Earth Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 1 Jan 2001


Blurb:   Amidst the celebrations this new year season, spare a thought for the health of people everywhere (and your own!) as well as for the global  environment.  These two issues will emerge in 2001 and increasingly in the years to come as crucial to the well-being of both humanity and the Earth. 

And so, EARTH TRENDS begins the new year with a review of some of the health and ecological issues that will preoccupy us in future.


The New Year season is always a good time not only to celebrate, but also to reflect, on things personal and the world around us.

No doubt, the big news items this year will continue to be about politics and economics, both in Malaysia and abroad.  On both counts, a feeling of uncertainty and the possibility of change are in the air. And in the tension caused by both there will be events and news stories that will preoccupy the public.

But apart from the drama of political contest and the expected roller-coaster movements of markets and economies, the year 2001 will also see people responding more vigorously to the growing crises of health and environment.

In fact, to the ordinary woman and man, these two issues are of great immediate relevance to their daily lives, especially as they intimately affect the interests of their children.

On the health front, there has been the recent scare of the spread of the fatal Mad Cow Disease (or BSE, which affects cows and sheep) and the human variety called CJD, through Europe and a few other countries.

Although stricter measures have been instituted in Europe, there is now a fear that infected beef (and animal feed components) may be exported to other regions. 

A few days ago, Thailand became the latest Asian country to ban the import of beef (as well as livestock-related raw materials used for feedmeal production) from seven European countries, as a precautionary measure.

Earlier, Japan had also restricted beef imports from Europe.  Perhaps the Malaysian Health Ministry should now think of introducing a similar measure.

There is no doubt, however, that on a global scale the AIDS epidemic is the greatest threat to human life and health.  Although AIDS may be old news, its continuing spread and the toll on human life are simply mind-boggling.

There are now 34.3 million people infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) worldwide, according to United Nations data.  And the numbers are growing fast:  in 1999, about 5.4 million people were newly infected.

The vast majority of AIDS and HIV patients are in Sub-Saharan Africa (24.5 million), whilst our region of South and Southeast Asia is second, with 5.6 million cases.

The death toll is phenomenal.  Since AIDS was recognised 20 years ago, 19 million have died from it.  In 1999 there were 2.8 million deaths.  It is estimated that at current levels of health care, 60 million Africans would have died of AIDS in ten years from now.

The disease will wipe out an unbelievably large part of the population of some countries.  In Botswana, 36 percent of adults are infected with HIV, which in nearly all cases causes AIDS and death.  In seven countries of the Southern Africa region, 20 percent of adults are HIV-infected.  The worst affected in terms of numbers is South Africa, which has 4.2 million infected people.

In the light of these figures, there is perhaps no task more important, at  the start of this new century, than to prevent the spread of this epidemic, and to find more effective ways of treating existing patients. 

Unfortunately, the cost of medicines to treat AIDS is very expensive. So far the drug companies, the Western governments and the aid agencies have not yielded to public demands to take steps to make the medicines available or affordable to the great majority of patients, who are in developing countries. 

AIDS is a dramatic example of the devastation that can be caused by an epidemic.  Unfortunately, it is not the only infectious disease on the rise.  In recent years there has been the resurgence of old diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera and malaria. 

And there is the emergence of new diseases (such as AIDS) and of new varieties of existing diseases.  Malaysia has had more than its fair share of the new diseases such as the new strain of viral encephalitis due to the Nipah virus which has caused so many deaths, and the disease caused by the Coxsackie virus, or EV-71 or some other new strain of enterovirus.

The resurgence of the old diseases is mainly due to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.  As the "superbugs" become immune to a wider range of antibiotics, the medicines become less and less effective.  Some medical experts now forsee the end of the antibiotic era, which could the usher in new waves of old epidemics.

As for the emerging diseases, the frightening process of "horizontal gene transfer" is now becoming better known as more evidence of its existence accumulates. 

In this process, a gene of one microbe, carrying a toxic trait, crosses over and resides in another disease-carrying microbe, thereby resulting in a new microbe (or a new mutant variety of that microbe) which is more deadly than the original or earlier varieties of the microbe.  That microbe can then cause new diseases, or new variants of the disease.

In this new century, there will be an all-important race between the development of new super-empowered microbes on one hand, and the human ability to slow down this process or develop new cures on the other hand.  The outcome of this race will significantly affect human life and health in future.

But the fate of humanity will also be determined at the macro level by how we treat the environment.  So far our record has been terrible.  Despite so much increase in knowledge about the ecology, and the promises made at the highest political level at gatherings such as the Earth Summit of 1992, the state of the global environment has rapidly deteriorated.

In Malaysia, deforestation has continued, including in the highland areas, affecting the climate and stability of the soil and slopes, causing landslides, silting the rivers, and flooding the urban areas downstream.

Globally, the impact of climate change is already becoming evident and if drastic measures are not taken immediately there will be large-scale disasters within decades.

In 2000, studies confirmed that due to global warming the ice sheet in the Arctic region is melting significantly, with the ice in Greenland melting at a rate similar to the Nile river's annual flow.

Low-lying countries, such as in the South Pacific region, will be the first to be flooded out, but many big cities around the world will also be affected.

The significant increase in temperature, caused by emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases", is also predicted to cause many other adverse effects, such as destroying rainforests, killing marine life, reducing rainfall, and damaging agricultural productivity.

Measures needed to slow down the trend of global warming are well known.  At their centre is the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases through cutting back of pollution caused by vehicles and industries.

But those measures require a change in production and transport systems and in lifestyles.  Society has to be reorganised away from the principle of maximising consumption to the principle of conserving and wisely using energy and natural resources.

The Western countries, which took the lead with the polluting production systems and the wasteful consumption patterns, have yet to show the lead in cutting emissions, as witness the failure of the climate change talks in the Hague last November.

With the West showing such complacency, the leaders of developing countries have also by and large gone about their development process in a "business as usual" mode.  The South is following the North in developing an economic model based on large industries and projects, ownership of private vehicles, and conversion of natural forests to urban land or plantations.

Sooner or later, Nature will show increasing evidence of stress and strain, and the natural calamities will then force countries to change their ways of producing and consuming. 

If, however, we can muster the public opinion and political will to change in an orderly way, then we can still prevent at least some of those natural calamities.

The first years of this century will thus see a battle between the road of the ecologically-ignorant business-as-usual process and the environmentally-aware resource-efficient path of development. 

The first may cause higher growth in the short term but the crumbling of economic and ecological foundations later;  the second will involve reforms in the short and medium term followed by a long period of economic and environmental stability and development.

And so, the new century will see humanity grappling with deep-seated issues that will affect our health, our environment, and the future of our children.  There is no better time to build a new awareness than in this new year of 2001.