Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 12 September 2016

Health and environment should be at the forefront

The proliferation of health and environmental problems – including zika, dengue, water shortages, floods – points to the need to rethink our development paradigm and give top priority to these burning issues.


Several issues and events have emerged in the last few weeks that raise the alarm on the need to shift policies so that health and the environment get their proper places at the top of our development priorities. 

The predominant development model puts the emphasis on economic and commercial activities, whilst treating health and environmental problems as side effects that can be dealt with, piecemeal, when they arise.

This should not be the case.  These “side effects” are going to overwhelm the “mainstream” objective of economic growth, if we do not take them more seriously.

The latest health scare is the zika virus.  It has caused great anxiety because it can cause microcephaly, which affects the growth of a baby’s brain. 

Not so well known is that zika can also cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition in which a person’s immune system attacks their peripheral nerves and can even result in paralysis.

Singapore has become Asia’s biggest victim of the zika outbreak, and it is going all out to check it.  Thailand also has a significant number of cases.

It is a matter of time before Malaysia, sharing so many conditions with our neighbours, also experiences a zika outbreak.   The first cases have now been reported, including of a pregnant woman in Johore.  

On one hand, there is no need for panic; on the other hand, a major campaign to eradicate the aedes mosquitoes and to minimise mosquito bites has to be implemented.

We have not done well in controlling dengue, spread by the same mosquito.  The number of dengue cases in Malaysia went down from 49,335 in 2008 to 19,884 (36 deaths) in 2011, then shot up to 120,836 (336 deaths) in 2015.  In the first half of 2016, there were 57,782 cases.

The dengue situation looks intractable so far, and that implies it will be difficult as well to contain zika.  So, more effort and resources have to be put to drastically reduce the mosquito population, and everyone should do their part. 

Households, flat dwellers’ committees and local communities should all get into the act together with the authorities, in an all-out effort to contain and overcome the mosquito-related diseases.

Another emerging health problem is antibiotic resistance.  Drug-resistant bacterial infections killed 19,122 people in Thailand in 2010, according to a study published last week.   That is an alarming incidence of drug-resistance deaths, as the United States (with a much higher population than Thailand) is estimated to have 23,000 such deaths a year. 

Problems linked to the environment are also cropping up.   The annual “haze” started again a few weeks ago, with a few towns registering serious air pollution.  Fortunately the hazy situation abated, perhaps due to rain.

Malaysians remember the situation of haze towards the end of last year followed by the heat-wave early this year, a double whammy that made living conditions very difficult.

It remains to be seen of the haze returns or miraculously stays away.  A lot depends on whether the Indonesian authorities succeed in taking much firmer action against the companies that habitually burn the vegetation.

Now, however, there is a more immediate and urgent environmental problem – water scarcity in parts of the country.

Johore is facing a water crisis.  The Congok Dam in Mersing has become parched land, and the 40,000 people in the town face their fifth month of water rationing.  Last year almost 700,000 Johoreans in various parts of the state faced water rationing, according to reports.

In Perlis, the water level is below critical level at the Timah Tasoh dam and this has disrupted water supply to 13,000 households, while inadequate rainfall has also affected the padi farmers’ first planting season for this year.

It is imperative that both the federal and state governments give top priority to forest conservation and the protection of watersheds, hills and hill-slopes.

The cutting of forests and the damage to watersheds mean that rainfall cannot adequately trickle down the ground to feed the streams and rivers and run on to the reservoirs.

Instead, the rain moves along with the exposed soils to clog up the rivers, contributing to floods in the towns.

There is a dire lack of appreciation of the environmental services provided free by nature and a lack of enforcement of whatever laws we have, and this has led to massive deforestation, the destruction of hills and watersheds and the silting of rivers, in so many parts of the country.

What is the point of having more development of buildings and roads if this is at the expense of our water supply and if it results in drought, water rationing and floods?

The federal-state division of power may complicate the country’s ability to have and enforce proper land use, forest and water laws and regulations.  

But ways must be found to overcome these complications urgently so that both federal and state governments design and implement effective measures to conserve forests and watersheds and build the capacity for the retention, distribution and proper use of water.

Otherwise there will be an irreversible water crisis soon, also keeping in mind the increasing effects of climate change, which itself will cause many other problems such as rising temperatures, sea level rise, storms, floods and drought.

The paradigm that has ruled the development process has to change.  Health, other social concerns and the environment have to be pushed to the forefront of development goals. 

Economic growth and physical development activities have to be re-evaluated and subjected to criteria as to whether they contribute to or detract from social and environmental objectives.

More financial and human resources have to be allocated to promoting health and environmental concerns and top planners should come up with plans and actions accordingly.

The immediate problems we are facing – zika, dengue, haze, heatwave, drought, water shortages, floods – all point to the need for rethinking and reshaping not only the paradigm of development, but also the meaning of development, our way of life and the priorities of life.