Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 2 July 2018

Environment also needs our full attention

With the full Cabinet sworn in, the usually neglected issue of environment should now get the high priority it deserves, to prevent a full blown crisis of climate change, water shortages, floods and pollution.


Today, the full Cabinet is formed.  The government can now move, as a full team.

The focus so far has been mainly on economic issues:  the national debt, zero-rating the GST, reviewing overpriced projects, uncovering 1MDB and other scandals, the future of government-linked companies.

The environment now deserves the spotlight.  It affects the people’s lives directly.  We need improved policies, otherwise the quality of life will drop.

The two new Ministers in charge of the environment have enormous tasks ahead of them.  The Ministries cover pollution and toxics, land and water, forest, biodiversity, energy, climate change and more.

All these are affected by the pattern of economic activities.  But they also impact on the economy.  Indeed the environment and natural resources y are the foundation of the economy and they set the parameters of how much economic growth can be sustained in future.

There is a popular mantra that “we will have economic growth without adversely affecting the environment, and pursue sustainable development.”  This must be really done, rather than be mere rhetoric while having business as usual.

The following should be among the priorities of the environment-related Ministers.

Firstly, take on climate change seriously.  The Pakatan Harapan manifesto mentions setting up a council for climate change mitigation and adaptation.  This should be set up, be action oriented, with clear goals, strategies and implementation plans.

The council should be backed up by a Climate Change Centre, dedicated to achieving goals on mitigation (reducing emissions in energy, transport, industry, construction, land use and forest) and adaptation (building resilience to storms, increased rain, floods, water shortage, sea water rise, etc).

We also need to strengthen Malaysia’s role in climate change negotiations at the UN Climate Convention. Malaysia was a leading player up to a few years ago.  This leadership role should be restored, as this is the most important negotiation taking place in the world today.

Secondly, we need to urgently tackle the related issues of forest and soil conservation, river management, flood prevention and mitigation, and ensuring enough water supply, in an integrated manner.

Forests and trees are the foundation of ecology, water supply and management and biodiversity.  The chopping of forests, especially in hills, either for logging or commercial projects, should be stopped or drastically reduced as it has gone too far.

The recent ban of logging in Sabah because it causes floods was a good start.  Just as good is the campaign by the Penang state government to get Kedah, Penang and Perlis to plan with the federal government to forever stop all logging in the Ulu Muda forest area, with Kedah getting some resources for revenue loss. 

Ulu Muda forest is the main source of water for the three Northern states, and nothing can be more vital than ensuring they continue to get the water.  No commercial activity can be more important than conserving that forest.

The Environment Ministers must work towards protecting the country’s forests and soils. The trees and plants enable rainwater to seep under the ground and flow to reservoirs, and prevent soil erosion and water surges in rivers that would otherwise result in floods downstream, in the kampongs and towns.

Flood prevention must also include turning our urban areas into “sponge cities”, with steps taken to significantly increase rainwater to penetrate under the ground rather than be swept into overflowing rivers causing flash floods.  Among the measures are increasing fields and parks, planting trees, and making pavements and roads permeable, so that water can be absorbed into the ground rather than running off. 

The rainwater can also be collected in large storage tanks underground for later use, as done in other countries including Singapore.

Yes, all this green measures and infrastructure cost money. But it would be money well spent.  There has been too much emphasis on highways and concrete buildings.  We now need billions of ringgit allocated for rehabilitating damaged hillsides and forests, conserving watersheds, and building green infrastructure, to prevent floods, and to conserve, save and store water.  

We have a few years to stop and reverse the disastrous trend of worsening floods and insufficient and unsteady water supply.  These problems are now critical levels in many states.  They should be tackled systematically and not as in the past in an ad hoc manner, where there is action only when a crisis happens.

Third is the control of pollution and toxic products, chemicals, and wastes.  Air pollution is now a major killer.  Water pollution in rivers and seas is growing.  Plastics have now been recognised as the source of very serious environmental and health problems, and some countries and states are banning or taxing plastic bags, containers, wastes.

Some state governments (like Penang, Selangor) have started to take measures to reduce the use of plastics.  Action at the federal level is needed.

The environment-related Ministers should also examine existing laws and regulations with a view to strengthening them and even establish new ones where necessary.  Among them are the Environmental Quality Act and its accompanying Environmental Impact Assessment.  How adequate are they? How effective is the EQA enforcement and how satisfactory has the EIA process been?  It’s time for reviews and reforms.  

There are many more environment issues, such as energy (the need to switch to renewables); replacing polluting technologies with environmentally-sound technologies; protecting the marine environment and wetlands; conserving biodiversity, fauna and flora; and replacing chemical-based with sustainable agriculture.

All these are a huge challenge, partly because not enough attention and resources have been given in the past.  We trust the new Ministers will do their jobs with great enthusiasm and that they will get the support of all the other political leaders, the civil service and the public.  The environment and our future are at stake.