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Environmental lessons from an unlikely source

by Gumisai Mutume

Washington, 18 Jun 2001 (IPS) - The Asian Development Bank (ADB), which lacks an environmental policy of its own, is denigrating countries in Asia and the Pacific for their failure to adopt and abide by laws to halt degradation.

In its first Asian Environment Outlook (AEO) report, released Monday, the ADB says that with only a few exceptions, Asia’s “grow now, clean up later approach” has resulted in weak enforcement of environmental laws, the loss of 70-90% of original wildlife habitats, and the placing of almost all biodiversity resources under stress.

The region is expected to replace the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries as the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015. Urban populations are expected to triple from their 1990 levels of 360 million to more than one billion by 2020, further straining water supply, housing and sanitation.

“The root cause of the poor state of the environment in Asia and the Pacific is failed policies and institutions,” Warren Evans, manager of the bank’s environmental division said Monday. “There has been an excessive reliance on centralised, top-down decision-making that excludes civil society.”

“This is compounded by weak enforcement of environmental laws, a lack of political will, corruption, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources for short-term gains, and limited funding for managing the environment.”

However, what Evans and the AEO omit is the role that international financiers have played in Asia’s environmental degradation. Like its sister organization, the World Bank, the ADB has often been chastised for funding huge infrastructure projects such as roads and dams that have displaced thousands of people and harmed the environment.

“Since 1966, the ADB has been operating without an environment policy,” said Nurina Widagdo, at the Asia desk of the non-governmental Bank Information Centre (BIC). “What they have are ‘environmental considerations’ for bank projects,” which guide funding decisions.

So, during the last 35 years, the Bank has invested $82 billion in 1,550 projects, many of which have been criticized for their failure to incorporate environmental impact assessments or include affected communities in their development.

Only after completion in 1998 did the ADB acknowledge that the 210-megawatt Nam Theun-Hinboun Hydropower Project, which it financed with Swedish and Norwegian partners, has had serious impacts on villagers in Laos. These include flooding and falling fish stocks.

The ADB has been faulted for promoting massive dam projects such as those spanning six countries in the Mekong River sub-region. The projects cut across Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and are part of the 50 potential dam projects on the river and its tributaries that the ADB has identified. Running for 4,000 km, the Mekong is one of the world’s longest rivers.

Evans said the ADB is currently drafting its own environmental policy, and the AEO, which will be released every two years, seeks to provide a policy baseline for future ADB activities.

The report says that about 70% of Metro Manila’s population has no septic tank or wastewater treatment. Vietnam has lost 50% of its mangrove forests and 67% of 388 cities monitored in the PRC by the World Health Organisation in 1999 failed to meet national air quality standards.

“In countries where environmental policies are good on paper, there is a lack of political will to implement them,” said Evans, adding that politicians remain reluctant to eliminate subsidies on energy and water that, in the bank’s view, have a distorting effect on prices and lead to unsustainable use of such resources.

“Over the last generation, the region has experienced tremendous economic growth and it has achieved very significant reductions in poverty,” said Peter Kimm of the US-Asia Environmental Partnership, an initiative to promote exports of US ‘clean energy’ technology to Asia under the aegis of the US Agency for International Development.

“But, over the same period, the environment has gotten worse. It does not take rocket science to realise that drastic steps need to be taken,” said Kimm.

The AEO recommends that governments set realistic standards, improve enforcement, devolve powers to line ministries to enable them to act on important environmental decisions, and use sub-regional approaches to solve common problems.

The report notes that currently, stand-alone agencies are responsible for environmental protection in many countries in the region but they lack the ability to place environmental concerns on the policy agenda. – SUNS4918

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