range of human rights that are protected in the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. These include the right to life and the right to the highest attainable standard of health and an adequate standard of living, which includes the right to a safe, clean and sustainable environment,” AICHR’s statement said.
In their statement, the Commission addressed the issue of air pollution from forest fires and transboundary haze that has become a regional issue. “For many years, the haze has affected air quality in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Singapore and parts of Thailand and the Philippines. Last year, poor air quality in the Mekong Sub-region also affected Myanmar, Lao PDR, Viet Nam and Thailand,” it stated.
In the past few months, Indonesia has been striving to put out the forest and land fires that occurred in the country’s hotspots, including the province of Riau.
Although the transboundary haze concerns addressed by the AICHR did not specifically mention the fires in Indonesia, its haze had led to complaints from neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore whose skylines have been obscured by smoke believed to have come from the fires.
Aside from being home to a vast population and culturally rich countries, ASEAN also houses thousands of hotspots. In September this year, the Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) noted that it had spotted no less than 2,510 hotspots, indicating the presence of forest fires throughout the ASEAN region. They were observed in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand, as well as two non-ASEAN member countries Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste. Despite the presence of such hotspots, the Agency did not detect signs of transboundary haze.
Apart from the haze, the other big culprit responsible for air pollution in the region is tailpipe pollution from road transport, especially private vehicles such as cars and motorcycles.
Tailpipe emissions in major South-East Asian cities such as Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta are yet to be firmly regulated, as traffic congestion in and outside rush hours have become quite common every day.
In a bid to tighten the rules on emission, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan had earlier stated that emission tests would be integrated into a smart city framework through application-based software.
“Emission tests will become a requirement for the administration of other documents,” he stated.
Many Jakartans have realized the dangers of poor air quality due to fossil fuel emission from vehicles and have raised their concerns through several measures including marching down the streets.
However, a majority of the population in South East Asia does not have access to proper information on the air they breathe, as the 2018 World Air Quality Report, released by Greenpeace and AirVisual earlier this year, revealed that while 95 percent of South-East Asian cities surveyed exceeded the World Health Organization’s annual exposure guideline, there is still a lack of information among citizens about the daily health risks they face due to lack of data from a number of countries.
The report revealed that the city of Hanoi in Vietnam has the worst air quality in ASEAN while Calamba in the Philippines had the cleanest air. There was a lack of data from Brunei, Lao PDR, Malaysia, and Myanmar.
“Making air quality data accessible is one of the most effective ways to improve air quality,” the report stated, adding that public readings generate public awareness which drives demand for action.
ASEAN countries, with a total population of over 620 million people, should push for more public awareness, by providing information, as an additional measure to tackle air pollution issues such as high cost-governmental reference stations.