Asean eco-issues need more than feel-good talks
As this year's chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Thailand has recently done impressive work in tackling environmental problems in the region.
Last week, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai announced that China agreed to abandon a plan to blast islets and rapids in the Mekong River, from Yunnan province to Luang Prabang in Laos, in order to widen a shipment route.
Mr Don told the media he had persuaded his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, to stop Mekong blasting as water transport could be replaced by rail and road networks that are expanding in the region. Initially, China came up with an extensive blast plan which drew criticism from locals as well as conservationists along riparian areas downstream, with a spate of protests over the past three years. The Chinese government welcomed Mr Don's rationale, ending the controversial plan. The Thai foreign minister himself deserves credit for persuading China to terminate the destructive proposal.
The Thai government, through the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, introduced another commendable initiative: a regional work plan involved with Asean's environmental ministers to fight against marine waste.
At the Asean Summit meeting to be held in Bangkok this June, Asean leaders are expected to sign the regional pact known as the "Bangkok Declaration".
Endorsed and pushed forward by the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, the declaration aims to set a common goal for Asean member countries to combat sea garbage. Half of the Asean nations -- Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia -- are among the biggest sea polluters in the world.
The two environmental initiatives are important. Before this, Asean was known for its non-interference modus operandi, while cooperation was generally focused on trade. More often than not, Asean members tried not to get involved with politics and human rights in fellow member states to avoid souring relations. But trans-boundary environmental impacts from economic activities could make member countries see the need for change.
A clear example is the haze emanating from Indonesia. The case at hand is the method of palm oil harvesting in Indonesia that causes haze in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. It is Singapore, the state hardest hit by the haze, which has introduced economic measures to persuade palm oil harvesters to change the practice and stop burning forests during the harvesting process. A similar problem also occurred in the Mekong region.
Similar trans-boundary haze has now escalated to a level which harms human health in the northern part of Thailand. Of course, drought-induced forest fires and open burning -- methods which are practiced by many local farmers -- are to blame. Yet, haze in the North also comes from forest fires and open burning in neighbouring countries such as Myanmar and Laos. Without concerted engagement at governmental levels, haze in the northern region will never go away. Thailand cannot solve the problem solely through the use of water cannons and arresting those who practise open burning.
Indeed, there is a regional framework established by academics in the region, with the goal of solving environmental problems. One of the efforts is the Asean Academic Networking in Water, Disaster Management and Climate Change that comes forward with the so-called Water Nexus concept in Asean that aims to help member countries develop policies and databases on water in a more sustainable way.
"Water Nexus will look at the cost efficiency of the water usage. It will determine the best way to use water, to produce food or to produce energy. It will look at input and output of water and that will determine how to invest and consume the resource wisely and sustainably," said Assoc Prof Sucharit Koontanakulvong, from the Department of Water Resource Engineering under Chulalongkorn University's Engineering Science.
The efforts marked a good start for Asean, showing that the region might implement an alternative and collective framework to deal with water resources and water problems in a more concerted and sustainable way.
Assoc Prof Sucharit said he hoped the Water Nexus concept would become mainstream among Asean policymakers.
I think Asean member countries should take up collaborative efforts such as the Water Nexus Project. Water problems like floods, drought, or water resource sharing such as the use of the Mekong River are contentious issues. It requires more than feel-good diplomatic talks or individual countries' efforts to efficiently tackle the issue. A change in mindset, so that Asean countries can work together, is a must.
Anchalee Kongrut is an assistant news editor of the Bangkok Post.
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